In connection with increased awareness initiatives, many survivors are asked to share their story as a mechanism of inspiring others. I am encouraged by the number of people who courageously recount their stories publicly. I also remain concerned for those who have not found their voice or the strength to address an abusive situation, likely because they fear being unsupported, feeling victimized and other harsh realities that domestic abuse victims face. Below I share some challenges I faced in an effort to initiate transparent dialogue surrounding these issues.
1. Others might not believe you or support you.
Even in instances where others feel your abuser is capable of abuse, it’s easier and more comfortable for it to not be discussed. So in turn, you are expected to simply move on and pretend the abuse didn’t happen. To do otherwise makes you weak, right? Wrong!
Would you believe I had several women who I held in high esteem and considered mentors advise me to remain silent about the abuse I endured? They warned that it would get too complicated and that I should just proceed with the divorce, “get my money” and move on. Wow, I thought. Is this the advice we’re passing down to the younger generation? I listened as one lady even justified the situation by sharing with me that her husband cheated for several years and she was aware of the infidelity. “I stayed,” she proclaimed proudly. She considered herself a superwoman. Others, including family members, insisted that I just pray about it but definitely don’t speak out because the last thing I needed was other people in my business. These are the unfortunate ones who don’t realize that domestic abuse affects everyone, not just those who are being abused. Then there will be those who identify as “neutral supporters,” apparently not recognizing that to be neutral means that you don’t support or help either side. The key thing about all of these examples is that you understand who supports you and who doesn’t. As the saying goes, not everyone is healthy enough to have a front row seat in our lives.
My passion is rooted in a desire to raise awareness of an issue that is often swept under the rug, particularly within the African American community. The reality is, you can’t pray away the issue of domestic abuse. Similarly, silence about domestic abuse does not make the matter somehow disappear. Your truth might make some people uncomfortable, however those people are not the ones you need in your circle as you begin your process of healing.
Re-victimization comes in many forms and can be just as difficult to deal with as the actual abuse itself. When I made others aware of domestic abuse claims, my abuser immediately began a smear campaign alleging that he was in fact the victim of abuse. I read a quote a few days ago that stated, “Sometimes people have to pretend you’re a bad person so they don’t feel guilty about the things they did to you.” That’s exactly what the next few months felt like for me. After I published my first book, Authentic Me: A Story of Strength, Perseverance and Faith, by abuser filed court documents in essence requesting that my voice be silenced. He later requested a restraining order stating that my writings about domestic abuse made him fearful for his life. He didn’t stop there and instead proceeded to create fake email and social media accounts to further disseminate information stating that he was the victim of domestic abuse. Instantly, more red flags were raised for me. One thing I’ve always believed is that the truth never has to hide, and certainly not behind fake online names on a matter as important as domestic abuse. My abuser was scrambling; he was fearful of his public image being destroyed. He was exposed.
During those times, the domestic violence survivor will feel the need to defend themselves or they may even regret speaking out about the abuse. However, while you should definitely ensure you are protected from false allegations, keep in mind that the truth never has to “defend” itself. Remain steadfast in your courageous decision to use your voice for change. Oftentimes someone else’s victory is tied to our deliverance for it is through our testimony that they gain strength to be an overcomer.
3. You can’t save your abuser!
I recall writing that my abuser was a little boy, trapped in a man’s body. I understood his fragmented family background. I knew that he lived for public esteem and would go to any lengths to feign happiness. For that I was sympathetic. Couple that with the emotional abuse that led me to feeling I was the cause for the abuse. I would recount his many condescending rants aimed at making me feel inferior: if I were older and thereby more mature, I would understand; if I were more supportive of his career, I would be a better wife; if I were more appreciative of the fact that he provided a certain lifestyle, things would be better; if I respected him, he wouldn’t hit me… the list goes on.
The bottom line is this: you can not save your abuser and the abuse is not your fault. The only person responsible for the abuse is the abuser. The abuser chooses abuse. It is imperative that you remove any feelings of guilt, embarrassment, etc., forgive yourself and make the decision to move forward.
4. Court systems do not always understand domestic abuse.
As an attorney, this harsh reality is disheartening for me and it is my hope that more of my legal counterparts actually take the time to understand domestic abuse, particularly the control tactics used by the abuser. Throughout my divorce proceedings, my abuser presented himself as charismatic and wielded his perceived power and influence within the community as a state official to gain support. Presenting a perfect public image is one of the tactics used by abusers who are in professional positions. They strive harder to make everyone succumb to their charm so it will appear they are incapable of domestic abuse.
Additionally, you may be faced with a situation where witnesses are unwilling to testify in court proceedings. In my case, those with knowledge of the abuse actually were employed by the perpetrator of the abuse. There were periods where I was being followed by law enforcement officials who served under the direction of my abuser. Rather than viewing that as an intimidation factor, the courts generally considered it within the purview of my abuser to direct his officers in that manner. Unbelievable, however I assumed that surely the Board of Regents who was charged with overseeing this particular state function would intervene and determine that police officers being directed in this manner was an abuse of authority. The feedback I received was silence. No one wanted to get involved. The matter was too sensitive.
It is in those moments where judgment calls are being made by officials who are not versed in domestic abuse where dangerous outcomes can follow. Though discouraging, seek domestic abuse agencies and advocates in your area who understand domestic violence and can offer the resources you need to exit safely when the court process fails to offer such relief.
5. Healing is a process.
I’ve often heard this used as a reason to stay in an abusive relationship. Moving forward, starting a new life seems too hard and you will be forced to actually deal with the abuse element. It is true that the damaging effects of abuse are oftentimes not visible. Even after you’ve exited the relationship there will still be an emotional process of healing that you will need to nurture constantly with the help of trained professionals.
Though it seems daunting, there is a feeling of freedom in making a decision that is best for you, your family and your overall health. That’s where I see the strength of the collective voices of domestic violence survivors, so that others will not be ashamed of their story. There’s power in authenticity. I strongly believe that when people are free to share their stories without judgment and be supported, it will lessen the likelihood that they remain in abusive situations that threaten their health and safety.
Tiffany Hill is an author, attorney, speaker, filmmaker, podcast host and advocate for domestic violence awareness. In her book, Authentic Me: A Story of Strength, Perseverance and Faith, she shares her personal story as a survivor of an emotionally and physically abusive marriage. She is the Executive Producer of “The Last Time,” a film project aimed at educating and empowering domestic abuse survivors. For more information about this and other projects, visit www.thauthentic.com