If you are coming here via HuffPo, welcome! This piece is linked because it provides a partial origin story to my anxiety. If this doesn’t quite resonate, feel free to check out “Confessions of an Almost-Abuser” as it more directly addresses PTSD and its source. If you are looking for something more positive, check out “She Could Love Herself.
As the media machine shines its unrelenting spotlight into the personal life of yet one more victim, the internet scrambles to separate itself into a frenzy of individual voices, although they mostly shout the same thing: Janay Rice is a fool. She has the resources. She is only staying for the money.
The well-meaning state they support her in moving on. They do so by telling her he is not worth loving. That he is hopeless. That she is stupid to make any other choice than the one they see as obvious. Because, how can she love him or want to be with her husband if he is a person who hurt/s her?
I am intimate with the answer: We accept the love we believe we deserve.
The majority of abuse is enacted through mind games. First, the abuser wears his victim down through scare tactics and confusion. He hurts her and tells her the ways in which she deserved it. He tells her she imagined it. He tells her no one will believe her because she is a person of little value. He tells her he loves her. He tells her no one else will ever love her. He gives her good and beautiful memories so she will know what she will lose if she moves on. He lets her see he is complicated and hurts and that he, too, is in need. He tells her only she can save him. He could never trust anyone else this way. He wears her down until she believes that what she has is good, that the world outside what he has constructed for her is a far cry short of what she has if she stays.
Of course she stays. Outside, her friends and family are telling her she has wasted how much of her life? They call her names and talk over her when she tries to explain. Some of them stop speaking to her altogether because they won’t watch her self-destruct. Some fill in the blanks of her story with their own assessments of the situation, their opinion of her being if she is a woman this has happened to, she allowed it. In the case of Janay Rice, claims boil down to her prostituting her body as a punching bag for a multi-million dollar payday.
If Janay Rice does not already have a low sense of self-worth, rest assured that she will on the other side of this debacle. If her husband hasn’t already pulped her self-esteem, the public response will have.
The “conversation” is insane. In response to a series of Tweets I published yesterday criticizing the public shaming of an abuse victim as unhelpful and race-based, I was told that I should be beaten up by a man. He would be lucky to beat me up because I would stay. I was accused of arguing for a woman to stay in an abusive relationship and told I needed to be abused so that I would change my mind.
That is exactly the problem. That is the reason why I stayed.
Until, as a society, we recognize abuse as an addiction to be rehabilitated–until we see abusers as their victims see them–we cannot help the victims. By labeling abusers as hopeless, we give their victims little choice–they can stay with what they have been trained to think of as security, or they can lose everything forever. Partner, parent, lover, every inch of life and space built all lost. For most victims, this is the difference between having a home and food and being homeless. But abuse is insidious and happens at every level. It is an equal opportunity humbug. So for some victims, leaving their abuser makes what has happened public PLUS all the losses. If she is wealthy, we will all look at her and shake our heads and tell her she had the means to change things. What is she, stupid?
Honestly, hasn’t the victim been scrutinized enough?
What if, instead of finger-wagging and adding to the shame a victim already feels, we gave victims a safe place to regrow positive ideas about themselves while we assessed the mental health needs of their abusers? I’ve written here about my abusers changing their patterns. I know first hand that it is possible. I also know first hand that a person can’t make that change until she has chosen it for herself.
Not everyone will change. That is why it is important to cut off or severely limit contact for an extended period. It is important to remain physically safe during emotional recovery. However, by recognizing that positive change can occur, we give both victims and abusers the ability to consider improvement without complete losses, and more importantly, without shame.
Allow me to clarify that I do not advocate for victims to stay with their abusers. In fact, reunion often reestablishes patterns. I recommend a formal separation, contract with a therapist or restraining order for most to help them keep the boundaries clear. No loss is greater than the self. However, I advocate for seeing both victims and abusers as humans. This is exquisitely important because so many abusers were victims first. We can show them that they are salvageable at both ends. In other words, we do not interrupt the pattern until we do more than remove a victim from a violent situation.
If you know a victim and aren’t sure what to do, here is one way you can help: stop shaming. Stop shaking your head at the situation. Stop saying you don’t even understand how someone could let this happen. You are only layering their hurt and feeding the hungry head of hopelessness. Do you think she wanted this for herself? Do you think she imagined growing up and being with a man who hurts her and her family? Maybe she did. I did, because that was normal for me. In fact, I tried for years to get my husband to hurt me. I only stopped when he asked me why and the answer that popped out of my mouth was, “That’s how I know you love me.”
Stop shaming and reach out instead. Stop making assumptions and find out the truth. Stop letting the emotional portion slide. It is shocking to find out someone you know is being hurt. Worse when someone you know is doing the hurting. If you receive that information, offer solutions when they are requested. Say you wish it wasn’t happening. Say you’re available to help. Don’t make vigilante statements or offers; they contribute to the normalization of violence. The most effective action you can take is sitting silently with a victim after saying, “That must feel so sad.” With that action, you provide a safe, judgement free space where healing can begin.
I stayed because the world told me I deserved to be there. The world told me my abuser was right.