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From Helper to Survivor

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“A large number of people that work with survivors of domestic violence are survivors themselves. I used to have a professor that specialized in career counseling, and his favorite saying was, “Actively master what you passively suffer.” This was just a fancy way of saying, “Learn how to fix other people with the same problem you have.” Or, “there’s a reason we end up in the fields we end up in (nudge*nudge the therapists usually need more help than anyone else!). I never considered myself a victim of abuse. I moved back home to live with my parents, 2,000 miles away from where I’d gone to college and made a niche for myself because I was in a “rocky” relationship that was too hard to break free of when he was so close to me. I couldn’t tell you WHY I wanted to work with this population. I blamed it on being a feminist, but couldn’t really connect it to me. I thought, some people just feel connected to a cause, with no real personal reason behind it.


When asked about this boyfriend with whom I had that “rocky” relationship, I would say, “he was emotionally abusive!” because he didn’t treat me the way I knew I deserved to be treated. “Emotionally abusive” was a term that was constantly thrown around when someone didn’t perfectly cater to their girlfriend’s (pubescent, erratic, new) hormones and emotions. I knew I’d been treated terribly. I knew I’d been charmed and fooled by a charismatic man more than one time too many (“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me…” fool me 100 times and I have to wonder if my IQ test was accurate, and maybe I’m actually mentally retarded. After all, didn’t Einstein define insanity (which isn’t MR, but bear with me here as I ramble and throw every quote I know at you) as doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result?). I knew that I’d been cheated on. I knew I’d been lied to. But abused? That doesn’t happen to people like me. I came from the least violent home ever. A home where communication was both encouraged and utilized. My parents had that relationship that they model the “model” families after. And we all know that victims of abuse only put up with abuse because they watched their mom get beaten*. Duh.


I began my first day of educational training by being handed the power and control wheel that I would come to know so well. Halfway through it, I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I felt sick. And then I got sick. This relationship that was still fucking with my head two years after escaping, was laid out on this wheel in front of me. They’d never met me. They’d never met him. They’d never seen us. Yet there were the dynamics of our relationship, laid out in front of me, in black and white, and being defined as abusive behavior. If the wheel defined abusive behavior, and my ex’s behavior fit perfectly into the wheel, then I’m taught that there’s a logical conclusion to an if-then statement. And the only conclusion to this statement was … my ex’s behavior must have been abusive.


I had a weird reaction to this revelation. The first was denial. No! I wasn’t abused. Sure, I tend to give people too many chances. I tend to look for the good in everyone, no matter what they’ve done to me. I want to believe that good person is inside somewhere. I think I can change someone. But that doesn’t mean I’d put up with abuse! I’m the girl that doesn’t hesitate to tell someone off for disrespecting her! And that’s with people I don’t even know! I’d never LET someone disrespect me! Plus, I’d never had visible bruises! Battered women have bruises … right? Right?! I mean, when I think of domestic violence, I envision a black eye. A punch. Hands laid on the victim in anger. Hands meant to hurt, and not in that way that I like to be hurt.


The second reaction? Relief. Gratitude. I spent two years being called crazy. By the time I finally left him, I believed that all of my relationships, before him and after him, had failed because I was that crazy girl stereotype. Yes, I became that. But I didn’t start there. I became crazy and paranoid in response to his behaviors and my experiences with him. So, if I wasn’t crazy, if I had just responded to being provoked for so long… it wasn’t my fault. He didn’t treat me the way he treated me because I was a sucky girlfriend. He treated me the way he treated me because he was an abusive person. Despite what he said, I didn’t deserve to be treated that way for not being good enough. I was completely good enough; it was him that was inadequate.


Years of guilt that I didn’t even know I carried were suddenly lifted. I felt light, happy. I wished I had felt this years earlier so I could call the other girl and apologize for blaming her for his infidelity while teaching her what I learned about him. And it turned out that being someone that knew about how strong the pull of an abuser could really be ended up being the biggest asset I had at this job. And I took the opportunity of working somewhere like this to educate myself about what I’d been through; to apply it to myself and not just my clients. I now know how to spot an abuser a mile away. I can define abuse at the first sign. And yet, I still put up with it in my personal life. I’m a true hypocrite; I’m a DV educator that works in DV prevention by day, yet a victim of what I’m trying to prevent by night.


That’s how strong the pull is. I get it because I’ve lived it. Sometimes, even the therapist teaching you how to avoid the trap of an abuser is caught in the trap of an abuser. Knowing is the first step, but it’s not enough to protect you. You have to love yourself enough to believe that you’re worth protecting. That’s the part that I’m still working on with myself. But at least I can help you escape and understand the pull of an abuser, so that you can protect yourself. And that’s what matters most to me. I want to help people escape from that which has debilitated me for so long.


*This is a joke, obviously. While there’s a correlation between being raised in a home with abuse and raising your own kids in a home with abuse, correlation is not causation, people. (Ohmigod, I just quoted my STATISTICS professor! Are pigs flying? Have all the stars aligned? No? Good. That means other people share my sense of humor.)

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