I have spent the last twenty-gulp-one years working as a social worker in the field of violence against women and children. It’s been more than a couple of decades of learning about the worst of the worst of what human beings are capable of doing to each other, often to those they claim to love. I’ve also been blessed to watch and witness the incredible tenacity and resilience of the human spirit. It’s been my honor, really, to watch lives magnificently blossom when given the freedom to live. In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I wanted to offer a few of the things I’ve learned over the years that I would want anyone and everyone to know.
Hope is never lost. From women who’ve spent time incarcerated to find themselves back in their abuser’s hands upon release, to those fleeing literally with the shirt on their back and a phone number written on their hand, I’ve seen folks’ lives change in their most dire moment, and transform into beautiful, content lives filled with love. Holding hope may be all we have some moments, but in those moments, it may be all we need.
Everyone, truly everyone, deserves to be safe from harm. No one brings abuse “on themselves” and no one is to blame for being victimized. We all can play some terrific mind games to talk ourselves into believing we’re the exception and we brought it on ourselves somehow. We’re wrong, and we’re saying that to ourselves for a reason, but it’s still just not the truth. Those who hurt you and then blame you are wrong on both counts. No one deserves abuse, and no one is so “flawed” that they are the exception.
Otherwise good people can do pretty crappy things. I had a really hard time with this, and sometimes still do, but it’s true. It’s why the neighbors of homicide victims so often say they were shocked, why internal investigation teams are needed in closed systems like the priesthood or even DCF (child protective services). Good people and people appearing good can hurt others. As much as in itself that’s disappointing to accept, it also adds to the blaming ourselves (above). If the abuser is good in every other circumstance that we can see, well then, it must be us that’s causing him to act this way. No, it’s just that folks can be otherwise good, or act the part.
Folks need your support more than your answers. When I train new staff and volunteers, I often remind them that if someone is shooting down fifty different solutions with “no that won’t work,” what they’re really saying is that they aren’t ready to problem solve. People need to be heard first. You don’t need special training to offer a friend your attentive listening. Fix-it-friends not required.
Leaving is hard and scary. Most people have heard that leaving is the most dangerous time for a victim of abuse, but sometimes I wonder if we really believe it. It’s true, leaving can be downright fatal. Yet, we still blame folks who stay. Even for those who don’t face fatal violence, most will face at least situational poverty. Leaving is hard and scary, and patience and non-judgment can help ease the sting.
We judge folks for staying and for leaving. Just as we judge folks for staying, even when leaving is so hard and scary, we judge folks for leaving. Our systems keep single parents in poverty. Our traditions blame single parents if they are raising “fatherless kids” and we see the “breakdown of the family” as the biggest reason behind every social ill from the riots in Keene, NH to a collective disrespect of our elders. Many women feel trapped between contradictions that judge both staying and leaving. We can ease up the judgment and offer a helping hand instead.
Safety and new beginnings are possible, every day. Have I mentioned that all hope is not lost? I draw so much hope and perspective from survivors. The spirit is an amazingly tenacious thing. Resilience can bring someone from experiences of trafficking and torture to college and their own business. It can help someone with paralyzing panic attacks to walk to and from work with grace and joy. Terrified children can play freely outdoors and foster new friendships. Change can be more magnificent than we ever dared to hope.
As Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to a close, hold a candle of hope for one person you love. It may be the very light they need to see.