Here's why telling your story matters - and why it's so damn hard
Speaking up after an abusive relationship is one of the most loving and supportive things a person can do for themselves and other survivors. And it is also terrifying. Will I be believed? Supported? Retaliated against? Will speaking up harm my kids? Will I lose friends and family? Will my community turn against me? Fear keeps victims silent and abusers free from accountability. We speak up because we've finally got to the point where we've become more afraid of silence than of speaking.
In my case, this tipping point came with a feeling that I would die if I didn't speak. I was depressed and anxious, couldn't eat, wasn't sleeping, having nightmares, and scariest of all - I could no longer see a future for myself. Although leaving my ex had initially felt freeing, staying silent about his abuse soon became a crushing weight that was going to kill me if I remained beneath it. Staying silent goes against everything I believe in. But, I had stayed silent for my kids, my parents, my ex's reputation, and because I couldn't predict the consequences of speaking out, which terrified me.
The effects of abuse don't stop with the end of a relationship. During an abusive relationship, victims live in survival mode. For me, this meant managing situations to mitigate my ex's abusive behaviour. I'd watch what, how, where, and when I said things. I let a lot slide, as I avoided confrontations that could result in emotionally abusive responses. During this time, it rarely crossed my mind to tell anyone, as living in survival mode is about not rocking the boat. When I finally left my ex, the effects of abuse changed as I switched from survival mode to acknowledging and responding to the trauma associated with being a victim of abuse for so many years. I was still walking on eggshells, but now the eggshells extended out from the private realm and into the public realm.
My experience mirrors those of many survivors. Society often responds to abusive situations with actions that deepen our trauma and keep us silent. Blogger @speak766 describes this experience well:
In a way, I felt like I was back with my abuser - walking on eggshells, so afraid that the truth would slip out, and that I would pay the price. Because unfortunately, as hard as it is for survivors to speak up, it seems that it is even more difficult for the world to actually listen. For whatever reason, people still think it is okay to re-victimize survivors, to retaliate against us, to blame us for what happened, and to simply not believe us. They think it is okay to corner us into silence by fostering a culture where it is so undeniably terrifying to just speak the truth.
- @speak766 (blog)
My own journey has been full of potholes (some more like sinkholes), caused mainly by the reactions of others when I disclosed my ex's actions. When people react with disbelief, judgement, and distance, or in ways that exclude a survivor from their community and access to support, they re-victimize survivors. A responder's reaction can have an extensive impact, as the survivor's memory of each reaction affects the survivor's ability to speak up and seek help in the future. Our bodies are amazing at 'keeping us safe,' and this safe-keeping mechanism is on high alert when we disclose abuse. An adverse reaction from a responder, especially if it were to come from friends, family, or support workers, relays the message to our brain that telling people about abuse is unsafe. This, in turn, causes a biological fight-or-flight response anytime we consider telling someone our story ... which all works to keep survivors silent and abusers free to abuse again (and therein, the cycle of abuse).
🌱📣 So, is the risk of speaking up worth it?
Full disclosure: I'm still struggling with telling my story and am very selective in what I share, so I'm not entirely sure how to respond to this! I want to say: "Hell yeah, no doubt - hold those abusive fuckwads accountable!!" Although I have some very loving and supportive friends, my brain has learned not to trust my community to react in a way that isn't harmful to me and my kids. I often feel like I'm walking a tightrope, the rope being my confidence to speak up and the rocky ground beneath representing my fear of consequence. Fear is the power that abusers hold over their victims. Fear is also why it's so important to speak up and help stop the cycle of violence. Although I'm selective in what I share, writing to bring awareness to the effects of abuse helps me reclaim my inner power. With every post I write, my confidence gains muscle, and my love for myself and others grows.
When telling your story, do it in a way that suits your comfort level. As I'm a writer, blogging for awareness about domestic violence is how I've been able to discuss my struggles and help support other survivors. Art, music, drama, dance, poetry, and sports can also be used creatively to help give voice to your struggles and say no to violence. A friend of mine responded to rape by painting red hand prints all over her body and posting a photo of her painted body on Instagram (no description, just the photo with #MeToo). Another friend hiked 300km on mountain trails in support of victims of domestic violence and logged her journey on Facebook. There are also several campaigns with organized public events (check my reading list below or contact your local Women's Centre), including the upcoming 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, which starts on the UN's International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25th).
However you choose to tell your story, know that: although we didn't have control over our abuser's actions, we do have power over our healing journey. When we grab the reins by speaking up, we drain our abuser's control and assert our power.
Speaking up is how we bring about change within ourselves and our communities. Telling my story released me from the shame, secrecy, and fear associated with being a victim. When you leave an abusive relationship, you become a survivor, and when you tell your story - that's when you ditch the shame and move from survivor to thriver. By telling your story, you are recognizing the abuse for what it is and saying "NO!!" to domestic violence, shame, and silence, and "YES!!" to self-love, support for survivors, and social change.
💞 Thank you for taking the time to read up on why telling our stories matters. October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and we will soon embark on the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence. My contribution to awareness has been a series of blog posts that will continue until the International Day for The Elimination of Violence Against Women (Nov. 25th). Please take the time to read through my previous posts on my blog or click on the following links (in order from oldest to newest):
If you think that you or someone you know is being abused, call (in Canada):
BC: VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808
AB: Family Violence Information Line: 1-780-310-1818
SK: Mobile Crisis 24/7 Helpline: 306-757-0127
MB: Domestic Abuse Crisis Line: 1-877-977-0007
ON: Victim 24/7 Support Line: 1-888-579-2888
QC: SOS violence conjugale 24/7: 1-800-363-9010 (bilingual service available)
NB: Chimo Helpline: 1-800-667-5005
PEI: Island Help Line: 1-800-218-2885
NS: Neighbours, Friends and Families (Abuse and Violence Support Line): 1-855-225-0220 NL: NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre 24/7 Support and Information Line: 1-800-726-2743
Nunavut: Kamatsiaqut Nunavut Helpline: 1-800-265-3333
NWT: NWT Help Line: 1-800-661-0844
YK: VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808
"The Power of Speaking Up," blog post by @speak766 (https://speak766.wordpress.com), National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
"What Are The 16 Days of Activism and Why Should You Care," International Women's Development Agency.
"16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence," Government of Canada.
"16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence," UN Women.
"16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence," World Health Organization.
"Domestic Violence Awareness Campaings & Major Cultural and Sporting Events," Alberta Council of Women's shelters
"National Domestic Violence Awareness Month," Dixon Transition Society.