I am a survivor of emotional, financial, and sexual abuse.
There. I said it.
I had some hidden trauma arise the other day.
There. I said that, too.
The words “abuse” and “trauma” are so difficult to spit out, so difficult to claim. We don’t want them, not because they make us look weak or dirty, but because we don’t feel like they belong to us.
Those words refer to someone who has it worse, and there’s always someone who has it worse. If we are neglected, at least we’re not being yelled at. If we are yelled at, at least we are not being hit. If we are being hit, at least it’s just a bruise. If we land in the hospital, at least we’re not dead. And if we’re dead…then we are no longer able to say, “It’s not that bad.”
When we’re in an abusive situation for long enough, we learn that our opinion doesn’t matter. We question our experiences. We second-guess ourselves as often as we breathe. Our abuser’s reality becomes our reality out of necessity. So as soon as the thought arises,—“This behavior seems abusive”–-we immediately brake, back up, and head in a safer direction.
I wish I’d had more support during those times in my life. I wish someone had placed their hands on my shoulders and said, “Girl, he’s abusing you. You deserve better than this.”
Maybe I would have listened. Maybe not. Most likely, I would have fiercely defended him, because love means loyalty, right? But the use of that word would have planted a seed of affirmation in my mind. It would have countered my uncertainty.
I can’t really blame anyone, though. It’s hard to be both vocal and honest when you’re in an abusive relationship, so I lied to myself before I lied to everyone else:
It really wasn’t that bad.
It was no big deal.
He didn’t mean it.
I was blowing things out of proportion. I was too sensitive. I understood why he was the way he was, and I just needed to be more compassionate, more patient. I just needed to try harder.
Armed with all of these excuses and a smiling face, how could anyone have known how bad it really was? How could they have known how much it was killing me inside?
The first time I claimed the word “abuse,” it tasted sour. It smelled burnt. It felt five sizes too big. To sum up: It just seemed wrong.
But the first time someone else used it for me, it was like a warm blanket, a mug of cocoa, and a bear hug all at once. I was validated. They could see that I wasn’t making something out of nothing. They could see the wounds on the inside, even if there were none on the outside. They saw the truth that I tried to cover up. That validation felt so heart-wrenchingly good, a relief of massive proportions. Once I was validated, the word felt right.
Yes, there are plenty of people out there who have or have had it worse. But that is never the point.
The point is that the abuse exists at all, no matter what form it takes. Those who suffer need to know that their experience is valid. They need to know that their pain deserves to be acknowledged rather than swept away under a rug of excuses. The word “abuse” is not solely for the timid woman trying to hide her black eye behind dark glasses. The word “trauma” does not belong only to the individual who survived a terrorist attack, just like “rape” does not belong only to the college girl brutalized in a dark alley. These are stereotypes, caricatures, and they are detrimental to the true everyday victims who are already afraid that they are blowing things out of proportion.
Some people don’t like labels. I can respect that. But in some cases, like this one, I find them comforting. Admitting that I was abused does not make me less than. It was my compassionate heart that got me into the situation, and my strength and courage that got me out. Acknowledging my trauma does not mean I am weak. It shows wisdom, and a desire to understand and to heal.
So, I claim these words and make them mine. I hold them to the light, unashamed; I see how I might use them for a personal metamorphosis. And I will shout them from the rooftops for others who are where I have been.
“We are the abused and the traumatized. We are stronger than we seem. Our experience is valid. And we deserve better.”
Author: Justin Haley Phillips
Image: Free images, and Courtesy of author
Editor: Deb Jarrett