Wednesday, May 16, 2007

She Who Must Be Respected

A couple weeks ago I received a phone call from a woman I worked on a project with last year. There were several of us on that job and it took me a few minutes to remember the quiet, withdrawn but very talented artist who took the images in our head and made them come alive for our client. She never joined any of our after-work coffee meetings, the working lunches, or the wrap party. I always made a special point of inviting her but she always declined without saying why. It left a feeling in my stomach that was vaguely familiar but until I received her phone call I didn't put it together. She was in an abusive relationship and wanted help getting out of it without losing her kids or her life in the process.

I've had friends in situations like that most of my life. I grew up in a home where domestic violence was considered normal. We even grew up making jokes about women getting beat. We even convinced ourselves they were funny. That was also a time when we believed if a woman got beat it was because she deserved it. We continued to believe it even when my mother was beaten so badly that she couldn't even fight back. We continued to believe it when it was our turn for the abuse. We must have done something, gotten in the way when we should have quietly gone outside to stay out of it.

I wore long-sleeved shirts to school in the heat of desert Spring and early Summer to hide the bruises. My classmates joked I was cold-blooded to not feel the heat. I felt the heat. It was the embarrassment I didn't want to feel. It was the questions I didn't want to answer. It was the pity I didn't want to experience if anyone saw the horrible bruises my long-sleeved shirts covered.

I turned down party invitations. I went straight home right after school because I was afraid not to. What if something happened while I was gone? What if my mother died because I wasn't there to scream stop! Enough! She won't do it again! Even if it meant that the beating then turned toward me. Even if it meant that my classmates thought I was anti-social, a snob, too good to hang out with them. They quit talking to me and started to make fun of me. I started to hate myself, started to believe I had their nasty comments coming because I wouldn't hang out with them. I had three suicide attempts in my early teens. Like the bruises, these attempts were hidden, disguised, called "accidents" and forgotten.

I had so few friends in school and even though I was close to some, I was never close enough to explain to any of them what was happening in my home. And truthfully, it was probably happening in their homes as well. They would have considered me an even bigger freak if I started talking about something so personal, so hidden, so uncool to dwell upon. They'd want to know why did I think my situation was any more special than theirs? I grew up in a time of great silence around many things. Domestic abuse was just one more thing on a very long list. I was not special or different. In so many ways I was sadly normal.

But something in me knew it was wrong and I didn't find the courage to admit it until I was long gone from my home. My years of abuse had helped me develop an innate sense of scoping out abusers before I became involved with them. No one I dated ever hit me. No one I had any kind of relationship at all with ever came close to the kind of abuse I grew up thinking was normal. No one I loved ever made pain the price of that love.

It took a friend to violate that trust, a man who always talked about other men who abused women as the scum of the earth. I believed he was sincere. I based my friendship with him on that perceived sincerity. I dismissed the gut feeling that his anger was right on the edge of always exploding as just paranoia from childhood. I told myself we weren't in love with each other, we didn't have a real relationship, we were "just friends" so there was no reason for him to get violent with me. I believed this until the day he got drunk and almost killed me.

It was the one and only time in my adult life that a man ever laid a hand on me other than with love. And it will never happen again for several reasons. One is that he destroyed my blind trust in people, especially men. Now men have to prove to me they are not abusers before I accept them into my life. You can argue with me until the end of time that this is unfair to men but until you've had your jaw broken, until you've had to walk around with casts on any part of your body from a man's fists, until you've lost teeth you couldn't afford to replace right away, you will never understand my caution. I have a bad knee. I wasn't born with it. My father gave it to me in a fit of rage when he kicked me. Until you can understand why it took me most of my life to admit this, you won't understand my fear of men. It is not something that goes away. It is a seed lying dormant waiting for a fist to break through.

Another reason I won't set myself up again to be abused is that inside of me lives an amazingly strong woman who believes no one has the right to hurt me intentionally. No one has the right to abuse me. No one has the right to cause physical damage to me for any reason. No one has the right to call me names that are meant to weaken me, make me less than I am, demean me enough to make me think less of myself so I won't fight back. No man will call me a "Ho" or a "Bitch" or any other demeaning term and remain in my life for longer than it takes for me to turn my back on him and walk away for good.

As I've matured, my relationships, no matter how close or how distant, have continued to grow and thrive without sinking into ugliness because I refuse to allow that to happen. I love the men in my life. I respect them. I cherish them. I value them because they are real men who are strong and powerful and confident. They do not need to beat up on women or men or animals or walls to make themselves bigger than they already are in my eyes.

But I didn't get to this place overnight. I knew the fear my work acquaintance was going through. I knew the courage it took for her to call me. I knew how afraid she was at that moment and how much she needed me to set everything aside and help her, which I did without hesitation. I've lived her life in the last couple weeks because I had to immerse myself in it to help her get out of it. Without going into details that would give away how she got away or naming the long chain of women and men who helped, let's just say she is safe now and on her way to beginning what will be a life-long process to recover from an abusive relationship. And in the end, it was less about us and more about her. She was the brave one, the strong one, the one who was finally able to say Enough and get away. We were there to help her with a decision she already made--that she was worthy of respect.

In honor of her courage and in recognition of how many others are suffering her fate, I made a design to plant a tiny little seed that I hope will grow to make all women believe we are worthy of respect. Please spread the word and keep your eyes, hearts and minds open to sisters who are afraid to ask for help openly. You don't have to storm into their homes and drag them out. Leave that to the professionals who devote their lives to it. What you can do is let someone know you are there for them when they need you. Become a door they can one day find the courage to walk through holding your hand.

Changing minds one t-shirt at a time. Visit Ursine Logic for more designs.


Anonymous said...

I'm vaguely familiar with the "Stockholm Syndrome" and also know that women often are too paralyzed with fear to even contemplate escape. I don't quite understand it, but it doesn't matter whether I or others understand it or not, all that matters is that we remain aware and ready to help, should the occasion arise.

Which brings me to my question, and another aspect of abusive relationships that I really cannot fathom at all. I walked into a NY bar, on the upper 3rd avenue strip, late one week-day afternoon. The place was nearly empty, but in a corner near the bar (in a pub-like horse-box) a young man was savagely beating a young woman. He wasn't slapping her, he was punching her with complete abandon. So I ran over and grabbed him and slammed him against the wall, and as I was shaking him and yelling at him (I was quite rattled) the young woman apparently got up, walked up behind me and smashed a beer mug on my scalp. Later, when I awoke and was all stitched up, being interviewed by the NYPD, I was told this is not at all uncommon, and that is why many police officers hate calls on "domestic disputes"...

I'm completely flummoxed by this, do you have any insight that might provide some sort of explanation, even of the pop-psychology variety?

Some Crazy Bear said...

I've unfortunately been around relationships like that. It's usually based on an "us against the world" pact that such people make with each other. It's a weak string to build a relationship on and rarely lasts, but during the time it does anyone outside of it is subject to a double dose of abuse from both parties. It gives them something in common besides sex.

And if you've ever been in love than you're no doubt familiar with that initial stage where your lover can do no wrong, even if they are a mass murderer the minute they go out the door for the day. As long as your heart is involved, then reason takes a walk off a very short pier. She probably imagines herself in love and by attacking him you indirectly attacked her as well. If you were in love, what would you do if someone attacked your partner, even if you were furiously arguing just seconds before? This is just the same thing taken to a sick extreme.

On yet another level it can be a purely survival thing. Many people, women especially, get into a fear reaction thing when they are too emotionally or financially dependent on someone. They may hate the bastard, they may swear to leave him if he hits them again, but unless they are secure and confident enough to support themselves, anyone threatening him also threatens her. And if there's children involved, then survival takes on an even more desperate meaning.

It's not limited to women either. I had a friend who was male and he lived with constant verbal abuse day in and day out. He often said his love for her died long ago and yet when asked why he didn't just leave he said he couldn't cook, didn't know how anything in the house worked, wouldn't know how to pay a bill if his life depended on it. All he knew how to do was work, hand the paycheck over and sit down to the meal he traded his life for.

I suspect a lot of this is that we all have a whole boatload of unresolved childhood trauma that the right person can tap into and use for their own selfish purposes.

And at the bottom of it all is a painful truth: If humans were reasonable creatures, we'd all be in a zoo or something so the rest of the world's critters could come and stare at us in astonishment.