Domestic Violence Awareness Month
The other day I was brushing my hair, and my eye caught the scar on my forehead from the time my ex boyfriend split my head open on a sheetrock wall.
I wonder when domestic violence awareness month is? I thought.
Which a quick Google search told me was right now, in October.
Today isn’t the day where I finally write about everything that happened to me in that relationship. Nor the night I go into details of how he almost killed me back in 2012.
No, instead I want to talk about how my experience has taught me how to support survivors of domestic abuse in my own life. Because, the truth is, we’re all around you. Whether you realize it or not, we are everywhere.
And the way you interact with us matters.
To the point of life and death.
I officially moved to a tiny island in the Philippines the year before, and had quickly formed a tight community of close friends that felt like family.
Within that group, was a fellow yoga teacher who was living there with her boyfriend of many years. I adored them both, and had an individual relationship with the two of them.
Until I woke up one morning to a text from her telling me she was in the hospital getting stitches in her forehead. There was a big party the night before that I didn’t go to, because I was teaching early in the morning. But I knew that it would be debaucherous to say the least.
After my class, I rode my bike over to her place to bring her some chocolates, because that makes everything better, right?
Knowing that she was okay, I came in poking fun at her for being such a blacked out mess to actually end up with stitches in her head. After all, I thought she’d just slipped in the shower.
We were sitting on her front stoop, and she looked at me with tears in her eyes almost like a frightened animal. Honestly, I don’t know what it was, but there was this primal energy coming off of her that freaked me out right away.
“What?” I asked, unsure why she went from laughing to crying in a matter of seconds.
“He did this,” she said.
Actually, she said his name, but I’m obviously not going to write that here.
I remember feeling so confused, like the message didn’t sink in right away. So much so that I thought she meant he actually slipped and fell in the shower- which clearly doesn’t make any sense at all.
It felt like I was piecing it together for minutes, but it was probably more like seconds. Until suddenly it clicked, and I felt like I was the one who had been sucker punched. Not her.
At that very moment, he came home. You could feel a bone chilling silence wash over an otherwise beautiful day in a very tropical paradise.
I gulped, and tried to change the subject so he wouldn’t know what she’d just confessed.
But he did. Energy doesn’t lie.
And from that point on, he didn’t want her to be friends with me anymore.
Here’s the thing- as painful as it was to see one of my best friends choose to stay in an abusive relationship, the only thing I could do was support her.
I needed her to know that while she wasn’t safe in her home, she was safe with me. No matter what. And a huge part of that safety came from not feeling judged for her actions.
As much as I wanted her to understand that I loved and accepted her, I was also very clear that I would not extend that same courtesy to her boyfriend. Look, I wasn’t going to go out of my way to do anything bad to the guy, but I also wasn’t even going to pretend that he was still my friend.
“He’s never done anything to me.”
This has to be one of the most hurtful things to hear from mutual friends after they know that your significant other has physically harmed you. And I know that from first hand experience.
So no, this guy “didn’t do anything to me.” But he also split my friend’s head open in a fit of drunken rage, which wasn’t okay with me. He didn’t have to hurt my body in order for my feelings about him to change.
I’m not going to lie, this made things awkward. Because suddenly he wasn’t invited anywhere, but she was always welcome. He knew that the innermost circle of our friend group knew, and- let’s be real- a narcissist’s worst nightmare is not being liked by people around them.
With our exclusion of him combined with his disdain for us, she eventually chose him. And our friendship was effectively over as I knew it.
Of course this hurt. And it even made me mad in some ways. But I also knew what it was like to be so deeply manipulated by someone that you’re not in your right state of mind.
I also know what it’s like to feel too scared to leave.
So, instead of expressing my disappointment, I just told her I understood. And I reiterated that I would always be there, day or night, should she need help.
We didn’t speak again for months. Maybe even close to a year. I don’t remember the time frame exactly anymore.
All I know is that one day, out of the blue, I had a message from her telling me she left him. She moved to a new country, completely on her own, and was starting over free from his abuse.
Even though so much time had passed, she remembered what I said about always being there for her. And I guess she wanted to test the waters to see if that was still true.
She was back.
I remember how I could tell the spell had finally broken just from the sound of her voice.
Here’s the thing, if you’ve been in an abusive relationship then your sense of trust is shattered. Not only might you find it challenging to trust others, but you’re likely also struggling to trust yourself again, as well.
This is why it’s so important to be unwavering in your support for someone if they confide in you about abuse within their relationship. This is why it’s imperative that you don’t judge them, even if you don’t agree with their choice to stay. And this is why it’s vital that you don’t get angry with them, even when they’re (inevitably) going to be irrational.
The best thing you can do is be solid in your ability to love them. This will help teach survivors how to trust again.
Btw, this same friend is still one of my nearest and dearest. Not only did she refuse to look back once she left, but she also took the time to actually heal from her experience of abuse. She is now happily married, living with her husband and fur baby in Europe.
I started teaching retreats in 2014, and can still say that to this day I’ve never had an experience with students quite like this one.
My co-teacher and I arrived in India a few days before the retreat started to get settled in. Of course the venue where the retreat was held was stunning, which meant we were busy soaking up the serene dream that is Indian countryside by creating content and eating as much local cuisine as humanly possible.
The day the retreat started, I woke up to a flurry of DMs (this was clearly before I had boundaries around social media, and actually checked that shit first thing in the morning…but I digress).
While I’m paraphrasing, I can remember the crux of the messages.
“He just pushed me. I’m scared. I don’t know what to do.”
First of all, I had no idea who this person was, or why they were telling me this. I think the only thing that made me realize they might be students on the retreat, was that the message also indicated they were in India, as well.
I checked the guest list, and sure enough, the names matched. This was a married couple that was meant to be joining us in just a few hours.
“Are you safe right now?” Was the first thing I responded back, as this was the most important thing to know.
Although she’d sent me those messages in the middle of the night, and I responded back around 7 am, she still managed to respond right away.
Again, I’m paraphrasing with these text conversations, by the way.
“Omg, I’m so embarrassed! I can’t believe I sent you that last night. We were drinking, and he took my phone. When I tried to get it back, I fell. He didn’t push me at all. I’m completely fine, we just got in a fight, but I’m totally fine. I’m so embarrassed.”
Whether it was intuition, or simply seeing myself in her covering up the tracks of abuse by taking the brunt of it head on- I immediately knew she was lying.
I mean, the first thought I had when I was strapped into a stretcher after my boyfriend nearly killed me was: he’s going to be so mad at me. And I continued to furiously think of ways to cover up his tracks for the entire drive to the hospital.
So yeah, I knew she was lying.
“Can we still come to the retreat?” she asked, before I had a chance to answer her last message.
What I didn’t know was how the hell to handle this situation.
My co-teacher has to be one of the sweetest people on the planet, and certainly one of the least confrontational people I know. So, when I filled her on the shit storm I woke up to, she was at a loss for a solution.
My gut was telling me not to let this guy come on the retreat. First of all, I personally didn’t feel safe staying in a villa with him. Plus, I had 10 other female students to think about, as well.
I called my parents- who happened to be coming on the retreat- and filled them in on what had happened.
“What do I do?” I asked them.
My dad reassured me that safety wouldn’t be an issue considering he was going to be there. Not that he’s anything other than a gentle giant. But c’mon, who’s going to mess with anyone with someone’s dad there?
The thing with my dad is that he’s much more of a feeler than a fighter. My friends have nicknamed him “the love guru,” because he’s someone that will sit you down and ask you what’s on your heart in any given moment.
He’s a great person, and a standup man, but I have to say- he really got it wrong in this situation.
“I think you should let him come. This experience could be the one to open his eyes and his heart, and make him into a better man. If you take this opportunity away, you could be taking away a real learning experience,” he said.
The good thing was that my body’s visceral reaction to his response helped me to realize real fast that that was exactly the opposite of what I was going to do.
Let me be clear in saying I don’t blame my dad for saying this.
In fact, the whole point of this post is to help you be able to support survivors in their time of need. Because I find more often than not, people don’t know how to respond in the right way.
While she stood strong in the fact that she was lying about the text from the night before, and that this guy didn’t hurt her at all, I knew that he did. And considering that this was her husband, I also knew that there’s no way this was the first time it had happened, either.
Think about how desperate someone would have to be DM a stranger on the internet. And you want to tell me that it was all just “an accident?” Yeah, I don’t think so.
I also had a hunch that I was the first person she’d ever told. I guessed this, because of the way she immediately backtracked. This told me that she’d never dealt with the process of “coming clean,” if you will.
I knew how it felt to tell someone for the first time, and for them to turn a blind eye. I knew how it felt for someone to watch my boyfriend physically hurt me in a drunken rage, and then laugh it off the next morning as a mistake.
It makes you feel even crazier. And it validates all the times he tells you that “it wasn’t that bad,” or “you’re just being dramatic.”
I couldn’t do that to this woman.
If I allowed this man to come on the retreat that would be telling her two things:
- I don’t believe you when you tell me he hurt you.
- What he did doesn’t have any consequences.
And guess what, you can’t hurt someone without consequences. You can’t make your wife bleed, and not be held accountable because it “wasn’t that bad.” Not under my watch, at least.
Okay, so that’s one issue with my dad’s response, right. I’m not going to essentially condone this guy’s behavior by allowing him to come on the retreat.
But the other issue with his response is that while I have my own experience with domestic violence, it doesn’t give me the qualifications to help someone’s mental health when it comes to beating their wife.
And not only that, but it’s not my responsibility to “fix” him. That’s on him. Period.
I’m not saying throw your hands up and say, “it’s none of my business,” if you somehow end up involved in a couple’s domestic dispute. Because, that’s not only unhelpful, but can be really dangerous for the victim.
What I am saying is that the only responsibility you have is to ensure the abused party is safe.
Needless to say, I made the call of letting her know that he was not welcome on the retreat, but we would still love for her to come. I let her know that I could arrange a taxi to come pick her up. And could even help her to remove herself from this entire situation should she choose.
While I didn’t point blank tell her that I knew she was lying with her follow up texts in the morning claiming that it was all “just a mistake,” my message made it clear that I wanted to ensure she was safe, and I’d do anything to help with that.
I’ll be honest, I was scared for her as a result of my text. I didn’t want HER to get in trouble from him, because he’d now been excluded from this experience. Keep in mind, they were already in India. They’d flown in from somewhere across the world, meaning they’d already spent thousands of dollars.
While I offered to fully refund them both, I knew that he wasn’t going to take this news well.
And he didn’t.
She begged and pleaded with me. She told me over and over again how it was all her fault, and he didn’t do anything wrong.
My heart broke a little bit every time a message came in from her. Because I could literally hear him in her ear just seething with hatred.
I remained firm in my choice, and told her that whether it was an accident or not, I took threats of violence seriously for my own safety and the sake of my students. And, once again, I let her know that I was there if she needed help at any point during their time in India.
Life went on, as it does.
A year later, I got a message from a name I didn’t recognize.
“Thank you for what you did last year with the retreat. You were right, he did hurt me. And it wasn’t the first time. Because of your response, it opened my eyes to understand this wasn’t okay. You were the first person who ever validated that, and not long after we got back from India, I divorced him.”
When I tell you tears streamed down my face.
Because, honestly, I still didn’t know if I made the right choice that day with the back and forth messages. I didn’t know if this woman was safe. I didn’t know anything. And I just hoped for the best.
Hearing from her was not only a relief in knowing that she was simply alive, but also told me that I did a good job in trusting my gut in a very hard situation.
Remember how I told you one of the hardest parts about recovering from domestic abuse is learning to trust yourself again? Yeah well, over a decade after my own experience, I still struggle with inner trust.
Sometimes it can be scary to listen to your intuition when what it’s telling you isn’t easy or convenient. And sometimes that fear can overshadow the knowing.
Even though I knew what I did was “right,” there was something about hearing that from her that made it feel true. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful.
Domestic violence isn’t an easy topic to tackle.
And it’s certainly not easy to navigate within relationships- regardless of what your relationship to the victim is.
But it is something that needs to be talked about more, so we don’t feel so damn isolated in the recovery of it all. Sure, you can make it out alive from the relationship. But being trapped in the prison of your own shame and guilt are just as deadly.
Support survivors so we can do just that.