We often blame ourselves.
Everywhere I turn I'm being confronted with things that are supposed to make the nation aware of domestic violence. But as a victim myself and the founder of a nonprofit that serves abuse victims, I wanted to speak up about what many victims really wish you knew.
1. We never saw it coming.
There are too many people that are under the impression that they're better than the victims because they would never date an abuser. But the problem is, no one sets out to date an abuser.
It wasn't like I was out on my 5th date when my abuser suddenly leaned over the dinner table, punched me in the face, and then I chose to stick around; it came on so slowly that I didn't notice he was manipulating me into becoming less of me, and more of a victim, until it was too late. By the time I realized what was going on, it had already been going on for far too long.
2. We tried to get out.
When I finally realized what was happening to me, I tried to leave. I tried more times than you'll ever know and I failed in ways I can't bear to talk about. On average, a victim will try to leave her abuser 7 times before she's finally able to break free. And in my case, it took me a lot longer than that.
Until you can understand the financial, legal, child custody-related, and emotional issues (as well as the very real physical threats) that tie victims to their abusers, please don't think we all stayed because we were just too lazy to leave.
3. Don't push us.
We know you want to help us, but please don't push us. When my abuser and I finally split, kind-hearted people started pulling and pushing me in ten different directions in an effort to help "fix" my life. But the thing is, all they did was smother me.
I now work with DV victims, and if there's one thing I've learned — maybe the most important thing — it's that you can't push a victim. Life after abuse is scary. Victims have to face a lot of things that they tried for a very long time to ignore, and for the first time in a long time they get to put themselves first.
This new path of independence is important for a victim to learn to live their own life, and sometimes they need to do that in their own way, on their own time. So be there for them, support them, offer advice, make safety a priority, but know when to back off and let a victim become their own survivor.
4. Abuse comes in many forms.
People just love to assume things. One of the biggest assumptions people make is that the "abuse must not have been that bad since they were obviously having sex." Children aren't proof of sex. Abuse comes in many forms and quite often involves rape, birth control sabotage, forced conception, and preventing a victim from obtaining reproductive medical care. Children are the existence of a birth, not proof of a voluntary choice.
5. We don't want to know what YOU would've done differently.
No one can possible know how they will react to abuse until they're in it, so saying, "Well, I wouldn't have done it that way" is completely unfair. Abuse comes in so many forms and with so many different aspects that it's impossible to look at a situation and say you would've handled things differently.
From finances to family support, employment opportunities to child custody problems, abuser reactions to emotional destruction, you cannot assume that you would've done something differently — because you weren't there. Survival is a tricky game and is played with the pieces a victim has at their disposal.
6. Abuse is never as straightforward as you think.
Abuse can only be compared to a strategically planned attack. Victims are manipulated, degraded, broken, and trained to stay in the situations they're in. Abusers purposely tear us down just to make us think we can't do any better than them, and once they have us broken and groveling at their feet for assurance that we're worthy of being alive, they start to take over all aspects of our life.
Before we even know what hits us, they control our finances, our careers, our social outings, our family connections, our reproductive choices, our self-esteem, and our entire being. We can't make our own choices anymore because we're no longer leading our own lives. "Why didn't we leave?" It's complicated.
7. We often blame ourselves.
I carry around a lot of guilt for the things that happened to me and the role I played in the life I led, and I'm definitely not the only victim that feels like this. I don't know why people feel the need to point out where a victim went "wrong," but they do and I don't understand why.
Maybe it's because they simply can't comprehend how someone got into an abusive relationship and are verbalizing why they would never do that in an effort to assure themselves it could never happen to them. But at the end of the day, just because a victim isn't sharing with everyone what they think they could've done differently, it doesn't mean they don't carry the guilt of choices they wish they could go back and change.
Stop pointing out what you think we did "wrong," because most of us are already working very hard to make sure this doesn't happen again. Help us get counseling if we need it, but don't play the blame game in a game you don't understand.
8. None of this was our fault.
If there's one thing that people need to understand, it's that it's never the victim's fault. The victim has no power over the way an abuser chose to react. An abuser has a multitude of options in dealing with a person they're angry with, but when the outlet they choose is abuse, that's their choice — not the victim's. If more people understood that, more victims would seek help.
It doesn't matter how much sex a victim had or didn't have with someone, how many times they started an argument, if they were lazy as hell, or anything else they did to piss off their abuser — abuse happens become someone chooses to abuse another person.
As I said before, victims already carry around a lot of guilt and the only way to heal is to understand that we truly were victims. The way someone chose to hurt us wasn't our fault and we need you to believe that so we can truly accept it. Too many victims are still being abused because they don't understand that what's happening to them isn't their fault.
As the nation takes notice of an issue that has plagued humanity for far too long, please take the time to actually listen to the victims.
Victims don't just want to be noticed and they don't just want to be heard. If we as a nation really want to help victims become survivors, we need to truly understand them.