Content Warning: The following text describes emotional and physical aggression and may be upsetting and/or triggering for some readers. Find the resources listed at the end of the article.
I am a survivor of domestic abuse.
It wasn’t just one person, either. It happened twice. The first time happened over an extended period of almost a decade. The second, a one-off incident that stabbed to death any happiness I might get from my last semester of college.
I am a survivor of violence.
From being tossed around like a rag doll, from lasting dark marks and little scratches on my body, that quickly fade so no one knows better. From being beaten, from being threatened with being beaten, from nails digging into the skin of my neck.
They say that you learn from experience, but that is not true when it comes to aggression. Little did I know that the first person I trusted with my decade of abuse would become the second person to abuse me.
Despite what I experienced growing up, I was hesitant to consider myself a survivor. When I thought of domestic violence, I imagined the shadow of a man, probably an alcoholic, yelling, hitting and hurting a woman, leaving dark bruises and black eyes that her friends would see and question. I imagined the survivor archetype: a woman who tells her friends about her abuse and then reports it to the police. I pictured the man going to jail, and everyone cheering as the end credits rolled.
I never was and still am not that archetype. I never had any lasting bruises. Sometimes the abuse was emotional: mental gymnastics that made me believe I was a terrible person. Sometimes the abuse would be subtle: little threats, maybe a grip on my arm too hard.
He had no resume of specific acts of violence, just a life of vapid fear.
I often forgot about incidents after they happened. It’s hard to remember things that your brain doesn’t want you to remember.
Trying to find support for the abuse I dealt with in the spring has been like tiptoeing through a field of land mines. I am not ready to report my abuse, but I am terrified that someone will try to do it for me. I fear the pity I receive from close friends after telling them the truth. I fear their scrutiny when I tell them that I am still talking to my abuser.
When I speak about my abuse, I am careful with every word, terrified that the next sentence I utter will doom me.
The abuse isolated me not only from my closest friends, but also from more distant friends, acquaintances, and potential close friends.
In the week following my assault, I didn’t go to class at all. I was confused. Outwardly, he was telling myself that he had fully processed what happened to me and that he would be fine now that it was over. But something inside me screamed and sobbed, chaining me to my bed.
In the month following the assault, I cut myself off from the world without even realizing it, fretting over little things and shutting myself off from important friends. The assault acted like a brick wall. It was the biggest thing that ever happened in my life, and I didn’t think I could open up about anything to anyone, since every thought I had related to the abuse.
Now looking back, it is easier for me to understand what happened to me. Although I had a general support system, I didn’t feel like I had a specific support system for my abuse. He had no one with whom he could talk openly about it.
Since then, I have tried to find small supports to overcome what happened. Immediately after the incident, I went to CAPS walk-in therapy; it was surprisingly refreshing. For some reason, he awaited his trial. I was hoping they would tell me to completely cut this person out of my life no questions asked and report them. Instead, they listened and understood how complex the situation really was.
Healing myself from my abuse has really been a process of re-learning what it means to heal. Part of the battle is understanding what I really want. A past version of myself looking at my current situation would tell me to seek justice. Get even. Report them. Cut them. Make sure everyone in your life knows what they did.
But I don’t want justice. I just want time and support. And I want people to respect me for wanting that.
To survivors: Abuse is abuse. Don’t let your abuser fool you into thinking otherwise. If he believes that he is experiencing abuse, he is probably right. You are not alone. Regardless of how you handle what you’re going through, it’s valid: healing is not linear, it’s not obvious, and sometimes it doesn’t make sense. But that’s okay.
For everyone else: Support your friends. Understand that abuse is probably not what you think it is. It is not obvious. It is not clear. And if someone opens up to you about the abuse, make sure you treat them with respect. Offer unconditional support. Understand that unless there is an imminent threat, your decision to report or not is your decision. Going through a traumatic experience can leave survivors feeling out of control. Part of healing is taking back that control and traveling through the healing process in your own way.
It has been five months since I was last abused. I am not perfect. I’m still healing, and that’s okay.
HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24-hour phone number for members of the Penn community seeking help navigating Penn’s health and wellness resources.
Counseling and Psychology Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence, regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. Both male and female providers can perform exams, discuss testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, provide emergency contraception if needed, and coordinate referrals and follow-up.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (daily 9 pm to 1 am), A peer hotline to provide support, information, and referrals to Penn students.
Violence Prevention at Penn: 3535 Market Street, Mezzanine (Office hours: 9 am – 5 pm Monday through Friday), 12-5 pm Wednesday, and 12-5 pm Friday located at Penn Women’s Center (3643 Locust Walk), Read Penn’s violence prevention resource guide.
Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention Team: A multidisciplinary team at CAPS dedicated to supporting students who have experienced sexual trauma.
Special Public Security Services: Trained staff offer crisis intervention, accompaniment through legal and medical proceedings, counseling and advocacy options, and links to other community resources.
Penn Women’s Center: 3643 Locust Walk (Office hours 9:30 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Thursday, 9:30 am to 5 pm Friday), [email protected]. PWC provides confidential crisis and options counseling.