I spend a lot of time talking with survivors of domestic violence. Lately, I’ve been co-facilitating a support group at our shelter, where we utilize an arts based curriculum and psychoeducational framework. In these conversations, we’ve had an opportunity to learn from one another about a variety of topics, including self-care, boundaries, trauma, domestic violence, and red flags.
In these conversations, I’ve been astounded by so many of the stories I have heard. Facilitating a support group for survivors of domestic violence, I expected to hear horrific tales of hurt and abuse. What I wasn’t as prepared for were the countless stories of these incredible survivors reaching out for help, and not being believed. Stories of talking to clergy, and being told that God would provide if they keep praying harder. Or that some sin or malady in their past was responsible for the situation they found themselves in now. Stories of reaching out to close friends, people whom they trusted with their deepest secret, and being told it wasn’t that bad. “I know her, she would never do something like that… You’re over reacting.” Stories of reaching out to family, to parents, siblings, children, and being shamed into silence.
These stories break my heart. They break my heart because I can see the pain grimacing their face as they recall the details. It breaks my heart because I see the tears rolling down their cheeks, and I realize that if only this person had been believed, if only they had been met with support, if only the person whom this survivor trusted with these most vulnerable and painful stories had responded differently, that maybe so many other things may have changed. And it breaks my heart because I wonder why it is so incredibly common for people to respond to disclosures of sexual and domestic violence with denial or minimization. Why is it that when a survivor reports being raped or assaulted, society’s first response is to question the validity of the statement. Is it because we are afraid of what it would mean to live in a world where people are being hurt every day? Is it because we, too, have been hurt? And we are trying in whatever way, at whatever cost, to bury that pain? Or is it because if we were to acknowledge this reality, if we were to uncover this pain in our hearts, that we may not know what to do or say?
When I find myself engaged in a conversation where someone has stripped away their protective armor and shares with me their stories of pain and hurt, the first thing I do is believe them. I listen to what the story they are sharing, and I believe the impact it has had on their lives. I thank them for trusting me, for the courage it took to name this reality. And then…well, and then I simply be with them.
One of the hardest parts of this work is not being able to fix things. How badly I wish I could throw on my super-hero cape and swoop in to save the day… But in lieu of this alter-ego coming out, I ground myself in my ability to be present and to bear witness to the stories I hear. Though there is so much I cannot do or fix, what I can do is show up, and be there. I can show the survivors I meet that they are not alone. And perhaps that although days or months, or years from now, this survivor will likely forget my name, and face, what they will remember is that someone was there with them. Someone was there with them. Someone let them share their story. Someone out there believed them. And for at least some time, they were not walking this path of healing alone.