We lose a lot as victims and survivors of abuse. One thing that may seem more philosophical and peripheral, but that actually can’t be overlooked in its damage, is the heavy and sharp blade of systemic injustice that cuts you from the world you thought you knew. You thought you understood bad and good, could distinguish the two, and you believed that when bad occurs the bones of Justice will stay strong and hold you up when you can’t walk.
Sure you hear about cases where justice isn’t served and a victim is failed by the law or even wrongly punished by the law, but those are just exceptions. But no, that’s not true. Our progressive, enlightened Western country is actually colder, more broken and ineffective than we ever imagined.
Survivors who have children with their abuser find the law used as another weapon by that abuser to harass and torture through constant demands, requests and nuisance court appearances*. They find magistrates believing the lies of their abuser*, accusing a woman of using her children as tools in a dispute with the father when that woman had actually had to get a VRO after the father assaulted her mother and wouldn’t allow the children to leave his house*, and Independent Child Lawyers (ICLs) being duped and siding with the abuser* who are also improperly trained and sometimes driven by professional ego*. I don’t have children so I’m so lucky it’s only the finances that have to be sorted out through the legal system but let me tell you this: there are children being abused, even sexually abused by a parent and the court still allows that parent access*, independent experts discount the testimony of children about the abuse they are suffering*. Read this book, Blame Changer by Carmel O’Brien, to understand more.
* these are all things happening to real women right now just in my immediate circle of support. That’s just a handful of women. Imagine what else is going on. Male victims of domestic abuse will have their own horror stories too.
What a day when you wake, not only with your concept of love, good and bad ruptured, but to see that the violence you lived also permeates the whole of society. And has also infected the systems meant to help you.
One of the women in my support group described it as Sleeping Beauty awakening to see the castle overgrown and crumbling. That is the journey of a survivor. As a survivor of domestic violence, violent crime, discrimination, sexual abuse, war, [add your own, there are unfortunately too many to list], you have to heal in a world that is not what you thought it was before. You are tasked to remake yourself (or make yourself for the very first time) shattered and traumatised but you also must do it in an alien land. Where do you stand? What do you do? How do we make sense of a world where violence in so many forms is everywhere? You thought you escaped it when you escaped him or her, your abuser, but the more you understand what has happened to you, the more you recognise it around you.
What am I trying to saying? I can feel myself falling down a rabbit hole of existential angst. I’m trying to talk about the various levels of ignorance we carry around with us and what we do with those when faced with the hard palm of reality.
Chosen and Healthy Denial
A certain amount of ignorance and denial is necessary to survive as a human being in the world as it is, and with the human condition what it is. How could we enjoy watching our favourite tv show when millions of people are starving to death, being bombed, or toiling in poverty and injustice. We have to switch off that part of our brain that knows the world is burning, and just focus on what we see and feel in that moment. We re-map the world to just being our house, our family, our tv, our bed. How do we allow ourselves those necessary moments of joy when we are the lucky few percent in the world?
We need those moments. We need our little pieces of ignorance and denial.
For why would we ever love someone when we will lose them in one way or another: death, illness, addiction, despair, irreconcilable differences, in one way we will grieve for them (if they don’t end up grieving for us first): that love will one way or another hurt us. And why have children knowing they could die or be sick and our life will be shattered, and knowing we are bringing them into a world awash with danger and suffering? We know most marriages end in divorce yet we keep on searching for the fantasy, believing that you can find a partner to walk with you through life.
We cloak ourselves in a certain amount of self-imposed ignorance and denial to survive. We have to. Hope’s twin brother is wilful ignorance and it’s not always a bad thing. Hope requires a little bit of denial, to imagine a world better than what it is.
That is wilful, chosen ignorance. Choices we make to go ahead with life despite knowing how it will inevitably end, for it must end.
Chosen and Unhealthy Denial
Then there is ignorance we hold onto to the wilful detriment of others. Think about every survivor abandoned by friends and in-laws. What is a mother or father to do when presented with claims that their child is a perpetrator of violence? How many are brave enough to believe the victim over their child and accept all the questions and implications that come with such an acceptance, like did they do anything that caused that sweet baby to become a grownup who would intentionally harm another? Most deny, blame, shame and stigmatise the survivor and live a wilful lie.
Finally, there is the ignorance we are born into. The ignorance born of what we’re told as we grow up. Most people, unless they experience a severe miscarriage of justice or are witness to severe tragedies when they’re young, grow up believing that there is certain level of justice: that society, though imperfect, is basically functional when it comes to justice and punishment.
We do bad things and our parents or teachers punish us. We are rewarded when we do well. Yet when I sat in my support group I could not believe what I heard. I cannot believe what is happening in the justice system. I cannot believe that these women, some who fear for their lives, are forced to coparent with someone who abuses the child to punish the woman. I cannot believe these women have to declare bankruptcy because the abuser spent all their money and put them into huge debt yet get off with no reprimand.
I cannot believe my abuser is allowed to shut of access to the money I need to pay my medical bills and look after myself. I’m unwell, I have diagnosed physical illnesses and he denies me access to the money I need to look after myself. I cannot believe that he can lie in his affidavit and has worded it in such a way he will get away with it. I cannot believe the extent of psychological torment I had to endure that brought me to the brink of suicide so many times isn’t provable in the courts. I cannot believe it. Yet it is real.
My beautiful sisters from the support group will continue to fight for their children for years to come, bleeding money and emotional energy. I am so overcome with trauma from my Complex PTSD and anxiety that even the most basic things can be overwhelming and I wonder what my life will be. My abuser will go unpunished. I will be forever altered.
I feel like I was in a dream and I am that Sleeping Beauty being woken up and starting to see the world for the messy, ugly place it is. And I’m struggling to find hope. I’m struggling to find how I can allow myself to feel joy and happiness.
The answers are emerging slowly. One is that I feel I need to be an active part of this broken place that needs fixing to stop myself crumbling under the powerless I feel breathing sticky at my neck and trying to take me out. I’m awake and that has to mean something, right? So how I can do my tiny bit to help mend this fragile and splintered planet.
Right now that’s giving back to other women I run into who have escaped violence. They are everywhere. And I am fortunate in many ways:
- I have parents that took me in after my ex asked me to leave (family support like this is surprisingly rare);
- I have parents who helped with my legal fees as long as they could. They are depleted now and my lawyer is willing to accept the remainder of my payment after the case is finished with interest, but that’s only because I have a property in my name co-owned with my ex. Many women run out of money or have none to begin with, and rely on not-always-there Legal Aid lawyers or self-represent, or just give up the fight knowing they can’t afford the money it will cost to go on,
- My parents and family believed my claims of abuse. Again, shockingly, this doesn’t happen that much.
- I had a lawyer experienced enough to send me to an abuse survivor’s support group, which was a life-saver for me. Not all lawyers can deal with the complexities of traumatised abuse victims. And the support group gave me resources I can pass onto other survivors.
- My dad’s best friend is a clinical psychologist who found me a psychologist from his peers who specialises in psychological abuse and narcissistic abusers. This psychologist SAVED me. She educates me, validates me, explains what I’m experiencing is real, and practices in a Trauma Informed approach. Too many abuse survivors see counsellors or psychologists who don’t understand the complexities of the trauma that domestic violence can cause. An incorrectly trained mental health professional can actually make things worse. Or they get no mental health help at all and struggle on wondering what’s wrong with them.
- I have a GP who is a DV survivor herself and understands me, helps me, and goes out of her way to support me. When I have a panic attack she holds my hands and helps me breathe. She finds me the support and other health professionals I need. I encountered so many GPs when I was married who saw my anxiety and desperation for help and labeled me difficult and a hypochondriac. I found my current GP by accident when I slept through my original appointment and the clinic managed to fit me in to see her.
So I’m privileged, despite all that’s happened to me. And I pay it forward the best as I can with my depleted physical and emotional energy reserves.
One day I hope I can step further into the broken mess of this world and advocate and help my fellow survivors better. For now it’s this blog, helping my sisters from my support group, and helping any other women who may need someone to talk to and validate their experiences. If all victims were as privileged as I am and were able to pay it forward we would start to make real changes. Can you imagine a huge and loving sisterhood (and brotherhood) spanning the globe devoted to helping each other and speaking up? How incredibly powerful.
Until that happens, until the public conversation changes and really becomes open to talking about the breathtaking prevalence of domestic violence quietly occurring in our homes, I will help as many people as I can. And make sure that now I have been awakened, I never close my eyes to the dark, sticky, festering violence of our so-called First World, prosperous, civilised country.