“I have a hard time believing you are being abused.”
These exact words, along with so many others of the same kind, have been spat at me for as long as I have suffered abuse; meaning, this has been a refrain I’ve heard for nearly my entire life.
This particular denial of the abuse I was experiencing was spoken by my (now ex) father-in-law, towering over me as I held my infant son in my left arm and had my right hand firmly gripping the doorknob to the front door of my apartment. He had just heard from my (now ex) husband’s own mouth an admittance of the violence he had committed against me, and yet, here it was. Despite this blatant confirmation of my husband’s physical abuse, my father-in-law insisted that I was not a true victim of that abuse. And this is the important emphasis—he did not deny that the abuse had happened, really; he denied that I could be abused. It was me as victim that he found to be unbelievable.
These words, painful as they were and will always be to me, were not unfamiliar. Since childhood, I have felt like I was barely holding onto the truth of my experiences in the face of constant denial of those truths both strategically from abusers and somewhat unintentionally from friends and family. The outright denials from my abusers (meaning: “this is not abuse”) have been excruciating in their own way but I think they are more obviously false and wrong to me; I recognize that these denials are themselves forms of abuse and gaslighting. That is to say, my then-husband insidiously planting the idea that “no one believed I was really so innocent” was easier to shake when he would do something outwardly and undeniably abusive and/or violent, like tackling and choking me. The type that is more “innocent,” I guess, are the unintentional denials from friends and family—but these denials are also the type that is more common and more complicated for me to navigate. There was something much more keenly sharp, for example, in my mother saying it was “confusing” for me to claim my husband was abusive when I had wanted to have a baby with him, something more shattering about my brother saying we seemed awfully happy at Christmas. I think in part these denials felt more significant because they were perpetrated by someone who was not the perpetrator—they were reinforcing the idea that I was not suffering, something my abuser wanted me to believe, though I knew that they were not on his “side,” so it felt somehow more valid.
In actuality, these comments are typically not so much denials of the abuse as they are a rejection or retelling of my own experience, as I think is the case in the two above examples. Much like my father-in-law, my mother and brother did not say he hadn’t hit me; they simply implied that there was something inappropriate in my response to the alleged violence. They implied that I wasn’t a true victim in my inability to fit their understanding of proper victimhood.
Often, these comments will even come in the form of what I assume is meant as a compliment or message of support but typically ends up feeling like an attempt to make what happened to me “beautiful” or meaningful. This is an issue I struggle with consistently related to trauma: the urge to immediately transform the experience into something that can serve as an inspiration for others before even giving the injured, traumatized party an opportunity to process or heal. I was “so strong” and “so brave” for ultimately leaving my husband, as though there is a steep drop-off point, a hard dividing line between “victim” experiencing abuse and “survivor” having recovered from it, with no gray area in which a victim and survivor can exist. It’s yet another binary society seems to cling to out of comfort—if a victim is a victim only if they are acting sad and terrified, if escaping a violent man is always beautiful, if every trauma survivor offers an overcoming story, then abuse and, frankly, innumerable other traumas can make sense to those who did not experience them and are afraid of their own susceptibility to experience them.
One of the more frequent versions of this idealized overcoming narrative that I have had foisted upon me is “You’re incredible; you don’t need anyone” or some variation thereof. Here’s the thing about that, though: that’s bullshit. I have always needed people to show up for me, to support me, to protect me. They just. Fucking. Didn’t. My mother—listening to me sobbing on the other end of the phone as she told me I “sounded crazy” and needed to “calm down”—didn’t. My siblings—who continued to suggest to my husband the ways in which I had failed as a sister and was an erratic, unreasonable person in private conversations with him—didn’t. The teachers—who by all accounts one would think would notice the substantial withdrawal of a previously stellar student, or would pay attention to the terrified pregnant 20-year-old in the corner of the classroom—didn’t. Friends—who watched as my husband tore me apart in barely concealed fights—didn’t. The list of didn’ts is immeasurable.
The issue with telling me I didn’t or don’t need anyone is two-fold: first, it ignores and/or rewrites how I feel about my own experience. In fact, not once can I recall a time when someone asked me if I’d felt empowered by suffering independently. The answer, had they asked, would be no. It felt terrible. I never felt like congratulating myself for enduring isolation on top of abuse. Second, this assertion always seems to assume that simply because I am alive today without having had support throughout multiple traumas, I didn’t desperately and agonizingly long for comfort and support and love. Again, this is wrong. And it’s not fair of anyone to push that narrative on me—be it a friend “meaning well” or societal conventions around victimhood and survival.
When I hear “you don’t need anyone,” I see: the steak knives hidden in my bedroom as a teenager, tucked under the purple-checkered comforter of my daybed, propped up behind the hand-me-down ballerina tapestry on the wall, concealed next to the TV I used to play Rent on loop so that I could make it through another night. I see: me screaming so loudly I was sure I was tearing my throat in half and popping every blood vessel in my face. I see: me digging my fingernails into my palms just to feel anything else, me pulling at my own hair to silence all my thoughts, me sobbing until I couldn’t breathe, me lying on the road outside my house, me panicking so severely that I began convulsing and my hands clenched up involuntarily and I couldn’t relax them no matter how much I tried to focus on just breathing and calming myself.
I needed someone. There just wasn’t anyone there.
And so, in the midst of this trauma, what should I have done? My options, so much as I can and could see, were: 1. Continue on without anyone, or 2. Die. And what did I choose? To die. I had no reason to anticipate that anyone would help me, that anyone would even see me, and so I moved through the world wishing myself dead because the life I had, the isolated existence of a young mother being abused not only without any support but also with outright rejection, was unlivable. And this is the part that no one sees, that no one ever considers when they look at my living, breathing body—that I wished it dead, constantly. They want to see this triumphant young woman who chose and strove to overcome, who chose and strove to live, who didn’t need anyone. The fact is they have no idea who they are looking at. They want to see this incredible fighter, this powerful young woman who took an absolute shit situation and came out of it like some comic book character thrusting a pile of rocks off themselves and coming up, biceps pumped, glowing. In that vision, though, they are refusing to see the broken bits. They cover over all the damages of years of abuse and loneliness and desperation, and they insist upon filling up this shell I feel I am existing in, in the wake of that pain, by stuffing idealized inspiration and strength into all its little hollow spaces.
And even when those attempts to end my suffering did not work and I went on, not by choice, existing without anyone, I was never this image of the overcomer. I never felt anything close to what I would describe as “triumphant.” I moved through these events, waiting for them to pass or end. To claim anything else, to insist upon anything else by determining for me that I “didn’t need anyone” is to deny my own experience—to manipulate and reconfigure and, in some sense, reduce it—just as my abusers did and do. It is to ask, “Are you sure you know what has happened to you?” just as my father-in-law did while standing over me and questioning the validity of my abuse, just as my mother did by saying my claim that I was being abused was ‘confusing,’ just as my husband constantly did with his quite literal refrain: ‘You are not being abused.’ It is to silence me in the narrative of my own suffering and my understanding of the experience of that suffering. It is to assume, to my detriment, that although it might’ve been nice to have someone hold me when I woke up screaming from a nightmare of shadows in my childhood bedroom, I clearly didn’t need that because here I am, alive, and I never had that. It is to claim that I experienced all of this pain alone and then with some superhuman-creature capability stacked these traumas on top of myself and courageously and valiantly marched on. No.
No because: I have known what it is to be 14 and be sexually assaulted only to have my father respond by calling me a “slut” and destroying my possessions in front of me. No because: I’ve known what it is to be forced to switch high schools because the harassment wouldn’t stop and it was “the biggest embarrassment” of my mother’s life. No because: I’ve known what it is to have my husband wrap his hands around my throat, pin me to the floor, and say “I will fucking kill you” right into my face only to have the police say there was no evidence and nothing they could do. No because: I’ve known physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and I am dripping, daily, with the pain of the isolation and loneliness that has followed. I needed someone; I need someone.
Wedded to this assertion that I don’t need anyone is the much more common “compliment,” the one that I think coexists with the idealized image of the survivor: you are so strong. I know, from speaking to them, that many victims and survivors of abuse do feel empowered by this term and many feel that it does fit their experience with abuse; I am so happy that this term carries that meaning for other victims and survivors, and I will always support this language if an individual has chosen it for themselves, their identity, and their experience. For me, though, I have been quick to warn people that I completely reject the idea that I am strong or, more specifically, that my abuse made me strong or is somehow proof of that strength. I reject both the suggestion that these horrific experiences have resulted in anything positive for me and the separate assumption, again, that my mere existence in light of that abuse is somehow an indication of my ability or fortitude. Despite this warning, I have this word thrust upon my experience constantly; in fact, people have felt so tied to this word when discussing my abuse that they have argued with me. That is not to say that they’ve argued about the value of the word for their experience or defended its application for victims and survivors more generally; when I have said I understand the urge to say this but it makes me uncomfortable and I personally do not feel it accurately describes or represents my experience, I have had people, in turn, explain their specific definition of “strong” to me and insist that even if I don’t view myself that way, I am strong. The most absurd example that comes to mind is the time I tweeted specifically this idea: that I hate the use of the word “strong” in relation to my experience of abuse and do not want it applied to myself or that experience, and I had not one but several responses and DMs informing me: “But you ARE strong.”
Less humorous to me was my therapist—the one I’ve since left for informing me that crying several times a month without the ability to stop is “nothing to worry about”—insisting on the same term, arguing that perhaps I just hadn’t “gotten there” yet, as though she, outsider to the reality of my abuse, could see something that was currently invisible to me but inevitably to be accepted by me. To reiterate, it is the same idea resurfacing again and again that I do not have control over the truth of the abuse I suffered and that I am somehow the one out of everyone that does not understand what happened to me. It is the delegitimization of my own processing and even acceptance of my abuse in favor of a more tolerable, heartwarming story. It is dethorning my excruciating past to make it palatable for everyone else.
Importantly, my primary reason for rejecting both “strong” and “survivor” for myself is because I never know (and can never seem to get an answer about) what this means for anyone who was killed by a rapist, attacker, or abuser or for those who stayed or have yet to leave. In relation to domestic violence, many people do not leave these situations alive; they either stay with their abuser until they die of natural or other causes or they are killed by them. Specifically, my brain fills up with the images I’ve seen of all the women who were murdered by their husbands and the knowledge that this could have easily been me. This could have easily been me. What separates us? I scan articles for the similarities and differences, and I am left with this: I did not have any special bravery or secret strength. I was pregnant when the violence began. I had a child with my abuser. I was in school. I was financially dependent upon my abuser. I was unemployed. At some points, I had no debit or credit card and no access to our bank accounts. At some points, I had no license and no car. He had a gun in the house. He threatened to kill me. He monitored my phone use and spending. I find the details of my story in every single news story I read about a woman who was murdered by her abusive husband, and yet only one of us is ever called “strong.” We endured the same pain and fear, but one of us is alive and one of us is not, so only one of us is a “survivor.”
And it is this strange, illogical separation that causes me to kick back so intensely against these labels for myself; I cannot accept that my mere existence in the wake of abuse automatically earns me some specific categorization, particularly because neither of these terms truly resonates with how I understand my abuse or its impact on me. If I am honest, I know that pieces of me did not survive.
Again, I always get the sense that it is best for other people that I come out of these traumas triumphant, assuring everyone that I ultimately overcame the violations and violence committed against my body, but frankly, that is not at all how I feel and maintaining that charade for the benefit of others is draining. I’ve referred to myself as a “survivor” before, but it always felt recited and awkward and performative leaving my mouth; it felt expected.
The painful and unpleasant truth I have uncovered is that there are certain ways in which I am irrevocably changed as a result of the abuse I’ve suffered. I imagine that to some degree I have simply changed in the same way that a person is changed by any major life event—after all, in the midst of abuse, I got married, had a baby, moved three times, graduated, etc. But I know, too, that there are specific impacts on me, on my personality, as a result of the abuse. I am changed by the brutality. I am changed by the fear. I am changed by the manipulation, the confusion, the drowning. And no one wants me to say it, but not saying it doesn’t make it any less true. There is undeniably a Liz Declan I lament constantly that is in many ways irretrievable.
What I want to turn back to, then, is the word “victim” and the ways in which we use it societally to mean someone weak—someone piteous, who isn’t “strong.” I see this word often, particularly on social media, used repeatedly in phrases like “playing the victim,” “crying victim,” and “the victim card,” which all paint victimhood not only as something undesirable but also as something false. Something performative and convenient, something to be pulled out and used to avoid responsibility. And I do think there are cases where this is valid and accurate; I think that there are absolutely times when someone feigns innocence or claims they are being “attacked” to avoid blame or legitimate criticism. I think this happens all too often with white people who are called out for being racist, for example, and do attempt to position themselves as not only innocent but also the wounded party, playing on racist stereotypes of People of Color, especially Black people, as “dangerous” or “aggressive.” This has come up repeatedly in the last year as white women violently call the police on Black people and then begin sobbing as soon as a cop shows up. And I absolutely do think that this should be called out and criticized, which complicates any easy or generalized argument about what to do with the word victim. Without stepping onto a massive, obtuse soapbox, language is prickly in this way, and I want to find a way to navigate these complexities without losing sight of either the valid and important criticism of false victimization in the case of white people or the importance of lessening the stigma of victimhood so as to avoid isolating and further delegitimizing victims of abuse. Because there are true victims of abuse—not weak, or naïve, or manipulative—but true victims who have been targeted and abused, by no fault of their own, and it is that idea that I want to be able to apply to myself without a Piers Morgan style sneer directed at me for my supposed weakness and fragility.
To me, this idea of “playing the victim” in regards specifically to abuse victims does exactly that—it singlehandedly reinforces the idea that victims are weak, naïve, and defenseless and asserts that this state of naivety and weakness is not even authentic but is constructed. In this way, it returns blame to me, the victim, for not being “tough” enough and reasserts the fear circling around in my head that I’m just being dramatic. In fact, my abuser has used this very image of the victim to disarm me; during an argument about his violence he once sneered, “Don’t you play the victim card with me.” And so it often feels like I am left with this choice between accepting the heroic role model narrative or representing myself as someone weak, incapable, and dishonest, neither of which feel authentic or representative of my experience.
The truth, for me, is that I am a human being who had horrible, unfair things happen to me and, although I lived through them, they have left me fragmented. And for me, the best term to encapsulate that experience and that fragmentation is “victim.” I embrace that term not looking for pity or to use it as a card to carry and flash when I need an excuse but instead in firm defiance of everyone who has tried to deny me that label or rewrite my narrative. When I call myself a victim, I am not adopting this false representation of victims as weak-willed, foolish objects of pity. When I call myself a victim, I am back in that apartment three years ago in front of my father-in-law, holding my son, opening the door. When I call myself a victim, I am saying: I know that you are claiming that I am not suffering anything undeserved. I know that you believe that I am not terrified enough, not meek, not submissive, not silent and squashed and desperate enough to be a victim. But you are wrong. I am bubbly and silly and headstrong and opinionated and loud and friendly and all these things you believe a victim is not ‘supposed’ to be. And yet, here I am. It wasn’t my fault; I’m a victim. I didn’t deserve it; I’m a victim. Something hideous happened and I didn’t cause it. I am a victim.
Liz Declan is a queer single mom living in Philadelphia with her troublesome four-year-old and very loud beagle. She is a fiction reader at Little Fiction and has work in or forthcoming in: Paper Darts, Split Lip Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, Yes Poetry, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @Mother_Faulkner.