By Sara Forcella, See the Triumph Contributor
Whenever I tell people what field of work I am going into the first question that I always receive is why? What made me want to go into domestic violence advocacy? Each and every time I am asked this I feel as if I’m never prepared to answer. I’m never quite ready to let strangers or even employers into that private space where my answer lies. Never truly ready to become that vulnerable. My response is usually simple, something generic, like “I’m interested in women’s issues” or “I’ve seen people I know experience it”. Yet, by giving these generic responses I’m not being honest with myself or others.
I decided that the only way for me to share my story was to express myself the best way I know how—to write about it. So, for the past few months I tried to write my story, to give those in it justice, to share my past to the best of my ability. But every draft never seemed right. For awhile I set the story aside altogether. Thats when to my surprise, I was asked to share my advocacy story with See The Triumph. It seemed like now was a good time as any to actually put my story into writing. To share what lead me on my journey of advocacy with all of you—the folks who I have shared my work, thoughts and stories with and more importantly the folks who have been brave enough to share their stories with me.
The truth of the matter is that I am lucky enough to never have been physically abused myself. I have dealt with verbal and emotional abuse, but never physical. I’ve had my share of bad relationships, some of which reflecting upon were definitely unhealthy. I’ve been in relationships that involved emotional and verbal abuse, ones that were riddled with issues of power and control, some that had they lasted may have turned violent. But this story is not about my relationships, not the intimate ones at least.
What led me into IPV advocacy were much different kinds of relationships—they were friendships. Back when I was in college (not too many years ago) I noticed so many of my girlfriends stuck in bad intimate relationships. Relationships where sex was forced upon them through manipulation or coercion. Relationships where they were berated or put down. Relationships where phones would be checked constantly and there were accusations of cheating. Relationships that were just not healthy. Relationships in which my girlfriends didn’t even realize that they were being abused or sexually assaulted because they thought these behaviors, these beliefs, were ‘normal’. These were all relationships that I was aware of, yet for some reason I never talked about their dysfunction with my friends, I never urged them to press charges after they were sexually assaulted when they were too intoxicated to even give consent. All of us just saw this as the typically college life, the kinds of things that girls have to learn to deal with. What I soon realized was that my silence, my lack of outrage, was allowing these forms of gender based violence to continue.
One of my friend’s relationship in particular was extremely abusive—it was verbally, physically and emotionally abusive—and I knew this. Watching my friend dealing with the reality of intimate partner violence, and somewhat losing her to it, pushed me to begin my journey as an IPV advocate.
My involvement in this relationship was complex; I was friends with both individuals. At that time I cared about them both and wanted to see them both happy. Seeing them both happy meant that they needed (in this case) to go their separate ways. Which also meant I was stuck in the middle, trying my best not to take sides. As an outsider I thought that breaking up would keep the peace, but it didn’t. Still in my very early twenties, the complexity of this situation was not lost on me. I had no clue where to turn or even what to say to either of my friends involved.
The couple still saw each other and the fighting only increased. Eventually my friend began to come over with random bruises attached to nonchalant stories that usually included phrases like, “It was my fault I…. annoyed him, or he saw me text a boy, or I went out last night”. My brain registered that she felt it was her fault ,yet my heart was telling me something different, that she was not to blame and that she did not deserve this.
I saw this person as strong, funny, confident and beautiful; yet, she saw none of this herself. The first tactic that I used to try to ‘help’ was informing her of this—telling my friend that her partner was a jerk and she could do better. Consequently, this seemed to push her further away from me.
At one point I felt so desperate that I took one of the Domestic Violence Hotline Number’s off of a bathroom wall and gave it to her. With no avail I decided to stop trying—that my voice didn’t matter. Knowing that bashing her partner would do little to help her, or our friendship, I decided to go another route. Instead of saying anything negative I just listened; I didn’t ask questions and I tried not to mention her partner's name. Sometimes I swear I had to bite my tongue so hard to keep from saying anything bad that I swore it might fall off. In keeping silent I sort of helped our friendship, yet I didn’t help my friend who still came over with bruises.
For me this silence, this unspoken elephant in the room, became a way of dealing with my friend’s violent relationship. But what I soon learned was that this silence got me in trouble and it hurt others.
One night, as I spent time with a group of friends my silence nearly suffocated me. While there I began to hear yelling, glass hitting the wall and shattering. I could hear my friend crying. I had absolutely no clue what to do. My first instinct was to grab my phone and call the cops—something I was quickly told not to do. The others said that this happens all the time and that if I was to get the police involved both of my friends would get arrested. I wanted to march down there and stop the fight myself but again I was advised against it. So I did nothing. I remained silent and sat upstairs as a terrified bystander. Eventually, somebody broke the ‘fight’ up, however, nothing about this situation settled well with me.
The next day everybody acted as if nothing happened. When I tried to talk to my friend about it she was embarrassed and avoided the larger than life elephant sitting beside us. It was this ten minutes of silence that I decided I had to do something, and this is when I decided looking into IPV advocacy work.
Looking back on that night I realize that I was a bystander, that I allowed my friend to be harmed. I allowed others to sit back and do nothing—and even worse I allowed them to think that this was okay and “normal”. At the time I thought that my silence would protect me, that it might protect my friendship, but what I truly failed at was protecting another human being. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had stepped in. Would I have gotten harmed? I may have. Would my voice have been heard? It may have. I honestly don’t know, but what I do know is that I cannot allow my voice to go unheard again. I cannot allow others to believe that IPV is normal and that it’s acceptable.
In this case of IPV, like many others, everybody knew about the abuse. It wasn’t a secret. Everybody knew that the couple ‘fought’ and things got ‘out of hand’. Everybody saw the bruises, the broken glass. But, nobody did anything; nobody said anything. This is where I have found my place as an advocate—it is these small moments of silence, the unknown of where to go and who to turn to, that I hope to change. Had I known more about IPV back then, I may have been able to change the situation—or not. But it’s important for me to help the millions of other women and men who are out there dealing with the same things. It’s imperative for me to verbalize to others that abuse is never okay, that it is illegal, and that it is way more than a lover’s quarrel turned giant elephant in the room.