By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
When we first started See the Triumph nearly three years ago, we often were asked about the name of the campaign, and people wondered if the name would be clear enough for our audience to understand the purpose of the campaign. We knew we could have selected another name that made more clear that the focus of our work was on intimate partner violence, but we also felt strongly that the name “See the Triumph” was the best way to capture our mission of ending the stigma surrounding intimate partner violence and supporting survivors.
As we’ve shared before, the name “See the Triumph” came from a quote from a participant in our earliest research study. This woman had been horrifically beaten and verbally abused by her former boyfriend and the father of her child. She told us how people have asked her if she is embarrassed by her history of having been abused, and here’s how she responded to that question:
As part of our “No Stigma/Only Triumph” series for 2015 Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight this woman’s story, as it’s an example of the many stories of survivors that drive our work with See the Triumph. I had the honor of interviewing her, and her story stays with me to this day as a reminder to keep our focus on promoting the view of survivors of past abuse as strong, resilient, and, yes, triumphant.
To protect her privacy, I’ve altered several potentially identifying details about this participant, including her name (i.e., Sheila is not her real name). However, the key details are presented as she described them to me. This is “Sheila’s” story, and the story behind the name, See the Triumph:
When we met for our interview, Sheila was flustered and running a bit late. She was facing a number of challenges in her life at the time, including a health condition and romantic relationship transitions, as well as ongoing responsibilities to care for her children.
Sheila began by sharing her reasons for wanting to be a part of our study. She said, “A lot of things have gone on in my life have to do with…trying to straighten out things from your past, when they were already kind of thrown up and messed up in the area in the first place…Sometimes it takes a lot longer than you would want it to. Sometimes you don’t realize how long things are going to be affecting you in how many different ways, too.”
Before her current marriage, Sheila was in an abusive relationship with the father of one of her children. Having grown up in a family in which abuse was prevalent, “It was normal. So, getting in the relationship with him was just, it was just normal.”
The abuse didn’t start right away, but rather grew gradually over time. She describes the progression of abuse as building over a time period of a couple years. The physical abuse began gradually, and sexual abuse also became part of their relationship. She said, “He would have sex with me rough. But I was sexually abused growing up. So, to me a man treating me bad like that or using me in any way, it seemed normal.”
After about two years had passed, and she told me of a night when her partner got drunk and beat her badly, verbally abused her, and forced himself upon her sexually. Even after such a violent incident, Sheila stayed with her ex-boyfriend. As she said, “I excused it away. He apologized. He was so sweet…He also said it was because of how I was with him when he was drunken, and that I needed to, that something I had done or said had, you know triggered. So, all I kept thinking was, ‘OK, I’ll just try not to do that again.’”
After that, the abuse continued and got progressively worse. Sheila said, “After that, it just seemed like eventually it just became a habit. It became, it just, it would happen more often. He drank more. I mean, it just progressively got worse and scarier.”
Eventually, a particularly scary incident led Sheila to file a police report. She describes the beating as so bad that it led her to feel “like either I was blacking out or something, because I couldn’t even feel it even more.” Her abuser blamed her for that beating, saying, “Look at what you made me do.” The damage from this incident was extensive--Her face was so badly swollen and disfigured that she was practically unrecognizable. The incident also left Sheila with multiple concussions.
After that incident, Sheila did leave the relationship and went to live with a family member. However, it wasn’t long before he pursued her again. She initially resisted the idea of reconciling with him, but even her family members encouraged her to get back together with him. So, she decided to give the relationship another chance. But, it wasn’t long before the abusive and controlling behaviors re-appeared. At this point, Sheila didn’t believe that leaving the relationship was a safe option. He had threatened that he would kill her if she left him.
Eventually, though, the final straw incident finally came. It was during an especially violent incident that, fearing for her own and her child’s safety, she called the police, and she was able to leave, not even wearing shoes and carrying only her baby and the baby’s diaper bag. From there, Sheila took up residence at the local shelter and began reading to learn about abusive relationships. She took out a protective order, which he violated and was arrested as a result. Shortly after that, she decided, “No more. I was over it…And he knew I was serious.”
Sheila shared that, after the relationship ended, she “went through a lot of therapy and counseling and stuff like that just to make sure I didn’t get back in another one.” She found great validation after a meeting with a mental health professional, who helped her realize that she wasn't "crazy" and who helped Sheila get on the path to recovery.
Sheila shared the sentiment that she wanted to help others, and that was one of the reasons why she came in for our interview. She said, “That’s why I come here was just so important. It was just – it was just so important to do this...Because I know that I couldn’t have been the only – I’m sure I’m not the only one. It felt that way. And went through that stuff. I was in a shelter. I saw other women. But I want them to know that on the other side there is happiness, and that you can be fulfilled, and you can be – and that it doesn’t take a man.”
Far from being hopeless as a result of the difficult experiences in her life, Sheila remained hopeful and excited about the future. She said, “I’m excited. I’m excited about just the new stuff. And even just thinking about new things. It used to scare me…It used to scare me so bad. I remember – I was thinking about that today on the way here. I was thinking about there was a time when I wouldn’t have done this [interview]. Because it would have been just too scary.”
I don’t know if Sheila knows that her story has inspired the name of a campaign that has grown to thousands of followers across numerous social media channels. I don’t know if she knows that her important reminder about keeping our focus on the triumph in survivors’ lives has inspired and motivated so many other people to re-focus on the triumphs in their own lives. But I do know this: Sheila wanted to share her story in hopes that it would help others facing similar abuse-related challenges in their own lives. For as long as we continue to grow and build the See the Triumph campaign, we are committed to honoring Sheila and the countless other survivors who have shared their stories with us. It is in their stories that we find the keys to ending the stigma that far too many survivors face.