November 15, 2013 in Family & Relationships
Going home always reminds me just how strong, and potentially dangerous, emotional memories can be. I’ve always had a pretty strong emotional memory, but going home puts it in overdrive. Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of these are not happy, pleasant memories, but unresolved negative ones, those that I can often hide from when here (abroad). What here gets manifest as occasional nightmares, at home takes on the form of waking panic attacks.
Some years ago, when hanging out with an old friend, we got to talking of past ‘romantic’ relationships. She spoke of her most recent (and now ended) relationship. Since I was living away, I knew only bits and pieces of it. During our talk, however, she was open and forthcoming. Listening to her speak, made me recall aspects of my first long-term relationship back home. Comparing our experiences, our reactions to them, and where we each now stood in relation to them, made me wonder, what does it mean, what does it take, to come out, openly, publicly, as a survivor of violence and abuse? I generally do not use the word survivor in reference to myself… and I think that that in itself has a lot to do with how I see myself, how much I have, or have not, come to terms with being someone who has lived through an abusive relationship.
I use the phrase ‘coming out’ quite deliberately. Because, as I understand it, the process of coming out involves developing the strength, the confidence, the sense of security… whatever one chooses to call it… to acknowledge and assert one’s own experience with, or existence as, something that otherwise is perceived as undesirable and unacceptable. Stating that coming out as a survivor of abuse or violence is a difficult, emotionally taxing process, is not particularly ground-breaking. Yet, the process of coming out as such, forces a reckoning with the unresolved – the extremely problematic and dangerous ways in which these experiences haunt us.
During our conversation, I asked my friend (although I knew the answer) if she had ever witnessed my ex being violent towards me. Her response was incredibly hesitant, as if she’d rather not acknowledge that she had – not because of any sense of accountability that I might lay on her, but in order to spare me feelings of embarrassment, and perhaps even shame. In order to spare me, perhaps, the same feelings of discomfort that she appeared to be experiencing in speaking of her own relationship.
I have never felt a need to ‘come out’ with my friends abroad. I have felt the need neither to hide nor advertise my experience. Yet, there seems to be a crucial need to have this conversation with my friends back home – even those that I know were witness, have never, over a decade later, broached the subject; no matter how heavy the presence, it must be left unspoken. That this silence exists among my generation of supposedly ‘modern’, ‘progressive’ women, signals the intense heteropatriarchy (especially its property dimension – men as property-holders, women as property) that is privileged among us.
Indeed, it wasn’t until I first left home that I came to recognize that what I had lived through was not normal, and that there was, in fact, a term for it – domestic, or intimate partner, abuse. The more I began to read, and think, and talk about it, the more angry and frustrated I became with my high school teachers who were more invested in protecting us ‘girls’ – I went to an ‘all-girls’ school – from ‘boys’ by preventing us from talking to and interacting with them. I was reprimanded a few times for ‘talking to boys while in school uniform’, and warned to think about ‘the school’s reputation’. Wouldn’t they have better ‘protected’ us through conversations about taking care of ourselves in relationships, in recognizing abuse, in encouraging us to talk to parents, friends, mentors about the nature of our relationships, in emphasizing to us that abuse is not normal, is not normalizable, regardless of which communities one belongs to, or which circles we socialize in?
If we can have sex-ed classes (which we did have some absurd form of), surely it requires no stretch of the imagination to include instruction on what a healthy relationship should look like? I know that I could definitely have benefited from that… and I know at least a couple of friends could have as well.
I know that my teenage relationship has definitely haunted my adult ones. Over a decade later, I still have unpleasant dreams about it. And I have most certainly projected my fears and anxieties onto those that came after. I think much of my inability to exorcise this ghost is related to a psychological uncertainty about what I went through and whether it really was significant. Even so, what that conversation with my friend made me realize, or reminded me, is that what happened was undoubtedly real – a realization affirmed by the fact that little has changed over time, or as teenagers have grown into adults.