A few months ago, I was invited to speak to a group of medical students about my experiences in an emotionally abusive relationship. I wanted to give them a better understanding of the dynamics of abuse, challenge the stereotypes and show how confusing and complicated it feels to be in that situation. The main goal, for them, is to recognize the signs of potentially abusive relationships in their patients, understand the health consequences that even “just” emotional abuse can have, and know how to respond and offer the appropriate support and referrals.
Personally, I was honored to be given the chance to speak and this topic is important to me. Because I had gone to doctors many times because of the direct or indirect consequences of the abuse in my marriage. My anxiety attacks that began when I got married were not identified for years. They were written off as a “mystery virus” after the pregnancy test I was asked to take (despite saying there was no chance I was pregnant) came back negative. When they were identified as anxiety attacks after several years, I was given medication and coping strategies that helped considerably. But that still did not identify the source of my anxiety. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” was the diagnosis.
It was the first time I had spoken about my experiences to strangers who were not survivors themselves. I had an hour to speak per group, separately with two groups of students. It was difficult emotionally to tap in to some of my most traumatic memories and try to describe them in a clear way. This is something that is more for the listener’s benefit than my own, as I do not gain anything from reviving those memories. The length of time was also a challenge–how do you pack 10 years of extremely complicated and emotional experiences into just one hour? On the other hand, how do you continue talking in front of strangers about these personal moments for that long? There were so many moments and things that I learned along the way that I would like to share, but how to shape them into a coherent narrative? I felt accomplished enough just making it through.
I’ve been asked to talk to a similar group in March, which gives me time to think about my approach and how to communicate clearly without feeling overly drained and exposed. I have to be careful: I want to use my horrible experiences to benefit others. Because if I had been more aware of my own situation, I would not have waited ten years to leave! However, becoming too involved in this could also set back my healing. I don’t want being a “survivor” to always be in the forefront of my mind.
Along those lines, I’ve started attending a workshop series about storytelling for survivors. We’re working on how to structure and organize a story (any story) to make it effective. Over the next month or two, I should finish the personal story I’ve been working on (which is only loosely related to my abusive situation) and present it for an audience. But it’s difficult! When we talk in the workshop about having characters and communicating what motivates them and what actions they took when they were faced with conflict and challenges, I try applying those concepts to stories in my past. But I find no motivation, no goals, no agency. It is like running on a treadmill trying to keep up, trying to please someone else, being manipulated and controlled and insulted— putting all this energy into someone else but losing your own voice and agency in the process, losing touch with your own thoughts and feelings, forgetting what your motivation and goals were in the first place. I think to be in an abusive situation is to have your story taken away from you.
I’m starting to get my voice back now, slowly. But it is still difficult, thinking of how to tell the story of how your story was taken away?