There are moments, lots of small moments in my life, where I feel divided from real people. People who haven’t been through domestic violence. People whose experience of fear is limited to “what if” conversations, or discovering a spider on their bedroom wall (not that I’m minimising the terror inspired by eight-legged housemates). People who don’t get panic attacks, or start violently when someone touches them from behind. People who don’t need to have their backs to a wall when they go to a cafe, people for whom a knife is something you use to cut meat or vegetables.
Today I got talking to an acquaintance about head injuries and concussion after her son’s football injury. Without thought (always a mistake: opening one’s mouth without thinking through what’s about to be said) I made reference to “the times I’ve had concussions over the years” – which of course led to the What Happened To You? question. Refusing to answer a question creates a vacuum of speculation – but answering the question honestly (“I had a pretty nasty ex”) made her face close up. I watched her regret asking the question, and for a moment I regretted answering it. Because despite the frightening prevalence of domestic violence in this country, most people will never be attacked in their own home. Most people get concussions from sports, or falls, or car accidents, or from braining themselves on ladders or overhanging shelves – not from violent and terrifying assaults. And I can’t help feeling guilty when I say something that makes real people carry even a small part of the burden of what happened to me.
And yet, there’s an integrity and graciousness (I think) in telling the truth. It’s being true to my own story, my own experience. I’m not going to be ashamed, I’m not going to hide this part of my past – although I’m not going to flaunt it either. I’m not going to splash it around every conversation I have, not going to burden every person I come into contact with. But I am learning not to be ashamed of it, and I am learning to trust people with it.
I’m learning that it’s not a sordid secret. Because it was a sordid secret for far too long. And it’s only in speaking up – in saying, aloud, that it’s not a sordid secret – that I can keep it from destroying me. It might be selfish, but maybe in this, real people will just have to cope. And I kind of suspect that most of them are actually pretty happy to help.