I spent some time today in discussion with a group of fellow mental health professionals, all from the non-government sector. Somehow, in conversation, we got onto the topic of domestic violence, and why women stay.
I spend a lot of time thinking about domestic violence and it takes a lot of energy to deal with its ongoing impact on my life, but it’s not a topic I’m comfortable discussing as an abstract – it’s still a little too close to the bone for me to hold any sense of equanimity. I especially hate the why doesn’t she just leave question. Because sometimes it’s motivated by genuine curiosity, an authentic desire to understand something almost impossible to understand from an outsider’s perspective. Often though, it’s motivated by a desire to minimise the reality of captivity and brutality occurring in our very own country, under our very own noses. It’s a short step from well, why doesn’t she just leave to she’s colluding in her own abuse, and an even shorter step from that to victim-blaming – which in turn makes it easy to dismiss the idea of domestic violence as something that we as a society don’t have to deal with.
Although maybe that’s just my cynicism.
It always makes me think, though: why did I stay? Why did I put so much time and energy, so much of myself, into a relationship of captivity and domination and abuse? Why did I give the years of my twenties to a man who was unable to let me live outside the confines of his own needs? Why did I let one person have such a huge and ongoing impact on me – not only on my life, but on who I am?
A long time ago, I worked in homeless outreach. I’d walk – unsupported by colleagues or workplace health and safety requirements – into parks and squats, under bridges, and into boarding houses so filthy that even vermin would hesitate to enter. Partly it was because in working with the homeless, I’d entered a community of rough sleepers, mostly indigenous, who sought to protect their “little white sister” – a huge honour. But also, I knew that I could handle myself. I wasn’t afraid.
I’ve gone from that to what I am now: I flinch at a hand near my face; I cringe at the sound of angry voices and when anger is directed, even peripherally, at me I feel myself becoming smaller. I’ve gone from fearless to fearful; from upright to cringing.
It’s something I don’t like about myself and it’s something I hate about what was done to me. And I’ve had to ask the question: why did I stay? Why did a strong, capable, resourceful, intelligent woman continue as a captive for so many years?
The answer can’t fix things. It can only add to my understanding. And it’s only in understanding that I can forgive.