Friday, January 30, 2015

I'm taking a poll

I heard a comment yesterday that made me simply cock my head and wonder, "Do people as a whole think what he just said?" No one was asking his opinion really. But now I am asking. 

In your opinion, how should a victim behave while being assaulted? Is there a right or wrong way to handle himeself/herself? Is there some skill that, if held by a victim, would stop an assault before it starts? 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Behind the facade of domestic violence

I responded to the inquiry of a work-from-home mom. I liked her immediately even though we couldn't be much more different. Tonya was educated and intelligent, but by the way she asked the interview questions, I could tell she lacked self-esteem.  "I'm not sure if this is the right way to do it," she would start, as if apologizing in advance for the way she chose to mother Jonah.

I met Jonah and his dad, Bill, the following evening. The family lived in a small subdivision, neatly nestled in a busy but affluent section of town. Their home could have been a picture from a decorator magazine. I followed Tonya to the living room where I found Jonah playing on the floor. I took my place on the carpet with him, engaging him by putting toys on my head, while his parents sat on separate leather sofas.

Tonya had decided the day before that she wanted to hire me. Something about us simply clicked. I made her feel comfortable and there was no question in her mind that I would be an excellent care taker of her little boy. I had, after all, already raised 4 boys of my own. Jonah also seemed to take to me quickly too as he laughed and giggled at my antics with his toys. It wasn't long before he was crawling up on my lap.

Bill had an air of confidence about him. Arrogance even. His questions about my background as a mother/teacher/nurse were fairly innocuous, but his tone was not that of one adult speaking to another. He did not seem to notice that I was at least 10 years his senior. Bill asked multiple choice questions of me, limiting my answers to the ones he selected, and attempting to interject humor by creating ludicrous scenarios. And then there was the way he spoke to and about his wife. At first he told her "this is your venture. You were the one that wanted to hire her" and then to me say "Did Tonya talk to you about how we....?"

At the end of the interview he stood and looked down at me saying, "You will be well paid to keep Jonah and Tonya company."

Tonya, Jonah and I developed a rapport and routine over the months that followed. I had been warned that working for a family while mom works from home can be more difficult, but I didn't find it to be hard at all. Jonah loved me and as much as he wanted his momma when he saw her, I could easily distract him and he would get over it immediately.

I very rarely saw Bill. On one occasion he came home early and stormed through the kitchen without speaking to me or Jonah. Tonya came down from her office and I told her Bill was in the bedroom. I could see the emotions of fear, shock, and confusion sweep her face at once. She told me since it was 20 minutes until the end of my shift and she was already done with work, I could just go. She tried to smile but I could see the stress.

I couldn't help to notice the family's habits as well. I noticed the massively stocked bar in the kitchen. I noticed the pair of empty wine glasses in the sink several days a week. What really stuck out was the morning a full wine glass was left on the bar. I noticed the pillow and blanket on the couch several times. And I noticed how often Tonya went away for the weekend.

I sat for them for a date night once. I got to the house just as Jonah was eating his dinner. Bill was in the kitchen with him, sipping on a Woodford Reserve. Bill pointed toward the bedroom and told me Tonya was putting on her make-up if I wanted to go talk to her. I politely declined and sat down to feed Jonah. Bill and I began to chit chat. He offered me a drink. I thanked him but said no, I don't drink when I am caring for children. Still he told me I was welcome to imbibe on anything in his collection at the bar. He then told me about a male friend of his who was staying at the house for the weekend but not joining them for dinner. "He may come home before we do, but he's only a buck fifty, so you could easily lay him out if you need to." I said nothing, but wondered, why in the world would he say that to me???

After a few moments he asked me "how long is it allowed for adults to stay out with a sitter at home?" He was not asking me how long I could stay, and I knew that. He wanted leverage for some reason. Tonya came out before I could answer, and after I complimented her Bill repeated the question. Tonya's smile vanished immediately as she turned to look at him, obviously disgusted. "I have no one at home who needs me tonight. You all stay out as long as you like."  Bill qualified my comment by another question, "So, you are saying it's ok if we go to a bar for a drink after dinner?"

"That's up to you all." I replied. "Jonah and I will be fine."

"Well, you see, Tonya has a boob issue..."

"Bill!" Tonya chided, as she was now getting her coat from the closet.

I made a comment to Jonah about playing in the bathtub and told them to have fun.  Bill poured a glass of wine and carried it to the car, and the two left, Bill driving.

Several months later Tonya told me that she had to leave the house for the weekend because Bill was hosting a bachelor party there. She made several jokes about it the week before it occurred. I showed up for work the Tuesday after the party to find the refrigerator filled, and I mean filled, with beer. She joked that when she got home on Sunday the house was clean and every candle she owned was lit. We laughed and didn't speak about it anymore.

On Friday that week I arrived and Tonya was not her chipper self. Our usual morning conversation was short, so I simply took Jonah from her and began working, and she set off toward her office. I really thought nothing of it until I turned and saw her still standing in the kitchen, lip quivering.

"Are you ok?" I asked. She shook her head, began sobbing, and ran off to the bedroom. I knew. I knew what was happening. She reemerged in a few minutes, apologized to me, and hugged and kissed Jonah on the cheek telling him "you don't need to see your momma like that."

Jonah went down for a nap very quickly after I got there. I was sitting on the couch reading a book when Tonya apologized to me again. But this time she couldn't control it. Her emotions came flooding out. And so did the truth.

At first she told me about the insults he hurls at her. She shared with me texts he sent where he called her a stupid bitch. She told me about the times his anger builds at home and he yells at both her and Jonah. She told me about the time they went to dinner with friends and she told him she needed to go home to pump soon. He yelled at her and caused a scene in the restaurant with their friends. I listened to the stories of the arguments and fighting, and all the different ways she has tried to make it better. She told me about the threats he made, the times he told her that he was going to physically hurt her.

And then I asked "Has he ever touched you?" This made her cry more. She admitted to me that he had held her by the throat against the wall, but she insisted on defending him by clarifying that he had not hit her nor left a mark.

"Tonya, are you familiar with the cycle of violence?" To my surprise, she wasn't. I pulled this graphic up on my phone and began talking about how violence escalates and how victims tend to respond. She denied that was happening and told me "There is no honeymoon phase. He never does anything for me."

As the conversation continued I picked up on certain behaviors that Tonya had not noticed. After one particular fight Bill had made a favorite meal of hers. After another one he seemed like the man she fell in love with years ago. I asked her how she reacted to those times, and then redirected her to the cycle of violence graphic. "He is doing that. I am doing that," she spoke softly as the weight of the reality set in.

And then she admitted the reason she was so upset today, the crux of the problem; she didn't want to be alone and intimate with him over the weekend. She was still angry over things that happened, in her house, over the prior weekend.

"Tonya, I'm going to ask you a tough question. Do not be embarrassed, I am not judging. I've seen and heard it all.  Has Bill ever made you do things sexually that you didn't want to do?" Again Tonya flooded the tears. She shared no details, but made it very clear that in response to his anger, in response to being called prudish, uptight, and selfish, in her state of fear;  she had engaged in sexual activities that made her uncomfortable. She did things to make him happy, to fix the situation.

I shared with Tonya another document I have on my phone, a handout from my local court on domestic violence. I went through the domestic violence statute, what it is, what her rights are, and who to call for help. Tonya then described for me the trap in which she is caught. Tonya's role as mother means she must protect Jonah. If Tonya leaves Bill, he will inevitably end up with Jonah for visitation unless she can prove he is unfit. Tonya does not believe that she has enough evidence, or enough witnesses, to provide for Jonah's safety if she leaves.

"So Tonya, if you need to prove he is guilty of DV, you need to be willing to do something very hard. Are you prepared to call the police the next time he threatens you or puts his hand on you?

It's been two weeks since Tonya confided in me. The week after her confession to me she was awkward and distant. I said nothing. I am just the nanny, and I am ok with that. On the first day of the second week I again saw the red flags. His tone was short and his words demeaning as he spoke to her before going to work. Her demeanor was timid- I knew the tension was once again building. On my arrival the second day, as she was giving me the run-down of the schedule, she rubbed her hip and asked me if I could do something not "work related;" she needed me to help her take a picture. "You have a bruise, don't you." I said.

But this time she did not cry. Today she is angry. I took the picture on my phone, and she has already set up a new, secret email account. She has plans to call the attorney and DV hotline. She is fortunate in that she is the one in control of the money. But she is still afraid.  "This is just a small bruise," she said, again minimizing the abuse. "It's not like he hit me in the face." Again I reminded her that no one, absolutely no one, has the right to leave bruises. Size is not the issue.

I planned to have Tonya meet me for lunch the following Monday. I wanted to introduce her to a friend of mine, someone who has successfully escaped the bonds of a narcissistic, abusive husband. But that would not happen. On Sunday night Bill strangled Tonya and caused her to lose consciousness.  Rather than lunch, I accompanied Tonya to the court house as she sought protection. Bill is now facing charges, including assault.

There are millions of Bills and Tonyas in this world. They are hiding in plain sight in your subdivisions and work places. They are in poverty and in multi-million dollar estates. Some statistics indicate that as many as 25% of women will experience DV. It is a complicated web, violence unlike any other, because at its root there are feelings of love, attraction, and commitment. There is no easy answer. But just like any kind of abuse the key is breaking the silence. We must say NO MORE!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

I'm sorry, but your pain makes me uncomfortable. Can you please, just quit talking about it?

Author's note- Mr.X is a pseudonym for the _____ who raped me 
when I was 6.  I can't in good conscience call him a man, and the word I want to use is inappropriate. 

If you have experienced telling someone, other than a professional, about your abuse you have likely experienced the look.  Very few friends and family, no matter how much they love you, can avoid giving you this look. It's a natural response on their part. It's a reaction. It's visceral. But it's a look of discomfort that says to the speaker, "I don't want to hear what you are saying."

I have experienced this look in many ways. The first time was the year I turned 12. It was spring; the daffodils and pear trees were in bloom. The fields that were normally being prepared for the upcoming season lay unplowed. We were not going to plant the acres of green beans and corn as we had in the years that passed. My dad had already moved out and my mom and I were moving to the city. I laid there on the hillside with my best friend, knowing it would likely be the last time we would get to watch the clouds together.

"There's something I need to tell you", I started after a long silence. "I was raped by Mr. X before we started first grade. He raped me more than once, and chased me and tried to catch me all the time for years. What do you think I should do?"

My friend was quiet for a long time. "I don't know" was her only response. I couldn't see her face, but I could feel the look.

My second experience with the look came from the 7th grade librarian. I had heard from the older kids that there was a special room in the library with books about sex in it. These books were not for circulation, but if you pretended you had questions, she would let you go in and look at them. I was already a reader and a fan of the library and talked to the librarian often. After working up the courage, and being offered a study hall I went to her and told her I'd like to research the difference between sex and rape.

Her look was a mixture of shock, fear, and pain. She stood there, tilting her head slightly, her eyebrows coming closer together, her lips moving slowly and silently as if she were repeating my words to herself. After what seemed like minutes of awkward silence and staring, the librarian lifted keys from her pocket and led me to the door, in silence.

Several weeks later I sat at the kitchen table with my mother. I repeated the same words to her I had spoken to my best friend. The lines on her forehead became more pronounced. When I asked her what to do, she laughed. "Oh, Trisha Ann, boys do things like that. I remember the boys used to pull their pants down and show us their privates while we were jumping rope."

I was shocked that mom seemingly didn't hear me. "Mom, he didn't moon me. He penetrated me, and more than once. He raped me, and that is a crime," I argued, accentuating the word crime with a hand slap on the table. My mother's tone began to more match her look. It was the beginnings of anger, and I began to feel hope. "Yes, you are right. So what if it is? We're here now and he can't hurt you."

"But mom," I continued to plead.  "If I don't call the police soon the statute of limitations may run out and I'll never get my chance."

"No, you aren't going to talk to the police. There is nothing to say." My mom's look changed, as worry began to spread over her cheeks, her respiration increasing as she turned to stand. "This conversation is over."  And so it was. She stood and left the kitchen, and we never spoke of it again.

My dad was drunk when I told him. His response was the worst ever. "Hmm. I didn't think he had it in him." My dad does not remember having that conversation.

I told friends and boyfriends. I told teachers and school counselors. All of them got the same pained look on their faces. The wrinkles on their foreheads and the shapes of their eyebrows mirrored my mother's. The silent movement of their lips, like the librarian's, all of them tongue-tied and tripping over their own hang-ups. And with 100% efficacy, all of them telling me with merely the look on their faces, "I don't want to talk about this." So we didn't.

The most pronounced disapproving look came from a nurse. I was 17 and in a psychiatric hospital after an attempted suicide. I was to write an essay about something I did or was doing that bothered me. I wrote about my promiscuity and the number of partners I had had through high school. In that essay I hypothesized that my actions were indeed tied to being raped at 6 and 14; that I acted out physically because my first exposure to sex had been violent assaults against me. I came face to face with how I allowed myself to use sex as a tool for destruction just as it was used to destroy me.

What I didn't expect was the psych nurse's reaction. She came in to my room with a look of anger on her face, her brow was beyond furrowed. Her cheeks were red and her steps hard and fast as she sat in the chair next to my position at the desk.

"This...disgusts me!" She shouted as she slammed the paper down on the desk. "we are not going to talk about this. Now write something else." And with that, she left the room.

After that, I spent years in silence. In fact, I disclosed only to two people, and not in a way to solicit help, but rather as an excuse for my inability to perform. I was still a victim.

Now I speak to people as a survivor, an over-comer even. But that look, the one on the face of the listener as I tell my story; it hasn't changed.  Brows still furrow, lines on foreheads become more pronounced. People shift their weight in their seats. Some look down, or will fiddle with something in their hands. There is often a lot of heavy sighing or clearing of the throat. I watch lips curl as a listener practices words in his or her head before speaking. The difference now is that rather than take the body language of the listener personally, I pity the listener. I understand that many, many people in this world have never had to face a monster like I, we, have. They think it is too big, too scary, too hard to face.

And it's how I know, immediately,  whether or not I'm talking to a victim.

I asked a group of college-educated professionals this question (paraphrased); why are you silent when a victim shares his/her story? The biggest answer was "I don't know what to say" with the following qualifiers:

1) I'm afraid I will say the wrong thing.
2) I don't know how to comfort (the victim)
3) I don't have time to come up with a good response, I don't want to rush a response
4) It's too personal
5) I'm busy
6) I don't want to hurt you
7) I don't want to unintentionally minimize you
8) I'm just kind of lazy

To the victim I say, tell your story. Tell it as often as you need to. I recently heard about a study that shows people who talk more frequently about a break-up actually get over it more completely. This is huge news, but nothing I didn't already know. I knew I wanted to talk about being raped. I knew I wanted someone to listen to me. It only took 36 years for it to happen.

To the listener I say, listen. There is only one thing you need to know; the victim needs to be heard and believed. There are a number of phrases you can use; I'm sorry that happened to you. It wasn't your fault. I believe you. I am angry for you.  And listener, know that the victim is watching your body language. Be honest with yourself. It's ok to allow yourself to feel the anger and pain the victim feels. And if you are really uncomfortable, just tell us. We know how hard it is to talk about. We know that the pain we feel makes you uncomfortable.

But I won't stop talking about it.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The demon of accusation

(Updated August 2016)


It's no surprise to me that the first demon I would write about would be the demon of accusation. It is the demon I seem to battle the most often. There have been long periods, months, years, where this demon has been relatively quiet. At times I fight this demon weekly, sometimes daily, even multiple times a day. As I've healed I've learned a little more about my demons. And much to my relief, I have found a battle plan that leaves this demon impotent, forced to retreat.

My most recent battle with this demon occurred on New Year's Eve. I found myself, in the heat of battle, thinking of you dear reader. I understand how, when you stand accused by this demon, you lose hope, lose confidence. This demon strikes so hard sometimes that you lose your footing in this world. On New Year's Eve I won. And I want to tell you how I won that battle.

It started out simply enough. I spent my day, New Year's Eve, doing this and that to prepare for the watching my granddaughters for the evening. My sweet grandbabies are 2 1/2 years and 3 months old. I am the mother of four, I've had multiple children in my care. Now that I'm 15+ years on the other side of raising children, I'm really not sure how I did it. But I digress.

The details of the day are unimportant and insignificant. It was a typical day with typical ups and downs. So typical that had the night not gone like it did, I would not be able to recall the downs at all. But that's how this demon operates, in the minutia of our daily lives.

Up until midnight everything was perfectly fine. The baby was a bit fussy and needed to be held a lot, but nothing really out of the ordinary. My husband and granddaughters and I had enjoyed a couple of movies, ice cream, and baths (because mammaw doesn't care how much water or bubbles you use), ring in 2015 with the neighbors' fireworks, then off to bed. Uneventful. Peaceful even.

At 2:30 am things start to go down hill. While my husband and the toddler sleep, the baby wakes up. We head off to the family room for a bottle. But then she won't go back to sleep. For an hour she is awake, looking around, smiling occasionally, but peaceful only if held. That peace ended around 4am. By then I was sleepy and wanted to go back to bed. My granddaughter did not. For an 90 minutes I tried everything I know to soothe the baby to sleep. I walked. I rocked. I patted. I sang. I pacified. I gave tylenol. I gave gas drops. I changed positions. I put her down. I picked her up. I put her in her swing. Nothing made that baby happy. Every minute her cries seem to get more intense. And as her crying escalated, so did my frustration.

This is when this demon likes to strike, when your defenses are down. I'm worn out physically and mentally. I am frustrated at not being able to help my granddaughter. I am weak.

The accusations come. I accuse my husband of not caring (about me) because he is sleeping though this and not helping me. I accuse the lady at the store of trying to cheat me out of money with her over ring. I accuse my friend of not caring (about me) because she didn't answer my question directly. I start feeling angry. I remember what I felt like as a 19 year old, alone trying to comfort a baby, my anxiety level rises and the accusations start coming quicker and from different directions, and now toward me.  I start hearing the voices of my mother, my father, even teachers from high school. You haven't accomplished anything in life. You aren't a good mother. You will never be one of those people (meaning successful). Your house is a mess. You are lazy. You are making less money now than you were in your 20's. You are a failure. That was ok, but so&so does it better. My anger swells as the baby cries louder and louder. I realize I am gritting my teeth as I get off the couch to get the baby from the swing and it hits me.....

I"m angry. Why in the world am I angry?

I'm going to go to the bible now. I beg you reader, even if you don't believe in Jesus, to hear me out. This is not about proselytizing. What I am going to tell you isn't going to convert you. But it may help you take on a new way of looking at things.

2 Corinthians 10:5....take each thought captive to obey Christ. If you are like I was some time ago you are thinking to yourself, "Great. In the heat of my battle I am supposed to have the strength to think like Jesus Christ. Right?" Well, sort of.

I'm not going to bother to pull up the scripture for this one. You probably know the story. An adulterous woman is brought to Jesus and he is asked about stoning her to death. You may or may not realize that this stunt was more about Jesus than the woman, but that doesn't matter to us here. The point is, this woman, afraid, weak, caught doing something against the law, is on the ground surrounded by angry men, waiting for death. Jesus doesn't answer at first, but when he does he tells them that the one who has never done anything wrong should throw the first stone to kill her. I imagine the woman lying there never looks up. It probably had never occurred to her that these people would be honest, that they would admit their own short comings and drop their stones and leave.

Then, and this is the cool part, Jesus says to the woman. "Where are your accusers?" I can imagine her dismay to look around and find them gone. And then Jesus says (paraphrase) "I do not accuse you either. (Go back and change your life)."

AHA! This is when it hits me square in the face. These accusations, these voices in my head that serve only to bring me down are not from God. Ok, I admit that I knew that but sometimes I'm a little thick headed. The word picture here- Jesus standing in front of a woman who was preparing herself to die for all the bad things she had done in her life, and he, God, does not accuse her of being any of those things. He is gentle with her.

And here I stand, worn out, frustrated, angry at accusers in my head, looking at my crying grandbaby, realizing that those accusations are not some sort of punishment for the bad things I've done in my life. They are not serving to make me better myself. Some of them are not even real. And the way I make these accusers go away is to take these thoughts captive. My husband would have gladly (well, that may be pushing it) gotten up with me. The poor soul at the store was really doing the best she could, technology seemed to be overwhelming her. My friend did not understand. My mother was wrong...and so on.

So in the heat of my battle with this demon, I have learned that I have to take the thoughts he places in my head captive and replace them with truth. The truth may not always be pleasant, but it will never accuse you. The truth does not seek to break you down. The truth does not compare you to others. The truth does not seek to hurt you. The truth will give you the tools you need to overcome any accusation.

Edit August 2016

I have been working with my counselor on this demon. I told her how I battle it and asked her for a specific strategy. Her assignment: make a list of qualities about me that I would not change. Easy, right?

It took 6 days before I could put one item on the list. "I am a crazy, confident, no recipe needed, top chef kind of cook." A little bit random, right? I had other ideas, but here's why this is the only one to make the official list. 

It's the only quality I have thought of so far that I know no one can deny. No one can argue and tell me no, I'm not a good cook. I am a bad-ass cook. 

I'm sure my therapist will want more to be added to the list. I've asked my husband to help. I am supposed to read this list every morning and keep it close at hand to re-read that list when I'm in a crisis. 

As I've thought about it, I think the list is a good idea. I think a number of folks, especially victims and survivors, should make their own lists. Think about it, what would you put on your list? 

I haven't been back in crisis yet to test this strategy. I will update this when I've tried it, because I know another battle with this demon will happen.