“It was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had in my life. We talked. We shared. We hugged. We entered into an unspoken sisterhood. They have forever changed my life.”
I can still vividly remember walking up to Bolton Refuge House’s front doors feeling as though my stomach was in my throat. I had never shared my experiences with a room full of strangers before. I was feeling exposed and vulnerable. I had no idea what to expect.
I read my speech to them as I would read it during the annual gala. There were times it felt like I was simply reading words off of a page as though it were someone else’s story. Other times the emotions came flooding back and I felt physically ill, but pushed through. At the end, nearly every committee member was in tears. For the first time since my marriage, I felt as though I was no longer grieving alone. These people – whom I had never seen before, felt my pain and just sat in this moment with me. They didn’t tell me not to feel defeated. They didn’t ask why I stayed for so long. Instead, they sat in this completely silent room with me, tears streaming down their faces. It felt like an honorary moment of silence for me. Despite just revealing the darkest moments of my life, I felt strong in their presence.
I went all out for the gala. I bought a new dress and had my hair and makeup professionally done. I knew this was going to be a big moment for me, but could never begin to comprehend its impact on my life. When it was my turn to take the stage, my heart felt like it would race right out of my chest. I stood on this stage alone, looking at the faces of a hundred strangers, knowing they were about to get to know me on a level not even the closest people in my life knew me on.
I began my speech. It was completely different then when I had read it in front of the gala committee. I felt connected to every word. My body mentally, emotionally and physically declared every part of this story mine. I was able to stand in front of everyone and say out loud, “This happened to me.” This time however, I was able to say it without guilt and self-blame. I owned my story and every single piece of heartbreak I endured to become a survivor. At the end of my speech, I received a standing ovation. It felt incredible to be amongst people who lifted me up when I had blamed myself for so long.
I distinctly remember a man approaching me afterwards and asking me what men can do to help. I was completely taken aback by his question. It was usually other women who talked about prevention and support. Yet here was a man, wanting to hold his own gender accountable for their actions. The moment men joined the domestic abuse and sexual assault conversation, the platform forever changed. I told him the most important thing men can do is believe us. Hear what we are saying and don’t ask us what we were wearing, if we were drinking or if we made a situation worse by saying or doing something. Believe us and understand our intrinsic worth. No human deserves to have their body violated sexually or physically. A short skirt or a wink is not a “yes.” A “yes” is a “yes.” Calling a partner out for their behavior does not deserve retaliation through a choke or a punch. It is our right to have opinions and refuse.
The second thing I told him was that men should hold other men accountable. If you see or hear about physical, mental, emotional or sexual abuse, call other men out on it. Don’t make excuses for them. Don’t minimize what happened by saying it was out of character or something that happened in the heat of the moment. That “moment” of being out of character or “emotionally charged” forever changed their victim’s life. The catastrophic consequences of their actions cannot be explained away. We need to take a united stand that this behavior is not acceptable.
What I wasn’t prepared for was being approached by other victims and survivors afterwards. These women, these incredibly strong and beautiful women stood before me, a complete stranger, and shared parts of their stories with me. Some had been out of the relationship for years. Some had only been out for a couple of days. Some were still in the midst of it all. We had never met or exchanged words before these moments, yet we shared this intense, unexplainable bond and complete authentic acceptance of one another. It was as though our souls reached out to each other and said, “I know.” It was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had in my life. We talked. We shared. We hugged. We entered into an unspoken sisterhood. They have forever changed my life.
A few days after my speech I cried for a long time. I cried knowing so many other women went through what I had gone through. I cried over the fact that we had to share this sisterhood at all. I cried for them and I cried with them. At first I wanted to take away their pain. Then I remembered how much stronger my pain made me. It was at that moment I decided to reach out my hand and wrap my fingers around theirs. I vowed to hold on even tighter when they decided to let go. I knew that together we could reach the summit – and then go back for more.
Photo: Flickr – Juan_Alvaro