Thursday, October 11, 2012

Domestic Violence Awareness Month -Why Do Victims Stay?

* In light of the recent news headlines regarding Domestic Violence and well-known athletes, and with the hope of shedding a bit more understanding into the victim's mindset, I offer this blog.

In October, three causes all deserve our attention - Breast Cancer Awareness, Anti-Bullying Awareness, and Domestic Violence Awareness.  It strikes me that all three share a common theme - individuals are fighting for their lives. So, I think it is fitting that they share the attention collectively.  Hopefully, each one will shine a light onto the importance of the others.

Over twenty years ago, I interned at a Battered Women's Center in the Bay Area of Northern California.  This was part of my pre-degree hours required to obtain my Masters in Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling. Because I knew I wanted to specialize in the areas of abuse and trauma, I eagerly anticipated this learning experience.  Before I could begin interning at the Shelter or at the Counseling Center, I was required to attend a 40 hour training on Domestic Violence. On the first day of class, what I was about to learn would completely alter a common perception of Domestic Violence victims.

After registering and getting acquainted with the requirements and responsibilities of the class, the first workshop facilitator approached the front of the room.  With our  note-paper and pens in hand, the instructor faced us directly and spoke:

     I want you all to think of a friendship that you knew needed to end, but you kept it going.   I want you to think of a job that you really disliked and wasn't getting you anywhere, but you did not quit.  I want you to think of a club, a team, or an organization that you no longer wanted to be a part of..that you were tired of or didn't agree with, but you stayed. I want you to think of a place that you so longed to move to and actually had the opportunity to do so, but then, you gave up on the idea. I want you to think of someone or something that you strongly believed in only to find out it was a lie, but you continued to invest into it or them.  I want you to think of any commitment to anyone or anything that you vowed you would discontinue, and you remained in that situation much longer that you ever wanted to or anticipated...  

   And then she added,

     I want you to think about this for the next twenty minutes.  As you are doing so, I want you to write down every reason you stayed in the relationship or in that circumstance...  And, I want you to write down how you felt about staying in those situations or relationships.

The room was silent save for the noise of the pens and pencils racing across the sheets of paper. At the end of twenty minutes, the teacher asked us to bring our attention back up to her.  With her black marker in hand, she asked us to begin reading off our responses.  As we related them, she began filling the white-erase board.

     I was afraid he would get mad....  I had no other job to go to....  I needed the money... I was ashamed... I didn't know anyone who would help me....  I didn't want to disappoint my family and friends.... I was afraid of what others would think of me....  I didn't know if I could make it on my own.... I was alone and being with her was better than being alone.... I didn't know where to go next...  I believed that I had to stay - that is what I was taught... I felt I was just being weak...  I thought things would get better... I was embarrassed...  He promised things would change....  I thought something was wrong with me... I thought that if I stuck it out, I might eventually be able to leave on my own terms... I felt I was nothing...

For the next half hour, the "reasons" flowed from the mouths of the interns and the scribbles filled the entire board. With each new reason came added awareness and insight into the lives of Domestic Violence victims. The heaviness in the room lifted like a thick fog dissipating, allowing the rays of understanding to settle within us. And I could sense our collective commitment to this cause move through us and motivate us all to further our knowledge and to guide us in our work ahead...  

As I left the classroom at the end of the day, one thought  permeated my being - for the victims of Domestic Violence, it was never a question of not wanting to leave - it was a matter of needing to survive.

With that truth embedded in my being, I embraced a new and hope-filled focus. I began my work at the Shelter the following week.   

Needing to survive.

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