Tasha lives with PTSD as a direct result of her experience with domestic violence. Before the interview began, she shared what that experience is like and wanted to inform us of what she does and what we could do to help if she had any issues come up during the interview. We felt it was important to share the realities of what the long-term effects of domestic violence can be, and how Tasha has been able to cope with her diagnosis and manage her symptoms to maintain daily function. We also wanted to share the tools Tasha has developed in partnership with her therapist, so that anyone who is coping with the same symptoms can see other ways of working through them.
I wanted to get my biggest fear out of the way. So, I live with PTSD…but I don’t like live, with PTSD, I LIVE [opens arms out wide] with PTSD. I’m F43.10—my DSM V classification, a dissociative subtype [salutes in jest]. And my biggest fear was that in some aspect of this, I would dissociate. That is, I would look glazed over and my mind is somewhere else and my body’s here. I tend to be aware of it when it’s happening and I’ve learned to become my own best advocate for talking through it, but I had a feeling, as this was a safe place, which is incredible. I was telling my husband, “Well if there’s anywhere to dissociate, this would probably be like the best place” [laughs], because you know, people will be like “It’s cool! I’m with you!” But, I knew I would be less afraid of it if I mentioned that dissociation is a thing that I live with, especially in this sort of topical realm. And if that’s the case, I know how to talk myself through it, but if you happen to catch me being glazed over and nonresponsive, you can be like “Hey, are you all there?” And then I will help myself back home. But usually I can help myself back home and I’ll know. I can kind of talk myself through it in a sidebar fashion and just returning to my breath. But, I knew that I would feel more free if I could mention that first. [Takes deep breath with hand in center of chest, moving out at the same pace of exhalation].
Why are you participating in Unconventional Apology Project?
“I’m doing this Project for my freedom and for those who can’t share their story...”
I say this is about freedom. You know, some of the worst things that I have lived through have brought me to some fairly sacred spaces where I get to hear the stories of other human beings, women and men, who have gone through violence and abuse where the details may be different from my story but we understand each other by virtue of shared experience. And I realize that we come together and tell our stories at Women’s Centers and safe spaces that are sort of off the traditional map. And I always knew that if I could be privileged enough to be healed enough to share my story, to help other people know that they are not alone, then I am duty bound to do it because it is so misunderstood, and so hard to live through, if you’re lucky enough to survive. You know? And I’m still here. I have been left to tell and I have a lot of support from my family and now my husband, who’s amazing. So I’ve always dreamed of a place to be able to share about these types of experiences about abuse. So I’m doing this Project for my freedom and for those who can’t share their story because you do have to have a certain amount of privilege to share your story [deep breath]. And I can’t believe something like this exists, but I can. It feels like a miracle that has shown up and it’s amazing that in this time and place, that the time is now where projects like this are starting to exist where we can show people who have survived abuse in a new light; an accurate light. Like there are so many men and women who’ve come before who’ve lived through this and not lived through this, who weren’t able to share. So I share for myself…I feel like I’m last on the list [smiles], I share for those who can’t share their stories. I share to speak my truth. I never dreamed there would be a space and an opportunity to share the truth of my narrative in a way that I control that is real. I’m not trying to convince the courts that the violence that happened to me really did happen. I’m not fighting anyone’s bias. I don’t carry this great burden to prove that as a victim, my voice and my account of what took place matters. So I thought, “What would that be like?” There would certainly be a lot of magic in it. I don’t think it’s too much to say I feel called upon to be here. Just like you feel called upon to do this. So there’s a magic in the universe that I believe is inside of all of us no matter what happens to us, even if we lose sight of it. And I think that it’s my responsibility to pay attention because I am still here [deep breath] and I’m very happy to be here and terribly proud [big smile].
Have you ever had the opportunity to discuss the story you are sharing with us today? What impact did it have on you?
“I have had the opportunity to share about what has happened to me [laughs] in many different ways that taught me a lot about the problematic nature of how we understand domestic violence and abuse.”
I have had the opportunity to share about what has happened to me [laughs] in many different ways that taught me a lot about the problematic nature of how we understand domestic violence and abuse. I first shared openly and completely when I made an informational police report about an instance of physical violence that my then partner had committed toward me and the way that the truth was received was illuminating in an unfortunate way. I feel like when I first openly shared what happened, because it happened and I needed to be kept safe, I learned…and I don’t like this, but I learned that telling the truth can be dangerous. It’s been 5 years since then and so much of…I mean there’s been a lot of work, but so much of the work has been trying to disconnect the idea that telling your truth is dangerous because that experience has cut me quite deeply. I have told the story to…I can’t believe I’m saying this, I have told the story to the family of the person who abused me and I learned that telling the truth could be greeted with threats of intimidation and denial of experience. And then I learned not to talk about it, which presented a new problem, because in not sharing your truth, and denying part of who you are, creates a different sort of pain and wilting of spirit, so then I became selective with who I told what parts of the abuse to depending on what was relevant. So I would sometimes tell people that I was dating, but very selectively, because they needed to know why I would freeze up or withdraw or why intimacy was so challenging. There are these things that they didn’t have the language to comprehend. There were things I didn’t have the language to comprehend and ways that I was automatically reacting. So I sort of…I would talk about it because I had to in ways that were met with confusion. And then I saw a psychologist—I’ve seen quite a few therapists, because I’ve approached this, the aftermath of abuse, and what it means to me, sort of as a scientist. I’m both the case study and the scientist [chuckles]. It’s like, “Why am I behaving the way I am? Why am I having these certain issues and how is it wrapped up in telling my truth? And what has happened to me because of telling my truth? And what does that mean to me and how in the world can I claim it so I can do more that survive out in the world but I may have the capacity for peace again, I may have the capacity for joy again? So how do I do that?” So when I started to see a therapist, it’s really the first space that was open to me to experience compassionate listening. In that space without judgment, and in that space with understanding, I started to tell the whole truth [deep breath]. Clearly, that was a great relief to me. But that was always in a private space, and yet in that private space, I found the healing that I needed for myself to navigate the next set of twists and turns for what it means to live as someone who experienced something traumatic and is still a human being. And lastly, someone once asked me in a sort of hushed tone, “Does your husband know what happened to you?” Referring to these sort of abusive experiences that I’ve lived through. And I realized that the reality that my intimate partner and I share…it’s very open, it’s very honest and my response was “Of course, he knows everything.” Because the effects are so extensive in my life still 5 years later, that I kind of need an explanation for like, "We’re watching TV and she’s dissociated or she’s crying in the bathroom again." Like, what? So, in order for us to you know, live our lives fully, I’ve had to own the whole truth of what’s happened to me and I’ve been afforded a safe place to share that with my husband. And in our relationship we’ve created a place where we can be all of our flaws and all of our good points and all of the worst things that have happened to us and the treacherous aftermath as well as these glorious human beings who want beautiful, incredible things for themselves. And I couldn’t have a successful relationship or a fulfilling relationship without that. So the story has been shared but never in a way where it was open and chosen by me, like not out of trying to survive or explain away an apparent “dysfunction” in my behavior, but in a way where I can be like, “This happened to me.” The details of your experience may be different, or you may never have had an abusive experience, and yet, we can all understand each other more, for having heard these stories that have happened. It happened. These events happened. Nobody wants them to have not happened, more than me and yet they did, so I’m the steward of this experience, you know? What do you do with this? You know?
“You know, I’ve never been asked the questions about traumatic things that have happened to me as if I am a human being.”
You know, I’ve never been asked the questions about traumatic things that have happened to me as if I am a human being. And I have only realized that right now, being asked as a human being, not as broken aftermath and not as someone who couldn’t possibly, or not as someone who is subhuman…wow. That’s quite profound my friends.
Often times we’ll hear, and this happened to me as well, often times people will say, “Oh, if you’ve been abused you have to tell your story. You have to be brave and tell your story!” And I actually think that sometimes, that can be a dangerous knee jerk reaction and that it’s much more important to remember that each person is the expert in their own experience. Each situation is unique and that is huge. And I learned that because when I told my story too early, and perhaps too generously to people who did not mean well for me, it became dangerous for my safety and my ability to continue as a human being. And that is terrifying. And so, as we are the experts in our own experience, only we will know when it’s right to share our stories. And yet, the trick is that, yes, the truth will set you free, and so another impact of telling my story has been learning that whatever it means to you, there’s great healing and great opening up of the sky in finding how to own your truth. And that looks different for everyone. And it changes overtime for everyone. I know it’s changed overtime for me. Sometimes I feel compelled to make videos about these things. About certain struggles that I’ve faced or certain aspects of living with PTSD so others can find some company along the way in their journey for figuring themselves out.
What domestic abuse experience do you want to share?
[Closes eyes, deep breath] breathing in, I know I am breathing in. [Exhale] breathing out I know I am breathing out. All day long [laughs and takes a deep breath].
It’s interesting speaking about what I wanna share from here, because I reviewed this ball entirely for necessary parties; police detectives, restraining order requests, and I’ve been unable to stop reviewing it as part of living with PTSD at times. And I always wondered what it would look like later. So it’s been 5 years from the incident I’ll describe. Because I remember I met a woman in a self-defense class one time and she was very small but the way that she fighting this behemoth of a man, it was krav maga, she was just kicking him across the room, and I saw in her what I saw in me because I was a little too good in self-defense classes. Like, it didn’t make sense, and it’s because I’ve had a life-threatening event before and that sort of governor on my head for where strength and adrenaline should leave off…I don’t wanna say it’s nonexistent, but it’s been altered [laughs]. And I saw in that woman the same thing. She was fighting with this kind of fierceness that other people in class weren’t exhibiting—this sort of super-strength. And I chatted with her after class and sure enough she had lived through a life threatening violent encounter as well and she said that she had met another woman and that woman had told her, “Don’t worry, the first ten years are the worst.” And I was about 2 years into living with myself after surviving abuse, and I thought, “The first ten years are the worst? Like, good God. Is there not a day when I’ll wake up and this won’t plague me so much?” And everyone’s story’s different and every reaction is right. And yet talking about this 5 years after with the help of a supportive family, a supportive husband and a lot of therapy, and Women’s Centers. God bless Women’s Centers and the support groups there and hearing the stories of other women, I feel like this is the first time I’ll be telling it, not living in the gropes of fear of it as if I’m re-experiencing it again, but from a place where someone did something shitty to me and I lived. And I’m a human being who lived through something traumatic [laughs] and that makes me wanna drop down onto my knees and cry and praise God or the universe of whatever it is that you feel connected to [tears], because that is incredible and I did not know that that was an option. It was always a question in my mind, “Was there ever a way that you could be free enough to not be just reliving the pain of this every single time that it either forces its way into my mind or when I have to tell someone because I’m exhibiting some sort of dysfunctional aftermath behavior, like I’m freezing up or dissociating or so on?”
“I had never been in a fight before, so I had never been punched in the face before. I just remember sitting sort of flopped there like a doll.”
So, on New Year’s Eve, I was at a New Year’s Eve party with a guy who had been my high school sweetheart and we had only gotten together casually again later. Maybe like a month, we had kind of been dating each other. And the evening went on, and I was having difficulty hearing what he was saying and so we retreated into, it was like this really nice mansion, and we retreated into this walk in closet. So we’re in the front of the house and so it was a small-ish space. And we’re having a debate, I wanted him to move to Los Angeles to be with me because I loved him so much and I was like “I love you” and he said, “You won’t love me, you’re going to leave me.” I said, “No, I love you!” That was the nature of the conversation. And then he had punched me across the face and I turned back to him. They always say you’re either gonna have a fight or flight response [laughs] or they say sometimes there’s this third freeze option. I think I did a sort of modified freeze. I froze, but I got curious. After he punched me in the face, I said, “Why would you do that?” Because I’m like espousing my love to him and then that’s when he had punched me again across the face, my head hit the back of the closet and I crumpled [sinks into her seat], like a paper doll. I had never been in a fight before, so I had never been punched in the face before. I just remember sitting sort of flopped there like a doll on the floor thinking, this is what it’s like to not be able to move your body but to still be aware of what’s happening to you. And then we had somehow retreated to the master bedroom of the house because you know; we were disruptive at that point to the frivolity of the evening. So we’re over in the master bedroom and I think this is where most of my PTSD from today came from, but an indeterminate number of hours passed where he sort of held me up in bed and was sobbing and saying, “I’m so sorry, how could I do this?” And I was just shaking the entire time. And then he said, he was holding me very tightly, while I was shaking much like a Chihuahua, just shaking and not really in possession of my ability to speak or do anything and he said, “Well, if I could do that, then, I could kill you. Like, I don’t know what’s gonna happen.” And in that state of inability to move or react or to protect myself or do anything, and finally he just fell asleep. And then it was the next day.
I continue the next couple days in a foggy state. And on the third day it’s like I woke up and I was clear. And I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve been…I think my boyfriend punched me in the face. Like, what?” I didn’t really have a lot of context for processing this. I was like “Oh, well I should report this to the police. This is what one does and I should get checked out by a medical professional.” And I got checked out by the medical professional. The time to treat me for a concussion had already passed and all they could see on the CAT Scan was evidence of a brain contusion at that point. And then I made this report to the police and that’s the first time…living with it now is hard to remember this, but that was the first time I had heard the words domestic violence…in my life as a 25 year old woman. I walked into the police station shaking. And all this time I had this good girl attitude. I was all like, “I’m gonna do the right thing. I’m going to the police station by myself” You know? And I went to the police station and I was like “Um, I think my boyfriend attacked me?” And she was like, “Ah, assault?” I was like, “Uh, I guess so.” And she was like, “Oh, well that’s a domestic violence case.” Like “Wait at the window, take a number” kind of thing. And I sat down over there and I was like, “Domestic violence? I don’t even know what that is.” And I’m a woman who’s been in school since I was 18 months old at the most advanced Montessori preschools and the most advanced programs for elementary school and I got straight As and in high school, I graduated top of my class, took all the AP courses and then I went to college and graduated with top Latin honors and I had never heard the word domestic violence mentioned once in my tour of the world. I’ve traveled to different countries, very privileged in that way, I had never heard of domestic violence, other than all of the stereotypes, I later had to live through defying and being defined by.
“…then I got the restraining order papers back from him for his side of what took place and it was completely fictional.”
I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared. I kept trying to do the right thing, like buck up you know? It was this attitude that “You can do anything,” which held me through times and also at the same time, was the most damaged by the aftermath of what had happened. I tried to take care of my abuser and even went to his family. I was production managing his recovery program from the litany of excuses that he had provided me with. This is before I learned anything about domestic violence and abusive personality types. So I did that for him [laughs]. And then I was like, “I need to get a restraining order in order to feel safe because you told me you COULD kill me in that state where I was terrified and couldn’t move, my brain encoded that forever as, “My life is being threatened and I am unable to keep myself safe.” And so all of this was going, in my perception of it, flying colors well, you know? [Salutes] getting a restraining order, report it to the police, like give me my gold star [laughs]. Which sounds ridiculous now you know? And then came the letters from his sister to my parents’ house every few days threatening me and questioning my account of what had taken place, like “Why is she doing this to my brother? She’s so slutty and was drunk that night and ridiculous and terrible.” And every time we received another letter to the house, I was just so afraid for my family’s safety. So afraid for my grandparents’ safety because he knew where they lived. And then I got the retraining order papers back from him for his side of what took place and it was completely fictional. And I had never known that that [places hand on chin and sits back in chair]…I’ll be honest it’s just [laughs], to be my own darling cliché, I didn’t think that something like that would happen to me. The only context I had was sort of a Lifetime movie plot that was written to be sooo ridiculous that someone would make up alternate events and so on and so forth. And I was able to get a restraining order at the end. And the nature of the situation was that we were able to separate our lives and I’ve never been bothered by that person since.
“…the burden of proof on the victim is very high—too high, when he didn’t have anything to lose except for the consequence of people knowing that he had behaved violently towards someone. And my experience was that my existence was on the line.“
Imagining how I would think about things then seems impossibly far away because this experience has given me a ticket to a world I would not know otherwise. Because abuse is something that affects all classes, all ages, all races, all abilities and we’re united in understanding these very specific traumatic things that can happen to people. And so then the quest began. What the hell happened? Why? I needed the language to describe these things I encountered. Why when I went to the police and I said, someone has assaulted me, and threatened my life, and whose family is badgering my family…there’s all these threats and intimidation coming from their family to mine. So what’s at stake for me is my life. Ok. And what’s at stake for him would be…the truth of what happened, so therefore, his reputation? And I couldn’t, I didn’t have any words to describe the silent nudge-nudge that I would keep running into the whole time. Because we didn’t’ have any witnesses. And the silent nudge-nudge was, in the court system in my experience, the man’s word counts more than the woman’s word. [Smiles sarcastically] Like, “Don’t you know that?” And that the burden of proof on the victim is very high—too high, when he didn’t have anything to lose except for the consequence of people knowing that he had behaved violently towards someone. And my experience was that my existence was on the line.
I had a long list of grievances after I had just tried to get a restraining order, which was like bare minimum sort of legal procedures for this and so then, because I had the privilege of being safe because of the nature of the circumstances, which were outside all of our control. My abuser was not of the stalking, aggressive personality type as some can be, as I learned in listening to the stories at the Women’s Center. I had the privilege of that not being the case and so I was left to myself to figure out what to do with this person and what had happened to myself. And so I started listening to other women’s stories, I mean other people’s stories, but there were only women at the Women’s Center, which I know is a different kind of problem. And the help of different professionals helped me find words like sexism, social injustice, racism, you know? And I realized that the more stories that I heard and the more I could practice compassion for myself and everyone involved in the situation and understanding, the stronger and more free I would become. And all along the way, there are just so many difficult things to contend with. All the unfixed challenging grey area systemic issues that are there you know? The way that people look at domestic violence victims, the mechanics of victim blaming and how does that come to be? All of these things I had never heard about before in traditional societal education systems, which in the name of survival I had to become my own expert in.
Part of me still can’t believe I’m saying it. And part of me is like why the hell not? You know what I’m saying it? But in the act of it is very like, middle fingers up, because I’ve been taught to be afraid. Oh my God, the week before the trial for retraining order, which went very quickly, it was 2 minutes in front of a judge. Between the intimidating letters and these harassing text messages, we had to block so many people from my phone. My body just started digesting itself. So in the course of about a week…I’m a medium sized person, but the weight just kept dropping. It was about 18 pounds in a week. I was just dissolving before my own eyes and I mean it was a very accurate visual representation for what was happening inside. It was like, I am like dissolving, you know?
So after this had happened, I put so much pressure on myself to be a model survivor you know? I had to be brave, I had to be on the front cover for most badass abuse survivor of all time because I didn’t have the capacity to sit with the fact that horrible things can happen [deep breath], and sometime it can’t be explained away. It wasn’t your fault and sometimes nothing makes it ok, and sometimes, women won’t know all the answers to what’s going on and so I was very eager to please this anonymous someone to show them how much better I was doing. And so I, at this point, I hadn’t learned the words for PTSD at all, which I was definitely suffering from unabatedly. So I had entered into the world. I was going to continue my career now. I gave myself 3 months at the Women’s Center [tosses hair], went to support group AND saw a counselor. [Laughs] such an overachiever, right? And then I came into the world again and back in Los Angeles, my home, and I think part of my eagerness to prove I was doing great, I had met another man…and this is the part where I feel like people check out on the story. I see it in their eyes, like, ”Oh, she’s terrible at choosing men. She was already with an abusive guy and she’s so dumb.” I see it, but that’s not this human’s story at all. I was a woman who survived a violent attack who was living with untreated, undiagnosed PTSD and I was going about my business and I appeared to be a very easy mark to someone who was like “Oh, I can sort of re-program that person because they’re sort of out there and helpless and they don’t even know it.”
I had a new partner who had sort of inserted himself in my life at that time and on my end, of course I was eager to make it look like I was back on top so to say. And what’s a measure of success but a relationship with a male in our traditional culture [laughs]? And I can look back on all of this and thank God I can look back on all of this and understand that even then, I was smart, worthy and loveable. I was a person who had untreated PTSD, but I was smart, worthy and loveable and I had nothing to prove, you know? So when you go to the Women’s Center, one of the first things that they’ll do in my experience is they’ll give you a checklist for how to identify red flags in abusers you know? And because I was being such a good student at this, I read and studied my worksheets and what have you and this man was so different from the previous abuser. The exterior dressing may have been different, but the underpinnings were the same. And eventually, his façade of being a good person could no longer out-explain the controlling behavior and the lying and the manipulation of facts and, I love that this is becoming a mainstream term…the gaslighting. And so there was one day where we were going over finances, which I became, this was a red flag from the worksheet, quickly engaged to this man as he sort of felt me starting to question what was going on. It was getting a little harder to keep up the appearance of things. So he pushed for an engagement and I was like, “This is great!” And so one day we’re going over finances and the numbers weren’t adding up. But they were just lies on paper that you could see with numbers and math, and math is truth. And for me, my love of science and math just cut through and I watched the situation do a 180 in my mind and it was very much like a light switch had turned on and I was like, “Oh, this person has an abusive personality type and has been extensively lying and controlling and violating my boundaries and inserting himself into my life way beyond where I’ve put my boundaries.” And since I had gone to the Women’s Center and heard the stories of other women, I thought, “Ok, I need to make a smart, safe exit plan for myself.” And I did. And I am twice blessed with luck of circumstances that when I made the clean break, he left me alone. And we’ve had no trouble since.
“And so I’m very proud and grateful to be alive and that’s what I see in that now. A lot of my family and friends have not caught up and it’s not my burden or duty to catch them up. I do, however, invite them to ask themselves why they need to see me in that certain light.”
But then we were left with this bigger conundrum, because it no longer fit with my model survivor picture because you know, “Oh, she made a mistake once in picking ‘bad guy.’ Well, she might be dumb, but now twice?” Now I had crossed the line of the shame, which could never be recovered from in the eyes of some family members, in the eyes of some people I would meet if I told them what had happened. And yet in my own understanding of it now, and this is so important and there’s so much freedom in it, that the one thing that will absolutely change is how you see things. I didn’t know that in the beginning. That was a questions always held in my heart. Like how is this every going to get better? I know that some things in life do tend to get better over time, but some things are so traumatic and seem completely world-ending. How do you recover from that you know? But one thing I have found to be true is the way that you see things will change. And there is some solace and truth in that. And so now I look back and I see a woman who instead of being ashamed of having a “failed engagement,” and two abusive partners in a row, which I can’t really describe the level of shame heaped upon me…I was wearing several coats. I see a smart woman who, in listening to the stories of other women, was able to identify a problematic personality type, which would’ve escalated in violence and been trickier to remove myself from had I married him or had children with him. And that is a path I was able to not choose based on hearing the experiences of other people, based on knowledge compiled at women’s centers. [Tears] and that is incredible to me. And even when I built up my own story that I had to be a model survivor, and that included marrying a successful man immediately after the bad relationship, I was able to be like, “I don’t know what I made up or why, but there’s nothing for me down that road.” And I was able to remove myself. So, I can be here to tell this story today or anyone else’s story for that matter. And in my head now, I applaud that. I find that to be brave and smart and wonderful and still privileged. I had a lot of support that made that possible. And that is not lost on me. And so I’m very proud and grateful to be alive and that’s what I see in that now. A lot of my family and friends have not caught up and it’s not my burden or duty to catch them up. I do, however, invite them to ask themselves why they need to see me in that certain light. And, I say that without judgment, because who started this whole process exactly like them without knowing it?
“So there were more women there than a typical day because there had been a football game the night before and those are nights where domestic violence incidents tend to spike in this community.”
I believe when I filed the police report, they said that I needed to get a temporary restraining order and they sort of left me at that and I left the police station. I stayed at my parents’ house at the time, so different city for me…near Modesto. I took to the internet and looked up “restraining orders,” “help with restraining orders,” “TROs (temporary restraining orders)” and up came a list of Women’s Centers that can help you for free with legal questions about these things. I believe I looked up whichever one was local to where my parents were; Haven Women’s Center. And, I walked through the doors, [sigh] heartbreaking. I walked through the doors, my mother came with me, there was a woman at the front desk, like the receptionist, “How can I help you?” And I looked all around me and there were a lot of women, mothers, all ages, sort of circulating in the halls a bit. And this was like a small building, and it kind of seemed a bit populated. And they said that Mondays are their busiest days because it was the day after a football event. I hate football. It just means something different to me. I was like, “This is the day that Women’s Centers are more full. Fuck all of you.” So there were more women there than a typical day because there had been a football game the night before and those are nights where domestic violence incidents tend to spike in this community. And I believe there was a pre-arranged time. There was like a legal clinic for women, so I came in and they were so kind to me. They weren’t trying to push me along because when I walked in I just immediately burst into tears and they gave me a clipboard and gave me a seat and I filled things out. They called me in and to fill out the restraining order paperwork from the place of being a victim…I could not process without someone’s assistance. I don’t remember the woman; she was some sort of legal aid or law student, somehow affiliated with law knowledge [laughs] and helped me fill out the temporary restraining order paperwork. Really, didn’t even just hold my hand through it, but basically like put me over her back and like carried me through it. Made sure the words were mine and it was accurate to my experience. And she was like, “No, don’t check this box because judges will frown upon it because they think that it means that you’re gonna try to get back with him, so what’s the point of protecting you?” So, don’t check the box where you think he needs to attend batterer intervention program or services. Because I thought, “Why not rehabilitate him and send him back into society a better person so this wouldn’t happen again?” And she was like, “No, this is about your safety, this isn’t about him right now and there’s a chance this could be denied if you check that box.” Just access to things I did not know. And I was just beyond devastated at that time, so post concussion, just unable to do things for myself. So they helped me first with legal paperwork. And then they said if I needed it, they would send someone to go into court with me because in order to get the restraining order, both of us would have to appear before a judge and that idea horrified me and terrified me to my bones. So they offered an advocate to go with me if I didn’t have anyone to go with me. And then they told me that they have support group meetings on certain nights and that when I was ready, they had individual counseling available because I was unable to work because I was indescribably dysfunctional. They would offer that to me at low to no cost. And there’s art therapy on Mondays. So I took care of the restraining order, my family was able to go with me because that’s my experience. But, in having the privilege of sitting around support group tables and listening to the stories of hundreds of other of women, that my case is rather unique in having the supporting and backing of my parents and this sort of group of people behind me who would show up to court with me when I went to get my restraining order because he got an attorney, so then I had to get an attorney, and my parents went with me as well as 4 of my girlfriends. Whenever I would share something like this in support group, I was met with either tears or envy or disbelief, or people were so happy for me because I had not met anyone else in my experiences sitting in those rooms, who had that kind of support. And so that’s why I LOVE the advocates that they will send to court with you.
“…those support groups were crucial to my healing…were crucial to my staying alive.”
Going to the nightly anonymous support groups had kind of a funny feeling to it. Because of the nature of what I’d been through and the need for anonymity and the need for secrecy, they sort of have to vet you before giving you the address for it or the time. And in that way, it kind of communicates something to you, that it almost feels like bad, or secret, or scary or underground, that bad things come to mind and it feels very underground because it had to be, which was another scary thing to face because it’s true, you know? So those support groups were crucial to my healing…were crucial to my staying alive. And this is something I’ll carry with me always, though the details of our stories are different, it was like we would get together and share like our recipes and home remedies for getting through nightmares or restraining order advice, or like, “I’m going to court to get custody of my kids.” Or, “What helped you?” This sort of war room for coming together for how to help each other and then just to hear about the diversity of experience and the diversity of the people themselves, and to feel like they know you better than your parents and your families and your best friends or your partners. There was a time where I couldn’t wait to go to the Women’s Center, and I loved them more than my family [tears] because my family could not understand me and could not go there with me in the ways that I needed someone to understand. The women in that room immediately got it.
“…it was the only place where I felt safe or understood, especially in the beginning. Everything else was survival until those 3 hours twice a night.”
The first time I went, there was a 70 year-old woman there and I was just verbally spilling about, “He was so nice and he was like this and then he hurt me and he lied about everything.” And she was just moved to tears and I was my own emotionally overwhelmed entity. But I looked at her and she said, “That sounds exactly like what happened to me.” And this is like a white 70 year-old probably poorer income group woman and she was like, “I know. And let me guess…” and then she could predict the rest of his behavior. And after that first time, because it was a relatively small meeting that first time, it was just 3 of us. I was like there is truth here, there is community here, there is strength here, I need this 24/7. Like, bring me here always. And it was the only place where I felt safe or understood, especially in the beginning. Everything else was survival until those 3 hours twice a night. I mean I was quite the attendee; I was always there. It’s like the women in there are family by virtue of shared experience.
I mean even women who were meth addicts were there and I felt like they knew me more, I’m not a drug user myself, and we felt like we understood each other so well. It’s embarrassing to say it, but my education and my travels did not expose me to the kinds of different women that I met at the Women’s Center that I had so much in common with you know? And that’s also where I got a lot of perspective because there were situations where people were involved in decades of abuse or their children involved or their abuser was VERY high powered and VERY wealthy and had judges on their side and there are other aspects of corruption and these women kept showing up fighting [tears]. And they’d say, “I’m just living for my children. I’m going forward.” These are odds you couldn’t write into a movie. And they’re showing up and they’re coming to the Women’s Center where they can get some support and they’re going back out you know? It’s just taught me a lot of perspective, which doesn’t do the experience justice…it “taught” me perspective? No. I saw women who would pull strength from the clouds, like out of nothing and rise as fierce goddesses and they don’t know how they’re going to feed their children that night or the partner has taken custody of the child but doesn’t even want the child, it’s just a control tactic and so now she sees her child in supervised court visits. Like, the child will pee on himself because he’s scared to death and because he’s like a pawn in this bigger scheme and just the lives affected and how people have to show up anyway because it’s what we’re given.
I want more Women’s Center expansion because I attended Women’s Center support groups nonstop for 7 months after the first incident of physical violence and after the restraining order and after I was trying to process everything that had taken place and make sense of some kind of road forward for myself. And then there was a gap in my going and then I started going again maybe last year and that was here in Los Angeles. And that’s where I met women who were 5 years out of their abusive relationships, 10 years out of their abusive relationships, 20 years out of their relationships, they were there to share their wisdom with people who were going through the things they had been through or they were trying to get some support themselves for facing the challenges that still linger, like me [laughs], so that’s why I was there. And it’s amazing the volunteers who run these like 3 hour sessions and the guy, or girl, who babysits the children of the women who come in there so they can attend the sessions, and the case managers. It’s incredible, you know? Art therapy? I processed through some of my darkest nightmares in art therapy and since it’s a women’s center, all they had were old donated magazines like scissors and paste and I did a lot of spiritual repair in those places. To this day I will send my magazines back to that Women’s Center because like someone else needs those materials. I remember something that came out of those...I mean I learned how to get rid of night terror sand flashbacks based on like stories shared with other women. In art therapy I was able to provide a framework for what this journey thing was that I was living through. And the quest was to make a road where there is none and to walk it. The magazine clippings put that together. And no I’m here and I’m a big fan of the Women’s Center. I think they’re amazing and super vital.
I was raised conservative. I don’t think I knew, it just kind of showed up. And I used to be like, “Ugh, taxes! They’re the worst! They’re taking my money.” And now I’m like, “Take all the taxes that you need to make these services that need to be taken care of for the people who are in different situations than mine because I would love for there to be 4 billion of me running the homeless shelter, running the women’s center but there’s not. So take my money so that someone will do it. Tax me all day long,” you know? It’s what I pay for not having to be there and that’s a privilege and that’s…a lot of things outside of my control made it so it’s that way. I will pay for that privilege all day long. Like I have a home - homeless shelters, my privilege for having a home.
Erica at the Women’s Center in Modesto…she was studying for her MFT and so she’s a trainee and she was a counselor there that I did my first one on one counseling sessions with. And God bless her for being on the ground level of the disaster, which was my mind and spirit. And every week she would listen and give me homework and questions to think about to help me understand what’s happened or why I feel this way and was helping me with a variety of techniques, so like to get rid of the insomnia or flashbacks or “here’s how to stay grounded.” And I didn’t know any of these things. The things that I’m now very familiar with, I didn’t know any of these things. She was the first person who taught me the word PTSD because I was quite shocked when I was there. She spoon-fed me at the speed with which I could take it. So it was only at the end where I was like, “Alright, our 16 weeks or whatever the allotted program was, our 16 sessions are done and so now I’m going back to Los Angeles because I’ve like maxed out the Women’s Center’s resources and I’m as good as I’m gonna be.” Art therapy, support group and individual counseling. And she was like, “Ok, if you wanna continue, I would tell whomever you’re proceeding with that, I would look for treatment for PTSD symptoms.” And I was like, “Ok whatever!”
And then out on my own is when I ran into a second abusive relationship of a very different nature and once I was clear and free from that… And all the while my career is doing great, so thriving at work, work is fabulous. I’m moving up, things are grand. And now I’m dating non-abusive, healthy folks that I’m meeting here and there or dodging those who make me uncomfortable. And then there was this sort of, now I recall them…PTSD symptoms that were becoming unmanageable. But then I was just more like, “I don’t know where the dials to control my reactions to things are,” and I feel like I am in someone else’s body. And I feel like before, I used to turn the steering wheel to the left and it would go left and now I try to do that and there’s like things falling off over here to the right and something else is on fire. Like, I don’t know how to operate this body that I’m moving in anymore and boy was that accurate. It’s true, I didn’t know how anymore. And I no longer processed things in a neuro-typical fashion.
“I realized what had happened was that this sort of anxiety, this sort of PTSD would get better when I made the borders of my world really small.”
And I sort of white knuckled along and tried my best and bought out the entire self-help trauma recovery sections of libraries. I was killing it. I was reading all these highfalutin academic research papers, loving it, you know? Dictionary open, peer review, you know? I tried as hard as I could and as best as I could to manage myself in my personal life. Once more, my professional life was thriving and doing great. And I realized what had happened was that this sort of anxiety, this sort of PTSD would get better when I made the borders of my world really small. I was like, “Look at me! I’m thriving!” [Pause] I can only watch one kind of television show, I can’t be exposed to any moving pictures that aren’t pre-vetted by me and are not this one TV show. And like, a lot of things scare me and I don’t go out. And I was like, “Oh wow, the world got really small.” And so anytime I tried to expand the world outward, these symptoms would become unmanageable. I’d be out of control. Things were too loud, I was hyper vigilant, well, I learned it’s called hyper vigilant. I had this exaggerated, startled response to everything. I wouldn’t perceive things correctly. I couldn’t remember things correctly. Seemingly benign things would appear threatening to me but my body would react to it in that way before my mind could even process what was happening. Sometimes I’d have entire flashbacks during a conversation and just not experience the shared reality everyone else was in. This was very isolating, very lonely and very confusing you know? Even now, I’m using words that I learned after a year and a half of therapy to be like, “This is what was happening.” It’s always been in my nature—that’s how I pick things apart and everyone’s different so we have to play to our strengths. I pick the world apart, it’s who I am you know? Someone else may express themselves artistically or someone else may be able to move on in a way I haven’t. God bless them [laughs]. I’ve always assumed I would just wake up the next morning and carry on, you know? And yet, to acknowledge the reality of things, is where we are.
And so, I met a loving partner who would then become my husband, and after we had been spending some time together and I had been in the same house as him, we started to live together. He gently pointed out some of the things that I’d learned to live with that were perhaps not the way a normal person would live, and then it was escalating, because in order to be close to someone, or to be intimate with someone or to share space with someone, that’s where all these problems would manifest themselves. Because I was trying to expand beyond my tiny bubble where I knew I could process information within that, you know? And I started to drink more, not problematically, but just cause I was scared to death all the time, so I was like, “Oh! I’m gonna drink! At least that will make me less aware of how anxious I feel.” It so happens that he’s sober, so he watched this whole thing, I wasn’t fooling anyone except for myself. I was just trying to put my head in the sand. And so he’s sort of watching me progressively, sort of like, drink in social situations, but drink hard in social situations. Once more, not problematically by social norms, but there was some serious escapism going on there. And then it progressed to the point where I would drink and then I would start acting on these suicidal ideations I was having, just because all of my carefully laid out groundwork in my fabulous pre-frontal cortex where like how I manage things and my tools and my workarounds for how to process things like everyone else around me processes them were no longer there because I would be intoxicated. That was when it was like, “Ok, it’s time to talk to someone now.” And I had an incredible psychologist who specializes in women’s issues and trauma. And she kicked my ass and was absolutely amazing.
What no longer lingers in your heart and mind about your experience? What has opened up for you as a result?
“I have great compassion because I know what it is to have anti-compassion, no self-compassion, no compassion for others, just reacting really on survival instinct.”
I no longer feel terrorized by what happened to me. I can understand all parties involved as full flawed human beings, just like I am. Not in a way that excuses what happened, but in a way where I can process and understand what happened. In processing and understanding it, it de-charged from that emotional hold it had over me. And that’s allowed me to have some fighting chance of living in the present. I no longer stay awake at night afraid that I’m going to be killed. I don’t like how that sounds, but it’s accurate. I no longer feel like I need to be other people’s picture of what a model survivor looks like. I no longer feel like I have anything to prove because someone did something bad to me. I have nothing to make up for. Ha! [Laughs] Wow.
And things I’ve gained; I have the answers to so many questions that I’ve asked myself beyond “Am I ever going to be ok again?” But, “Is this feeling of terror ever going to go away?” I mean it may have been 4 years and it may not be perfectly containable in a box as to whether it’s here or not, and yet, I have the capacity to sit with that without running to the emergency exit doors [laughs].
I trust myself more than anyone else. Not in a way where others are untrustworthy. I have just taken myself to the test and I have owned it. That’s true [laughs]. I have a tremendous capacity for compassion and empathy and I will never judge another person. Hell no! Which is interesting because at the height of my survival mode, I had no capacity for empathy because I was so busy trying to divert all my resources to staying alive, even if it was only my perception of the experience. I lived that for years. So it was like, I have great compassion because I know what it is to have anti-compassion, no self-compassion, no compassion for others, just reacting really on survival instinct, which is terrible, but a thing. I would say tremendous compassion and empathy. And for myself, like you can only give to others what you can give to yourself. And I think that’s why it took me so long. And I’m at home with being in control of only a few small variables. That’s ok with me because we’re all a part of this bigger thing, however you define that thing for each person. We’re all part of this cosmic soup. And not in a way where I would say I’m glad for what happened. That’s too simple. But, what happened has challenged me to ask myself questions I would not have asked otherwise. It has challenged me to sit with the void within myself of the very bottom of the very bottom of the very core of my person if you take everything away. Whatever is left in that space, I know it. What I found was a deep love of life when everything else was gone, even like my ability to control my body and my reactions, I knew there was this deep love of life. And I don’t think anything else would have led me to that discovery unless it was something else of a traumatic nature.
What is your definition of love and how does that love feel?
“Love is the ability to hold the space for someone no matter what they need.”
I never wanted it to be true, but I think it’s true, when you know the opposite of something, like for me, the opposite of love would be complete fear. And fear and I are such intimate companions. We know each other so well that I have a great respect and love for love. Love is the ability to hold the space for someone no matter what they need. Love allows you to accept someone’s best qualities as well as their flaws. Love is [deep breath]…love is saying “Dear one. I see you and I am here for you and I appreciate you.” And I can tell you; love feels like a warm and safe place and also like a wide-open horizon. Hell yes! [Laughs].
What does leaving a Trail of Existence mean to you?
“…my reason for living when I didn’t have another one.”
There’s so much power in the ability to say, “I am here,” and in the ability to say “I was here.” As human beings, it’s so important, especially for abuse survivors where the truth is often denied, or worse, weaponized against us; there’s so much light in having a Trail of Existence because no matter what anyone does to you or says to you, what happened, happened. None of us change that no matter what narrative a person puts on it or tries to take it from you and use it for their own purposes. A Trail of Existence is what I would rail against the universe for in the beginning of this post-trauma journey, because I had no idea where to go from here. At the time, and the resources I had access to outside of the Women’s Center and support groups, I felt like I didn’t have any road maps for how to get through this. Of all the self-help books I consumed, there were some extrapolations here and there, but they were miniscule but I needed a roadmap. I needed a succession of steps. I needed some stories, some long-term stories. I needed to know what this looked like 6 months out, a year out, 5 years out, 10 years out; “Tell me, 40 years out, does it get better?”
I talked about hearing the stories at the Women’s Center and a lot of the women were like, “I’m only living for my children. I’m only fighting for my children.” And I remember sitting there, first of all, having so much respect for their battle and for their story, but also thinking, “I’m just me,” you know? “I’m a young, then unmarried woman, no children. So, who do I live for? Well there’s me, but I don’t recognize myself.” I mean there’s some pieces that when I unglue them, they no longer resemble the person before and I’m not particularly enjoying how they look put back together in this sort of way and I don’t really understand myself.
So the thing that I lived for was to make a road where there was none, and to take it, but to leave trail markers as I went, so not that someone else had to take my same road, but that they knew a road was possible and that there are like little avenues out here. Like, “You can take that road over there,” you know? Or like, “Make your own path over here. But a path can be made, and here are some that others have made. At least, here’s the one that I’ve made. It may not work for you; you may get some ideas from it. You could walk the exact same footsteps if it feels right to you, but there’s so much energy in these seeds of pain that they had to be transformed into something greater. Then what are you going to do except for document this trail that you made from nothing, because we’re privileged enough to be alive. So, a Trail of Existence is home. The Trail of Existence is hope. The Trail of Existence is our communal record, you know? It’s our resource for each other to draw on. And it was also my reason for living when I didn’t have another one.
When we’d sit around the table at support group, no matter where folks were in their respective journeys, all of us would start to kind of complain, like “Where are the stories? Where are the examples? Like, what are we supposed to do? I’m out of this relationship.” Or, “I’m still tethered by custody in different ways.” Like, “I can’t sleep at night. I feel worthless. I don’t know how to do all my finances ‘cause he had all the control over it.” The stories were all different, but we were all like, “Where’s the guidebook?” You know? And I’ve read a lot of the guidebooks, but I’m still looking for a map to follow, you know?
Do you have any parting thoughts?
“I’ll always be surprised at the amount of shamed heaped onto domestic violence survivors at every turn, subtly and overtly.”
I’ll always be surprised at the amount of shamed heaped onto domestic violence survivors at every turn, subtly and overtly. It’s difficult for me to quantify or even process all of it. And so something I would really love to say is, don’t let it inside of your head. Don’t let the idea that there is any part of you that is shameful or unworthy of love take root. And if it has happened and you are feeling ashamed, that is completely natural given how we currently treat our domestic violence survivors. So you didn’t do anything wrong, but there’s always an open invitation to you in this present moment to begin anew. Do it for yourself. Do it for me, please. I may not know you, but I believe you [tears] and I love you and I trust you as the expert in your own experience and I’m asking you to find out how to let go of any iota of shame that has been heaped upon you. There’s nothing about any one of shared experience that is shameful, no. It’s just not true.
In these cases, you are the expert in your own experience. That’s okay. You are the expert in your own experience. No experience of situation is exactly the same. That can be uncomfortable. That is okay. We’re not alone. There are SO many of us. There are so many of us, that someone’s gonna share aspects of your story that you relate to whether you know it or not. You may see someone in this Project, where you’re like, “That’s me!” [Laughs]. The thing is, we’re all you. We are all you. I am you and you are me. And that is incontrovertibly true and I hope that plants a seed inside of survivors that’s like, “I can begin anew. This part of me is unashamed.” Because I’m not ashamed. I know the truth about you and it’s good.
My own question that I’ve asked myself is, “Does it get better? Can I live a normal life again?” I mean these things used to keep me up at night. And I’m a thinker so, it would just get a little out of control [laughs]. The answer from someone of shared experience; and our details may not be the same, but in certain ways, we know each other, and the answer is, yes. Time will continue and in time, you will better understand how to navigate what’s around you. All of the possibilities are there for you and you’ll see them, again, in your own time in your own way. And that is okay. That is okay.
If anyone’s told you you’re damaged [sings and laughs], they’re wrong! We are altered by life, but there’s nothing about you that’s irreparable. I’m realizing these are all the things I would have loved to have heard someone tell me in the beginning or, hell, along the way would’ve been great too [laughs]. You can begin anew as many times as you need to. There is no model survivor. There is no one way you’re supposed to look or behave. All we are, are human beings that something bad happened to and we can, if it feels right to each person because everyone has their own life, we can have our own part in shaping the world to become a place that is more likely to treat us as the humans that we are. And in a way, we’re lucky because we’re living in a time where domestic violence is a phrase, where there are women’s centers, so we’re benefitting from these pioneers who have come before us. And like I said, this isn’t okay, we’re going to help those who are here now and who will come after us. There are people on our side, you know? And one day, there won’t be any sides anymore, there will just be one human family and by working on living a meaningful life, whatever that means to anyone for themselves, brings us closer to that. I think just existing as a whole human being. Existing unashamed, existing in whatever way feels right to you. And this present time feels like an act of rebellion a little bit. And it’s beautiful. And that is okay.
I think that an accurate picture of domestic violence survivors would be courageous and badass because the things that you have to face and the sort of hurts and violations done to you by those closest to you requires a certain strength and perseverance that is super human. So like if you’re here? If there is still breath in your body, I would just hope that we can find ways to love ourselves in this moment. Because we are so fiercely loveable and so fiercely deserving. Words like fiercely deserving, badass and courageous are words that I know from my own experience in my own life and listening to the stories of others with shared experience, these are the words that are accurate to describe domestic violence survivors. And we are all of you. You work with us, you love us, or you are us. We’re there. And I am very excited to be alive right now.
And I’ll tell this to myself too, it’s okay to love the unsolved parts of yourself and the challenges. Like, I’m still working on expressing negative emotions in my private life. Because a fear of violence [pulls her hands into her chest], has made me a very pleasant pleaser of things. Like, I will make anything look lovely out of self-protection, for example, or, just taking up space. Taking up space because as a human it’s alright to take up space and to exist. These are still challenges for me and whenever I overcome challenges, it’s been my experience that I find new ones. These challenges are unique to surviving violence and to facing the stigma that is faced by abuse survivors and that’s ok. It’s ok the love the unsolved parts of yourself, right now, exactly as we are, you know? It goes back to the, “There is no model survivor.” You are the model survivor [laughs]. Exactly as you are.
“I used to think that my story of abuse wasn’t enough to justify how much it wrecked my world.”
I used to think that my story of abuse wasn’t enough to justify how much it wrecked my world. So I felt unworthy. I felt like, because I had heard stories of abuse, which by using traditional methods of society were “worse” than mine. For example, you were closer to death or it took place more repeatedly, or it was a more insidious form of physical violence, usually. I felt like the abuse that happened to me wasn’t enough to justify the amount of struggle I’ve lived with since then. And I think, the most problematic part was that thinking. There’s no one picture of abuse, all abuse has its affects because it’s unnatural and it’s against humanity. So shortcut what I did in terms of beating myself up or feeling like I didn’t deserve help because what happened to me wasn’t bad enough. What happened to you is bad enough. It shouldn’t have happened to anyone. It’s not ok to treat human beings that way. Just because what happened to you may not fit someone else’s picture of what abuse is, that’s irrelevant. So whatever kind of reaction you’re having is relevant because it’s yours. And there’s no criteria other than the fact that it’s something you’re experiencing. I sometimes know that, but I always am more empowered and centered when I return to it. I used to think I was weak or stupid or flawed because I developed PTSD, but so too, I’ve seen people feel inadequate because they didn’t develop PTSD. So there is no right or wrong reaction to something that is abnormal. I just hope that you/we can find the courage sit with what we’re facing and take it apart, you know? Understand it in a way that feels right to us so that you can live a life that has the capacity for peace and has the capacity for joy. I feel like I’m just getting there, but know I know that you can get there because I have gotten myself there and like put a flag in the ground and like “Well, that’s possible.” And that’s why there’s so much power in seeking out the stories of others because there’s little flags of “That’s possible,” all around you. I’m like, “Oh!” It’s magical. There’s magic in your story. Don’t judge it. It’s just what it is and it gets to occupy that space.