If I knew what leaving meant, I probably would have stayed.
I was naive, and I’m glad. I’m glad that I left and that I’ve been forced to fight, but nobody should have to fight this hard to be believed.
As I walked into the court house yesterday, over three years after leaving, my first step was to check with the information desk to find out what court room my matter was being heard in. I checked the list and realized that we were scheduled in a small motions room, rather than a full sized court room.
Why does that matter? Why does the size of the court room matter so much that I’m writing a blog post about it?
I rode the elevator, arrived at the correct floor and met my lawyer. My anxiety grew and grew as I thought about the room. I could feel panic starting, my body was tensing, all the preparations I’d done for the day were quickly flying out the window.
I opened the door of the courtroom just a crack and peered inside.
It was as I’d feared. A small motions room, a large conference table filled the room, with the judge’s dias at one end and a small witness box to the side. The whole room was not much bigger than an average sized dining room. A conference table, with 3 chairs along each side, spoke of mediation, settlement, concord, agreement and discussion.
All I could think about was this:
This is the reason why women don’t leave. Women don’t leave because they don’t want to spend two days, trapped in a tiny court room, sitting face to face with their abuser, unable to speak or move, except on the judge’s schedule.
What could be more triggering for a survivor of violence? Not only do I have to sit in the room with him, I have to sit in an assigned chair (no choice), I have to sit quietly (I can’t speak), I can’t stand, move or stretch to ground myself and I have to listen to various people speak about traumatic experiences in my life as if I was not there. If I react emotionally in any way, he will see me and he will have power over me. If I cry, he will have power over me. If I get angry, he will have power over me. It’s a situation of power and control and lack of options and I have no choice but to stay in it.
Luckily today I have support person with me, otherwise I feel like I wouldn’t even be able to sit in that room. Every part of me screams NO! I don’t want to go in there. I want to rebel! I want to fight! I want to yell at everyone that this system is unfair, unjust, unhealthy and re-traumatizing.
But that isn’t an option. Instead, I sit in the room. I clench my hands together as tightly as I can underneath the table. My whole body is shaking, as it does as I’m trying desperately to process trauma that is overwhelming me. I try to tremble in a way that is not noticeable, or could be interpreted as shivering from the cold. I try to breathe. I write notes and doodle continuously. I try to tune out and disassociate enough to be able to stay sitting in the room, but not so much that it’s obvious, or that I can’t stay focused. I listen to what is being said, but I try to detach myself emotionally from it. I try to put myself into a frame of mind where I’m observing someone else’s life. But it doesn’t really work.
As the day wears on, the oxygen in the room starts to disappear. I feel like I can’t breathe. I have a harder time sitting still. My leg starts to shake,. my body trembles again, almost imperceptibly. I try to fidget just a little, but in a way that doesn’t come across as anxious. I start to feel panicky, like I need to run out of the room. All my muscles start to hurt from holding them tense, from shaking, from sitting still, from being unnatural and on edge for hours at a time. The time that goes too slowly. I feel like I’m in a place where I will never escape back to reality. I’m stuck in court world, no windows, no escape, it’s own set of rules and rituals. I’m a stranger in a strange land.
And right across the table from me. Emotionally nonreactive, as if this whole ordeal is uneventful and ordinary, sits my abuser. Calm and collected and emotionally blunted. And I feel a sense of confusion. Who is this stranger?
How did we get here? It’s a blur of months and years. It’s a blur of “just get through this next few months.” It’s a blur of “just keep going for the kids.” It’s a blur of coping and surviving.
This is why women don’t leave.
Because the process of leaving doesn’t end the day she walks out the door.
Survivors need compassion when they can’t leave because it’s too hard.
They need help to leave because it’s too hard to do alone.
And they need help, patience, compassion and validation long after they leave. Because the process of leaving can be as traumatic as the relationship itself. Because it’s too hard to do alone.