Why Women Don’t Leave

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.

Smash the patriarchy!

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Sometimes the systems that exist in society just seem nonsensical to me.  I am bewildered on a regular basis at how poorly systems work to protect the rights of marginalized folks, children, women, trans folks,  People of Colour, Indigenous folks…I start to wonder who or what the systems do support and uphold.

I believe the answer is that they support privilege and privileged people.

When a man accused of sexual assault has his views and ideas on the situation treated as equally, if not MORE valid than those of the survivors, the system is broken.

I’m feeling angry right now and this post may be somewhat cryptic because I can’t write about everything I’m coping with until a later date.

I just wanted to say that not all opinions are equally valid.

Some opinions are based on facts, lived experience, research, expertise or some combination of these things.

Other opinions are just plain lies, untrue and not supported by anything.

Yes, you have the right to think anything you want, but you don’t necessarily have the right to state all those thoughts out loud in every circumstance.

Some opinions are actually oppression and bigotry, cleverly DISGUISED as valid opinions.

In some cases there is an absolute truth, something that exists outside of opinions and is just real.  In some cases, people only have their lived experience and they must be believed that their lived experience is valid.

But what happens when an abuser states that his lived experience, opinion and view is that he didn’t abuse anyone!?  That the survivor is seriously mentally ill and making up accusations to damage his credibility?

Who do we believe?  Where does the absolute truth lie?

I’m willing to concede that for outsiders it can be difficult to tell what is truth and what is fiction.  But when an abuser says that he didn’t abuse anyone, shouldn’t we take this with a grain of salt?

That’s not what I have observed.  In my lived experience, abusers are believed outright.  They are rarely challenged.  Their views on the situation during the time of the abuse are considered true and valid.

Survivors are doubted, questioned, berated, accused and treated like they have every motivation to lie about the abuse.  The system gaslights them and confused them, mirroring the way they have been treated by the abuser they are escaping from.

I don’t even see equity or equal treatment.   It would be easier for me to accept if the systems (police, hospital, court, child protection) viewed both the abuser and the survivor as potentially biased.    Trust no one.  Believe nothing.

But that isn’t what I see.  I see the systems used against the survivor to benefit the opinions, rights and preferences of the abuser.  I see the system used to dismantle the credibility of the survivors who are brave enough to come forward.

Why do we accept to live in a world where abusers are innocent until proven guilty, but survivors are treated as guilty of lying from the start?

I’m angry, I’m frustrated, I want to change the system.  I want to smash all the institutions I see around me and rebuild them from the ground up, grassroots style, with the input of marginalized communities highlighted and validated.

Smash  the white supremacist,  capitalist, cis-heteropatriarchy!

I’d like to see a revolution. I’d like to wake up tomorrow and build a whole new world.

The worst part of it is, that the only thing worse than a woman coming forward to speak out about sexual violence, seems to be a woman survivor advocating and agitating for changes to the systems that have continually failed her.

Silence is the enemy of change.   I’m willing to bet that the majority of “average people” out there still believe we have a justice system, police and child protection systems that are impartial and unbiased.  People speaking out and telling their stories is the only way to shatter this misconception.

I refuse to stay silent.  The systems have failed me and my family, over and over again.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty.

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I’m feeling frustrated today about how survivors of sexual violence and abuse survivors in general have to constantly justify their existence to everyone on this planet, especially to people in authority.

We have a legal system which states that perpetrators are innocent until proven guilty.

But what about survivors?  Where are our rights to be considered innocent until proven guilty?

Why is it when a survivor comes forward and says “He raped me,” she is often met with doubt, blame, judgment, disbelief and then faced with barrier after barrier to being believed and getting support?

Doesn’t this strike you as wrong?

I’m here to suggest a radical position.  Our legal system can still consider perpetrators innocent until proven guilty, while at the same time survivors can be believed, validated, treated with respect and not accused of fabricating.

It’s very unlikely that a survivor would make up claims of abuse, especially considering the lack of support and validation in our society.

A few years ago my psychiatrist told me something I’ve been thinking about this week.  During the session I had been speaking a lot about my negative self esteem, my guilt, my shame, my body hatred, my struggles with anorexia and so on.  He asked me a question “If you were guilty of committing sexual abuse how long would you go to jail for?”   I answered him “Probably I wouldn’t go to jail, and if I did it would be for less than a year.”

He looked at me and said “You’ve been punishing yourself for more than 15 years for crimes you didn’t even commit.  Even if you were as guilty as you say you feel, you would have been out of jail long ago.  Stop punishing yourself.  Even criminals wouldn’t receive a 15 year sentence!”

It was a good point and I thought about it some.  I haven’t thought about it again until this week.

Honestly, my doctor was missing something in his analysis.  Maybe survivors, myself included, would have an easier time recovering and forgiving themselves, if they did not have to spend years justifying their experience and trying to convince others that the abuse really happened.

Maybe if women weren’t labelled as crazy or mentally ill.  Maybe if police treated women who report with respect and investigated their concerns quickly, thoroughly and with dignity for the survivor.  Maybe if the legal system wasn’t founded on white patriarchy.  Maybe if sexual assault conviction rates were higher.  Maybe if sentences for assault charges took into account the amount of harm that was done to the survivor.  Maybe if our society didn’t worry about “how it will impact his career” and instead considered “how it will impact the rest of her life.”

Because make no mistake.  Sexual assault impacts people’s lives.  It is not a crime that lasts for “just a few minutes”  it lives on in people for years, maybe forever.  The impact IS that voice inside the survivor which whispers “it’s your fault, you are dirty, you should be ashamed, nobody will believe you.”

Maybe we punish ourselves because there is no other option in a society that doesn’t validate what actually happened.  Maybe we doubt ourselves because society blames the victim.

I think that a large portion of the guilt and shame carried around by people like me was caused, not just by the perpetrator, but by a set of systems which are designed to blame us.

At this point in my life, I feel I have suffered an equal amount of trauma at the hands of systems that were supposedly designed to help me, as I ever did at the hands of my abusers.   This is a part of rape culture that we need to be talking about.