When I look at myself in the mirror on a good day, I can console myself with the knowledge that I have earned every single wrinkle and bag because I am a survivor. On a bad day, I see my metaphorical scarlet letter, “S” for shame, prominently displayed on my forehead.
Most days, even the word “survivor” doesn’t sit well with me. A survivor implies strength. A survivor implies courage. Can I accept those accolades? How can I feel courageous when I feel as if I am the one to blame?
Like so many survivors of divorce and domestic violence, the fatal allure of self-blame is hard to escape. Despite guidance from my support group and knowing deep down in my heart that it isn’t true, I still hear the nagging whispers of blame and shame. And understandably so.
Domestic Violence: a Societal Ill, An Injustice, a Cultural Failing
This voice developed from the familiar chorus of well-meaning acquaintances, law enforcement, and the legal system. Anthems of “he was such a nice guy,” “why didn’t you see the red flags,” “well, there are 3 sides to every story,” and “both parents have issues” drown out voices of peace and comfort.
And my ex-husband was masterful at finding me guilty for the most absurd infractions, leaving me to wallow alone in my misery.
Blame and shame quickly became my new best friends.
But blame and shame have no room in a life that is repairing, restoring, and reclaiming itself. I reached out to friends and family desperately seeking answers to my questioning of where I went wrong. One response appealed to my rational side.
This came from my uncle who is the closest person, genetically and emotionally, to my own deceased father. It was in one of his text messages that I felt the comforting words that my own father could have said.
He reaffirmed that I had done absolutely nothing to deserve this and that neither misjudgment nor poor self-image brought the abuse upon me. He said the blame rests on the ignorance of male chauvinism that pervades many cultures.
The gravity of this statement did not go unnoticed. This issue was larger than any single relationship. It affected each and every woman. With my uncle’s words, the “S” on my forehead was starting to fade.
My personal shame faded away as incensement rose to the foreground. I realized that all women potentially faced a fate similar to mine, even my young daughter. This was a societal ill, an injustice, a cultural failing that allowed the undercurrent of misogyny to survive.
These beliefs infiltrated our communities, popular culture, and our homes.
I started to finally give myself permission to focus on impacting the future instead of second-guessing the past.
Slowly, the tired phrases of self-blame were replaced with the acknowledgment that I did not make a mistake when I married my ex, that he wasn’t a nice guy, and that in abuse, truth is the only side to the story. I could finally tell myself that this mess was not my fault.
The difference was this time I believed it. The “S” was almost unnoticeable now. As in The Scarlet Letter, “She did not know the weight until she felt her freedom.” I never realized how much shame was holding me back.
We are not drawn to our abusers.
They exist because our current culture makes it very easy for them. And it’s time we make it harder. It’s time we shift our culture from that of a hierarchy to that of equal members of the same team.
It’s time that from an early age, males and females learn to respect each other at home, school, and work. My heart is full of hope for the future, but I understand that it will not come easily. We have a power within us that our abusers underestimated.
But first, we must free ourselves of the burden of shame and realize that we are survivors.
And so, when I look in the mirror today, I see a woman who has triumphed. And my face is not the only reflection I see. I see the millions of women who have suffered and prevailed.
Their story is my story.
Their struggle is your struggle.
And best of all, their victory is for all of us.