Content warning: The following text describes emotional and physical assault and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
I’m a survivor of domestic abuse.
It wasn’t just one person, either. It happened twice. The first time happened over a prolonged period of almost a decade. The second, a one–time incident that stabbed to death any happiness I could garner from my last semester of college.
I’m a survivor of violence.
Of being thrown around like a rag doll, of enduring dark marks and small scratches left on my body, quick to disappear so no one would know any better. Of being hit, of being threatened with being hit, of nails digging into the skin of my neck.
They say you learn from experience, but that’s not true when it comes to assault. I didn’t know that the first person I’d ever confided in about my decade of abuse would become the second to abuse me.
Despite what I experienced growing up, I was hesitant to consider myself a survivor. When I thought of domestic violence, I imagined a shadow figure of a man—likely an alcoholic—screaming, hitting, and hurting a woman, leaving dark bruises and black eyes that her friends would see and question. I imagined the archetype of the survivor—a woman telling her friends of her abuse and then reporting it to the police. I imagined the man going to jail, and everyone cheering as the end credits roll.
I was never and still am not that archetype. I never had long–lasting bruises. Sometimes, the abuse would be emotional: mental gymnastics that made me believe I was a terrible person. Sometimes, the abuse would be subtle: small threats, maybe a grip on my arm that was a bit too tight.
I didn’t have a resume of specific acts of violence—just a wishy–washy lifetime of fear.
Oftentimes, I would forget the incidents after they occurred. It’s difficult to remember things your brain doesn’t want you to remember.
Trying to find support for the abuse I dealt with in the spring has felt like tiptoeing across a field of land mines. I’m not ready to report my abuse, but I’m terrified someone will try to for me. I fear the pity that I receive from close friends after telling them the truth. I fear their scrutiny when I tell them I’m still talking to my abuser.
When I do speak of my abuse, I’m careful with every word, terrified that the next phrase I utter will condemn me.
Abuse isolated me from not just my closest friends, but from more distant friends, acquaintances, and potential close friends.
In the week following my assault, I didn’t go to class at all. I was confused. Outwardly, I was telling myself that I’d completely processed what happened to me and that I would be okay now that it was over. But something inside of me screamed and sobbed, chaining me to my bed.
In the month following the assault, I pulled myself away from the world without even noticing, getting agitated at small things and closed myself off to important friends. The assault acted as a brick wall. It was the biggest thing happening in my life, and I didn’t think I could open up about anything to anyone, as every thought I had linked back to the abuse.
Now, looking back, it’s easier for me to understand what happened to me. Even though I had a general support system, I didn’t feel like I had a support system specifically for my abuse. I didn’t have anyone whom I could talk to openly about it.
Since then, I’ve tried to find small bits of support to get through what happened. Immediately following the incident, I went to CAPS walk–in therapy—it was surprisingly refreshing. For some reason, I expected their judgment. I expected them to tell me to completely cut this person out of my life no questions asked and to report them. Instead, they listened and understood how complex of a situation it really was.
Healing from my abuse has truly been a process of relearning what it means to heal. Part of the battle is understanding what I actually want. A past version of myself looking at my current situation would tell me to seek justice. Get even. Report them. Cut them off. Make sure everyone in their life knows what they did.
But I don’t want justice. I just want time and support. And I want people to respect me for wanting that.
To survivors: Abuse is abuse. Do not let your abuser gaslight you into thinking otherwise. If you think you’re experiencing abuse, you are likely correct. You are not alone. However you handle what you’re going through is valid—healing isn’t linear, it isn’t obvious, and sometimes it doesn’t make sense. But that’s okay.
To everyone else: Support your friends. Understand that abuse is probably not what you think it is. It isn’t obvious. It isn’t clear. And if someone does open up to you about abuse, make sure to treat them with respect. Offer unconditional support. Understand that unless there’s an imminent threat, their decision on whether or not to report is their decision. Going through a traumatic experience can cause survivors to feel as though they lack control. Part of healing is regaining that control and journeying through the healing process in their own way.
It’s been five months since the last time I was abused. I am not perfect. I am still healing—and that is okay.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual and relationship violence regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. Both male and female providers can perform examinations, discuss testing and treatment of sexually transmissible infections, provide emergency contraception if necessary, and arrange for referrals and follow up.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 pm to 1 am), A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.
Penn Violence Prevention: 3535 Market Street, Mezzanine Level (Office Hours: 9 am – 5 pm Monday-Friday), 12-5pm Wednesdays & 12-5pm Fridays located in Penn Women’s Center (3643 Locust Walk), Read the Penn Violence Prevention resource guide.
Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention Team: A multidisciplinary team at CAPS dedicated to supporting students who have experienced sexual trauma.
Public Safety Special Services: Trained personnel offer crisis intervention, accompaniment to legal and medical proceedings, options counseling and advocacy, and linkages to other community resources.