What it really means to honor someone

Something to think about:

Lately I have, for whatever reason, overheard people with injuries in conversations joking about being a victim of domestic violence. Examples of what I’m referring to include something similar to the following statements:

•Woman who broke her tooth playing softball: “I’ve been telling my husband he better behave or I’ll start telling people that he’s the one who knocked my tooth out!”

•Man who busted lip falling down the stairs: “I busted my lip falling down the stairs but since that’s an embarrassing story I’m just gonna start telling people my wife did it!”

•Woman who has bruise on her leg from a slipping on the wet kitchen floor. “I’m telling everybody that Tom (husband) did it, just because it’s so much funnier.”

Most of these statements, when made, are followed by laughter. Which is to be expected, because THEY ARE JOKES. They are intended 100% to be funny. It is funny, after all, to joke about your spouse doing something he or she would never do in real life.

The only problem with this is that it’s actually the extreme opposite of funny for those who have experienced this in real life.

Make no mistake. Domestic violence is one of the worst forms of trauma any individual can go through. Trauma is trauma in all forms, and I’ve never been a fan of making judgments around which traumas are “worse” than others. However, we know, through research, that trauma experienced from domestic violence is awful and insidious in its long term effects on entire family units.

This particular kind of trauma is one that I feel I need to try and speak about because, as some of you who read this blog may know, I was in a relationship where I experienced domestic violence for ten years.

So, as you can imagine, when I overhear these conversations in real life, or when I see jokes on social media about this, I want to say something BADLY to confront the person making a joke. I want them to know that when you joke about domestic violence, it does two things:

  • It normalizes it.
  • It continues to perpetuate the cycle of victims not speaking up. If it’s a joke, why speak up? Maybe it’s not that bad, etc.

And let me tell you, there are people RIGHT NOW in your life who are going through this and you have no idea. People who experience this often become experts at hiding their shame.

But back to the moment when I want to SAY these things. I want to speak up, to use my voice, to be an advocate. But without fail, the same thing happens: I freeze. I want to speak the words or type the words in a message in a way that lovingly confronts, without inflicting too much judgment on the person whose intentions are typically benign, but I FREEZE. The words do not come, I feel a pit in my stomach, and I withdraw.

And then I start to think something along the lines of, “I can’t be that person that shares something, because everyone will think I’m overly sensitive since I’m the one who went through it. Maybe they won’t even believe me?”

(There is not a worse feeling for those who have experienced trauma than feeling like others don’t believe you. Experiencing that feeling is almost as bad as actually remembering the trauma.)

But back to me freezing up: perhaps this feeling that I’m scared to speak up is similar to or a small percentage of what people of color or women feel when they are in a situation where they are witnessing or experiencing racism or sexism and they don’t want to speak up because they feel that people will label them as “overly sensitive” or “making a big deal” when they, in fact, are EXPERTS on racism or sexism because of what they have experienced and so all the other people who have not experienced it need to simply sit down, close their mouths, and listen to them share their knowledge and experiences.

When you are victim of something, you naturally begin to study that very thing that has hurt you. You recognize it, you internalize it, and you SEE it and feel it and take it seriously. Because you know the ill, systemic effects of this awful thing becoming NORMALIZED and not taken seriously or even dehumanized.

That thing that we went through that broke our hearts–THAT THING is something we become an expert on. And it is not okay for anyone to take our expertise away from us.

Everyone has “a thing.” Some of us are blessed with more than one. But if a subject comes up that’s not “your thing,” your job is simple: close your mouth and listen to the people who went through “the thing” if they feel comfortable sharing. Because those people are COURAGEOUS and your only job is to listen. Don’t start talking about someone you know who went through “the same thing.” Nope. Don’t do it. Not your moment. The only job you have in that pivotal moment is to listen.

And then, once you know a little bit more, you can become an ally to people who went through that thing, and start speaking up to honor their pain. Because you didn’t have to go through the pain, trauma, and suffering of that thing–somebody else did. Your job, after you have listened, is to confront traumatic experiences being joked about, not taken seriously, and dehumanized. Confront it-speak up. Have courage. Remember, you didn’t have to go through that thing–it may be easier for you to speak up than someone who did.

So why is it that our culture doesn’t understand this? I don’t know. I truly don’t understand. Racism, domestic violence, sexism, and other kinds of trauma are not funny at all. And if a joke is being made, the only people who truly have a right to joke about it if they so feel inclined is THE PERSON WHO WENT THROUGH THAT THING.

When I think back to some of the experiences I had when I was in my ten year relationship where I experienced abuse–both emotional and physical–one of the themes I see in those experiences is that I felt ashamed. I felt broken. I felt confused. I felt completely discombobulated. No one enters an abusive relationship thinking they are going to be abused. And yet, here they are. And it’s a living death. I had arrived at a point where I was emotionally dead, disassociated from those around me. By the grace of God, the birth of my child, somehow slapped me into taking a step into walking away.

However others are not so lucky. Some people have died from the abuse. Some have simply never left. Others are still in denial and won’t speak about it to anyone. It is for those people, and not for me, that I ask that you say something when you hear someone joke about trauma. Think of it as honoring those who cannot speak–either because it’s too painful or they physically are not even alive anymore to speak about it. This goes for all kinds of trauma–racism, sexism, bullying, neglect, refugee trauma, etc. Honor those who cannot speak. Because you can.

And here’s a photo below of the aforementioned slap that woke me up and gave me courage to take a step. I will never forget how lucky I am for doing a thing I didn’t think I could ever do. For I am no better nor more smarter than anyone else. There are many things I will draw a line on in the sand, but this is not one of them: some people leave abuse and others don’t. No one is better or smarter than anyone else. I do not know why I have been given this gift of a second chance. It’s like similar to being the person who walks away from a car crash, still alive, while others are seriously injured, or worse, deceased.

May the thing that broke you open give you an awareness and love and empathy for others. May it give you strength to do hard things. May you feel heard when you want to speak up.

The Cave

When you decide to walk through the dark caves, searching for light, you may eventually find that you ARE the light.

On a sunny day in April of the year 2006, I woke up in a cave.

My body was aching and asking me to pay attention to it. But I didn’t, and I went to work anyways. I felt nauseated and weak. I went to the school nurse’s office and she took my temperature. It was 102 degrees. My principal told me to go home.

As I was walking out of the building, a colleague stopped me. I told her I was very sick. She said she would pray for me, and I asked her how she was doing, as I was getting into my car, and she paused to tell me she was feeling sad. Why? I asked her. She then told me that her sister-in-law was filing for divorce because her husband was having an affair. When I asked how she knew he was having an affair, she said, “He was often out late at night, came home drunk, and made excuses about feeling depressed and needing time with his friends.”

In my fogged-up, feverish state, I told her I was so sorry about her sister in law and that I would hopefully see her Monday and we could chat more.

As I was driving away, the pit in my stomach abruptly felt as if it were bottoming out. I was no longer nauseous. I was STARVING. I am embarrassed to say I drove through a Culver’s drivethru and ordered a big, greasy cheeseburger. I went home and devoured it and took Tylenol and went to sleep.

As I drifted in and out of dreams, my skin vascillated between chills and sweats. My thoughts went to the story my colleague had told me about the family member whose husband was having an affair. I knew why the pit in my stomach had bottomed out. The pit had cracked open from hearing the truth: I was that woman, too.

My body was ready to feel this truth. It was so exhausted from lies. But my spirit wasn’t.  It was in fight or flight mode. I tossed and turned in my feverish stupor, and finally went back to sleep.

I began to dream. I dreamt that my husband was drowning, and I was trying to resuscitate him, but he asked me to let go of him. Under the water, he called to me, “I’m having an affair. Let me go.” I let go and watched him sink further into the water.

As I continued to dream, my fever broke. My body jolted awake in a sweat. I remember sitting straight up in bed, completely clear-headed, yet terrified.

I called my mom.

“He’s having an affair,” I blurted out. “I know it because I dreamed it! And my friend, she said it happened to her sister in law-that’s what’s happening to me!! I know it. But I can’t prove it.  What should I do?  Should I hire a private investigator?”

My mom listened. She didn’t think I was insane. She knew I had been searching for answers as to what was feeling “off” in my marriage. But, she knew I was afraid and told me, “God has already shown you so much. Don’t go out and investigate any more. God will continue to reveal the truth in the time that you need to know.”

After I hung up the phone, I started to pray. I prayed so hard for truth. I prayed for more information. I prayed that I wasn’t crazy. And as I was praying, I suddenly heard a voice–a voice that I believe to be God–who spoke to me and said, “Go check your mail.”

And here’s the freaking thing…as I’m walking to my mailbox, I KNEW I WOULD FIND SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT THERE. I was awake, yet zombielike. In that walk to my mailbox, I was feeling like every sensation I felt, every person I passed, and every detail I noticed was a sign, pointing me in the direction of truth.

I went to the mailbox, turned the mailbox key, and a piece of mail fell out from a jewelry store. It was addressed to my husband, and looked like a bill. I opened it up, and was not surprised to see a credit card bill with several hundred dollars worth of necklaces, bracelets, and jewelry purchased that wasn’t for me.

I held this bill close to me. It felt important, almost sacred. Here I was, holding a piece of gold in my hand that was pure truth. I went upstairs, and once again, I heard the voice saying,  “Go to the computer.” I sat down at the computer, and looked up our cell phone bill online and pulled up my husband’s phone line. There was one number on there repeatedly at all hours of the day and night that I didn’t recognize. I called it.

A woman’s voicemail came on.

“Hi, this is Maricela. I can’t take your call right now, but leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

I didn’t know a person named Maricela. But I ascertained that my husband knew her very well.

The rest of the weekend, I curled up in a ball and cried and ached and talked to my family. My husband had told me he was going to Chicago for a concert that weekend.  I called him many times, but he never answered. I didn’t know what I was going to say or do. I just knew that this truth was crumbling everything I had been clinging to and destroying it. This truth wanted to break me from my attachment to my husband, because that’s what the truth does-it breaks you wide freaking open and you can’t hide. Or run. Or really do anything, except for sit with it until it’s taught you what you need to know.

The next day was Easter. I didn’t go to church. It was a sunny day, yet I couldn’t move. I didn’t eat. I sat in the darkness of my bedroom, wondering what was about to happen. I had been split right open in the course of 24 hours with a truth that felt so threatening to me; however God had revealed it in such a precise manner that it was impossible to ignore.

This was the beginning of a spiritual awakening.  I did not go gently into that goddamn night, though.  I went on to wrestle with the truth and what it meant to be awake.  I even went on to have a baby with this person.  That’s right:  I ignored the truth and hoped that a child would change it.  But I discovered that as I fought that truth, it continued to fight right back.  And this moment in April when I was curled up in a fetal position in my bedroom in Madison, Wisconsin was only the beginning of the fight.  My husband’s affair was pure PAIN for me. But it was only a thread of the truth that was about to unravel before me.

The good news is this: once it unravels, there are treasures to be found.  You just have to be willing to enter the darkness to find the light.