*In the integrity of victims’ advocacy, no real names have been used.
She no sooner tells me her name before she falls into her normal dialogue, the routine of explaining herself so the listener doesn’t ask about her slurred speech and short-term memory. Eight years of abuse. It started with the destruction of her things and escalated from there. She sits across from me, uncomfortable. Broken ribs, she tells me. She attempts to summarize life as a victim. It’s a story in pieces, a timeline of leaving and returning. She tells me about the miscarriages, because she is more than a battered woman, she is a heartbroken mama. Brain injuries make forgetting easy, but the mind remembers trauma. The body remembers the forming of life and the flushing of what couldn’t sustain.
I keep things simple, ask if she’s identified her triggers. A survivor lives like a survivor, hypervigilant and sharp to her surroundings. It’s a learned behavior, it kept her safe, but if she continues, the stress will suck the remaining health from all of her – heart, mind, and body. I remind her to practice deep breathing. She reminds me of the broken ribs. She is cheated of breath on a daily basis and the injustice of her reality rocks me.
When she returns a month later, she reintroduces herself, not to be polite, but because she doesn’t remember me. She tells me she’s taken to writing and she reads me a piece of her work – so sincere, so reflective. So healing. I encourage her to continue. I promise her the narrative exposed hastens healing, even if it hurts like hell laying it bare. But she and I both know it isn’t the pain she’d resist, it’s the fear of remembering.
Remembering the details puts logic to staying away, puts reason to tolerating shelter life, which for all its safety and community, has its discomforts. Shared space blends exposures and hurts – the weaker side of commonality. But remembering the days between incidents has far greater risk. Remembering love in the lines of the face, remembering tenderness in the touch of open hands rather than tight fists wipes logic like fog from a window, and I know she’s looking through the glass when her gaze goes distant.
Peace, for all it’s goodness and comfort, can be too quiet sometimes.
I ask if she’s ok. ‘I miss my husband,’ she whispers. Words of a human not a fool. Her hard work of vigilance will be keeping the reins from her heart, because in this space, while her body heals and her mind mends, her heart will take its time. The heart is last to heal and she must guard it – in loneliness, in grief, in resolute courage that cries and trembles.
Because it’s not fair. It’s not fair when truth is blurred and love is false. It’s not fair when brokenness is chosen by another and the responsibility of repair is placed on the one broken. It’s not fair when the fight for one’s heart begins as a fight against the heart. I cannot fight for her, she must fight alone, but the reward will be hers in the end.
I walk her to the door with words of ‘keep going, I’m proud of you’, with open farewell of ‘see you soon’. But in truth, I don’t know. I spoke similar parting words to Jeena, the one who slept with her Bible open because it kept the darkness away; and to Amy, the one who made art of pastries; and to Grace, the one who was toting a baby on her hip; and to Maria, the one who was too young to be in a shelter and too wise to return to the family who had introduced her to abuse before she knew the word. I say ‘see you soon’ because I will always see her, whether or not she returns.
Michelle Stiffler is a trauma specialist at a nonprofit for women in crisis. She finds joy in sunrises, bike rides, and adventures with her husband and four children. Writing keeps her balanced and her freelance work has been featured by Ruminate, Incourage, and others. She's five years strong in reflecting on truth, faith, and being human at www.onemoretruth.com.