“I’m not damaged, I’m just different.”
I use this phrase during presentations when trying to explain how living through an abusive marriage has changed me, inside and out. I tell my audience – sometimes victims or survivors of domestic violence, themselves – that I’m not the person I once was and that I never will be again. I tell them that while what happened to me certainly wasn’t right or fair or just, and that living through it has given me some pretty significant emotional baggage to carry along the rest of my life’s journey, that I’ve made the decision to put that part of my life in my my rear view and focus on what’s ahead.
Living through a traumatic event necessarily changes a person. Sometimes we think that once a victim has physically removed themselves from an abusive relationship that they should be able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Often times a survivor will carry the mental and emotional scars of that abusive relationship with them for the rest of their lives.
We don’t expect a soldier that’s returned home from war to simply “feel better and move on”; why would we expect that from someone who’s lived in a domestic war zone? Fear, anxiety, depression, lack of ability to trust people and situations, paranoia; these are all very real and understandable reactions to life after a trauma. We can’t just will ourselves to “feel better”. If you know someone who’s struggling after surviving an abusive relationship, gently suggesting that they might benefit from seeing a counselor or therapist is perhaps the most important piece of advice you can give.
Interestingly, what led me to even consider how much my first marriage changed me, even after writing Leaving Dorian, was a conversation that I had with a neighbor who’d just finished reading it. He works in HR and we were talking about how people deal with difficult issues like DV. He asked me if my husband had read the book. I said yes, that he reads everything that I write, but above and beyond that my husband knows fully and completely what I went through in my first marriage. What stuck with me was my neighbor’s reply, “I ask because I’ve dealt with some women who have been abused and have moved on but their new spouse struggles with knowing what went on and it causes issues in their marriage.”
I was beyond shocked. Sure, over the years I’d experienced the recoil and looks of disgust people sometimes inadvertently give when they find out why my first marriage ended. I learned fairly quickly that if I answered honestly, there was a 50/50 chance that I’d walk away from the conversation feeling like I’d injured them in some way simply by telling the truth. But were there really men out there that felt that way; that a woman was somehow “damaged goods” if she’d been abused in a former relationship? Sadly, I was sure that there were.
I thought about my neighbor’s candid admission a lot; probably more than I should have, but said nothing. I wanted to write an editorial for the local newspaper, or post a blog and rant about insensitivity and selfishness and blah, blah, blah… (“Geez…so sorry my trauma happens to make you so uncomfortable. Sorry that the horrible experience that I lived through is so difficult for you to bear…) but I didn’t. Instead, I wrote down that little phrase – “I’m not damaged, I’m just different” – and I use it every chance I get.
I said it the first time I spoke at an emergency shelter, the women in residence looking back at me from the long table that they were crowded around in a cold basement in an old church on the East Side of Buffalo. I watched their faces search mine for an answer: How did you do it? How are you standing here? Give me the formula; tell me how to put my pieces back together. I am a shell of my former self; I’m a disaster. I feel like the walking dead. When will I feel better? I use it every time a woman Messages me or contacts me through my blog or through email. Any time a victim or survivor reaches out to me and is desperate and exhausted and tells me that she feels ruined and broken, that is what I tell her. You’re not damaged, you’re just different. And so am I.
I’m a work in progress. Some days are productive and some days are crazy and there are times that I think I’ve got it all figured out and there are times that I sit and sob for no reason. Some days I feel brave and strong and some days I feel small and weak but every day I wake up thankful to have survived a trauma that could have killed me physically and might have destroyed me mentally but didn’t.
My life is entirely my own now and only I get to decide how my story will end.
“I’m not damaged; I’m just different.” Beautifully, painfully, forever different.