Write A List: On Dealing With Intimate Violence

Q. I’m sitting here covered in scratches and marks because my ex-boyfriend just beat me up on his way out of my life. I’m pretty scared right now. I know if I tell anyone they’ll just blame me for it. My ex said I have huge anger issues before he beat me up and smashed my whiteboard. I know this isn’t a sex question but I am all alone in this city and I don’t know where else to turn.

A. I’m sorry.

I’m so sorry.

I’m sorry because no one is ever really sure what you are supposed to say when words like that slip from the mouths of people we love. I’m sorry because sorry is not enough, nowhere enough to cover the divide that intimate violence can cause. I’m sorry, because like everyone who reads your letter, there is no way for me or your mother or anyone to swoop into your life right now and grab you, flee with you, and take you away from what has happened. None of us are superheroes nor can we be, nor do I think you would want us to be. It’s just an impulse people get when they feel helpless, watching someone else who might feel helpless.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry because you are alone in whatever city you happen to be in, wherever you are on the floor or in bed or in your kitchen, wondering why it is things have unfolded the way they have, wondering why it is you are here, you, who never thought you would be “that girl” — you know, the one we were all warned about becoming? The one who didn’t respect herself and let some man beat her up — she should have known better, right? She should have walked away that first time. She should have done something else. Something different.

That is a heavy sort of weight, isn’t it? You should have done this. You should have done that. Those pointed fingers feed the same rip current that carries that blame that gets carelessly tossed in the direction of such violence. I would tell you to not take it personally, because it has nothing to do with you; you just happen to be holding up a mirror to a culture’s deepest neurosis and excuse making for something that happens to almost every single person you may know. I would love to tell you not to take it personally, but it is personal. So very personal.

I’m sorry isn’t enough. I’m sorry is peanuts. I’m sorry doesn’t cover the emotional thread that connects each and every person who has watched fists fly, whiteboards broken, tiny bits of themselves flit away when the person who is supposed to protect them becomes someone who destroys the very fabric of safety that you once called home. I’m sorry does not cover the sting that comes each time someone, whether well-intentioned or not, directs what was done to you, back upon you, wondering aloud, what exactly what it was that you did. I’m sorry, even in its most honest, empathetic, real state, is still relating back to an outside participant — their sorrow, their feelings. It does not cover the wash-over grief you are carrying. It does not undo what was done to you.

Nothing ever does.


What does help is time, distance, being kind to yourself. Telling your story over and over, everyone else be damned. They can think what they want, but by the sheer act of you telling your story, you get to hear it again and again, swallowing down each time what happened, trying to understand, to get over. This is not easy. You will cringe, feel ashamed, feel like you have done something so wrong. This is what happens when you tell your story — when you put words to the fucked up shit that has happened to you. Swallow it down and keep going. Don’t let anyone else’s discomfort at what has happened to you make you stop.

Make them know.

Write a list and tape it to the bathroom mirror. You will need it everyday, because while some days look like the easiest suckers around, I swear to god, other days seem hell-bent on your destruction. Your list, which can have any number of messages that resonate with that deep pit inside you, should potentially looking something like the following:

  1. You survived.
  2. Keep surviving.
  3. Do not just survive. Thrive.

Keep this list on your mirror always. Always. Some days it takes every ounce of will you have to look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself, “I am worthy, I am worthy, I am worthy.” Some days, these words will echo as you smile and know you are back on your way. The days are unpredictable. Kindness and encouragement to yourself? This must not be. It must always be there. It must be there because some days you will think that what was done to you was deserved, not because it was, but because that is what everyone else seems to think or because you are having a bad day or because you think it won’t happen again. It must be there because you would never say those things to someone you cared about, so why do you speak to yourself that way, especially since you know you are listening? It must be there because it is the tiny minutiae that gets you through the darkest parts of your life. Recovery is not grand or linear. It is the moment to moment of surviving.

Do not underestimate just how much tiny words can keep you going.

There’s a quote I keep on the back of my closet where I dress in the morning. It is one of the first things I see when I get up, a torn, soft, and wrinkled little piece of a Post-it, something you may mistake for trash or junk. It reads, We are all stronger, smarter, talented, beautiful, and more resilient than we were told.” Cece McDonald said that while she was in Hennepin County jail, after stabbing a man who attacked her. The man went after McDonald and her friends, throwing slurs, threatening them, finally hurting them. Of course, McDonald fought back, and unfortunately, was sentenced for what was perceived as an unwarranted attack. Never mind self-defense. Never mind the context. All that mattered was that McDonald had done something somebody — many somebodies, had perceived as wrong. As bringing it upon themselves. Of it being her fault. Of her being black and trans and visibly so, of being in the wrong place, wrong time, of all the reasons you could possibly think of to excuse the fact that somebody had done something to her and it was wrong.

When somebody does something wrong to you and you speak out on it and the world only asks back, “What did you do?”  it is devastatingly easy to forget how strong, smart, talented, beautiful, and resilient you are. The world introduces doubt to what you know was done to you was wrong. That is why you have a list. To not forget. To always remember. To never, ever, let that crap in.

Write a list. Whatever you want on that list, make it your promise to yourself, the one you have to keep. He is never allowed back. I will tell my story. This will not terrify me. Write it on your list and tape it up and when you have to look at yourself in the morning, you will be reminded that what has happened to you is about what was done to you, not what you brought upon yourself.

Go from there.

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3 replies on “Write A List: On Dealing With Intimate Violence”

I’m so sorry for what happened. I’m an attorney who does pro bono work with DV survivors. Most of my clients come to me ashamed, feeling that they brought it on themselves somehow. This is absolutely untrue. This is what I tell my clients:

There is nothing that you can do that makes it okay for another person to lay a hand on you. It’s never justified and there isn’t anything you could have done to prevent it. There is no “victim type” and you didn’t bring it on yourself. The only thing DV survivors have in common is that they were/are involved with an abuser. Full stop.

My clients also have to tell me painful, intimate things and I always feel honored at their trust. Sometimes all my clients want is to tell their story to someone who believes them and isn’t judging them. I try to be that person.

I believe you. This is not your fault.

I’d suggest contacting your local DV resource center or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to talk to an advocate. They won’t pressure you into doing anything, but they can help you sort things out. Also, not to scare you, but safety planning is really important. Also, your local Legal Aid should have information on restraining orders if you think you may need one.

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