Can You Hear Me Now? An Open Letter To Helping Professionals

The following is a beautiful post written by my good friend Melissa M. Wilcox. She is a survivor of IPV (intimate partner violence). For too many years she was silenced. But she is now standing up and speaking out to share her story. This post is written from her perspective as a patient and client interacting with the health care and mental health system. Her story goes to show how one helping professional can make all the difference in the world.


Can You Hear Me Now? An Open Letter to Helping Professionals

by Melissa M. Wilcox

Let me tell you a story.

One of you, years ago, agreed to see a friend of yours with her partner for couple’s counseling. I was that partner. You didn’t pre-screen for abuse. I told you that I found fights with my partner traumatic, and that we fought a lot. You said that fighting was normal for couples, and that I needed to get used to conflict. You never questioned your friend’s anger, or her behavior.

You never heard me.

One of you, a few years later and in a different town, agreed to take us on for couple’s counseling. Like the previous counselor, you didn’t screen for abuse, and whenever my partner insisted that I was the problem you asked me what I could do differently. I could never tell you that she was the actual problem; it would have been too dangerous.

You never saw what happened to me after we left your office each time.

You never heard me.

One of you visited me in the emergency room the first time I swallowed pills because all of my other escape routes were blocked. “I’m being abused,” I cried. “And no one’s listening.” “We are now,” you said soothingly. Less than a week later, you arranged another couple’s counseling session. You took my abuser into your other room, and she yelled at you for what seemed like hours while I waited, alone, in your office. Terrified of what she would do to me during and after the session, I snuck out and ran away. You called me; I was afraid to answer. She called me; I was afraid to answer. You both called our friends, and threatened to call the police if I didn’t come back and face my abuser. I had nowhere to go and no one to turn to for safety. By the time everyone found me, I was the problem once again.

You never heard me.

Many of you shamed me with the demeaning term “self-mutilation.” Did I look mutilated to you? Self-injury was my only way of speaking out, when using my voice was dangerous and when it had become clear that no one was listening anyway.

It wasn’t the cuts and burns that mutilated me; it was the trauma inflicted by her abuse and your complicity. Others used the term “alcohol abuse.” How ironic and hurtful, to accuse an abuse victim of abusing.

How else could I have kept my mouth shut and kept the panic from spiking, when any move or spoken word could reignite the abuse and there was no escape route? You saw me only through the haze of your clinical categories, and you saw only the pathologies you labeled me with.

You never heard me.

In the end, many of you saw me in the ER or in urgent care, each time for injuries that were ostensibly self-inflicted. The insidious brilliance of emotional abusers is that they never need to leave a mark; they push their victims to the edge until the victims inflict the physical damage for them. The abuser appears innocent, the victim mentally unhinged.

Even though national reports have urged that all suicide attempts be screened for domestic violence, even though such screenings are also desperately needed for self-injury cases, you never screened me. Not once.

And so you never heard me.

One of you sat with me in an internationally-renowned research hospital one night. You listened patiently as I talked about domestic violence being the source of my health problems. You neither confirmed nor denied, just listened. I talked with you about whether I should leave her; you had no advice. Like many abuse victims, after years of being beaten down psychologically I feared leaving the familiarity and decided to stay in the relationship. You had no opinion. A few days later, I was discharged. Despite my openness about the abuse, my team of five providers and all of your associated staff sent me home with no literature on domestic violence and no referral to domestic violence services. I went home believing that I had a congenital mental illness and that my partner was suffering because of that. There is no mental illness in my family, and today my only mental health challenge is the trauma of the abuse itself.

You never heard me.

One of you took over my medication management after I came home from the hospital. As the anxiety and depression continued, as the self-harm continued, you ratcheted the medication up higher and higher until I was falling asleep while teaching my own classes. It was humiliating, and it damaged my professional reputation and my career. You never questioned why things were continuing to spin out of control. When I asked what the difference was between my mental health symptoms and bipolar disorder, you wordlessly handed me a pamphlet titled “Coping with Bipolar.” Bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder are the most common psychological misdiagnoses among domestic violence victims. You implied that I had both. In fact, I had neither.

You never heard me.

One of you taunted me with that false accusation of borderline personality disorder. I was afraid of you and frustrated that day, and was having trouble communicating as you wanted me to. “Is this why they called you borderline?” you asked. “Is this how you behave with your partner?” I heard in your words another question: “Are you the problem? Are you causing your own abuse?” Contrary to what one of you told me repeatedly, in abuse it does not take two to tango. When I left your office, you slammed the door behind me. I was terrified and demoralized, and concluded that not only was I a bad partner, I was a bad patient too.

You re-enacted my abuse in your office.

You never heard me.

One of you saw us in couple’s counseling toward the end. I asked if you would meet with us separately at first. You declined, explaining that if we had anything to say we could say it in front of each other. Not true with abuse – the consequences would have been terrible. When I found the courage to mention it anyway, my abuser became deeply upset, and you reassured her that no one would use “the ‘a’ word” in your office. You silenced me that day.

And you never heard me.

One of you saw me in the ER the day I finally left my abuser. Terrified that I would be trapped again, as I had been all of the other times I’d tried to leave, I had soothed myself with a drink and some prescription anti-anxiety medication. A friend got worried and took me to see you. “Was it a suicide attempt?” you asked. Accustomed to not being heard, wanting just to go home and take care of myself, I answered, “Yes.”

It wasn’t.

Most of them weren’t, but that was the answer you seemed to expect. You never heard me.

One of you received the report that I had “attempted suicide” again, and told the authorities. They barred me from being alone with my son, whom I had been protecting from my abuser. One of you wrote a letter, ostensibly in my support. “This is an unexpected recurrence of a past pattern,” you explained. They seized on “past pattern” and took my son away, giving my – and now his – abuser full custody. A few months later I was served with paperwork that prevented me from seeing him. I never got to say goodbye. I haven’t seen him since, and I don’t expect ever to see him again.

You never heard me.

One of you, when I found the love of my life and decided to try to rebuild a family, talked to the fertility clinic I’d chosen. You called me afterward to report that because of my “congenital mental health issues” the clinic had decided that I should not reproduce.

Years later, I am haunted by inaccurate medical records like those.

No one will correct them, and I fear any provider who can see those records.

I cancel appointments when the fear of further mistreatment becomes larger than the fear for my health.

I now will only take medications if I’m convinced they’re medically critical. I will never take psychiatric medications again. You might label me “noncompliant.”

You still don’t hear me.

But one of you saw the abuse. One of you named it.

One of you allowed me, even encouraged me, to use the ‘a’ word in your office. One of you leveled with me and said that you were concerned for my safety, that it was my choice but that you believed I would die if I didn’t leave the relationship.

One of you cared. One of you reached out. One of you listened. One of you heard me. One of you offered your hand so I could climb out of the pit of violence. And I did.

All it took was one.

And it took over ten years.

Can you hear me now?

We are in your office this very minute. We will be there later today, and next week. We are people of all genders and sexual orientations, all income levels and occupations, all religions and all political perspectives. We defy stereotypes. We are domestic violence victims and survivors, and most of us are invisible to you. But if you listen a little more closely, maybe you will hear us. And maybe you will reach out.

And maybe you will save a life. One of you did, with me. But there are many, many more.

- Melissa M. Wilcox


ONLINE RESOURCES

Not sure it’s abuse? Try these helpful checklists.

http://www.anothercloset.com.au/relationship-checklist/

http://www.nyscadv.org/domestic-violence-checklist/

 IPV advocates specializing in LGBTQ services:

*This is a selection only, and is specific to the U.S. If your city or region isn’t included here, try searching online for local services, and remember that many IPV advocacy groups that don’t offer LGBTQ-specific services are still prepared to support LGBTQ victims.

Bradley Angle LGBTQ services (Portland, OR): http://bradleyangle.org/services/lgbtq-services/

Break the Cycle’s LGBTQ outreach campaign (L.A. and Washington, D.C.; focuses on dating violence): http://www.breakthecycle.org/content/lgbtq-outreach

Colorado Anti-Violence Program: http://coavp.org/

Community United Against Violence (San Francisco): http://www.cuav.org/

FORGE anti-violence resources: http://forge-forward.org/anti-violence/

GLBTQ Domestic Violence Project (Cambridge, MA) - http://www.glbtqdvp.org/

L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center Domestic Violence Services: http://laglc.convio.net/site/PageServer?pagename=YH_DV_Family_Violence_Partner_Abuse

The Network/La Red (Boston): http://tnlr.org/

New York State LGBTQ Domestic Violence Network: http://www.avp.org/about-avp/coalitions-a-collaborations/25-new-york-state-lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-a-queer-domestic-violence-network

The Northwest Network (Seattle): http://nwnetwork.org/

Rainbow Response Coalition (Washington, D.C.): http://www.rainbowresponse.org/

SAFE: Stop Abuse for Everyone: http://www.stopabuseforeveryone.org/

Show Me Love (Washington, D.C.): http://showmelovedc.org/

Survivor Project: http://www.survivorproject.org/index.html

Photo image credit goes to Nicole Pitsavas: thank you, Nicole. 

Melissa M. Wilcox is Associate Professor of Religion and Gender Studies at Whitman College.  She is the author or co-editor of several books and numerous articles on gender, sexuality, and religion, including Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity, and Community; Queer Women and Religious Individualism; and (with David W. Machacek) Sexuality and the World’s Religions. She is also the author of the textbook and course reader, Religion in Today’s World: Global Issues, Sociological Perspectives, and is currently at work on a book on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Photo Credit to Greg Lehman.