Writer Janelle Harris on her personal experience with domestic abuse in a relationship that she wanted to work.
Honestly, I thought I was over it. I hadn’t given my own experience with domestic violence any significant airtime in years, not even thinking about what I wasn’t thinking about because I had tucked those events into the untouched part of my mind that incarcerates unpleasant memories.
Then I started going to therapy and you know, that’s the mental equivalent of cleaning out your freezer. You’re pulling stuff out that isn’t healthy, looks nasty and takes up undeserved space in an already packed-tight place. I mentioned the relationship in our introductory sessions, but one day, without any real provocation, my therapist circled back and re-presented it to me.
“I don’t think you’ve healed from that,” she surmised in her very soothing, very unexcitable way. “Just because you don’t allow yourself to think about something doesn’t mean you’re healed.” We stared at each other for a cool 15, 20 seconds after that revelation, which might as well be hours when you’re sitting across from someone who just read you. I left it at that appointment and didn’t think about it again because other things came up that commandeered my hour-long appointments. That part of my story was cradled back into silence.
Then, that video. That video. That video. I watched it and could immediately hear the muffled thud of being punched in the side of my head. Remember what it looked like to have a room flying past my wide open eyes while I was totally out of control of my own body, being pushed and tossed and flung into furniture and walls. Recall the fear from someone literally screaming into my face, his not even a full inch away from mine, spit flying, anger making his body heat rise and radiate, me cowering in the corner of a closet. See the humiliation of knots and bruises, sometimes torn clothing.
That video brought it back, not all at once, but bits in vivid replay.
Still, I wasn’t going to write about it. The news pumps oxygen into the blogosphere, which in turn produces reactionary think pieces and personal testimonies crafted around what’s making headlines and getting social media shares. Give the public and the media something to talk about and we’ll talk it down to the white meat, chile. I’m guilty of it myself. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by and desensitized to a subject because we talk about it so much all at once. Sometimes, the people writing about it can seem disingenuous and bandwagon-ish.
I didn’t want to be one of the opportunistic ones. Also, I didn’t want nobody who has my phone number and address getting all mad and putting me on a program of personal retaliation for telling not-so-secret secrets.
But my “Why I Stayed” story was writing myself in my mind. I woke up with sentences and phrases taking form before I got them down on anything handy—envelopes, backs of receipts, carryout menus. They’d come to me while I was washing dishes or driving to the grocery store. Sometimes it takes me a few days to string together a blog post or essay. The ease with which the words came told me this particular story was ready. Maybe not to be told in its entirety just yet, but the video catalyzed its escape.
On Tuesday, I wrote about Janay Rice. Today, I’m writing about Janelle Harris.
I stayed because I was so in love—so, so, so in love—and it was precious and fresh and emotionally engulfing. I missed that man when he was out of my sight and I wanted to lay eyes on him as much as our days would allow. I stayed because I loved passionately and deeply and I didn’t want to lose that intensity. I stayed because his apologies after his outbursts were tearful and sincere. I believe they were genuine. But when there was fury, that tenderness was nowhere to be found. Search the eyes of a man who’s about to hit a woman and he’s not the same person who initially earned her love and trust. I couldn’t make sense of the duality, but I stayed because I didn’t have the self-awareness or fortitude to leave.
I stayed because I liked me but I loved him and that, I know now, breeds the unhealthy space that allows low self-esteem to fester into victimization. I couldn’t see beyond the present to contemplate other loves. I wanted that one. I stayed because I was intoxicated by our relationship’s potential, not the actuality of what it was.
I don’t have a “Why I Left” story, some victorious tale of realization and triumph. I didn’t leave. He left me. It was cold and matter-of-fact, and when he broke up with me on a phone call in the middle of the night, I let out such a holler that my mama came scrambling into my bedroom to see what would cause such an unholy racket. She didn’t match my sadness or even act all that sympathetic when I told her why. “I knew that was going to happen,” she said. “You’ll be OK. It’ll hurt now, but it’ll hurt a little less every day.” She never knew about the hitting and shoving, at least not from me.
It wasn’t always bad and it wasn’t all bad. In the beginning, there was joy and playfulness and reciprocity that don’t allow it to be completely tragic, although the flashes of emotional abuse and physical violence are pushing up tears. I choose to remember the totality of the experience. When I finally stopped crying and begging him to come back—because oh, I did cry and I definitely begged him to come back—I said I would never, ever put myself in that situation again. Now I watch a man’s temper. I look at his eyes. I put my senses all over him. If I even suspect that his anger could progress beyond verbal expression and run unchecked into a production of acting out, I’m done. My memory is too branded with the sensations of that time.
This Ray and Janay Rice story has shoved domestic violence to the temporary fore, until it becomes topically un-hot and gets prodded back into the list of mundane social issues left to the grassroots advocates. While it’s top of mind, I’ll pray her strength because she may not be able or have the wherewithal to, just like I couldn’t or didn’t when I was there.