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When the abuser wears a mask

When the abuser wears a mask

Not long ago, the actor Jonathan Majors was found guilty of misdemeanor assault and harassment for his treatment of his ex-girlfriend Grace Jabbari.  In her testimony, Jabbari described Majors as a “monster” but also said that   beginning of the relationship was a “blissful whirlwind.” Similarly, in November, singer Cassie sued hip hop mogul Diddy accusing him of rape and abuse, alleging that he “lured her into what she first perceived as a fatherly, protective relationship, only to find herself in an unequal, and violent, sexual relationship.”

While some domestic violence advocates may use this opportunity to discuss awareness, the conversation needs to include a discussion of how survivors can learn to accept the reality of the situation they’re in. Awareness is about education. Increasing knowledge. While this is important, one can be highly educated about abuse and not be aware that they are experiencing abuse because they haven’t accepted that it could be a possibility. I didn’t accept it as a possibility.

Since I began the PhD program at University of Michigan in September 2018, the university I attend began sending  an online survey to graduate students every year, in an effort to increase awareness,reduce sexual and gender-based violence and to promote healthy relationships in the community. One of the primary things this survey intends to do is to provide students with the skills they need to recognize gender-based violence. The survey goes through the various legal definitions of stalking, harassment, domestic violence, and allows students to select state-specific information. I even learned about a new type of abuse, academic abuse, or preventing someone from receiving an education. Though I completed this 45-minute, two -part survey for more than  three years, I wasn’t aware I had been experiencing abuse in my relationship the entire time. The third time was, if not the charm, the lightbulb moment. “I can’t be experiencing abuse,” I said to myself. “I would recognize it.” But that’s the point. It’s a classic abuse tactic. Abusers make you believe that it’s you and them against the world so that later when the thought comes to your mind that they might be abusive, you dismiss it. They build your trust. And that’s exactly what I did when I thought he might be abusive. I trusted him. I dismissed the idea.

But I shouldn’t have. I was experiencing severe abuse. So severe that I had suicidal ideation. I started drinking heavily to cope. Because I hadn’t accepted that I was experiencing abuse, I attributed my depression to the COVID-19 pandemic. “This pandemic is really hard.” I would say. But I didn’t know I was experiencing the shadow pandemic. Since the COVID-19, there has been an increase in the number of women and girls who experience violence. A research study found that new or increased severity of violence was significantly more prevalent among those who were essential workers, pregnant, unable to afford rent, unemployed/underemployed or had recent changes to their job, had partners with recent changes to employment, and those who had gotten tested or tested positive for COVID-19.

But, after searching online for resources, joining online communities, and learning more about the mistreatment I had been experiencing, I finally accepted that I indeed had been experiencing abuse. And it was then that I made the decision to leave.

Awareness is generally seen as the first step to addressing and improving health outcomes. But, awareness assumes acceptance. It assumes that the person has accepted that this health outcome can happen to me. On average, it takes two years for someone to exit an abusive relationship. I did it in six months. For me, acceptance not awareness, was the catalyst to my leaving.

It can be hard to accept that the people we love–and who claim to love us–sometimes wear masks. It was hard for me. But once I did, and was able to secure the financial resources to leave, I did. So, start the process. If you have even the slightest inclination that you might be experiencing abuse, accept it. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t let the mask hide reality.

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