SDVS intern Sandra Menendez shares her story of survival
The following has been re-printed from the October 9, 2013 edition of the Cavalier Daily, with permission from the writer.
"My story of intimate partner violence"
I’d like to think of myself as a survivor.
In middle school, I flew mostly under the radar. One time, when I was eight, I lost my footing on a snapped, dead branch while climbing; it only ended up being a five-foot fall and a bruised tailbone. My knees and elbows are speckled with odd, white shapes, leftover scars from pogo-sticking on still slick driveways after rain. And I’ve completed the gallon challenge.
But when I was 16 and in high school and wore floor-length butterfly skirts, I believed that anyone who could possibly even have the slightest afterthought of dating me was a miracle from God. When he came along, I was just getting over the emotional impact of being told by another male classmate that I looked like a horse at the homecoming dance. We were snacking on pretzels in a parking lot and I said yes.
It was a two-year relationship.
It was sitting in an open courtroom with arsonists and traffic violation vigilantes. It was a twice-a-week copay and trauma treatment. It was the fetal position behind the dresser and the way my mother held me close for two-and-a-half years after.
But if I come back to the opening of this piece, I guess I should add that I am also a survivor of intimate partner violence in various forms.
I don’t think that throwing a statistic at you about how many people this affects every year is particularly impactful. It’s a fleeting factoid that I highly doubt covers a number of unreported cases. Nor will I share the ins and outs of exactly what happened to me — for my own sake, but also for yours.
As a University community we, for a time, become infuriated (as we should) when University Police Chief Michael Gibson sends us an incident report of sexual assault. We are quick to jump at the Office of the Dean of Students and the policies of the Sexual Misconduct Board — we’ll even be so bold as to leave nasty comments on cavalierdaily.com. But, in the midst of all this finger pointing and name-dropping about who shouldn’t have showered and which dean is most responsible, the actual perpetrator finds his (or her) quick exit off center stage. Whistling, he (or she) hops on the next train out of town while the victim/survivor is left still trying to pick up her (or his) own pieces, dodging bullets in the university turf war.
We’ve exhausted policy and worked extensively on prevention; but I think we have yet to give back that which was taken: agency.
So perhaps I was too firm. I’ll share a little bit of my story — the significant parts, the parts that are actually quite similar to that bruised tailbone and those odd, white scars — recovery.
Visit this link to learn about ways the Women's Center focuses on recovery with Take Back the Night.
Trials and triggers
I was diagnosed with PTSD when I stopped being able to sleep through the night. I think it may have also had to with the fact that earlier that week I bolted out of an English discussion — the kid who tried to sit down next to me had hands that were exactly like his. For the rest of the semester, we gave each other odd looks. I thought trauma was only for Iraq War veterans.
From then on, it was just me and the eye movement desensitization and reprocessing machine (EMDR) on Saturday mornings. Nothing really did make me doubt the effectiveness of trauma treatment more than being asked to a) watch a light move from left to right while b) simultaneously being tapped on each knee by a specialist while c) listening to ocean waves and an alternating click in the background all while d) being asked to bring up my worst memories from the relationship.
By now, you’d think they would have found a less strange way to treat PTSD, but all I can say is, for the most part, it worked.
No, it was absolutely not pleasant bringing those moments up to surface again. Sometimes it got so difficult that I squeezed my eyes shut and blindly swatted the “tapping specialist.” The notes from her on my chart are probably highly comical.
But every Saturday I claimed a bit of my life back.
That’s what made me feel better, not pinning it on faulty policy.
The trajectory theory
I think the beautiful part of recovery is that, in order to get there in the first place, I kind of had to hit rock bottom. I’m positively horrendous at both math and physics, so just take this analogy as your “atypical,” probably incorrectly plotted trajectory. But I digress.
In recovery trajectories, there is only one direction of motion, and that’s undoubtedly up. Some days will be slip-ups that include but are not limited to: swatting specialists, waking up with headaches, promising and then failing to keep the promise that this will be the day in which I finally bury any memory of him, making a sniffly call to mom, finding myself fire-breathing furious, now finding myself wallowing, self-pep-talking and then fetal positioning behind the dresser yet again.
But overall, this trajectory has only one direction of motion. So there are dips in the path from time to time, but I’m always headed up. I have to be. Recovery isn’t perfect — it’s not a straight shot, a checked box and a pat on the back. It’s a full-time job of self-reconstruction.
But what I’m telling you is that after two-and-a-half years of treatment and EMDR, my laugh was so happy I couldn’t even recognize it as my own anymore.
Getting back on the horse
I have finally pieced myself back together again. When I share my story, I always say that if I could do my life over again, although painful, I wouldn’t whisk this part away. I’m a survivor of intimate partner violence for a reason. I believe that, in life, we do not get the people that we want, but rather the people that we need — be they those who give us compassion or those who teach us more unpleasant lessons. I was born too compassionate, because my purpose is to empower others.
But I still slip up from time to time. And trust me, the most terrifying thing in the world right now is the thought of trying again with someone else. I have ditched the butterfly skirts and I’m fairly confident that I, in fact, no longer resemble a horse at the homecoming dance (I would, however, like to get back on the dating horse). I think that for right now, it’s more a matter of breathing deeply and knowing that the next person who comes along will also be someone who I “need.” He’s bound to teach me something about myself again, but I’m confident that this time it won’t be such an extreme lesson.
Throughout my recovery process, I pleaded with my treatment team about how I didn’t want this experience to define me.
But it does define me; and when I went up to the front of that courtroom to sign that Permanent Protective Order in front of the handle-bar mustached judge, I knew my life would never be the same again.
I didn’t choose to be a victim, because then he’d win.
I picked myself up from the fetal position and sat in a plastic-covered, floral chair on Saturdays, watching lights — making sure I’d be the one who survived.
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By Sandra Menendez