What does domestic violence have to do with me?

Trigger warning: This article contains stories about domestic violence.

October is the month of Domestic Violence Awareness and to me, it has become a month of remembering and challenging myself to act and speak with courage.

Remembering in the month of October for me is like going to my grandmother’s house last month when the memory of me, around five years old, sitting under the kitchen table and calling law enforcement because my grandfather was beating my grandmother. I remember the glossed over look in the police officer’s eyes as the police, instead of arresting my grandfather, demanded that he leave the property.  And I remember not knowing if I wanted them to arrest him or not because he was my grandfather and I loved him and in this moment, I didn’t know if I should. 

Remembering in the month of October is like my older cousin coming to visit and piecing together the flashes in my head, As she retells what is so difficult for me to remember, I now understand why that night when all of the cousins stayed at my aunt’s house, the men of my family went into the closets to take their guns and left in a rush: it was because my cousin was dangerously brutalized by a man that we all knew.

Remembering in the month of October for me is like finally understanding why I stayed in a domestically abusive relationship in my early twenties. I did not realize the reasons why until after the relationship was done, despite bruises and cuts that I would always forgive him for.

Remembering in the month of October for me is memories from last summer when I buried one of my childhood friends. Her name was Diana Duve and I met her when I first moved to Vero Beach, Florida my junior year of high school. Although I have never been described as “shy,” the first time I met Diana was at my first high school party in Vero and I was incurably awkward.  As someone who was not particularly popular at my previous two high schools, I was nervous about making a good impression on a group of people whom I had just met. In lieu of introducing myself to people and engaging in conversation, I opted instead to sit alone on the edge of a worn-out couch, in an unfamiliar living room, holding on to my purse like a child with a comfort blankie.             

Just as I felt ready to throw in the towel and go home, a petite girl with brown hair, streaked with blond (a la early 2000’s), and a button nose, rosy from a night of drinking, sat down next to me and handed me a beer. At the time, I did not drink but I still politely accepted the gesture and after cracking open the can and taking the smallest sip possible, I proceeded to use it as a prop for the rest of the night. This girl, Diana, was a Russian-speaking immigrant from Moldova, with a crass sense of humor but a warm smile, and she would come to be a wonderful friend, wing-woman, and confidante to me for almost ten years.

Even though our circle of friends did not communicate as much as we used to after graduating from high school, and even less so after college, we would all still get together in Vero during the holiday seasons and always held a special place in each other’s hearts (and even homes), whenever we needed it.

Diana was the girl that I always imagined at my wedding and me at hers. I imagined us becoming adults.  I imagined us returning to our hometown with our friends to raise our children together and watch them grow up and have as much fun as we all did together while in school. I imagined us rolling our eyes as we prom dress-shopped for our daughters, and getting together to drink beers and laugh at our husbands on Football Sundays. I imagined her life and mine, friends for always… I imagined so many future memories for our high school group (affectionately named "The Crunk Crew"), but I never imagined burying Diana to be one of them.

As the 4th of July was approaching last year, I planned to return home to Vero to spend “Independence Day” with the "Crunk Crew," as we did almost every summer. Bored, I was on Instagram when I saw a "Missing" flyer for Diana. Assuming it was a joke, I rolled my eyes and commented on my friend's picture, inquiring what inside joke this meme could have been for. Seconds later, my friend texted me and told me that it was not a joke, that Diana had actually gone missing and it had been three days since anyone had seen her.

Horrified, I took to every social media platform I had to solicit help in finding her. Checking in regularly with friends back home for the rest of the day, there had still been no word from her and I went to sleep that night with an uneasiness that I could not shake. I woke up early the next day hoping that there may be good news but there wasn't any. Diana was found, strangled in the trunk of her car about 30 miles north of our hometown. Her ex-boyfriend, with whom she was last seen, wasn't captured as the accused until later that day in a motel room that he'd paid cash for, 30 miles south of Vero Beach.

It wasn't until later that I realized that I had met this guy a year prior at a bar, before Diana or any of our friends did. Had I known that she was dating him, I would have told her how, when I met him, he gave me the creeps and even went through my purse that night and used my cell phone to email pictures of myself and my friends to him. Had I known that he beat her, I would have told her about how my ex-boyfriend used to hurt me and how I was too ashamed to tell anyone then but I would have done so for her.

As a woman of color in the racial justice movement, I often feel forced, whether consciously or subconsciously, by society and even my peers at times, to choose to defend either my womanhood or my Blackness but never both at the same time.

After Diana died, I made a promise to her at her funeral to do everything in my power to ensure that another life would not be lost in the patriarchal war. As I was then the Political Director for the Dream Defenders, I remember calling and texting every legislator and attorney that I knew, asking for any policy that they may have to support me in somehow “avenging” my late friend. Even though I received a wealth of information of the subject of domestic violence policy, every initiative that I could think of for the Dream Defenders to push at the state level would eventually hit a wall because it would disproportionately have negative effects on low-income and/or families of color.

Although only a handful of my close friends knew about my true relationship with my ex-boyfriend from college, I never called my experience what it was - domestic violence -  until the day I found out Diana died. With sweaty palms, shaking hands, and tears streaming down my face, I sat in the corner of my friend's living room and shared one of my most intimate secrets: I am a survivor of domestic violence.   

Exasperated with my dead end quest for avenging Diana’s murder through legislation, I told the Twitterverse my story of how the violence began, my disbelief in the fact that it was happening to me, and of how I never began to fully process the violence until finding out that Diana had been killed.

What was surprising to me was not the comments of support that I received from friends and strangers alike, but rather the stories that people shared with me in return. Stories that sounded so much like my own. Stories of survivors and of those who, until reading my confession, had never admitted to anyone, including themselves that they were in a violent relationship. Months later, I received a Twitter message from Tyler C. who found me through my Tweets about my experience. They wanted to thank me because right after reading my story, they found the courage to change their own story and leave their partner. Now, they are happier, healthier, and also committed to ending domestic violence.

Sharing stories about domestic violence is not comfortable. It is tragic, it is dark, and it is horrific. You’ll feel tense, you’ll cry, and you may begin the painful process of uncovering memories that you’ve pushed out of your mind for years. But one day, you won’t feel compelled to “cringe” so much. You’ll be able to sit and share your experience without being interrupted by a spout of tears.

Dr. Brené Brown, a scholar, author, research professor, and one of my biggest heroes, writes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, that the true definition of courage is “speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart”. She goes on to say that “every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver”.

The shame that lurks in the recesses of stories that go unshared works in a myriad of ways. Left unattended, it festers, it grows, and it kills. Shame is alleviated when we tell our stories. Our stories are our connection to one another. It is our life force and it can be a way of protecting others from a fate even worse than death - living a life of fear, pain and regret. This October and for the rest of the year, I am asking that you have courageous conversations about the violence that all too often normalized by our society. Sharing our stories is the first step to getting free.