‘You can’t ‘til you can:’ On recognizing the signs of domestic violence

Each week the Honey newsletter includes a column from women and LGBTQ folks in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. We’re always looking for more stories from you. Click here to learn more about how to get published.

By Courtney Walker 

I became a victim of domestic violence when I was just 17 years old. I remember sitting beside my partner during a “healthy relationships” lecture in my junior year of high school. The entire 9th through 12th grade sat together in the gymnasium and listened to the signs of an abusive relationship. 

The lecturer included the obvious signs like a black eye, bruises, lacerations, etc. But what they didn’t warn about was the jealousy, isolation, intimidation, possessiveness, destruction of property, control of finances and other less noticeable behaviors that often indicate abuse. At that point, my boyfriend was gaslighting, shoving, pinching, and cursing at me regularly. And I remember sitting there and desperately trying to convince myself that surely my partner was not the type of person they were describing. It couldn’t be me.

Later that year, I went to a teacher I trusted and then to my high school administration about the abuse. I was pulled out of class and taken to a conference room where I anxiously waited for DHR to get there to take a statement. While waiting, I received a text from my abuser asking me why I told the principal about our relationship. “We are just going through a rough spot. I won’t be able to play baseball,” he wrote. Immediately, I began second guessing if I should follow through with the accusations. Through tears and several panic attacks, I did go through with it. But the very next day I drove back to DHR to recant my story. I accused the people trying to help me of twisting my words and begged them not to ruin his life. A few weeks later I found out I was pregnant.

Stressful life events can intensify abuse, and my pregnancy did just that. Pinches became punches and shoves became strangulations. To the point that my father petitioned the court for a protection from abuse against him on my behalf. The judge granted it, but my abuser started harassing my family, threatening me and promising to change—all the things an abuser does to gain back control. Again, he convinced me to drop my accusation. The judge dropped the order on the condition of therapy and anger management. We went to one session, and the judge never checked to make sure that we attended. The legal system failed me.  

It failed me again this summer, when it ordered my daughter to begin visits with my abuser. We moved two hours away to escape him after she was born, just for another judge to fail to hold my abuser accountable. I had successfully kept her away from him for five years. None of the forensic exams, police reports and disabilities my daughter was born with—her deafness and low muscle tone brought on by the abuse of my abuser while I was pregnant— matter. It seems all that matters now is that I didn’t press charges back then.

Looking back now, I wish I had documented more, followed through with pressing charges, and not let the people who did not believe me overpower my truth. Above all, I wish I had left the first time he gaslit me, before it became physical. In my domestic violence support group, I hear people who left their abuser say, “you can’t ‘til you can.” 

I would tell someone in the same shoes I found myself in at 17, that love should never hurt. Make decisions based on their actions, not their promises. Confide in someone trustworthy on what is going on. Do not isolate yourself from the people who are supportive. Disregard those who do not believe victims and instead defend the perpetrator. Leave when it is safe and get into therapy as soon as possible. Remember that no one should be unsafe with an intimate partner.

Domestic violence doesn’t always start with a black eye. It doesn’t always look like anything. Domestic violence can start with controlling behaviors like accusing a partner of cheating, not allowing a partner to wear clothes they believe to be inappropriate, or intentionally recalling incidents differently than how they occured to gaslight a partner. If I had known about the warning signs then maybe I could have left sooner. 

My hope is to live in a world where every school and employer is aware of the signs of domestic violence, where people don’t accuse athletes’ partners of making accusations for money or attention, and where men aren’t doubted due to the stigma that women cannot be abusive. It may take some time, but I believe through advocacy and awareness we can get there one day. There needs to be more awareness and change in schools, places of employment, and the world in general regarding domestic violence. Despite any wrong decisions I made or regrets I have throughout my journey surviving domestic violence, I know now that I am worthy of safety, respect and love. While my daughter and I may never receive the justice we deserve, I find purpose in sharing my story in hope that it reaches someone who needs it.

Courtney Walker is a mother and teacher in Birmingham, AL. She enjoys exercising, baking, and writing in her free time. You can read more of her writing at her blog All Hears.

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