“A woman in a violent relationship is often on high alert: She may be frightened about being killed or worried about her kids; if she tries to get away, she may be stalked. All that stress is really toxic. There’s no organ that’s immune. Your whole body is at risk.”
TRIGGER WARNING for sexual assault victims/survivors.
I’ve been to two different women’s empowerment events this month. The last one I went to was on Leadership and Advocacy and we talked a lot about financial empowerment, speaking up and domestic and sexual violence. The first was about the chronic health impacts of domestic violence. Did you know that women who have left abusive relationships suffer from far higher than normal rates of chronic health problems, including arthritis and hormonal disorders, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, chronic pain, severe headaches and irritable bowel syndrome? As a result, these women spend nearly 20 percent more money on medical care than other women.1 It was a staggering piece of information for me to hear. I have asthma and irritable bowel. I have bouts of anxiety and am tense and apprehensive, I’d even say scared, every time I have to face my ex-husband. Any time I see an Audi emblem driving towards me on the street my heart beats a little faster. These are some of the things that could lead me to suffer from hypertension or heart disease. Despite finding the courage and strength to leave an abusive situation these women could still suffer for the rest of their lives.
This thought, that I could have chronic health problems because of the short time I spent with my ex-husband, made me both angry and frustrated. I am currently on a path to recovery with a torn meniscus. It is likely that this cartilage tear occurred when my ex-husband picked me up and threw me like a pillow, spraining my left knee and causing a back contusion. I often have pain in my hip from this same incident.
Leslie Morgan Steiner, the woman who inspired me to speak out against domestic violence, was a participant in this study. She discussed this with us when she spoke at the conference two weeks back. When she recounted her interview she said “the fear is in my bones.” I will now paraphrase her but she said I am fine now, I live a happy life, but if I were to ever see [her ex-husband] again I would start shaking because “the fear is in my bones.” This immediately clicked with me and it occurred to me that these chronic health impacts likely exist for victims of child abuse or sexual assault.
On May 4 of this year I went with my then fiancé, Markus, and a friend of ours to see another friend, Ami Brabson, in a critically acclaimed performance in a show called TOUGH TITTY at the Paradise Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village. On the same block, just around the corner from this theatre, I was raped in a bar 8 years ago. I had been dating someone who had a show in residence at another theatre in the neighborhood and I went to Dempsey’s a few times and got to know this guy, an Irishman who wanted to be an actor. He was sweet to me and liked to chat. Knowing I had worked in casting he asked if I would look at his reel sometime. I said “sure” and forgot about it. A couple of weeks later I was at Dempsey’s again, this time with a girlfriend of mine. Colin talked to us, introduced Erin to a buddy of his and told me he had his reel with him if I’d still look at it. I was happy to offer an opinion so went with Colin to the back of the bar into an office or storage room, I’m not sure. When I walked through the door in front of him he turned out the lights. It was pitch black. He grabbed me, forcefully and kissed my neck. Then turned me around and kissed my lips. I was startled but responded. When he started to grab at my breasts I tried brushing his hands away. I told him to stop several times. He unbuttoned my pants. I repeatedly said “No, Colin, stop.” Then he threw me onto a table against a wall. My left hand stopped my face from smashing into the wall. He pulled my hair tight and pushed my face down onto the table. I was scared. It was loud just beyond the door. No one could hear me but I could hear every breath he took. I could feel and hear every movement. I stopped fighting. I couldn’t move my wrist and was sure it might be broken. It didn’t take long for him to finish. Maybe five minutes. I just laid there, bent over this table in the darkness as he pulled his pants up. I remember the sound of the zipper still. He told me to “come on, let’s get back.” I pulled up my jeans and straightened my hair. I was humiliated and ashamed. A few weeks later I discovered that he had given me genital warts. It was painful, uncomfortable and I felt dirty and to blame. Each trip to the Margaret Sanger Center for another treatment was painful and pushed me deeper into a pit.
It was months before I could call my experience “rape”. I knew the guy. I willingly went with him into a private room at a noisy bar. I had flirted with him. I kissed him back. Clearly I was the one to blame. I fell into a deep depression. I wasn’t working. I was starting to fear I’d have to return home. Instead, a wonderful woman at the Beth Israel Rape Crisis Program saved me. We worked for three months to make me whole again, to forgive myself for trusting. I decided to not have sex with anyone for a year so that I would have time to focus on myself and my healing. I worked vigorously on my being. When I became sexually active again I did more work to empower myself as a sexual creature who could control my situations. I still call my recovery a success, despite the other setbacks I had once the abuse started with my ex-husband.
Back to Leslie Morgan Steiner and May 4. My then fiancé was driving and found a free parking spot on 2nd Avenue. We were one storefront from Dempsey’s. It had taken years to get me back in the neighborhood and now I could walk by the bar without worry. But then I saw Colin. It never occurred to that he may still work or hang out there. There he was, standing with a group of men smoking and laughing. My body immediately began to shake. I couldn’t breathe. I could barely move. I was stunned. Markus asked what was wrong and when I told him he asked “who? Which one is he?” I hesitated to tell him because my ex-husband had repeatedly insisted I tell him who and where so he could go, in his words, “beat the shit out of the guy.” I remembered it was Markus and that wasn’t going to happen. As we turned the corner to head to the theatre I pointed him out. I was in shock I think. I couldn’t stop shaking. My breath was shallow and uneven. . If Markus hadn’t been there to literally guide me and to give me the strength to walk away I don’t know what I would have done that night. He didn’t let go of my hand for hours and that made all the difference. Though I have worked to recover from that incident the fear still lives in my bones.
If you think that you may have been a victim of date or acquaintance rape call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE(4673). I highly recommend “I Never Called It Rape” by Robin Warshaw to help make sense of it. You’re not alone or at fault.
To read the health study published by More Magazine click here.