A Compendium of Voices: Abuse, Assault, Advocacy

TRIGGER WARNING: stories of abuse and assault

The gift of an oil painting set 46 years ago has “saved my life,” says artist and advocate Teresa Vining. “Blue Woman,” 24″ x 36″ oil on canvas.

Teresa Vining: From Abuse to Advocacy 

Eleven was the turning point in my life. Alcoholism grabbed my father and didn’t let go. My mother became the victim of beatings and abuse. What saved me, for 46 years now, is that my older brother gave me an oil painting set.

Because of what I saw at home, I began drinking and taking drugs at 13 to escape. I was the survivor of several sexual assaults, including one where I was drugged in a bar by an older man. I told no one.

I married a controlling and equally abusive man when I left college at 19. The emotional and mental scars broke me down 36 years later.

A year of intense therapy at age 55 brought me to a part-time job at a woman’s shelter. I trained as a court advocate to become a buffer between women and their abusers in courtrooms, as well as to help them navigate the system and be informed of their rights.

I trained to facilitate a domestic violence survivors group in the county jail. I met amazing women with heartbreaking stories. 

I understood them, even though we had landed in different places. Their pain was intense, but so was their strength. They tended to turn to drugs to numb the pain, often supplied by the abuser as a way to further control them. I heard stories of financial enslavement, horrid beatings, being told regularly that they were nothing.

The loss of children was the hardest. Many times women fought the abuser and were arrested. Many women indicated that their injuries were not photographed and documented. It was my privilege to assist in any way I could, but truthfully they helped each other.

Women are not being treated equally under the law, and the far-reaching effects of domestic abuse tend to be off the radar. Many women told me they stopped calling the police because they would simply be berated for not leaving. 

If you have no money, you have been isolated from others, and have been threatened with violence and death for you and your children, what would you do?There are few safe and long-term shelters. Spending on women and children’s issues is so low that it covers only a small percentage of what’s needed.

It should make everyone angry — angry enough to do something about it. 

Sarah M. Super: What to Say to a Trauma Survivor 

I came forward as the victim of a violent rape. Because this experience is tragically common, and because your response can either be healing or hurtful, I have created this guide that draws upon my knowledge of trauma and my own experience as a survivor.

1. Say something. Silence is a reminder of the tremendous isolation that occurred during the traumatic event, compounded by the belief that atrocities are “unspeakable” events. Rape is silenced, unreported, and shamed. There is little conversation or recognition around rape, so the survivor feels as though she walks the healing path alone, despite the fact that, statistically, she is surrounded by other survivors.

2. The very first thing you can say to a survivor is, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” You communicate two necessary requirements for healing: compassion and validation. There is no need to say, “I’m sorry you got raped.” You can simply honor what happened without calling to mind the images.

3. Next steps: If you do not have a close relationship with the survivor, or do not wish to play an active role in their ongoing healing process, don’t offer to help. It’s okay to say, “I’m sorry this happened to you. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers.” Don’t say, “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” if you don’t actually want that responsibility.

If you are a close friend or family member, you must offer specific choices. This requires a little thought about what you can offer. A survivor’s needs are complicated and changing. After my assault I had several people say, “You can call me anytime.” I was waking up from nightmares, so I wondered, did “anytime” include the middle of the night?

By offering choices, you create a freedom for the survivor to choose — a freedom that did not exist during the traumatic experience. Choices are an essential mechanism for healing and empowerment. It also builds a boundary that exists in healthy relationships — the boundary that was crossed during the trauma. 

Use invitational language, such as: “If you would like ___,” “When you are ready…,” or “You are welcome to…” For example, “Would you like to talk about what happened? We could also talk about something else. Your choice. I just want you to know I’m here to support you.” Or, “If it’s helpful, I could bring you dinner. I could bring you lasagna or enchiladas or sesame chicken, your choice. If you would rather not, that is okay too.” 

Do not compare the survivor’s experience to anything you have experienced, or someone else’s experience. Let the survivor share everything she wants to share first. Towards the end of the conversation might be a good time to say something like, “We stand in solidarity. I’m a survivor too. Just know I honor your experience and am healing with you.” 

The best “advice” I received after my assault was to “do whatever you need to heal.”  In summary, be compassionate, follow through on your invitations and commitments, and keep offering choices. 

Latrina Caldwell: “I Am a Work in Progress”

Latrina Caldwell (photo by Sarah Whiting)

I come from a history of trauma. My father decided he didn’t want to be a parent, and was abusive toward my mother. When he died in 2017, we hadn’t spoken in close to ten years.

As a teenager, I entered into my own abusive relationship. At 17, I wasn’t aware that I was repeating the cycle of my parents. My partner was abusive during my pregnancy, which impacted my daughter’s mental health development. When she was eight months old, with the assistance of family, I finally had the courage to leave the relationship and never look back. I began to seek help for myself.

Having a child suffer from mental health issues, when you cannot help, is one of the most painful, heart-aching feelings. Today my baby is 18. I am proud of her — she is driving, going to school, working, and is actively in therapy.

I dropped out of school in ninth grade, but as a mother, I educated myself about mental health. I went back to school when I was 27, because I wanted more for my life in spite of trauma and pain.

The strongest woman I know is my mother. The more I understand her story, the more strength I gain to break the cycle. Growing up without a father, she consciously connected me with other members of my family. She has been damaged, used, abused — and she still finds strength to help others. She is my biggest supporter. My mother lost her mother when she was 12, after my grandmother died of suicide. She lost her role model, her support — a void that was never filled. She told me she trusted in a higher power to become the mother she did not have. 

I started my own healing process by first simply deciding to be a better person. I returned to church. I educated myself in many new areas. I started reading. I pursued self-help workshops. I also learned how to embrace my pain.

Resilience to me is using survivor skills to do things that might seem out of the ordinary. I am a work in progress. My role today is to help other people like me heal. People who have been abused, broken, misused, left out, and scarred. I started my own company: Successful Women on the Move (SWOM).

Details: facebook.com/SWOMSocialClub, includes information about a future guidebook, “I Am Her.”