Living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is, in many ways, similar to living with cockroaches. When you first notice the infestation, it’s all you can think about. Even if it’s small, even if you only see a little black bug scuttling across the kitchen floor once every few days, you are consumed by panic. You feel their legs brushing your face as you lie in bed trying to fall asleep. You imagine their wiggling antennae poking out from the bottom of your coffee cup. Under every pillow, behind every cabinet, you imagine you will uncover a new nest, writhing with horrible little bodies that scurry across your toes as they try to escape the sudden exposure.
Then, after a while, you get used to them. They get worse; they multiply. But you stop noticing. Eventually, you flick them off your body like nothing. You watch with dull reserve when you uncover yet another nest. They become a part of your life. Once you have roaches, you can never really get rid of them—you can only try to mitigate their effects.
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Women have been dealing with a lot of roaches. The viral MeToo hashtag has brought to light the horrifying impact of sexual and physical assault against women, which is an inarguable advance from the (sometimes not-so-distant) times when violence against women was so widely accepted it was used to sell household products. Like any powerful social movement, however, it has its critics. “Why now?” has become one of the biggest questions detractors are asking. If this is such a major problem, why didn’t survivors come forward earlier? Why do so many still hold back from reporting, or testifying in court?
People still ask me those questions. They ask even though it’s 10 years after the end of my abusive relationship, and even though I still live in a world overrun by my trauma. They ask even though providing the testimony that would incarcerate my abuser meant inviting a lifetime of PTSD, which arises only in the aftermath of trauma, when the long-used survival mechanisms fail to shut off.
The events that took place between the ages of 15 and 20 remain trapped in my body like shrapnel too precarious to be extracted. They are distanced from the rest of me by dissociation and selective amnesia; psychological post-traumatic scar tissue. I can’t always recall the details attached to each trigger, but I know them by their symptoms: anger, shame, debilitating self-doubt, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, substance use, an unshakable sense of not belonging.
I didn’t know exactly how much the aftermath would hurt until I finally walked away, but I had inklings every time I tried. I would spend days cycling between joy and misery; torn between my desire to live free from violence, and the despairing knowledge that healing would require painful, arduous work. When I finally testified, it was in spite of myself. I had already recanted previous reports countless times before I finally gathered the courage to stand my ground.
Domestic violence is so intensely damaging because it is personal, targeted, isolating, and private, but that pressure to recant is nearly universal. In a 2011 study of abuser-victim dynamics, Amy Bonomi and other researchers listened in on recorded conversations between jailed male abusers and their female partners. In 17 of 25 pairings, the abuser was able to convince his partner to recant her testimony (the other conversations were inaudible or included people who were not the primary victim). All of these conversations followed a pattern: The abuser first minimized the assault, then elicited sympathy from his victim by describing the hardship of life in jail, before romanticizing the “good times,” bonding over a shared dislike of a hostile authority figure, and finally requesting that she recant.
Given the likelihood that victims recant, it’s no wonder prosecutors seemed concerned when my abuser’s conviction hinged on my testimony. The county assigned me a victim’s advocate who coached me through the court process and periodically checked in on my welfare and willingness to speak in court. But after the sentencing, it was four years before I heard from their office again—and then only to meet with me briefly about his release. I was not set up with a network of trauma care workers. Nobody followed up to learn whether I had stable housing, or how my job search was going after school. I was left alone to deal with the aftermath, and 10 years later I am still struggling to overcome that oversight.
Studies have found that women who survive intimate partner violence suffer myriad long-term physical and mental consequences. (Although domestic violence happens across the gender spectrum, it is most common between male assailants with female partners; because of this, most research focuses on couples that fit this dynamic). Digestive problems, eating disorders, issues with reproductive organs, headaches, and blackouts are some of the most common physical ailments associated with domestic violence. PTSD develops at a 74:3 ratio in women who have been abused versus those who have not.
I’ve always lived below the poverty line, but before developing PTSD, I never struggled for what I really needed. The aftermath of abuse left me floundering for everything. No one warned me how hard it would be to stay alive after the relationship was over. I was able to complete graduate studies in writing, but not without a good dose of heroin—and that, of course, came with its own set of debilitating consequences. Before building enough contacts and credits to work as an income-earning freelance writer, I was mostly unemployed, occasionally bouncing between telefunding jobs, and constantly struggling to keep my family housed and fed. Even recently, when my husband suffered a costly health complication, we ended up with an impending eviction that we were only able to skirt through an online fundraiser.
The financial devastation I experienced is not unique. Since the 1990s, health officials have known that battered women experience significant interruptions to their jobs that include unemployment, missing work, being late or leaving early, and even being fired. More recent data confirm that financial insecurity continues to be a major issue for abuse survivors—domestic violence is thought to account for a combined total loss of 8 million work days each year. Couple that with the fact that 99 percent of women who are physically abused also experience financial abuse, and the well-recorded difficulties associated with escaping poverty (especially if mental illness is involved), and you begin to see a very grim picture—one that leaves already-vulnerable victims struggling to access enough resources to survive.
Survivors of intimate partner violence should not disappear into a black hole after escaping the abuse, nor should we assume they are okay just because they are “safe.” The evidence says they are not. And so, six months into #MeToo, we need to start dealing with the wreckage. #MeToo allowed women to realize that they were not alone—that many of us have cockroaches, and the filth does not belong to us. #MeToo allowed women to let out a long-awaited sigh of relief. But it also triggered some survivors, who weren’t ready to face their trauma. It made women feel guilty for not being ready. It made those on the outside think that sending the aggressor to prison was the end of the story. It made people forget that domestic violence survivors still need help, even after the relationship ends.
There is no longer any basis to argue that domestic violence doesn’t have a long-term physical, psychological, and financial toll. The question is now, what are we going to do about it?