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What Being a Domestic Violence Survivor is Like


by Jeanette R. Harrison, MPH

What is being a domestic violence survivor like? It's a complete nightmare. How do I know? I am a domestic violence survivor. I have been a domestic violence survivor since I was physically abused and neglected as a child, and I was, in turn, abused as an adult. In fact, over 75% of domestic violence survivors continue to experience abuse throughout their lifetime.  Contrary to popular myth, children who are abused are more likely to not be abusers... at over 75%. However, children who are abused are more likely to be abused as adults. They experience what is known as poly-victimization. That is, they experience abuse or bullying from multiple individuals. 

I could cite a lot of statistics about what being a domestic violence survivor is like. However, I think telling what it is like from my perspective may emphasize my point better. I would like to warn people this may trigger certain individuals. I also would like you to know this is an extremely brave thing for me to do, as I like to keep my feelings about what happened to me to myself. I am sharing this today to educate people, not to "play the victim." I am listening to uplifting and fun music while I write this to distract the emotional part of my brain while I write this. 

1. Difficulty trusting others. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have major trust issues. My friends tell me that it is both endearing and annoying. They know that if I trust them, it is a tremendous compliment and they did something right. Mostly, I come from a place of distrust. As recent as this morning, I had a conversation with someone about my trust issues. I find it hard to trust others because I'm not sure if I let them get close to me if they will hurt me or not. I have let only three people in my apartment in the past three years other than maintenance staff. Two were trusted friends, and one was a member of the clergy. I always have my antennas up about what someone is going to do or what their ulterior motive is. As I told someone today, I always have my armor on, and I find it super hard to open up to people. I was encouraged today to take that armor off because it makes it challenging to get close to me when I do that. Intellectually, I know that is right, but emotionally trusting someone completely makes me want to hyperventilate a little. 

2. Avoidant behaviors. Using avoidant behaviors was my biggest coping mechanism through my early 30s. My favorite avoidant behavior was keeping busy. I made sure I kept busy all the time. If I just kept moving, then I wouldn't have to think about all the things that happened to me. I literally pushed myself until I passed out. My most recent avoidant behavior was moving 1,000 miles away so I would not have to go anywhere that reminded me of the abuse... and for my personal safety. Here in Idaho, I get to feel safe and secure in my home every day. I know no one is going to hurt me, and I will only let people I absolutely trust within an inch of my life get close to me. 

3. Communication problems. As a child, I stuttered and stammered and had a speech disorder as a result of the abuse I experienced. It took years of speech therapy to improve my speech patterns. Speech therapy gave me the confidence and competence to speak to others. To this day, one of my first indicators that I am not managing my stress well is that I start stuttering or stammering or blanking out on my words. I also have a hard time really opening up to people or talking about my life with them. I am literally terrified to share parts of my life with people because I am afraid of how they will use it against me. I am afraid to share things that happened to me for fear others will bully me because I was "talking about them." I write to let out my feelings, and then I stress about the possible backlash that will follow. 

4. Feeling alone and anonymous. Since I have trust issues and am worried about my personal safety a lot of the time, I feel alone a lot. I spend a lot of time alone. I actually leave the house because I can't stand being alone anymore. Thankfully, I am an extrovert, so I want to go out and see people a lot of days. I will literally walk to the park just to see people. I will go to the store just to have someone to talk to. I have friends who I bug all the time... bless their hearts. I am an ENFJ, and I often feel "alone in a crowd." That is a great description of me. I feel alone in a crowd. I both love and loathe that feeling. I loved living in New York, because I loved feeling anonymous after growing up as an older adopted child in a small town and attending college in an even smaller town. Ironically, because of social media, I have accidentally become a public figure. It doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would because I am used to being gossiped about because my life is "interesting" to people. However, I still feel largely misunderstood... even though I admit I am not sure how people are supposed to understand me if I don't tell them how I feel. 

5. Personality changes. This is a big one. Since the last time I was abused, my personality has changed a lot. I hardly know who I am some times. It's hard for people I went to college with 30 years ago to understand this version of me because in some ways I am so opposite of who I used to be. In some ways it is better, in other ways it is worse. I will say that my self-esteem and self-confidence have been destroyed. Rebuilding my confidence and self-esteem is a daily battle for me. In my walking videos, I wear a Tiger Eye necklace. I wear that necklace as a daily reminder to be more self-confident. I get very upset about anything that portrays me in a negative light because I have to work so hard to convince myself that I am not all the negative things that were said to me in the course of psychological and emotional abuse. 

6. Anxiety. After all the types of abuse I endured, it had to affect my psyche. That abuse manifested in me through the development of anxiety. I get called all kinds of names for having anxiety, even though a lot of people have anxiety. I first started noticing my anxiety because I was having panic attacks. Although panic attacks are more triggered by fear, they also have an anxiety element to them. I cannot tell you how awful they were. I felt exposed and suffocated at the same time. Fortunately, the panic attacks made me realize something bad was happening to me... and that I needed to address it. Eventually, the panic attacks reduced to anxiety attacks. The anxiety attacks mostly consisted of me "spiraling" about some issue that was happening to me and pacing in my home. When I feel especially stressed, I still pace back and forth in my home like a caged animal at the zoo. I control my anxiety by exercising, listening to music, meditating, and talking to myself. I talk to myself a lot. I talk about my concerns out loud or to trusted friends... and then I go back and listen to my messages. That way I know how my thinking wasn't that straight or how I need to change my way of thinking about something. Those friends are like life savers to me, and they will never know how much they are helping me get my life back and get back to myself. 

7. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. One day, when I was out walking, something strange happened to me. I was walking along the trail. All of a sudden, everything went blank, and I had a memory of a traumatic event. I was unaware of anything else happening around me. I was only aware of the memory of the traumatic event. When the memory recall was over, the blackness came again, and then I was back to the moment I was in... walking on the trail. Needless to say, I was completely freaked out. Honestly, my brain was freaked out, too. Even though I had developed a lot of great coping mechanisms for dealing with all the traumas I experienced in life, my brain had reached a point where it couldn't handle it any more. After a while, I would notice the symptoms of the onset of a PTSD episode. I would feel very anxious for a few days beforehand, then I would have the PTSD episode, which lasted only a few minutes, then I would feel like I couldn't move. After a PTSD episode, I barely could move off the couch or off my bed for at least a day or two. Then, I was back to my normal self. It was terrifying enough that it forced me to seek help. I was able to overcome PTSD after a friend offered me hypnotherapy. I no longer have PTSD episodes thanks to hypnotherapy and my ongoing meditation practices. I thank my friend as often as I can for curing me of PTSD. That was one of the biggest gifts of my life. 

8. Lack of continuity in life. I want to clarify that I am not talking about a dissociative disorder here. I do not suffer from anything other than anxiety, even though other people try to insinuate that I do. I am talking about an actual lack of continuity in my life. As a child, I was in foster homes, and I did not see those people ever again. I went to live with my adoptive family at age 8, and I did not see anyone in my biological family for over a decade other than my sister. In college and when I was in my 30s and 40s, I sought out my biological family. I was trying to connect the dots in my own life because everything seemed so disconnected. Only at age 48 was I able to connect the dots. Now, I have moved on from an abusive relationship and started a new life 1,000 miles from where I was. I simply walked away from everything in my life. That is it's own form of trauma. I feel really disconnected from my life every day. I also feel very safe in my home every day.

9. Financial issues. My biological mother was a single mother, and we were very poor. I don't know what is poorer than dirt, but we were that. It never occurred to me until recently that it was strange that I had to do everything myself and that most people had other people helping them. I literally had issues up until the past three years about letting people help me. I recall having an argument with a friend that I felt they were "looking down on me" because they were helping me. Financial abuse is experienced by 99% of domestic violence victims. I have been pretty open about how I had to start my life over with $2400, two suitcases, a handful of boxes, and my little dog. What I don't tell is how much I struggled. That first year, I made less than $10,000. I had to get help through grants, the food pantry, and the kindness of strangers. It was so humiliating, embarrassing, humbling, and also oddly empowering. I learned that it was okay for people to help me... even though people close to me still don't help me because they say I have to do everything for myself. I started realizing I was the only one I knew that had to do everything for herself, even people in my own family. Almost everyone else had someone helping them in some way... paying for them to go to college, helping them get jobs, helping them buy a home, helping them buy a car, helping them start over. I was the only one who was like that. I still am looking at why that has happened to me. Because I financially struggled so badly, I have had major financial setbacks. I had to do what I had to do to survive. My life is about survival almost every day. I am happy to report that my income is finally above the poverty level and has been increasing every year. Many domestic violence survivors live in poverty. Once someone is in poverty for 5 years, they most likely will stay there. I have worked very hard to make sure that doesn't happen to me. 

10. Newfound love of self. I want to end on a positive note. I have struggled a lot. However, the past three years, especially, I have a newfound love of myself. I feel more attractive, even though I am an overweight, middle-aged woman. I dress nicer, and I walk with my head up a lot more often. I wrote several books, something I would have been too scared to do before. I love seeing my name in print, and I love it when people recognize me in public. I have taken to social media to educate people about public health issues, and I started a business. I'm actually kind of impressed with myself. How many people do you know who were abused as children and adults, were transitionally homeless, started their lives over, and decided to work their way out of poverty and wrote not one book but 7 books in a matter of a few years, and started a business in the middle of a pandemic with a stimulus check? I'm the only one I know who has done that. I tell myself that if I knew myself I would think that I am a pretty amazing woman! 

To anyone who is thinking of leaving a domestic violence situation, there is hope on the other side. It isn't easy, and there are a lot of days I don't want to get out of bed. I do it anyway. Thankfully, I have a little dog who soft paws me in the face if I don't get up and take her outside. I also have friends who have called me and said, "What are you doing right now?" I had one friend make me promise that if I laid in bed all day one day that I wouldn't do it the next day. Being accountable to that person worked for me. A lot of times I lament that I feel so alone in this. The truth is, I am not alone in this. I have a lot of people who are in it to win it with me. 


  1. Jeanette- This is very brave of you! I know that every time I open up and tell bits and pieces of my story, I hear a different kind of "me too" (#metoo). Which is absolutely bittersweet, because 1) you know you're not alone 2) you are NOT alone! Too many people "get it", and that's sad. I appreciate the level of vulnerability that you were willing to share, because it's also empowering and motivational. As Brene Brown says, One day your story may be someone else's survival guide. So thanks for sharing some of the "hard stuff" that you've survived! - Kelly :)

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words and response. I have received so much positive feedback from other survivors. People who have truly moved past being a victim and reclaimed their lives. I am so glad that I could be at least part of someone else's survival guide.

  2. You obviously have no real idea of what domestic violence is really about. Telling your story may help you but one else. The strongest people I know do not let their past define them You’re wearing yours like a professional victim badge

    1. I am truly and saddened and disappointed by your callous response. I do, unfortunately, have a very real idea of what domestic violence is about. Telling my story has helped at least dozens of other women who shared with me how much it meant to them that someone spoke out about how it is to be a survivor. My past does not define me. However, it appears you did not read the post, or else you would realize that the post is about overcoming a traumatic past rather than being defined by it. It seems to me that you are trying to place the victim badge on me. I wear an overcomer and thriver badge.

  3. I also would like to provide you with multiple resources that encourage domestic violence survivors to share their story.
    Break Your Silence,to%20seek%20help%20and%20support.
    Storytelling as a documentation method, healing process, and means of mobilizing survivors. Berkely Law.
    Domestic Violence Awareness Project
    The Power of Sharing Your Story
    From the Front Room


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