Just about a year ago, I told you why I believe that breast cancer awareness month should matter to young women. As someone who had breast cancer in her twenties, it was important to me to tell all of you that while the occurrences of breast cancer in young women may be extremely low, it is important for you to feel up your boobs and speak up if you felt something weird. And while that’s a good message to share all year round, it’s particularly important in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
And now it’s October again, and I have another story to tell you. But this time it’s not about breast cancer; it’s about the other cause that October is an awareness month for – Domestic Violence. And unfortunately, it too is something I have personal experience with.
When I was younger, I lived with my aunt, my uncle, and their kids during the summers. My mom was a single parent, and it was easier (and cheaper, I imagine) if I went there instead of heading to sleep away camp or having an endless string of babysitters. Being an only child during the school year, I loved the summers spent as the de-facto middle child in my close-knit group of cousins. As I got older and the summertime oversight of my aunt and uncle was no longer needed, my cousins and I still hung out – not because we had to, but because we wanted to. Until the summer that it all changed.
The summer before my senior year of high school, my female cousin (who’s few years older than me and was already in college at the time) met a guy, fell in love, and soon became engaged. While it seemed a bit quick to all of us, when someone is happy, you’re happy for them, right? So much so that you maybe don’t question the little changes – like when she says she needs to check with him before she can make plans or how she is suddenly much more clumsy than she used to be, as she explains away the random bruises.
You can see where this is going – she was being abused. We all figured it out by about Halloween, but when someone you love chooses to stay in an abusive relationship, there isn’t much you can do. It’s a feeling of complete powerlessness. The decision to leave is up to that person, and that person alone. That decision was one that my cousin finally made on Christmas Eve of that year. He had refused to let her leave the apartment for a number of days, was rationing her food and water, and only allowed her to go into the bathroom with the door open so she couldn’t do anything “sneaky.” When she finally made the decision to leave, we all thought the nightmare was finally over. But we were wrong – it was only beginning.
Her fiancé was pre-law, and he knew how to manipulate the system. He would sit just beyond the length of the restraining order, terrorizing my cousin to the point she wouldn’t leave the house. He would show up outside my school or my aunt’s work, since the order only applied to her – sending the message that if he couldn’t get to her, he would get to those most important to her. Eventually things got so bad that my mother and my aunt made the decision to pull myself and my younger cousin out of school and move the family two hours away to an extended stay hotel, where we waited for a month for him to violate the restraining order (by trying to set fire to my house in the middle to the night) and be jailed.
I don’t share this story because I want a dose of sympathy. I share it to show that this can happen to anyone – any race, socio-economic status, or educational level. Domestic violence, much like breast cancer, doesn’t discriminate. My cousin was a smart, upper-middle class, self-assured self-starter, who was succeeding in college when this horror story began. In fact, she was probably a lot like you. So if you think domestic violence isn’t something that can happen to you or to one of your friends, you’re wrong.
Today, my cousin is again the woman we knew her to be – confident, strong, and a fantastic mother to munchkins I love with all of my heart. But part of the reason she was able to leave, and to recover, was because she had a strong family unit and access to incredible resources, both financial and emotional. Unfortunately, many victims of domestic violence may not have a strong family unit or access to resources that can assist them.
As women, and as possible victims or friends of victims ourselves, it’s our job – our responsibility – to make sure that all victims of domestic violence have the ability to leave their abusers, if and when they make the difficult decision to take that step. This month, as you see tons of people in pink raising awareness for breast cancer, I urge to you add something a little bit different to your outfit of support. Put on a purple ribbon and raise awareness for Victims of Domestic Violence. Seek out and publicize the domestic violence counseling services on your campus and in your community for those that may need that assistance, whether you are aware of the need or not. Educate yourself on how to best assist a friend who needs your support in order to leave a violent relationship. Learn how to have those powerful conversations – appropriately – with a friend or family member who you fear may be in an abusive relationship of some kind. You never know when your words or support may make a difference, or even save a life..
For more information on how to assist a friend or family member who may be being abused – or if you are a victim of domestic violence yourself – visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline website or call them at 1-800-799-7233.
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