That’s the number of people per minute who are victims of rape or physical violence by a person who said they loved them. I was the 24.
That invisible 24 that no one wants to talk about, unseen, unnamed, too ashamed that we might be the ones blamed or asked again and again why we stayed. But pretending it doesn’t exist, doesn’t make it go away- because that number, 24- it is big and it is bright, and it is written in bruises and blood.
I never thought I’d be the 24, but it doesn’t start with bruises or blame, it starts with gifts, dinners and sweet nothings and a whole lot of game. With a certain amount of charm and just enough normalcy to keep you blindsided. It starts with something like:
“Baby, it’s been a long day, can you please rub my feet?” And then it becomes, “You never rub my feet anymore.” And then one day it turns into, “Why aren’t you rubbing my feet? You must not even love me.”
And that’s where the trap begins of trying to prove your love and goodness to a person who lacks it within. So you give, and you give, and sometimes it’s just unclear, the gaping difference between the man we love and the man he is and the man he was, and so we stay.
And I’ve been there before, I’ve said those words, “I will never let a man put his hands on me!” It’s so easy for you to say when we should have walked away. You ask what did we do when you should ask what has he done? Because we were the ones trying to do right — keeping a family together, grinning through tears, dying of loneliness in a fisted cage of fear and just trying to love this man night after night, the one we vowed to be with for life, and so we stay.
It’s the embarrassment and shame that plays over and over, whispering our names time and again; and all it says is, this is the bed you created, you picked out the sheets, tucked in and made it, so you keep on sleeping no matter how jaded. And so we stay.
But his fist didn’t hit me, and I wasn’t black and blue, and I wasn’t bruised, and they keep saying, did he hit you, did he hit you, you tell me if he hits you. So then what about the night he poured that bottle of whiskey over my head, and I just stood there and cried. They sure knew how to bend the rules of what could maybe, possibly, probably not constitute as abuse and so we stay.
For some of us, he said if we ever left, he would make us pay. But we were broke, we had paid in pain and tears and blood and so to stay alive, you stay and to stay you die a little more inside every day loving this person and hoping their behavior will change. They’ll tell you, “Baby I’m so sorry” and apologize, but their words have lies written in every letter like invisible ink.
So if you plan to stay alive, you plan to stay, or you quietly plan your escape. You may think we were doormats and weak, but we know in the two weeks after a woman leaves her abuser she is 70 times more likely to end up dead than if she had just stayed.
Living with him was like Murphy’s law where whatever could go wrong did go wrong and the rules changed every day and not keeping keep up, not knowing the moves, the plays, I always lost his sick twisted games.
And there were good times too; I felt loved. The ups never lasted very long and what goes up must come down, and his downs crashed like an atomic bomb, and he always made sure it was on the days I laughed the most, or loved the best, or tried the hardest.
Loving him was like a nebular void, never satisfied, his deafening emptiness sucking in all the parts of me I liked the most. He was like a desert, cracks and crevices and my love could never fill them all. No matter how much I gave, he always demanded more and more and more until the only parts of me I had left lived in those crevices, and I became those cracks.
And then one night, everything changed. After making demands of me and expecting me to obey, he ended with those words I had heard so many times before.
“If you don’t like it then, GO, there’s the door.”
I don’t know what came over me at the moment. I don’t know if I lost my mind or if I finally found it, but as soon as I felt the words roll from my tongue I wished I could reach out and shove them back in.
I said, “Maybe I will.”
And to that, he replied, “Maybe this will help you decide.” Then he struck me in the throat with his closed fist, and as I ran to the door, unable to breathe, he grabbed ahold of me, his arms around my throat and squeezed.
As I squirmed and tried to get free, my vision fading, my body beginning to numb, I should have torn off this mask and fought him like the monster he had made me. Instead, as his arms choked the life from my lungs I thought if I’m nice and lie still, he might decide to save me.
But as my eyes glazed, something inside of me changed.
See he found me while I was falling after this storm, a mess, I thought he could save. A drop of rain he caught in his hand and thought he could claim. What he didn’t know in his blinded pain is that the waters of this earth the ocean and the drops of rain are one in the same.
When you try to shake the shoulders of the ocean floor with your volcanoes built of control and rage, eventually a tsunami rises to smash your fisted cage, and right there, right then, I became brave.
And I scratched and I clawed, and I traced his arm in fingerprints of his own blood until he budged enough for me to draw a sip of breath, and I’m not sure if I spoke words or just blew air, but as his arms tightened once more I spoke out the one Name I knew could save me and his body fell motionless to the floor.
That’s the last night I was part of the 24.
Now, not often, but every once in a while he haunts me. Sitting in rooms behind unlocked doors, the loud noise over my shoulder, when I see anger behind another man’s eyes, but I give it no power, I pay it no mind.
What I know now is the earth’s angriest rumbles make the highest mountains rise. With this courage we’ve found, we will rise a thousand more times.
I’m not up here for your pity or applause or because this is just some cause that I want you to care about. I’m standing here to tell you that when 1 in 4 women are abused, claiming domestic violence is a just women’s issue is just an excuse not to be involved. Because if we’re not involved, we can continue to pretend that our mothers, sisters, daughters and friends are not being hurt at the hands of men. We need the men who are against this cruelty and violence to stand up as leaders, to speak in the silence and stand here beside us because this issue starts and ends in the hands and hearts of men.
It’s the social stigma, the shame and the blame and the fear of naming names that keep us answering, “Why did you stay?” When you should be asking me how the hell I stayed alive!
I never got the whole label of domestic violence survivor, but I get it now. Because when you make it out alive, you earn the right to say I survived. I was the 24 and I’m not anymore but in the 11 minutes it took me to give you this speech, that number has grown to 264.