The Reality of Abuse

I felt 6 inches tall before I could stand 5 feet 2 inches. I used to think I was a coward more than I ever thought of myself as a victim. In my mind, being a victim meant I couldn’t handle my problems. I didn’t want to accept that I wasn’t capable of fixing them. I wanted to be tough. I wanted to be solid.

But abuse robs the strength out of your heart more than you could ever imagine. It takes you by surprise; it scares you to realize how easily you can be silenced when faced with fear and pain.

I don’t remember the exact days or times, but I remember the location of the bruises. I remember the lies I told my roommate and friends about hanging out in other dorms when in reality I would take walks around campus alone. The benches in Aldrich Park became my best friends. I was hiding.

Abuse comes in multiple forms: physical, verbal, sexual, emotional and psychological. According to the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence’s (CPEDV) Web site, California law enforcement received 174,649 domestic violence calls in 2007 alone. The site also notes that, on average in the United States, more than three women are murdered daily by their husbands or boyfriends.

Women are not the sole victims of abuse. While the CPEDV approximates that nearly 1.5 million women are raped or physically assaulted each year, so are 843,700 men. The truth is that regardless of age, class, gender or race, abuse can happen to anyone, anywhere.

“Nobody believes it can happen to them,” said Vivian Cleclak, founder of Human Options, a domestic violence agency based in Orange County. Cleclak, who founded Human Options back in 1981, has won several awards for her efforts to raise awareness about the threat of domestic violence. The key, she says, is education about the subject.

“It’s not an easy subject to talk about,” admitted Nikola Howay, a third-year undergraduate at Vanguard University. Howay just finished domestic violence advocacy training at Laura’s House in south Orange County. Laura’s House provides a number of services to victims of abuse, including shelter, counseling and legal services, as well as H.E.A.R.T. (Healthy Emotions and Attitudes in Relationships for Teens), a program aimed at teens and tweens.

“The deadliest thing about domestic violence is the silence and the fear that it has over you because you are too embarrassed, ashamed or scared of what is happening,” Nikola added.

The University of California Police Department’s annual statistics shows that, in 2008, there was a total of 12 domestic violence cases reported at UCI — the same amount reported at UC Berkeley — a campus known for its high crime statistics. Overall in 2008, there were 95 reported domestic violence cases throughout the 10 UC campuses.

“I think there is a large proportion of victims who don’t report,” said fourth-year Emily Hurford, a peer educator for UCI’s Right to KNOW program. Right to KNOW is comprised of a group of peer educators whose mission is to raise awareness on campus about sexual assault and violence. “It can be hard for students to ask for help when they have been victimized,” Hurford acknowledged.

“Know that the assault is not your fault,” fourth-year Geraldo Rayzgoza emphasized. Rayzgoza is a peer educator for CHAMPS at UCI, another organization that is educating people about domestic violence. CHAMPS (Challenging All Men to Prevent Sexism) is a male peer-education group founded on the belief that men play an important role in preventing violence and oppression.

“It is no coincidence that the vast majority of relationship violence and sexual assault is committed by men when we consider the way that men are socialized and bullied into acting tough and aggressive,” said Robert Buelow, CHAMPS Advisor and Violence Prevention Coordinator at UCI Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE). “We’re not going to stop violence if the only people we focus on are the victims.”

Though domestic violence and relationship abuse affects such a large number of people in the country, victims are not always given the support they need, which causes many to hesitate when it comes to asking for help or leaving the situation. Marissa Presley, Prevention Education Specialist at Laura’s House, noted that victims of domestic violence, no matter the age, will leave an abusive relationship at least seven times before leaving permanently.

Health insurance companies continue to add to victims’ fear. Currently in eight states and the District of Columbia, it is legal for insurance companies to deny battered women health coverage on the grounds that domestic violence is considered a pre-existing condition.

“This policy is a symptom of the tendency to pathologize victims,” said Dr. Mandy Mount, director of UCI CARE. “People are invested in seeing something ‘wrong’ with a person who is being abused.”

UCI CARE, Right to KNOW and CHAMPS have taken a proactive effort to raise awareness about domestic violence and abuse at UCI. On Oct. 19, T-shirts with writing on them hung around Gateway Plaza as part of “The Clothesline Project,” a display created by survivors of sexual assault and their loved ones. Each T-shirt shared the story and experiences of sexual assault victims and drew the attention of passersby. Other events include Denim Day, Take Back the Night and the UCI Red Flag Project.

These projects, as well as other national and global movements, hope to shed light on the reality of domestic violence as a social problem.

“It’s time to talk about domestic violence,” urged the Liz Clairborne, Inc. campaign, “Love Is Not Abuse.”

I had initially given up too easily. My attempts to speak up were defeated by everyone’s concerns with midterms and finals so I stopped trying; I believed the pain and the hurt was a normal part of a mature relationship.

My roommate at the time had no idea, and neither did my friends in the dorms. In some ways, this is my confession to them and it’s a confession to myself:

Pretending to be strong can only get you so far. Sometimes, you need to depend on other people. Looking back, I realize I didn’t let anyone be there for me. Though I can’t change what happened or the way I responded to it, I can control now how I proceed with my story — with hope and with confidence.

If you or someone you know needs help, dial the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE, and for more about UCI CARE and its services, visit www.care.uci.edu/.