The lawyer leaned forward to speak into the microphone and said, “You didn’t post anything about domestic violence on Facebook,” basically saying, “If you didn’t post about it on social media, it didn’t happen.”
I sat in the gallery of the courtroom and tried not to cry out about how ridiculous his words were. Who openly shares the pain they’re going through when they are in the middle of being abused by someone? Who puts out a billboard to point the way to personal trauma?
When I look back over the pictures from my relationship with my abuser, I see smiles. Christmas after Christmas has me grinning through the opening of gifts that are for “me” that I would never choose — a tea maker, an iron, knives, etc. — because to look ungrateful could lead to pain. To look unhappy in any photos led to pain.
“What’s wrong? Aren’t you happy to be married to me?”
“Did you hate the gift I got you?” (followed by smashing of said gift)
“You can’t at least pretend like you weren’t being a bitch to me that day? I can give you a reason to be angry.”
Wearing the mask of a smile is a pretty normal thing for victims to do. Sometimes that mask plays out in words about our abuser, about how wonderful he or she is. Sometimes it plays out in social media with posts that are meant to boost an ego, or even to speak of the real and true good parts about the abuser. Sometimes it’s a peacemaker, a way to avoid a beating or a blowout.
In a photo from early 1994, I appear with my ex-husband and we look genuinely happy. It’s a group photo of a bunch of us smiling for the camera, beers and wine coolers in our hands. Outsiders see joy. But the story behind the picture is one of a fight I was trying to avoid. I didn’t want to drink. We were planning our second pregnancy, and I didn’t want to do anything in case I was already pregnant. Plus, I hated when he drank. He became meaner and would often sexually violate me. After the picture, that’s how that night went. But you’d never know it, because I look happy. I look like I’m having a blast.
Photo after photo feels like a lie, a role I played to avoid the wrath. If social media had been around, and if I had been allowed to even participate in social media, my feeds would look the same. The lies would the painting of a happy life, of a happy marriage. I would have likely never posted a thing that would have gotten me in trouble, and so the outside world would not know of my pain.
Shortly after my ex-husband’s death, when I was sharing the story of what happened with a mutual friend, she leaned back against my kitchen counter and said, “Well, you don’t seem very upset. I don’t really know what to believe because you never said anything before.”
That response, and many others like it, led me to clam up and shove it all down. People don’t believe me because I didn’t say anything before. Fine, I won’t say anything now, either. That was unhealthy, and it ultimately led to a breaking point where I had to address the pain or implode.
I am thinking of my friend in the courtroom that day. Essentially, the lawyer said, “I don’t believe you.”
To this day, people still see my smiling face in old pictures and believe I am lying. But when I look at those pictures and compare them to the woman I am today, there’s a huge difference. My smiles reach my eyes now, and they come from my heart. No longer do I have a practiced smile; I now show up in pictures making all kinds of faces from all kinds of real emotions that I am allowed to express.
Just because you can tell your story without looking upset, or just because you always smiled in pictures, or just because you never told anyone or posted on social media that you were in pain, I still believe you.