One year ago, I attended a conference in Washington D.C. with some of the most amazing people I had ever met. This conference, hosted by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), was attended by advocates, policy makers, and survivors. As a neuroscience graduate student at the time, this conference was slightly out of my comfort zone, to say the least. Although I never could have predicted it at the time, this conference would effectively change my life.
At the time of the conference last year, I felt so incredibly broken by the abuse I suffered at the hands of another graduate student in my program. Like most survivors, I barely told anyone about what he did to me. I kept my mouth shut and pretended it didn’t happen. Afraid no one would believe, I stayed silent.
However, I left the conference last year feeling more empowered and stronger than I ever thought possible. I learned that there are people out there who believe my story. Although they had never met me before, I felt like I received more compassion and empathy from them than I did from some of my closest friends and family.
However, I also left the conference with a tinge of regret. After meeting so many survivors who had come forward against their abuser, I couldn’t help but wonder, what would have happened if I did the same? Before that conference, I hadn’t even considered going forward or taking action. I thought that this was simply outside the realm of possibility. But looking back, I guess I simply had not been ready to take action – to take that risk and put everything on the line. And as we have seen this past week, when a survivor goes forward, she puts Everything on the line.
But after attending the conference last year, I felt stronger than I had in my entire life, and something in me shifted. I found something that meant more to me than neuroscience and experiments – fighting for survivors. So, I decided to leave my PhD program early with my master’s degree and pursue a career in domestic violence advocacy. But most shockingly, I went forward against my abuser and filed a complaint against him at my University’s Title IX office. I did the thing I never thought I could do. And I truly don’t think I could have made it through the process if I hadn’t attended that conference. Because I knew that no matter what battles lay ahead, there were people out there who believed me and supported me.
And although the process was more grueling than I ever could have imagined, I never gave up – not when my graduate program director threatened me to stay silent; not when the Graduate Dean of the University blamed me for everything that happened and said I should have come forward earlier; not when the University’s Director of Title IX told me the delay in the process was my fault because I started a new job; and most of all, not when the hearing finally came and it was time to look my abuser right in the eyes.
And that is exactly what I did this past August, nearly 2 years to the day that we broke up. I looked him in the eyes, read my impact statement to him, and showed him that he did not silence me. And somehow, despite my doubts with the process, I won and got justice – something I never thought was possible, and sadly, something so few survivors get to experience.
This past week, I attended the annual NCADV conference again, this year appropriately titled, “Voices Rising.” And although everything about my life has changed (for the better, that is), I still felt that same sense of empowerment, support, and strength, perhaps even more so this year. Because this year, the stakes are even higher for survivors.
I am sure everyone is well aware of the brave survivors who came forward against Brett Kavanaugh, and the world’s cruel and inhumane treatment of them. To show our support for Christine Blasey Ford and the other survivors, the other conference attendees and I dressed in black and participated in a walk out. All 400 of us gathered in the streets and held hands to protest the world’s unwillingness to believe survivors and treat them with dignity and respect. And despite the horrible circumstances that brought us to this, the sense of solidarity I felt was intoxicating. Although it did not last forever, nothing ever does, those moments were powerful and made me feel alive.
As I anxiously await next year’s conference, I am nervous about what is to come for these very courageous women, especially Dr. Ford. Like many survivors, she had her worst nightmare realized by coming forward. She is being persecuted just for speaking the truth. I hope she knows that there are people out there who support her and believe her, just like I reminded myself over this past year. I hope she knows that her story matters and she is nothing short of a hero for being willing to tell it to a group of people so unwilling to listen. And until the rest of the world can see that, we will keep fighting; we will keep believing survivors with every bone in our bodies; and above all, we will keep our voices rising.