I was invited by The Womens Fund of Central Ohio to discuss Teen Dating Violence Awareness month. This post is my response to a round-table discussion with Rae Reed, Lara Ketler, Nichole Dunn, Celeste LaCour and Sharon Reichard.
"In August of 2011," she said, quietly, "my daughter was shot and killed in our home by her ex-boyfriend."
We sat around the table, listening, our silence heavy.
The story was not one I expected when I was invited to the discussion. In my naivete, I thought we might discuss Teen Dating Violence as an off-shoot of empowering young women.
I assumed we would share a few sobering anecdotes of young women we knew, or even a personal story or two about how we'd demanded less than the best for ourselves, how we missed the signs.
Ultimately, I assumed--erroneously--that each of our stories would end with a shrug of the shoulders, an "I'm so glad THAT'S over" smile, and the feeling as we left that we'd done our part for the day.
Instead, I sat while a broken, grieving woman shared the literal worst case scenario, and was humbled when she said, "If I can save one mother from going through what I've been through, my work will be worth it."
I sat across from an angry, bitter young woman. She nearly vibrated with rage and hurt, but had learned how to keep it boiling under the surface, to have civil discourse while feeling anything but civil.
After her power had been stripped away by a trusted family friend at the age of fourteen, she'd set out to reclaim control. At first, her efforts to seek stability followed suit with normal teenage rebelliousness: missed curfews, surly boyfriends, deep sighs and slammed doors.
But when no one listened, when a judge said that she was "ruining a young man's life" for seeking justice in court, when her parents couldn't understand why she wasn't "over it," she screamed louder. Surly boyfriends became abusive boyfriends. Slammed doors became screaming matches, fists, knives and pills.
Our meeting came on the tail end of her dismissal from yet another group home, after release from yet another quiet hospital bed.
I listened and tried to be the one adult who heard her, who saw through the rage to the broken, scared kid.
And then I asked--hoping her answer would be an emphatic 'no'--"You don't think...do you really think you're at fault for what happened all those years ago?"
She looked down at the table and shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe I could have done something different."
I struggle with knowing how to be angry, yet productive. How to grieve, yet proactively move the needle toward positive change.
I may rant here about my upbringing, what it's like to struggle through a divorce. And, while I don't talk about it much, like many of our sisters, mothers and friends, I've suffered an abuse or two at the hands of less than honorable men.
But as a somewhat well-adjusted adult with the means, resources and support to seek help, I can live my life healed and whole in the manner of my choosing.
When I think of teenage girls who can barely handle the pressures of crazy hormones and changing bodies and pressures to fit in, I don't know how violence or abuse or rape can be processed by their young minds.
While February is "Teen Dating Violence Awareness" month, I still can't help but think of teens (and myself at that age) as children. Children who need our help in teaching them the signs of abuse, in knowing what real, respectiful love is, in understanding enthusiastic consent, in processing the emotions that come with love and breakups.
And not just our girls, but our young men, too. Both need to have the space and understanding that we are all emotionally complex creatures, that we are not rigidly defined by gender stereotypes, that the healthy expression and communication of our feelings is the key to healthy relationships.
When you can think the right words, you can demand the right things.
I asked, "If you only had time to tell a girl one thing about teen dating violence, what would you tell them?"
"Think about how you want to be treated, and think about whether or not your relationship is one you feel a level of comfort in. If there's anything that you're questioning about this person and your relationship, then think twice, and share with a friend, parent or counselor. But really look at your relationship, and if there's any one thing you're concerned about, deal with it. Don't ignore it."
"Stay close to your mother or trusted advisor. If you feel the comfort to share openly with that person, that means you're not doing anything you're ashamed of, which means you won't take the slap, the sex if you don't want it."
"Talk to your children. Talk to your kids. Get to know what's going on in their lives. Know who is in their lives."