When people ask me what I do, I usually start by saying that I work at Children's Hospital Boston and try to leave it at that. If they probe, I admit that I work in the Social Work Department. If further discussion ensues, I tell them I'm an advocate in the domestic violence program and wait for what almost always comes next: "Oh that must be really hard. You must hear really awful things." It's a line I've heard so many times that I sometimes find myself mouthing the words along with them.
The truth of the matter is, yes, it is hard, and, yes, I have heard some of the most awful, unimaginable things that I will carry in my heart for the rest of my life. But the truth is also that this is not how I would choose to tell the story of my work.
I would talk about how strong this work makes me feel, and how I carry within me the strength of the hundreds of survivors with whom I've had the chance to work. And that this is something that I carry outside the walls of the hospital to my home, family, friends and community. I would talk about how it feels to hear someone confide in you something they've never told anyone—something that's stayed silent within them for so long and now, at great personal risk, they choose to share because it simply has become too big for their body, heart and mind to carry alone any longer. I would say that I feel a great responsibility to be the voice for so many people who don't feel safe to speak out themselves.
Many survivors that I know would choose to tell their own stories if they were given the chance. If they did not have to quietly and anonymously let the statistics poorly explain the fear of being the next victim of domestic violence-related homicide; the fear that it could have been your child that went missing during a weekend visitation. They might say that the systems put in place to help never seem to do enough to protect you and your children. That the systems meant to help you escape the violence often produce the same feelings of powerlessness that your abuser did. That the experience can be so isolating that it's a relief to share it with others. That after being told for 15 years that you can't, you finally find that you can. That having lacked it for so long, you still know how to love. That you feel so weak sometimes that it takes a group of people who share your experiences to convince you that you are, in fact, stronger than most people.
If I could share their stories, they'd be filled with heartache and happiness, laughter and tears, hope, faith and love. Much like anyone's story, they would show that doors must close for others to open. I can't tell you how many times people have thanked me for just allowing them to talk; for really listening to what they have to say and not always feeling that something has to be said in return. They thank me because I try not to assume that I know anything more about them, their situation or the wellbeing of their children just because I am the supposed "expert" in the room. They thank me because I try to always remember that they are the experts on their own story.
So many times, we don't ask people to tell their stories because we fear what will be said. We fear that it will be too great a burden to bear, and fear that by just listening we are now responsible for the lives of others. I can relate to that, and it's why I hesitate to tell people what I do. I can see it on their faces that maybe it would have been easier for them not to know. That sometimes they wish that they never asked because now they somehow share the uncomfortable burden of the work that I do.
But by not knowing, by never asking, is to not allow the true story to be told. If I really told them my story, they would see that it is not a burden, but a blessing that teaches me every day about the simple value of life, love and freedom. When you ask someone to tell their story, you're allowing them the chance to use their voice and to be heard. Sharing your words is a gift that so many of us take for granted. It's a gift that we could so easily give to someone else if we only stop before we assume, and simply ask.
Advocacy for Women and Kids in Emergencies (AWAKE) is a free and confidential service offered to employees, adolescent patients and parents of patients at Children's. If you or someone you know is in a hurtful relationship, please call the page operator at 617-355-6369 and ask to speak to the on-call AWAKE advocate.