It was the early 80s. My colleague walked into the office at our women’s health care clinic where I was finishing the last of my charting. “I’ve decided to set up a domestic violence hotline,” she announced. “The phone will go in our clinic. I’ve wanted to get this going for a long time. The need is huge,” she added. “There’s a list of people who want to be volunteers. The training will be in two weeks. By the way. . . it would be good if you went to it.”
I stared at her. Hard. I felt my pulse racing. . . “NO! Absolutely not. I don’t want any part of that hotline or the training, and I certainly don’t want a phone in our clinic! What are you thinking? Innocent pregnant women come here. It won’t be safe. What if an angry man finds out and comes beating on our door.” I suddenly felt nauseous.
“No? What do you mean—no? Our clinic will just be a physical location for the phone; the calls get forwarded to the volunteer’s number. This is not a big deal. What’s scary and really dangerous is having women and children being hurt and there being no one available they can reach out to for help.”
I took some deep breaths. She had a point. But. . . why does this feel like a big deal, and why does my chest hurt? Maybe I’m having a heart attack.
“Okay,” I finally allowed.”But, I don’t want to be involved. This whole idea gives me the heebie-jeebies.
“You don’t need to do anything,” she assured me, “but, it would be helpful if you at least did the training so you would know how to respond. You know—just in case.”
So there I was, two weeks later, in a conference room with other women, listening to an expert speak at length about domestic violence and child abuse. She shared heart-breaking stories. She went on and on and on . . .
I broke into a sweat and gripped the table. I think I’m going to pass out. I began to shake; tears streamed down my face. My colleague looked at me. “You’re white as a sheet. Come with me.” She took my hands and pulled me into the hallway. “What on earth happened in there?” she asked.
I found it difficult to breathe. “That woman is talking about my family!” I finally sputtered.
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said: That woman is talking about my family. She just described my entire childhood like she had been peering through a window watching me grow up, documenting every detail. And. . . she said what happened to me as a child was wrong! And not only wrong but criminal! Like, against the law. I had no idea. I thought it was normal to suffer. No one spoke about it—ever. These were our family secrets, and we held them tightly in a code of silence: what happened behind closed doors, stayed there, and then you forgot about it. That’s how it was.
I felt like I had been hit by a logging truck. I’m over forty years old. I’m an intelligent, competent, professional, high-functioning adult. How could I not have known this?
My body knew, though. It never forgot. No wonder I was scared.