I have spent the past two years sharing my story of experiencing domestic violence.
In an attempt to heal and seek justice through dialogue, I co-directed a documentary, “A Better Man,” that captures conversations between myself and an ex-partner who used violence against me over two decades ago.
I never expected my story to have such a significant impact. By creating the film and sharing this story in such a public way, I have been fortunate enough to have been invited into communities around the world to share my story and facilitate conversations about domestic violence, justice and healing.
There continues to be a great deal of silence surrounding this issue. I believe this is because it continues to be viewed as a private matter. What I thought would never occur — people talking openly and publicly about domestic violence — happened after people learned about my story.
I have been inspired by how many people have responded to my story by bravely sharing their own experiences of violence. I have witnessed people admit to their own use of violence, tell me about experiences of childhood abuse, and share how they love and care for someone who has been abusive.
This experience has solidified for me the importance of creating spaces where people can talk about domestic violence in a raw and honest way.
I have recently made the difficult decision to step away from promoting the documentary, participating in specific public conversations, and sharing my experience of violence at conferences and talks.
“I want to feel what it is like to not talk constantly about my experience of abuse.”
I feel conflicted about this decision. I am lucky to be alive and feel obligated to use my story to help others. Not everyone can speak out about experiencing violence. Since escaping from the man who harmed me, I have felt a sense of desperation to talk openly and honestly about the issue, especially knowing the prevalence of domestic violence.
I had been telling myself that the advantages of helping others with my story outweighed the costs in terms of my own mental and physical health. Plus the process of making the film was helping me heal: Since having conversations with my ex-partner, I have stopped having nightmares and I am not constantly looking over my shoulder expecting the worst.
But repeatedly sharing a highly traumatic part of my life has taken its toll on me. I am exhausted. I want to feel what it is like to not talk constantly about my experience of abuse. While I have no regrets about sharing my story, and feel deeply grateful for the outpouring of support for the film, I have concluded that continuing to talk publicly about the abuse I experienced is preventing me from fully benefiting from the healing that started to happen in the film.
I have become self-conscious since becoming a spokesperson and subject in the film. Initially, I did not care about how people saw me, viewed the film or judged my decision to talk with the person who harmed me. But now, I cannot seem to let go of some of the more judgmental responses. “She must be on drugs to think that this film was a good idea.” “It’s been over 20 years, why can’t you just get over it?” “Why didn’t you focus more on race?” “You should only focus on survivors, it’s not right to give a voice to people who harm others.” “Why aren’t you angrier?”
I know I should focus on the countless positive responses, but it is the few negative ones that repeat in my mind, make me feel anxious, and keep me up at night.
“That history will always be part of me, but it is just one part of me.”
People have this image of me as a “strong survivor.” That image obscures other parts of who I am. I am affected by hurtful words, and need support from friends, family and care providers — all of which I am lucky to have. Even the word “survivor” feels too all-encompassing to me now. I prefer to think of myself as a person who has experienced violence. That history will always be part of me, but it is just one part of me.
Since stepping away from a public-facing role, I have reflected on how other advocates who have shared their experiences of violence might have been affected by speaking up. When I worked in women’s shelters, my fellow front-line staff and I would talk about burnout — the exhaustion that comes from repeated exposure to stories of pain and trauma. We would exchange information about how to stay balanced, offering each other the names of affordable counsellors, mindfulness programs, massage therapists, and any other person or service that could help keep us from burning out.
Other women I know who have spoken out about violence and sexual assault have experienced relentless online attacks, coupled with accusations of attention seeking. Many have stopped speaking out, disconnected from social media, and sought behind-the-scenes roles.
I have left Facebook and Twitter, and will not be in front of the camera for my next documentary.
Survivors sharing their story can help others heal, but this process can take a serious emotional and physical toll. Those working to end violence and discrimination deserve a supportive community around them that includes, but goes well beyond, individual “self-care.” We deserve political allies, support from our friends and families, and empathy when we choose to take a break.
Attiya Khan is co-director of the film A Better Man and a 2019 YWCA Toronto Woman of Distinction. She directed a documentary called The Last Episode about a rare disease she faced, and is currently working on her next documentary, Weathering, about the impact of racism on pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum experience.
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