My name is Lilly, and I am an invisibly disabled woman who survived domestic abuse.
I have a condition that causes a lot of pain, and my boyfriend knew that before we started our romantic relationship. It is incurable, and he knew that too, but once we were together, he began to beat me if I showed pain, or if I talked about my condition at all. He would blame me for failing to heal – for not talking to the doctors properly or taking the right pills – because he felt that if I had done the right things, I would have been cured. The more I was in pain, the more he hurt me. The more he hurt me, the worse the condition got.
There was no one to help me, because even the friends who knew what he was doing simply looked the other way, or worse, blamed me. An old girlfriend of his, who had become a close confidant of mine, would see the bruises, and see the fear in my eyes, listen to my anger, and then go and flirt with him and be very friendly. She didn’t want to seem like she was “taking sides”. My boyfriend’s best guy friend decided that I must have asked for it somehow, because my boyfriend would only, in his opinion, have done something “like that” if I had really made him mad. (Yes, he felt that anger was a good enough reason to beat a woman, no, this man was not a wife-beater nightmare type. He was a well-educated, wealthy and “nice” man who simply felt his best friend must have a really good reason for beating his disabled girlfriend.) My boyfriend’s family knew, but for some reason went blind. It meant nothing to them that he was beating me, threatening me, and making me live in fear. They seemed to feel that I didn’t matter – like a disabled woman wasn’t a real person at all. Their lack of response sent a clear message to him that what he was doing wasn’t wrong – because not one person stood up for me. Not one person seemed to care. Not even enough to say “stop hurting her”. Not one.
We once went to couple’s therapy. The Councillor was a man. After six sessions in which I was totally ignored and only my boyfriend got to talk, I asked for permission to speak. When both the men agreed that I could, I spoke of the outrage of having been beaten, and of how angry it made me feel (I felt safe enough there to let my true feelings show.) My boyfriend hung his head and looked really sad as I spoke, and the male Therapist took one look at him, turned to me and said angrily “So? I bet you’re hard to live with! You’re disabled!” I stared at him with an open mouth. I couldn’t believe that he had made living with a person who had a disability sound like it was the same as living with a person who threatened, screamed at, kicked and punched their partner. Without even looking at my boyfriend he then said “Besides, I’m sure he’s sorry.” Satisfied with my silence, he then he went back to talking only to my boyfriend. My boyfriend liked that Therapist; he felt supported, and kept hurting me.
Once I tried to leave. The only places that I could afford to live in were shared accommodation flats – where people had their own rooms but shared the kitchen etc. I moved out to the new place, but there was no computer for me to order food on (I often ordered from online grocery stores. My immune problems meant that I had to make all food from scratch or suffer allergic reactions or intolerance responses.) Due to the disability, I sometimes cannot walk far enough to shop for myself, but out of desperation, I left anyway. The female friend who was my boyfriend’s long time ex promised that she would help me to shop if I paid her. It was on the strength of that promise that I moved out. Not once did she help me. She only lived two blocks away, but never came by or answered my calls. At the end of the first month, I went without any food at all for four days, following weeks of greatly reduced food intake simply because there wasn’t any way to get more. I lost weight, and became weaker than before. (I was already underweight due to the pain. It’s hard to eat when it hurts so much.) It was then that I knew it wasn’t going to work; without the promised help, I couldn’t make it on my own. The woman later said that she didn’t help me as she had promised, because she felt helping would have shown favouritism for one friend over the other, and because she didn’t want to “get in the middle” of the situation. I had to move back. I was then punished for moving out in the first place.
The more isolated a disabled woman you are, the more people feel you are not a real person. They will come and see your pain, your fear, your bruises, but then leave, and go back to real life. That was how it was for me. I could not work outside of the home, I could not go out dancing with them, I could not do any of the things that would make me “real” and so, whatever he did to me, they ignored.
There seems to be a feeling amongst able-bodied people that disabled people should be grateful just to have an able-bodied friend or lover in their life. A complaint about that friend or lover makes you look ungrateful to other able-bodied types. Just the fact that an able-bodied man was with a woman that was in pain was enough to make them respond with anger if I talked about what he had done to me. It was as if I should be grateful that he wanted to have anything to do with me at all. Worse, by asking for help, I had connected myself to something even more unpleasant than disability – I had connected myself to abuse, while my boyfriend went out dancing with them, to parties and movies. Care seems to be connected to how people feel about you, not how they feel about your situation, and it seems that because disabled people are not seen in the same light as able-bodied people, their abuse is not seen in the same light either.I was the person connected to something unpleasant. He was the one connected to fun things, therefore what happened to me was meaningless.
Just as that Therapist taught me, so did all the others; disability means you are worth less than other people. To escape him I had to move into TCHC – the Toronto slum for disabled people. On the best days I feel it is a punishment for being disabled, with the literal crack dealers in the hallways, and the roaches coming through the walls, while on my worst days I feel that it is a punishment for having survived him. I am here, in this horrible place, where Toronto feels disabled people belong; in poverty, in fear and in slum living conditions.
For my boyfriend to do what he did, many people had to help him; from the friends who reassured him that his abuse wasn’t really abusive, to the Therapist who defended that abuse, to the family members who looked the other way, to the friends who promised to help but chose not to, to the people who saw but did nothing (not even say “I saw what you did” or “I hate how you treat her”) – each and every person sent him a message; what you are doing means nothing. We don’t care enough to help her, but we care enough about you to pretend you aren’t doing anything wrong. With our silence, we are complicit.