Order in the Court!: A Survivor’s Experience
It’s been five years and I can see it like it was yesterday. I’m sitting on the witness stand in the courtroom during my divorce trial. The attorney representing my then husband walks up to me with a look of excitement and almost glee on his face and exclaims, “Isn’t it true that you are taking psychotropic drugs!?!” A fear washes over me. I have no idea what he is talking about. I look at my lawyers for help, but they are not allowed to speak to me up there. I look at the judge and he looks back at me waiting for an answer. I think to myself: Am I taking psychotropic drugs? What the hell are psychotropic drugs?
I want to get up and run off the stand because clearly this lawyer has just exposed something terrible about me. You can see his excitement from across the courtroom. I want to stop the process and ask everyone, “Am I taking psychotropic drugs? What are psychotropic drugs?” My heart is racing and I feel completely confused.
I take a deep breath, look back at him and ask, “I’m not sure what that means. Can you explain this to me?” He throws his head back and laughs as if I am trying to hide the truth. Then he says, “Isn’t it true that you take antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications EVERY DAY?” Oh. My. Gosh. This is what he is talking about? He looks like he is ready to accept his gold medal for Lawyer Olympics and he just asked me if I’m taking any SSRIs or anxiety medications? I look over at my lawyers who are looking visibly worried, which is now making me visibly worried, and I simply reply “Yes,” and quickly look away.
I’ve heard the term “victim blaming” a lot recently. It reminds me of how rape victims were treated back in the 1970s, before people got brave enough to stand up (or they were finally heard) and say “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. THIS IS DISGUSTING AND IT NEEDS TO STOP NOW.” I want to call it “victim shaming.” Should I have been ashamed that I was taking SSRIs and anxiety medications just to be able to live in the same town and co-parent with my abuser without having panic attacks, constant anxiety, and depression so bad on some days that I was not able to leave my home?
Should I really be ashamed of that? Or should I be proud of myself for reaching out for help, getting it, and being strong enough to get out there and live again?
As abuse victims, we are put under the microscope, through the wringer, and basically flattened by a steamroller, or so it feels, during the divorce process. We are blamed, shamed, scrutinized, and then asked if our behavior and “lies,” are simply a means to get a better position to gain more custody of our children, or a better financial settlement. This is not just my story. It is a story that happens every single day to women in every single state. These women are also victims of domestic abuse or violence and then our US Legal System victimizes them even further – AND IT NEEDS TO STOP.
The judge during my divorce trial was just plain awful. He never recognized me as a victim of domestic abuse and he treated our case like just another divorce trial. Only it wasn’t. It took me over five years in the legal system to straighten that mess out.
I left the courtroom that day, that day I was accused of taking “psychotropic drugs,” exhausted, embarrassed and ashamed. I felt like I might lose custody of my children. I worried that they were going to try and make me look unstable as my ex-husband kept telling everyone that I was. In the end, during our ruling, that judge had one good moment, one moment where he did the right thing when he said, “I don’t know many people who go through a divorce who are not on some type of antidepressant.” So he leveled the playing field and let me know that he thought I was “normal,” just like everyone else in that regard. The problem was that I was not. I was not like everyone else. I was a victim of domestic abuse and violence and he never saw it, never acknowledged it, and certainly did not take it into consideration when making any of his rulings.
I prayed every night for those days to end so I could stop looking back and move on with my life. Now that I am here, I can’t do that. I know that you are out there, and I know that this is happening to you right now too. I know that you are in those courtrooms, and you are being treated just the same. I know you are being called “crazy, unstable, a liar, unbalanced,” and I know that you are going to bed at night with tears streaming down your face as you worry about the custody of your children and your financial future. I know you are being accused of taking “psychotropic drugs,” and you have no idea what the hell that even means.
I’m here to tell you that I know. And I know that it needs to stop. So I am looking back. And I’m coming back to help you. You are not alone. Keep getting up, walk into that courtroom, hold your head up high, look them in the eye and say your truth. Be loud and be proud that you have made it to this day. We need order in our courts. It’s time to come together and put a spotlight on this bad behavior. We know from the past, from those horrible years of how rape victims were treated, that we can make it stop. We need to believe this and then we need to make it happen. I’m just getting started. I won’t stop until it does.
So please, remember this: STRENGTH + SUPPORT + PLAN = FREEDOM. You can do this.
Many of us have made it to the other side. We are here cheering you on because we know what you have been through. Use our strength to carry you through until you find your own again. You will. I promise. Get help, leave safely, and know that you are not alone.
If legal battles around your abusive relationship are causing you pain or stress, contact The Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or chat at www.thehotline.org. While our advocates cannot give legal advice, we can connect you with local resources who may be able to provide legal representation, advocacy and/or court accompaniment to help ease the burden. You deserve to feel safe and supported, even in the courtroom.
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