Survivor Summit Focuses on Healing after Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence

RAINN recently held a survivor summit with three inspiring members of the RAINN Speakers Bureau to share their stories of healing after intimate partner violence in same-sex relationships and different-sex relationships in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Bella M., Hellena Dior, and Joanne Cherisma.

Bella is a long-time activist and a lifelong learner. From advocating for mental health by creating clubs in undergrad to creating better access for at-risk youth to obtaining health services as an AmeriCorps volunteer, Bella is passionate about equality, equity, and social justice. They are currently getting their Master's in Public Health while working part-time in retail management.

Hellena is an author, advocate, and director of a nonprofit organization called Helen’s Help Center. Hellena encourages others to shine their light by transitioning hate to hope and experiences to enlightenment. She’s worked in the early childhood education field for over twelve years with military families and is a mother of a beautiful daughter. Hellena holds a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies in English Literature and Social Science and later began a Juris Master’s degree in American Legal Studies.

Joanna is the president of Beyond the Abuse, Inc. Joanne moved to the States after the Haiti Earthquake in 2010. In 2016, she started Beyond The Abuse, Inc. to bring awareness to abusive relationships and provide hope, empowerment, support, and confidence. Since then, she has been using her voice and writing as an outlet for those who can understand the slings and arrows of life at many speaking engagements, domestic violence events, and workshops in the United States, Canada, and Haiti.

RAINN’s content writer, Sierra Scott, opened up the conversation and focused on intimate partner relationships. It’s not always easy to tell if a relationship will later become abusive, and many people who experience abuse appear like ideal partners in the early stages of a relationship. Bella shared what the early signs of abusive behavior looked like at the beginning of their relationship.

“Early signs were noticed when I looked back on the relationship,” they said. “I was young, and it was my first relationship, and I didn’t fully understand what was going on until after it ended. My partner would control what I wore, and if I wore a necklace that someone else gave me, that was a no-no. I also began having a lot of panic attacks because I needed to respond to her text messages immediately, and if I didn’t, she would get outraged.”

Control and power are some of the root signs of abuse and intimate partner relationships. We have seen a rise in the number of individuals affected by this type of violence on the National Sexual Assault Hotline during Covid-19. Joanne overcame an abusive marriage and shared what she wishes someone had told her about marital abuse.

“I wish I had heard more about the signs that are not physical abuse,” she said. “Other signs include mind games, manipulation, control, and isolation because they take you away from your family members and friends. The violence, which is not always physical, is more mental. I wish I knew more about these signs that are not always visible.”

In intimate partner violence, there are many factors at play. These signs may have been modeled throughout your life. Hellena shared her journey in her book, No Longer Sharecropping Shame, about navigating a family that “willingly accepted the harvest of shame they inherited from generations before.”

“I was never really taught what abuse looked like...with my family growing up; there was yelling, anger, and other emotions that weren’t dissected,” she explained. “I didn’t know that love didn’t look like that. I didn’t know that someone screaming and manipulating you were signs of abuse, and I wasn’t familiar with that. I wish someone would have explained what abuse looked like, and I wish that someone showed me what love looked like.”

Diving deeper into intimate partner violence and what people misunderstand is also an essential part of the conversation.

Joanne shared that “most people have a hard time understanding why the victims are staying. People always tend to say to the victim, ‘if it’s that bad, why are you not leaving?’ and they don’t understand the dynamic that comes with the process of leaving. The victim has to realize what is happening.”

Hellena shared that “it’s not just that simple to leave. When you have identified yourself with another person, these things may be normal depending on the background and childhood. Leaving is not that simple. I think that a lot of people are very judgmental to survivors in those situations, even after they leave.”

Bella explained that “ a lot of people, myself included, who are survivors when we do leave, it’s almost easy to go back since that’s what you know and what you think love is. Especially when the person is manipulating so much, your brain gets messed up, and for me, I went back and forth and reflected on how much she means to me. The back and forth is what people don’t understand.”

Each panelist has spoken out publicly and continues to do so. They opened up about how it is to share their healing journey with the world.

Bella shared her story with RAINN previously in a Survivor Story spotlight on RAINN’s website. She stated that since then, “I have been a huge advocate for intimate partner violence within same-sex relationships because I know that topic is not talked about at all. I just want other people who have been in my situation that they are not alone, and you can get out and be successful.”

Hellena has written her story and commented on the role of writing and how it has been an outlet for her.

“Writing has been very cathartic for me,” she explained. “It has released a lot that I didn’t even realize I was holding on it. It helped me to be able to communicate what I experienced. In my background, there was a lot of child sexual abuse. When I look back, it’s easier for me to understand how I ended up in relationships where I encourage domestic and intimate partner violence. Being able to write it has helped me heal.”

Joanne wrote a book called I Never Thought I Would Be A Statistic: Based on a True Story about how she overcame an abusive marriage. She shared how writing her story out on paper and how it affected her healing journey: “At the beginning of writing, it felt like I was reliving everything, and a part of me didn’t realize how bad the situation was until I left. I started writing about it, and I had to leave out some parts because it was so hard to go back to these moments and talk about them. It was also therapeutic.”

Joanne, Bella, and Hellena shared one final thought and message to survivors of sexual violence and intimate partner violence.

Hellena said, “Your healing is your healing journey. Establish boundaries with other people, and don’t let people give you their timeline. Healing is a journey, and there are still days when I don’t want to get up or get out of bed...sometimes dissociating feels easier...just respect your healing journey and give yourself that care that you did not get when you were in those situations.”

Joanne shared: “Healing is a process. Everyone heals differently. We all need to go through our process and journey alone. It is okay to take as much time we need to become healed and whole again.”

Bella shared: “It’s essential to have that person that you can delve into what happened to you and work on skills and techniques when you do go down in a rabbit hole. I would say, if you are in therapy, keep doing it. It is tough, and I’ve been through 6 or 7 different treatment programs trying to heal and be the best self that I can be...healing isn’t linear.”

You can watch the full panel discussion here.

If you or a loved one have experienced sexual violence, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7 in English and Spanish at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at rainn.org. The hotline is free and confidential.

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