What the Women’s Survivor Retreat did for Me
By: Amy Thomson
Transgenerational domestic violence, domestic violence that is transferred from the first generation of survivors to the next generations, sets up younger members of a family to repeat the cycle of abuse due to deep-rooted desensitization to the presence of violence in the home. Through the examples of previous generations, children learn that it is acceptable, even normal, to use violence against family members and/or to be on the receiving end. When no one steps in to provide an example of a healthy relationship, they don’t learn any differently and thereby are at a dramatically increased risk to be abused in adult relationships or to become the abuser themselves.
“I think it’s a confusing message for your mom to say a man shouldn’t hit you but does [hit you] herself,” Lupe Moreno said. “Many of us would interpret that as ‘If my mom loves me and she hits me, then if my boyfriend or husband does, that means they do, too.’ ”
She grew up in a home with an abusive mother and a father who struggled with alcoholism. Moreno’s mom was abused by her father who was taught violence by his father. As the seventh out of nine siblings, she endured the most abuse from her mom that often included excessive yelling, being dragged by her hair, and being hit with whatever her mom could get her hands on.
At 16, she met her first husband. Because she had been abused which left her with little self-esteem, she was primed for an abusive relationship without even realizing it. He began controlling her and became emotionally abusive after the first month of dating. Within a few months, he escalated to physical abuse by striking her leg with a screwdriver.
Once they married, Moreno’s family and friends believed their relationship was perfect, because he was able to charm and mislead them. Meanwhile, behind closed doors he continued to escalate the severity of abuse. He brutally assaulted her during both of her pregnancies, and toward the end of the marriage he shot her with a pellet gun. After years of abuse, what prompted her to leave was fearing for her two-year-old daughter who would often run in-between her mom and dad, trying to protect her mom. She went through another abusive relationship and a brief marriage prior to meeting her current husband.
Moreno connected with Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence through FaceBook where she saw a post about the empowerment workshops hosted in San Diego. During one of those workshops, she and her daughter learned about the annual Women’s Survivor Retreat, and she decided she would attend. It became something she looked forward to, because she knew she would be able to spend time with other survivors of domestic violence.
“Up until that point, I didn’t have anyone who could relate to what I went through,” she said. “The few who could relate to me didn’t want to talk about it. They were still living in their silence.”
On her drive to San Diego, she picked up a BTS sister to accompany her for the four hour road trip. They talked and got to know each other. That time of connection with another survivor helped her feel comfortable, as she had previously only known one of the sisters who was going to the retreat. Over the course of the weekend, Moreno got to know some of her bunkmates so well that they are still close today. She credits the atmosphere and the interaction of the other survivors for creating a non-threatening environment that allowed everyone to get so well acquainted.
There is a wide variety of activities held during the survivor retreat that are geared toward different aspects of how domestic violence affects victims and how to approach the damage so victims can begin to heal. Some of the activities available during the retreat she attended were a talent/spirit contest, writing letters to their abusers coupled with a bonfire, information on stress and nutrition, a rope walk and sharing stories of abuse and overcoming.
She said she felt the activities fostered teamwork and learning how to trust others again after surviving abuse. Her favorite activity was the talent/spirit contest, because it was an effective ice breaker that allowed everyone to relax and have fun together. She also appreciated the task of writing a letter to her abuser as it helped affirm that not only did she no longer carry negative feelings toward him, she had also forgiven her abuser.
One benefit of the retreat for Moreno was coming to the realization that although she had forgiven her abuser long ago, the lingering damage from the emotional abuse she suffered had built walls, and those insecurities and difficulties in trusting had begun to affect her current marriage. Once she returned from the retreat and told her husband what she learned, they sought counseling through their church and took marriage classes. She also helped him understand that he had been financially abused by a previous wife, and they now both talk about domestic violence with others. She said the retreat helped strengthen their marriage which now continues to grow stronger.
“Going to the retreat isn’t somewhere that you go to and then leave without taking something away,” Moreno said. “You form friendships and strong bonds with other women.”
She said the retreat enables many survivors to finally free themselves of the burden of the feeling that they are alone. Being able to meet so many others who have survived abuse and hear their stories helps them learn they are far from alone. Being able to realize this has a profound impact on victims being able to heal, as it also helps to remove the weight of shame. She said she was able to build strong friendships, many of whom she hopes remain lifelong friends.
Although she was 10 years out of her last abusive relationship, Moreno still appreciated the importance sharing her story had on others at the retreat. As she heard others relate their experiences, it helped her understand just how far she had come during that time, and she reflected on her past as others shared theirs. She said she hoped that when others heard about her progress, they would become filled with hope that they could get through to the other side of the pain.
“Sharing your story helps and is a very important part of the healing process . . . Once they speak, they’ll begin to really heal,” she said. “The feeling of freedom from your past is amazing!”
She said her biggest take-away from the retreat was the knowledge that we cannot heal alone. One can choose to not seek counseling like she did, but it’s imperative to have other survivors to talk with so you can process your experiences, know that it isn’t your fault and you aren’t alone. Silence during and after the abuse just contributes to the cycle, and in order to truly heal, you cannot maintain that silence as survivors. A key part of the healing is breaking that silence and sharing your story. In the process, you might forge lasting friendships that extend far beyond the retreat.
Moreno said that no matter where you are in your journey of healing, she would recommend attending the retreat. For her, it was one of the final steps she needed to take in her journey to heal, but she still had so much in common with the others who attended the retreat with her. It doesn’t matter where you are in your journey to recover from the damage of domestic violence, because everyone is able to share something that will help someone else. For those who have been out of the abuse longer, they can motivate and encourage those who find themselves at the beginning of a long process, and those still trapped in abuse will find the courage to leave.
She said that after the retreat ended, the support she found there has stayed with her, regardless of how far away they live. Many of the survivors have stayed connected, whether in person, over the phone or on social media.
“We were no longer strangers when we left the retreat,” she said. “We are now family!”