…He Damaged Her Internal Compass

It’s not often that I’m bombarded by things that confirm my fears or give credence to the way I’ve processed certain thoughts or ideas. I will get confirmation, but only in bits, here and there. Never kind of all at once.

Yesterday was different.

A friend emailed me a story that I finally had time to read. It was published in the Washington Post, and it discussed a “gendered trap,” a very real, and now statistically-proven phenomenon that exists in the family and criminal court system. In this country. I linked it above, but if you don’t read it, it demonstrates why women are fearful of taking issues related to abuse to the courts or to the cops — because the abusers are gifted gaslighters who have the ability to instantly become false victims.

And the whole thing can backfire – tragically.

Before the release of this study, which showed that women who report abuse more often lose custody of their kids than the person they had reported against, the angst and frustration was purely anecdotal. It was only sad stories and broken souls behind countless closed doors.

It is incredibly difficult to prove emotional abuse and manipulation. And then, even with proof, it’s incredibly difficult to get a court to care, to look downfield and see what it could mean years down the road. Or even in that moment.

Reading it turned my wheels, and put me on a mid-sized soap box for a minute (with apologies to my friend), because I have an acute and unwanted awareness of it and unfortunately own recurring experiences with it.

“I can’t help but think that if we paid more attention to, and better prioritized a child’s emotional health, that our society would be better for it. Maybe even less violent.”

That’s a paraphrased version (I know it’s in quotes, but) of my modest soapbox on the subject, which has been floating around in my head for a while. People know it, too, because I’ve also been talking about it. Kicking the thought around.

And then I plugged in a podcast this morning, because my radio is trying to be Bumble Bee and isn’t allowing me to listen to NPR live – I know, I’ll get through this – and This American Life dove into the subject of courage, detailing how people finally did the thing they didn’t want to or know how to do.

And the first story detailed this wrenchingly honest, unbelievably reflective and wildly brave apology from a TV producer who realized he had abused one of his employees when he sexually harassed her.

“I damaged her internal compass.”

Gah. Hard swallow. Yep.

Five words, hit me hard. He got it. And so many others don’t. So many others think they’re entitled to damage people – to manipulate them, to plant seeds of doubt and attempt to distort the way they view themselves. It was one of the most descriptive, illustrative, eloquent, apologetic things that someone could ever say about the imprint they left on another human.

He damaged her internal compass. Yeah, I know. I know that all too well. I wish that could be a trending hashtag, alongside #MeToo – or maybe replacing it, since apologies, if someone is lucky, come after a transgression. Sometimes well after – in this case years after.

She, a writer for a TV show, couldn’t tell if she was receiving accolades because this man liked her, or because she was actually good. And when it went south, she didn’t know what way was up.

Because, her internal compass was broken. And unlike a real compass, it’s not a quick fix. It takes time to remember yourself, trust other people, untangle the manipulated mental mess you’ve lived in, and kick habits you formed to cope with the abuse you managed to survive day after day.

compass 2

For me, one of those habits is apologizing. I still catch myself doing it, sometimes cupping a hand over my mouth as it tries to escape. My compass has rebounded and steadied in ways that still amaze me, but it’s still a little off-kilter from time to time.

And that’s okay, because it’s been damaged. But not ruined. Maybe that’s why I need the outside? The running? The writing? So I can let certain parts of me be still – allowing that little arrow to find where it’s supposed to be.

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Allowing it to remember how it worked before someone tried to bend it. And that’s the thing – my internal compass has a memory that predates the abuser who damaged it. A kid’s doesn’t.

A kid is still learning how to use an internal compass, sometimes reading it wrong and going in the wrong direction. And an abuser knows it. An abuser knows that a kid’s internal compass hasn’t set itself yet – not all the way – so it’s an easy thing to mess with.

Even living it, I don’t know what the answer is. I just know those words are so powerful and visual – a damaged internal compass.

That is exactly what it feels like. I’m glad mine bounced back. And I’m glad I always hear that kids are resilient, because some of them really have to be.