In the Blog
Guest Post: Abuse Survival Stories: Finding Camaraderie in Tragedy
by Oyeyinka Oyelowo
There is a camaraderie in tragedy that bonds the guests of Abuse Survival Stories at each meeting. Founder Reesee Ziggazagga weaves between the audience offering sweet embraces, loving words and a welcoming smile to each person, forming an aura of comfort and friendliness despite the event’s focus on surviving traumatic events. Abuse Survival Stories is a nonprofit event series that features raw testimonials from survivors of domestic violence, psychological and sexual abuse.
The event also showcases inspirational spoken word pieces and motivational speeches as a positive and healing experience to uplift the psyche of guests. Reesee was inspired to create the event series some time after leaving a psychologically abusive relationship. She began to open up and tell friends what she had experienced. “When several of them in turn shared their stories of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe how common it was and that no one was talking about it. Because I had experienced such a release from sharing my story with them, I came to believe that I had experienced and survived it all for a reason.”
Sharing her own story ultimately led Reesee to do something to help others with the awareness she had gained from being abused. Now, Abuse: Survival Stories provides other survivors with a platform to speak on their experiences in an environment where they feel safe and supported. The last event of the year was held at Victoria Village library in Toronto on November 30th, 2013.
“My first time speaking at Abuse Survival Stories, there are no words to really describe it” says Denyce Watkins, a performer and a survival guide that regularly attends each event. “There was an energy in the room that I’ve never felt before,” she says. “The bravery and inspiration you feel after someone has spoken is almost mindboggling.”
This is the exact focus of Abuse Survival Stories - to leave guests with an enlightened perspective of what it takes to overcome a traumatic ordeal. Founder Reesee believes that abuse thrives on silence. “Too many people are looking the other way and pretending abuse doesn’t happen or that it’s not a big deal. Because of that, many people are getting away with abusive behavior and many survivors are not receiving the help they need, ” she says.
Events like Abuse: Survival Stories raise awareness about these issues by putting them on the discussion table with people of ages, creeds and ethnic backgrounds. Though not everyone who attends Abuse: Survival Stories has been a survivor of abuse, each attendee leaves with a better understanding of what constitutes abusive behavior and how survivors feel while enduring these ordeals.
“People trust us enough to open up, they trust strangers and that something that’s really hard to find and when someone gives you their trust that is one of the most beautiful things to have,” says Denyce Watkins.
During an event she was surprised to find out one of her close friends was suffering from a serious illness. It was the first time Denyce had heard the story from her friend. “It gave me a bigger respect for the event,” she says. Reesee says people often ask to share their stories after hearing other survivors speak at the event but sharing her story was not an easy journey.
“It took several years, and a big part of that time was spent not even fully realizing that I had been abused. It was when all of these issues I’d never had before began to surface that I began to see that a lot of mental and emotional damage had been done. I was suddenly a jealous, paranoid, angry person—qualities I didn’t see in myself before the abusive relationship,” she says. It wasn’t until the first Abuse: Survival Stories event in April 2012 where, trembling and crying uncontrollably, she shared her story for the first time.
Since then many survivors have braved the stage to share their difficult pasts. “Shame and lack of closure prevent us from truly healing,” says Reesee. The event has changed from being exclusively for women, to one that is now inclusive to all gender identities. The survival stories are followed by spoken word and musical performances, inspirational words of wisdom and a creative group exercise.
This was in order to inspire an energy shift from gloomy and depressing to uplifting and hopeful during the event. She notes that creativity can help combat shame by allowing a person to vent in a way that is not literal. “They can share their pain without exposing themselves before they are ready,” she says.
And even if you aren’t ready to share, Abuse Survival Stories always welcomes you with open arms.
Oyeyinka Oyelowo is a professional in the documentary industry and a Journalism graduate with a keen interest in telling stories in unique and innovative ways. She lives in Toronto where she practices Muay Thai, supports social impact programs and follows her tastebuds to wherever diverse ethnic chefs lead.