A good friend of mine, B., once told me a few years ago that before her divorce, her husband was verbally and occasionally even physically abusive toward her. Somewhat shocked by this news, I expressed how glad I was that she had gotten out of that situation.
I did not think that B. would be a typical victim of domestic abuse. Coming from an affluent background, we met as co-workers in a laboratory after college. B. always came across to me as strong-minded, goal-oriented, and intelligent. It was her who convinced me to pursue medical school so many years back when I was considering declining the admissions offer I had received. When I graduated from medical school, she was my only guest at the commencement ceremony. She insisted on coming. The daughter and granddaughter of physicians, she had ambitions of becoming a doctor as well. I was so proud of her when she told me that she got in.
Domestic abuse can, unfortunately, become a recurrent theme to an individual. Its victims appear to learn that abuse is the normal way relationships are formed, and indeed, it is common for people to be attracted to those exhibiting abusive behavior. It is an unexplainable magnet to those who have never been victims of abuse.
My friend was no different. During subsequent relationships, her reports to me were that all was well, and nothing was out of the ordinary. Only after the break-ups did it become clear that some abusive themes had re-emerged over and over. It wasn’t necessarily physical abuse, but it became obvious that her self-esteem was being attacked repeatedly. From unfounded jealous accusations to degrading comments regarding her appearance, she was not treated the way she deserved to be treated. Despite this, she stayed with these abusers and even longed for their affections after they dissolved the relationships.
In speaking to the abused, it is not uncommon for the abuse to be downplayed. It is not likely that I will ever know how B. was really treated. Fear of retaliation, concern over spousal income support, and personal guilt are all reasons why the abused don’t speak out. As the example here clearly demonstrates, even the most successful and intelligent people can be victimized. Even physicians are not immune to this epidemic.
B. not only excelled in medical school; she took to it like no other medical student I have ever encountered. It was not uncommon for her to call me and ask me to quiz her over and over in preparation for her exams when I was a resident. She graduated at the top of her class and matched to her top choice highly competitive residency program which she graduated from this year.
She recently relayed something to me that is even more impressive than these accomplishments. She called me and told me that she had gotten married again, over ten years after her divorce. I didn’t even know she was dating someone. “I learned that those other relationships were not normal, and after several months with this new person, there was no reason to put it off any longer,” she told me. “He respects me, isn’t jealous, and made me look back on what was wrong with the other relationships.” That’s my remarkable friend.
It is important to emphasize that not every story has an ending like B.’s. Countless victims remain in the shadows, afraid or ashamed to tell their stories, many of whom are ignorant to the fact that their relationships are not normal. If you know someone who is struggling with abuse or you yourself are, please seek out resources or talk to someone including your personal physician. You are not alone.
Cory Michael is a radiologist.
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