This Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month 2023, we hear from a TDV survivor who shares her story and how she uses her experience to help others and prevent violence.
Interested in learning more? Check out other TDVAM events happening at WID this month: https://www.womenindistress.org/events/february-tdvam/
You can also find us on social media:
ABOUT THE PODCAST
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." This show, brought to you by the Education & Prevention team at Women In Distress in Broward County, FL is building awareness to end domestic violence. Each episode, we’ll be breaking down different aspects of the work – we’ll talk to survivors, advocates, community members, and others to explore the things that are happening right now and the work that still needs to be done.
ABOUT WOMEN IN DISTRESS
Women In Distress is the only state-certified, nationally accredited domestic violence center serving Broward County, Florida. Our mission is "To stop domestic abuse for everyone through intervention, education, and advocacy." https://www.womenindistress.org/
[00:00:00] Emily Janas (Host): Welcome to our podcast, an Ounce of Prevention with Women in Distress. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that's what this show is all about, building awareness to end domestic violence. On today's episode, I sat down with a survivor of teen dating violence, who also started to do awareness and tell her story with Women In Distress.
[00:00:24] Aly (Guest): One of the best things, honestly, for me was in high school when the youth prevention educators from Women in Distress came to my school. That was the first time I was able to actually talk even for a minute about what happened to me, and then I was like, I wanna do that. I wanna work with them and tell my story. (Music)
[00:00:49] Emily Janas (Host): A quick note about today's episode- our conversation touches on topics that may be sensitive to some listeners, including self-harm, suicide attempts, and eating disorders. If you're struggling with any of these issues or with relationship abuse, you can find resources shared at the end of the episode and in the show notes.
So it is February, which is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. So we're really excited in this podcast episode to be joined by a teen dating violence survivor and educator, Aly. So first, thank you so much for joining us and making time for this today.
[00:01:23] Aly (Guest): Of course.
[00:01:23] Emily Janas (Host): Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your story?
[00:01:26] Aly (Guest): Sure. So I am originally from Baltimore and I moved down here actually to get away from my abuser My family up and moved all of us to Florida so that I wouldn't be near him anymore. But I met him when I was 13. . And I, I didn't have a relationship with my dad and we think now that's kind of why I was drawn to him because he was very protective and I thought that that's what I needed at the time, was someone that was gonna protect me and love me and give me the attention I really wasn't getting at home.
And he did that in the beginning. was very sweet, even gentle at times, and told me that, you know, he loved me and he would always be there for me. That I was the only one for him. And at 13, and him being my first boyfriend, I I believed him. And after about like four months, five months, it started changing.
It became very controlling. He decided who I could speak to at school and even teacher , like the guidance counselor would try and talk to me sometimes throughout the later part of our relationship, and he'd like grab me and be like, no, no, she's, she has to get to class. And then before it became physically abusive, he actually started weighing me.
I have a history of an eating disorder that started when I was about 10. But it got a lot worse with him because he would weigh me when I would be at his house and that would determine what I would eat, so even if I was having dinner with his parents, his dad was also an abuser. And his dad didn't say anything and his mom knew not to say anything because it would be hard for her.
But if I didn't weigh what he wanted me to weigh, he would take things away from me, like if they put a steak on my plate, I couldn't eat the steak. And it was actually, I didn't eat steak from age 13 to 21 because for me it was, it was a fear food because I, if I ate it, I felt like something bad was gonna happen.
And it terrified me. A lot of the things that he would take away from me, I didn't eat for a very long time, and the first time I did eat them, I cried and hid in the bathroom and it was, it was very, very difficult for me. The first time he hit me was at my, my house actually. We were in my room and he got upset about a wall.
I had a wall that everybody who came over signed, he'd seen the wall before. He had seen that a boy that I had been friends with and had a crush on before him had signed the wall. This was all nothing new. It's not like he came over while I was dating him or anything like that. It was something he knew.
But he got upset about it because I didn't paint over it. And the first time he hit me, he broke my nose. And that's when all of the lying started. Because my family would ask and they'd ask why I was bruised. They'd ask why I had cuts on me. Cause I was self-harming. And every day it was I had a nightmare or I hit my face on the wall while I was sleeping.
There, there's always an excuse. And even from him, there was always an excuse, you know, I love you. I just, I can't imagine not having you. And then as it got further into our relationship and the abuse became more frequent, there were no excuses anymore. There was no, I love yous, there was no, I'm doing this for your own good.
It was, well, you're disgusting and you're pathetic and no one's gonna love you if I don't have you. And he would get... yeah, no, he would get bored with me being there, but I couldn't go home because then he didn't know what I was doing if I was home. So he would just lock me in the basement, which is actually how I found my greatest passion that I have now.
I have a master's degree in Shakespeare studies and I picked up my first Shakespeare play while I was in that basement.
[00:05:35] Emily Janas (Host): Wow. And I think so much of - one, thank you for sharing that. And I mean, what an intense experience. And like I said, I, I think it's so- I appreciate you being willing to tell your story, especially as someone who survived it as a teen, because we don't often hear those stories.
And I think as adults sometimes we think, oh, well teen dating violence isn't as bad, right? But even in just that short piece of your story that you shared, there's so much intensity there. But I think something that struck me just listening to you too, was. . You know, sometimes when I'm out in the community, folks are like, well, what are the behaviors of abuse? Right? Like, what are, what do abusers do? And it's really hard to think of like a list of behaviors. It's more about that dynamics, because no one would ever think like, okay, the you're eating and like pressuring about your body image and your weight would be a tactic of an abuser, right? That paint on a wall, and someone's name existing on a wall would lead to an abusive incident, right? These aren't things that we can preemptively say, this is what abuse looks like. But when you hear it in the context of that relationship and that story, absolutely those things are abusive.
[00:06:32] Aly (Guest): I think it also is kind of determined not necessarily by like the situation, but how the, the person's behaviors.
So it's, it's hard to say like, oh, that person's gonna be an abuser, but, they're, they're, you know, they're so good in the beginning that there's no clear way to say like, oh, this is gonna change in approximately three months and seven days. Like, and I think that's a really good point too, of like, so often you don't know at first it is a healthy and almost like sweeping off your feet experience.
When, when this was starting to get worse and, and the red flags were popping up, and then the abuse started, were folks around you, I know you said you would kind of like, you know, tell your parents it was, oh, I banged my head, or I, you know, I had a nightmare. What about your friends? Did they ever ask questions or, or did they take it seriously?
So my friends at school didn't take it seriously because they knew. And they're like, well, you know, he is, you know, kind of weird, but it, that's not what would be happening. I think also people my age at that time didn't understand that that is something that could happen. But I did have one friend outside of school that I was friends with through the Jewish community and, he noticed and he tried so hard to talk to me about it, and actually he stopped me. I had a suicide attempt because I thought that that was the only way to get away. And he was the one that saved me. He was the one that he says he just felt it, that there was something wrong. And he showed up at my house, which he did regularly when we were kids.
So my parents were just like, oh, you know, he's here. So, you know, go say hi to Aly. And when he got into my room, he found me and, you know, took care of me. And it wasn't like a, it, it was more of a, an attempt of an attempt. I was sitting on the floor crying. Hurting myself, and it didn't feel like it would end, like I just needed to get away from him.
And I didn't see that being possible. And my friend came at the right time because I didn't see a way out. And there, it wasn't until actually my brother that I was able to get out because my, my batterer broke up with me because I wouldn't have sex with him. But then he showed up at my house and my brother, I had finally confided in my brother, who was like my, my ultimate best friend role model, everything.
I confided in him and when he showed up at the house, my brother held a knife to the door and said, if you come near my sister, I'm gonna kill you. My brother told me that we needed to tell our parents. And so we called them and we all sat around the dining room table. And I remember it so well. I remember where everyone was sitting and I, my brother helped me tell them what was going on.
And I remember my mom blaming my dad, my dad blaming my brother. Thankfully nobody blaming me, but also no one really blaming him. And then a little while later, his dad called to say that he was gonna call the police because my brother threatened to kill his son. And, my mom, in her very terrifying voice that she has occasionally said, that's fine. You can call the police and we'll call the police. And we'll see who they arrest because my daughter is covered in bruises. And when she got off the phone, I told her, I was like, we're not calling the police because I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna report it. I don't, I don't wanna get him in trouble. I was still very much thought I was in love with him and I thought I deserved what was happening and, but his family never called the police either.
[00:10:15] Emily Janas (Host): That point that you just made, I think is so important to note too, that like it's, it's so hard for survivors because of the emotional abuse and the way you're torn down and the way you're just constantly told, you know, you're not good enough and you're doing these things wrong and you need me, right? There is that in turn, I think a lot of survivors experience that internalized sense of, of almost worthlessness. So I'm so glad that you named that. Can you, can you talk a little bit more about that or just if that's a barrier that you've heard from other survivors that you've, you've talked about and how, what helped you kind of get out of that or, or understand that this wasn't your fault?
[00:10:52] Aly (Guest): I'm gonna be honest, I still struggle with that. I'm, I'm 32 now and I still struggle with the thought of feeling like I'm a burden or I'm worthless or there's something wrong with me. But I have gotten a lot better. Thanks to a lot of therapy. Yeah, a lot of reinforcement from my family.
I actually am currently almost a year in recovery from my eating disorder, and the reason I've gotten this far this time is because we're actually focusing on trauma in therapy and finally coming down to. Why it is I see myself the way I do and it's hard. I've definitely heard it from other people that don't even admit that they are survivors or that they were victims or whatever.
But people that I know, because I've been a part of their lives, people I know that have been abused and, they'll talk about the worthlessness and they feeling like they're not good enough to be in another relationship, but they will not admit that it was an abusive relationship. It's like it makes you less of a person to be abused.
And I, I think one of the best things, honestly, for me was in high school when the youth Prevention Educators from Women in Distress came to my school and did one of their presentations. That was the first time I was able to actually talk, even for a minute about what happened to me.
[00:12:23] Emily Janas (Host): Wow.
[00:12:24] Aly (Guest): And then I was like, I wanna do that. I wanna, I wanna work with them and tell my story and help teens so that this doesn't happen or so that they can get out of the situations.
I remember my first panel. It was at Barry University. I spoke for maybe two minutes and then I ran out of the room crying. And my boss at the time, and one of the other panelists actually ran out after me and talked to me and told me it was okay.
And I went back in and everybody was very sweet and I was able to answer some questions to help guide me through talking. But after that, I didn't feel bad about what happened to me anymore. I think that was why there was that barrier to not talk about it, because I didn't want people blaming my family.
I didn't want people blaming my parents. I didn't want people blaming me like this, you know, stupid little girl who, you know, thought she was gonna have a Disney fantasy. Like relationship and you know, I just was scared of what people would think, but when I realized that the people that think that way are very, very, a very small amount of people it made it easier to, to talk about and to relate to people.
There are a lot of people that don't wanna admit that relationships are happening in middle schools. They are, and it needs to be talked about, especially to those ages because they're, you know, thinking that the world is going to revolve around this person. And sometimes the person you think is your knight and shining armor becomes this demonn that lives in your head for a very, very long time.
And for me, I saw him in everyone I dated after. Probably the last few years.
[00:14:23] Emily Janas (Host): Yeah. What a lasting, lasting effect. And that's something I think we don't often understand too, is you're right. I mean, we, we sometimes think of middle school and high school and it is hard, right? I I, we talk to parents, we talk to other adults and they do say, what do you mean kids are dating at age 11?
And you know that dating violence can happen to them, but it's so important to realize not just to be able to support those youth and take them seriously then. But you're right. Give them the tools. So much of I think the way we've done prevention has been, you know, good focused on not only the awareness of violence, but also let's talk about what a healthy relationship is.
How do you practice consent? How do you practice respect? You know, we can all list those qualities of a healthy relationship. You can ask any middle school group and they can rattle off words, but do they actually know what it means and what it looks like? And are they, do they have the support to practice those things?
[00:15:10] Aly (Guest): Yeah, I think also the importance of saying no, that it's okay, like. Because I think that part of the issue, at least for me, was I thought he was like this amazing person and he was popular and you know, I, I felt like if I said no, that I was, that people were gonna stop liking me if he told them.
And I was so scared of. My reputation and you know, how people would see me and what they would think that I didn't actually worry about my safety. I think that's an important thing to talk to teens about now, is that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. It matters what you think and if someone's hurting you, it's okay to tell someone and it's okay to say no and to for it to.
[00:16:06] Emily Janas (Host): Absolutely. And I know you said, you know, and you remember that conversation vividly with your, the support of your brother finally telling your parents what was happening. You know, we often ask kids to identify trusted adults in their life, and sometimes they name their parents, but often it's someone else.
Was there any, any adult at the time that you were going through this that you thought maybe you could talk to? Or did it really feel like you were isolated and that fear was so strong that, that you couldn't talk to any?
[00:16:33] Aly (Guest): I felt very isolated. The first time that I felt I could talk to an adult outside my parents was when I moved down here and I had a creative writing teacher actually, who I used to eat lunch in her classroom.
Cause I was too shy to make friends. And I would sit in his classroom and play with my food and cry. She was the first person that I felt I could talk to about the eating disorder, about anything. But shortly after we told my parents, my mom created something called the box and inside the box, not a literal box, but a box.
You can't get in trouble. So you can say anything without fear of get being grounded or getting in trouble, and it's two-sided because my mom had to keep her word that I would not get in trouble and I couldn't abuse the box. I had to respect the, the sanctity of the box. You know, I didn't go in there because I failed a math test. I, you know, I went in there for, for serious things that I needed no judgment. And I'm 32. My mom and I still use the box.
[00:17:48] Emily Janas (Host): I love that.
[00:17:49] Aly (Guest): I don't even live at home.
[00:17:50] Emily Janas (Host): I think it's so important for all of us to have that space of that guaranteed no judgment. Like I just need help. I need you to listen. I need your support. You know? Because I think, an answer we're all so scared of when we're talking about stuff like that, whether it's self-harm or eating disorders or relationship abuse or so many of the things that you've mentioned that you've experienced. You know, it's, I need help, not I told you so. Or, why didn't you tell me earlier? Or, it's not, it can't be that bad. What do you mean? I, I love that idea and I'm so glad that you still have that with your mom.
[00:18:17] Aly (Guest): Yeah, no, it's, it's been really good. And we actually, we wrote a book together about my journey and about the abuse and about the eating disorder and We kind of talked about, I, I would tell my side of what happened and she would talk about how it impacted her.
So it's kind of like a for kids and for parents type book.
[00:18:39] Emily Janas (Host): And we can definitely link to that in the show notes for this if you're interested in, in reading that and looking that up. And I'd like to ask, I mean, that we, we talked so much about trying to again, build these conversations between parents and youth and just kind of get these stories out so folks understand. What was the experience of writing that book with your mom? Was it difficult? Was it cathartic? Was it all of that?
[00:19:01] Aly (Guest): All of that! At times it was very nice and it was nice bonding with her over certain things. At times it was very sad because we've gone through so many things together, but it kind of turned out that we never talked to each other about how those things impacted.
You know, like what it was like for her to hear that her daughter was being abused. What it was like for her to leave me at a residential treatment center and know that I wasn't going home with her. And, you know, it's, it was very difficult to read for her and it was very difficult to read for me. And then we also have, some quotes from my brother and my dad, which were also very challenging because, you know, hearing my dad say that he worried every morning if he was gonna wake up and I wouldn't be alive was devastating for me.
And, you know, there's, there are certain things about my relationship with my abuser that I do not talk about, that are not in the book, that I do, not, that I did not talk about here. The only person that knows is my mother. because we went in the box. And I, I, I don't talk about them because of how it would hurt my, my, the rest of my family.
And I care more about them than talking about it because I, I got to the point honestly about, I think it was about two years ago, I forgave. I will never forget what happened, but I forgave him because I realized that I was giving him so much power by letting him impact my life and impact my relationships.
And he doesn't deserve that power. That's all he wants is power. So why am I giving it to him? And he actually reached out to me and apologized.
[00:20:58] Emily Janas (Host): Wow.
[00:20:59] Aly (Guest): And told me that I did not deserve what he did, and that he was truly sorry. And I forgave him and I said, thank you. And I never spoke to him again because I don't want anything to do with him.
But it was, it was nice to have that acknowledgement because I know many, many, many people don't get that. And for him to acknowledge what he did and that it was wrong and to reinforce that it was not my fault. really helped me forgive him and in turn, kind of forgive myself even though it wasn't my fault.
But I spent years thinking it was, and, you know, blaming myself, why didn't you just leave? And that's what you know. I always heard when I was telling my story or when I was going into the schools was, why didn't you just leave? And it's, it's not that easy and unless you're in that situation, which I hope that the statistics on that goes way down and nobody has to deal with it ever again. But unless you're in that situation, you have no idea how hard it is to just leave.
[00:22:00] Emily Janas (Host): Yeah, and I'm sure, I mean, because I, I'm not a survivor myself, you know, and I, I don't mind telling folks that because I think it's a good point of like, you don't have to be a survivor to be in this movement. We need allies, but especially to, you're doing this work and educating folks as a survivor, and then to hear that, even if it's in a learning environment, I'm sure that was really hard. And, and even just the act of, again, telling your story. So what - I know you said you, you know - W omen in Distress came out to your school, you were able to do that first panel event and kind of get that support afterwards. But, but what did tell you, like what made you want to tell your story and, and kind of work through that fear or work through whatever it felt like to hear comments like that from the folks you were talking to?
[00:22:41] Aly (Guest): I think what made me want to tell my story and get involved was seeing so many people just not in healthy relationships. Like not, maybe, not necessarily in like abusive relationships, which just not healthy relationships. I just wanted people to know that it was okay to talk about. Just let them know that they're not alone. Because abusive relationships are so isolating and they cause other types of isolation, like eating disorders or drug addiction or alcohol addiction.
You know, they cause so many issues because we already feel isolated and we don't know what else to do and we just wanna control the pain. . You know, when you feel out of control, you go to things that you can control. For me, it was food. I could control that. And I've done that for a very long time because he made me feel like I had no power over my body.
I had no power over my mind, and I just needed to know that there was something that I could be in charge of, that I could control. And it turned into really unhealthy behaviors and. Seeing these kids, I just really didn't want that for them.
[00:23:56] Emily Janas (Host): Yeah. And what a powerful message to tell them too. Like, you are not alone.
And I think, you know, obviously we should all be saying that, but from, especially from, from somebody who's gone through it, to be able to say that I think is so powerful. So, so thank you for your work there with that and, and I think, and just even sharing your experience, Here with us so graciously. So tell us a little bit about the prevention programs that you were able to do with wi while you worked here. I know you mentioned kind of starting on that panel that first time and, and getting connected to WID or kind of learning about when you were, when you got that education from, from those community educators. And then, you know, eventually working with us. So could you tell us a little bit about what that work looked like when you did it?
[00:24:35] Aly (Guest): I was a youth prevention educator, and I went into high schools, middle schools, elementary schools and preschools, and talked about violence in all different ways. So in high school and middle school, it was teen dating violence. In elementary school it was bullying, and then the little littles, it was hands are for helping not hurting, and, it was very different for every age, you know, for the middle schoolers and the high schoolers. I could be a lot more, you know, myself and tell my story and because you know, I would get that like, oh, that doesn't really happen. And I'd be like, oh, really? And be able to go in to tell my story. And you know, then they'd kind of, I'd have a few students sometimes walk up and be like, I'm really sorry Miss. And I'd be like, let's talk. Why do you think this?
You know, I loved actually teaching the little kids, you know, the, the little, little ones that'll like run up and like sit on your lap and, you know, want, want you to read to them and, you know, they, they do the coloring and that was so much fun.
And as you got older, I kept more and more sad. You know, having the elementary schools where we actually had to be trained, if one of the elementary schoolers you know, confided in us about something. And that was my fear every time I went into an elementary school was, oh my God, what am I gonna do if this little tiny second grader talks to me about being abused?
And it was just terrifying. But within on high school, it was, it was definitely easier. And I definitely related more with them, especially with the middle schoolers, because I got stopped in the halls a bunch because they thought I was skipping. Look at eight 19 years old.
[00:26:18] Emily Janas (Host): That's so validating to hear! That happens to me too, even now. Ugh. It's the worst.
[00:26:23] Aly (Guest): But yeah, it was we did like games with them. Like we had, my favorite game we did was this long game I was like, cross over the line. If you've experienced this, cross over the line. If someone has said this to you, cross over the line if you have felt this way.
And I felt like that was so enlightening for them because you know, you don't see these as things that could be unhealthy. You see them unfortunately nowadays, you see them as, these are just normal things that happen and they're not, they're not okay and they're not normal, and it's not okay to feel like you're useless or a burden or ugly or fat.
You know, everyone has beauty in their own way and you know, it, it really opened their eyes to what was going on around them.
[00:27:13] Emily Janas (Host): And I, I love that you all went to so many folks, and you're right, the experience is different. Talking to different age groups, there's a message all the way across, and especially when you get that through line as a child, at every stage you're getting this information that violence is not okay, and all those different forms, and they're getting that consistent message, you know, and that's why it's so important that we're having this conversation, that you're able to tell your story and that we work with, you know, adults and, and really anyone, just because it should be a message that everybody is getting from a lot of different places. And that'll really hopefully help shift our, our community.
So if you could share, you know, obviously you're not doing the work full-time or, or anymore, but we appreciate your time here on this podcast. If you could share one message with young people in Broward today about teen dating violence, about healthy relationships, what do you want them to know or what do you, what do you hope that they learn or understand?
[00:28:03] Aly (Guest): I think one of the biggest things is, of course, that they're not alone. That if something is going on that makes them uncomfortable, they may not see it as an unhealthy behavior or abuse, but it's just something is making you uncomfortable, talk to someone. There is someone out there call with, call. You know, talk to a guidance counselor, talk to a teacher that makes you feel comfortable. Or you know, if you have a great relationship with your parents, talk to your parents or siblings, someone older, but just talk to someone, you know? I think that it's important for people to just understand that they deserve a healthier relationship, and no matter what anybody says, they deserve to be happy and healthy.
And. . .you know, if they're uncomfortable, they aren't alone. There's so many people out there.
[00:28:51] Emily Janas (Host): Definitely. And my final question for you is one that I love to ask folks in the prevention world, but really anyone too, because I think, you know, when we talk about preventing violence, so much of it is of course naming what has happened, naming what is currently happening, giving folks that those chances to get connected to resources and really building the awareness.
But I always like to challenge folks and myself really to think about, well, what is the world we're working towards? What actually is a violence free world. So I'm gonna pose the same question to you! In your view, when you think about a violence free world, what does it look like? What does it feel like? What, what is that world that we're working towards?
[00:29:25] Aly (Guest): It's a really good question and it's challenging cause I think it's hard to imagine that world because of what we live in now and what I've lived in, in my past. But I think a violence free world is just you know, a place where people feel like they can communicate, where people feel like they are comfortable enough and safe enough to talk to people and to talk to each other.
And instead of this fear and walking on eggshells in relationships, you know, I feel like in a violence free world, some way if someone's uncomfortable with something that's said, they can just go to their partner and say, Hey, listen, that made me uncomfortable, and I'd like to talk about it. And I wish that that happens. I, I hope that there are more healthy relationships that come about and that we get rid of these unhealthy behaviors. But I think a violence free world needs to be an educated world.
[00:30:19] Emily Janas (Host): I love that. That's a great perspective and thank you for challenging yourself and answering that question. I know it is kind of a tough one. I think we could all write like books about what that maybe looks like, if we have enough time to think about it.
But thank you so much for your time and perspective and for joining us today. And I know our listeners, you know, hopefully took a lot out of, out of our conversations. Thank you so much.
[00:30:38] Aly (Guest): Absolutely. Thank you for having me. I'm really glad that I was able to talk during, especially during this month.
[00:30:51] Emily Janas (Host) This episode was brought to you by the superstar Education & Prevention team at Women In Distress, a nonprofit certified domestic violence center in beautiful Broward County, Florida. Special thanks to Aly for sharing her story with us and for all the advocacy and work she's done to prevent dating violence and make the world a better place.
Stay in touch for more episodes and perspectives. Until next time, stay well. Stay safe and remember. Violence is preventable!
[00:31:38] Emily Janas (Host) For everyone out there, please know that there is help if you or someone you know is experiencing dating violence, domestic abuse, or an unhealthy relationship. To talk to someone and get help, contacat your local domestic violence hotline. If you're in Broward County, you can contact Women in Distress. Our crisis hotline is 954-761-1133.
You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline wherever you are at 1-800-799-SAFE, that's 1 800-799-7233.