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Lennie Pennie: I didn’t understand the power of these survivors until I met them

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Poet Lennie Pennie, the woman behind the online phenomenon of Scots Word of the Day, on the courage of domestic abuse survivors

SOME gave beautiful speeches. Others spoke only a few lines about their experiences. None of us managed not to cry.

I had been invited by a representative for the charity Women’s Aid to sit in on and hopefully contribute to a meeting of domestic abuse survivors. The meeting was described to me as a group of people who had experienced domestic abuse and had, in coming together, provided a sense of community for one another.

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I was apprehensive at first, and I was unsure if I would be able to get through the meeting with my emotions firmly in check.

Looking back on the experience, I can now see that the point of the group was to dissolve the carefully curated callouses that can be formed in isolation.

As the meeting progressed, I did not manage to avoid crying; none of us did. We were crying for ourselves: not only for our past, but for the shining optimism of our futures.

We wept for others: those at different stages of their journey, those whose stories we know and those whose we never will. The overarching theme of the meeting was Turning Pain into Power. I don’t think I fully understood the kind of power each of these survivors displayed until I met them.

Comments made after the meeting provided the phrase ‘collective courage’, and I truly believe that this is the best possible way to describe the strength of the group, which only seemed to build as we shared our stories.

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Some spoke only a few lines about their experiences, offering what they could with a clear, calm concision indicative of deep introspection and self-reflection.

Others gave beautiful speeches: calls to arms which highlighted both the progress made, and the work left to be done. I would also like to acknowledge the survivors who did not share words, but rather gave their time to listen, and offer support to those who chose to share. There is a strength in silence that often goes unnoticed, and I am grateful for those who were able to sit with us and give us their silence, even if they did not yet feel ready to comment.

Following the meeting, I was asked to take the words and stories shared with me by the survivors and create an original piece of poetry.

The topic of abuse is one I have covered extensively in the past, but I felt an immense pressure to make something that would honour the bravery and strength of the stories shared by the group, and to do each of them justice. I have to admit that I found it incredibly hard to write that piece; I had to take a long time to process the meeting and work through the things we had discussed.

I knew that I had to capture the dichotomies of harm and healing, and pain and power: the contradictions and complexities of the stories that had been so graciously shared.

I didn’t want to write something clichéd, and I didn’t want to patronise the survivors with saccharine sympathy, but I did want to acknowledge their struggle and sacrifice in surviving. An overarching message that had been repeated throughout the meeting was the importance of regaining control over one’s own narrative, and how essential it is for survivors to feel as if they have agency over both their lives and their stories.

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As a result of this theme, I was careful to rely on the notes I had taken during the meeting so I could represent the survivors as sensitively and as accurately as I could, using their own words to build a tribute to them.

One of the things that struck me during the meeting was the sense that never before had I experienced a space so understanding; every person there had come together to share things usually kept private, hidden, and just under the surface of everyday life.

It was incredibly validating to hear them describe their own situations, and to take comfort in the fact that they had found light and life in the months and years after leaving abusive situations. It became clear through the meeting that to survive is not an event, but a process: a continual struggle to heal and to be whole.

The survivors I met were all on their own individual journeys, each with their own complex needs, goals, symptoms and struggles. Part of the beauty of a community founded on the shared experience of survival is that it highlights the fact that there is no one story; there can be no one shared experience of survival.

Some survivors experience physical, emotional, sexual abuse or any combination thereof, and some have to leave once, twice, dozens of times before they are finally able to begin the healing process. Often, leaving the relationship did not mean an immediate end to the abuse, with stalking often continuing for months and even years in some cases.

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Some of the survivors have children, debt, or mental or physical illness: all factors which contribute to a unique and individual story. Whether you are aware of their story or not, it is highly likely that you know a survivor of abuse. They are your doctors, teachers, and waiting staff; they cook your food and represent you in court. They may have raised you, and you may have raised them. Just as abusers come from every walk of life, so too do those that they abuse.

Education about abuse is sorely lacking, but support is readily available. Each of the people who shared their experiences spoke of the importance of support, both as part of a network of friends and family, and from external agencies like Women’s Aid. Resources can be found easily and for free, and can mean the difference between suffering in silence and finding support to leave an abusive situation.

See Scottish Women’s Aid at womensaid.scot. If you feel scared of your partner or are worried about someone, call 0800 027 1234 or visit sdafmh.org.uk.

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