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I often quote Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son,” and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” because life for me “ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up,” which became obstacles for me as I wore “the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.”
The mask was a defense mechanism. What I was defending was myself. My life.
I survived verbal and physical abuse throughout my childhood and much of my early adulthood. But now, as part of my journey to heal those wounds, I am working to prevent domestic violence and child abuse because I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I did.
Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, comes in many forms. When you experience this type of trauma, it can create mental health challenges that can define your future if you let it.
It took me more than half my life to figure this out, and I am still learning. I tried to cope by becoming a peacemaker, a people-pleaser who was always trying to avoid conflict. I did not know how to set and enforce boundaries. I kept a smile and masked my pain with sarcasm, deflecting from the truth while minimizing the number of people I associated with who might see my pain. I now realize that this was part of a defense mechanism I used to prevent myself from being hurt again.
Verbal abuse can create emotional fractures that break one’s spirit and self-esteem, just as physical abuse can. For me, it seemed as though a dark cloud hovered over me, overshadowing my life, refusing to let the sunshine force its way through. I was never taught how to let the sunshine in. I often felt that my life had no value because of the deeply rooted trauma I experienced.
At the age of 2, family members were told I had six months to live, as I had a childhood cancer called retinoblastoma. Treatment required my right eye to be surgically removed in a procedure called eye enucleation.
To this day, when people feel threatened or lack a sense of security around me, they often attack me and make unpleasant comments about my eyes. I learned early—starting in kindergarten—how to endure such verbal attacks, despite how badly they hurt. Throughout school, students and teachers often made me feel less than because of my disability, including my sixth-grade teacher, who demanded I take out my prosthetic eye in front of the class to show them.
My childhood was lonely, and coming from a marginalized community outside of Los Angeles that was overpoliced, under-resourced, and subjected to systemic racism, I lacked the tools to understand healthy relationships. I experienced multiple sexual assaults—the first time when I was only 6. When I was 8, I witnessed my neighbor’s grandfather murder his wife in front of their house after a disagreement.
As I grew older, I continued to experience domestic violence in relationships. Eventually, I managed to escape those abusive relationships, and I believed I was protecting my children in doing so. But in 2011, I lost my eldest son to domestic violence. He was 22 and left behind two young children. The tragedy is that because he experienced domestic violence during his childhood, he may not have known how to protect himself from more violence as a young adult.
I began writing my first book in 2008, feeling like I was ready to share my story. But after the loss of my son, I had a lot more to say. I began to write as part of my therapy and healing process, becoming a self-published author. I continue to write today.
I also started a nonprofit organization in honor of my son, The Arthur Lee Duncantell II Foundation, which raises awareness of how boys and men are also victims of domestic violence. I work with survivors and with those who have caused harm—so that they, too, can unlearn the cycles of abuse. Those in abusive relationships often suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, or substance use disorders, but they may not understand why.
As I continue to educate myself and encourage others to develop healthy relationships, I’m incorporating trauma-informed practices into my work. Ultimately, abuse is a mental health issue, because hurt people hurt people. If we can get to the root of the pain and hurt, we can often begin to heal. I am working on letting my healing begin by sharing my story, in the hopes it can help others too.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for support and referrals, or text “START” to 88788.
This column was produced in partnership with the California Health Report.
Sheilah Y. Kimble is the founder of The Arthur Lee Duncantell II Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that works to address domestic violence among boys and men, and the author of Paralyzed In Pain and several other books.