Underneath the Mask: A Reflection on Intimate Partner Violence Awareness Month

Underneath the Mask: A Reflection on Intimate Partner Violence Awareness Month

Greetings Family:

During my freshman year at Howard University, I was exposed to “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (which has since become one of my favorite poems of all time):

Theater Happy Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties…

Although Dunbar was referring to a critical survival tactic post-Civil War Black  used to endure systemic oppression in the form of racism, it also can apply today in a different oppressive context. Last month, we embraced a family reunion theme at the 2017 United States Conference on AIDS. Today, I want to raise awareness of an issue that many in our family hide behind the masks they wear every day: intimate partner violence.

I never thought that I would or could experience intimate partner violence. I had a good childhood. I grew up in a middleclass two parent household with a precocious younger brother and an adorable cocker spaniel named Brownie. I was a lovingly indulged “daddy’s girl” who had several Disney Princess themed birthday parties. The village who raised me consistently affirmed that my black was beautiful and that I was a smart, sweet, strong, fearfully and wonderfully made young woman who could accomplish anything I put my mind to.

However, my romantic relationships resembled emotional roller coasters. There were the highs of intense passion, thoughtful surprises, coy flirtation, “The Gift of Magi” type sacrifice, chivalrous protection, celebrating each other’s important milestones, and believing we were the soulmates Plato wrote about in “The Symposium.” At best, we would be in a pseudo competition to shower the other in the purest love, genuine respect, and undying support.

But, then came the lows. At first, I thought these were a series of isolated, subtle and infrequent incidents (growing pains, if you will). I was not in always in committed relationships with people who had my best interest at heart. Instead, my former partners would:

  • Be overly critical and maliciously put me down
  • Connect my worth to the “health” of our relationship
  • Threaten to sabotage my professional career (if I didn’t acquiesce to their personal requests)
  • Cause me to feel nervous and fearful around them
  • Facilitate economic dependence or control (such as withdrawing money out of joint bank accounts if I did something they did not like)
  • Isolate me from my social support network (by policing who I could speak to and when/how I could interact with family and friends)
  • Constantly be jealous/insecure
  • Engage in physical intimidation

Cycle of AbuseOver time, I adopted the unhealthy coping mechanism of disassociating these kinds of harmful, oppressive and disrespectful behaviors from the people who expressed what I believed was genuine affection and actual devotion. I wanted to love and be loved so much that I learned to excuse and accept behavior from my former partners that I would hope my family and closest of friends would refuse to excuse or accept from their partners. The depths of what I now know was despair lead me through the valley of the shadow of death. I was so emotionally bothered by my partners’ acts of intimidation and control that I had trouble sleeping, only ate sporadically, and stopped taking care of myself. My mask became cracked . I was not okay. Everyone could see it. In some constructive, and at other times destructive ways, my family and friends eventually helped me realize that I was unintentionally caught up in a cycle of abuse. Grounding myself in my personal religious practices, therapy, as well as a daily practice of mindfulness and self-care have helped me to break the cycle.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, “the term ‘intimate partner violence’ describes physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy.” According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV):

  • On average, nearly 23.04 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.1
  • The cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $8.3 billion per year.6

While the statistics are staggering, the qualitative human impact cannot begin to be calculated. We cannot forget these numbers represent real people who are experiencing real harm in our real families. There are members of our family, like me, who have and are hiding their experiences of intimate partner violence behind their masks.

We must also remember that scars resulting from psychological harm can be as damaging as scars resulting from physical or sexual harm. Unfortunately, my experiences are not unique nor is the silence/denial some experience around what happened. Intimate partner violence can happen to anyone. However, it is important to note that although intimate partner violence impacts people across the spectra of gender identities and sexual orientation, particular individuals are especially vulnerable including: people living with HIV, women and members of the LGBTQ community.

Since October is Intimate Partner Awareness Month, I encourage you to:

1) WATCH: Empowered: Women, HIV & Intimate Partner Violence (22:45)

Empowered - Women, HIV & Intimate Partner Violence

FACT – Women abused by their intimate partners are more vulnerable to contracting HIV or other STDs due to forced intercourse or prolonged exposure to stress.7

2) READ: Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Abuse Among LGBT People

FACT – Studies have found that between 31.1% to 50.0% of transgender people experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes.

Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Abuse Among LGBT People


As a queer woman of color who has experienced the devastating impact of intimate partner violence, I could not let this month pass without raising awareness issue that impacts so many of our loved ones. For each of the days that remain in Intimate Partner Violence Awareness Month, tell someone that you love them, that they are beautiful, strong magnificent creations who deserved to be honored, supported, respected, celebrated, and loved. We must remind each other that love should not maliciously tear down, disrespect or hurt. Most importantly, we can heal from physical, sexual, or psychological harm. *HUGS*

Sable K. Nelson

Yours in the struggle,

Sable K. Nelson, Esq.
Policy Analyst