Whitney Houston: Did she ever stop being a victim? Do any of us?
If I had a dollar for every woman I’ve met who never healed from the abuse heaped upon her at the hands of a man, I daresay I’d be pretty wealthy by now. As the hour draws near for tonight’s Grammy Awards, I keep asking myself: was Whitney Houston one of those women? Did she never heal from her abusive marriage?
I don’t know, but it rather looks that way. Given what authorities are saying could have been a fatal combination of Xanax and alcohol for the six-time Grammy winner, it’s highly possible Whitney never could quite overcome the damage she sustained as an abused wife.
I know what that feels like, to want to hide behind the pain of abuse with a bottle in your hand. This is how I described it in my memoir: “It was at night, when he came to me, that I needed the alcohol to drown out what happened whenever he touched me.”
Fortunately, helped by divine faith that allowed me to wield an incredible amount of self-discipline, I stopped drinking before I ruined my body, drowned my spirit, or killed myself.
My sister, however, was not so fortunate. She remains a drug user and an alcoholic today, long after the abuse she suffered at the hands of a man. She is, so far as my family knows, living on the street, seeking handouts from anyone who will give her one.
Whitney Houston’s death has made me angry: angry at the Chris and Bobby Browns who think women are punching bags; angry at a society that allows these Browns and other men to get away with it, and angry at the women who fail to help themselves.
In this day and age, there is so very much help out there—family violence centers, battered women shelters, and excellent resources that literally walk you through the process of escaping a violent environment—that there is no reason for women not to try to help themselves.
Beyond that there is therapy (even free, or income-based therapy) that can help you to begin the hard work of pulling yourself up from the lowest place of negativity, oppression and shattered self-esteem. There are support groups in the real world and the online one, filled with women who have done it—who have escaped their past lives, and gone on to build bigger and better ones for themselves and their offspring.
Many people believe addicts should simply get their act together. Until you’ve lived with one or been one yourself, it’s hard to understand that it simply isn’t that easy. People who battle addiction—be it drugs, alcohol, food, sex or work—are running away from the incredible pain they’ve become mired in. They don’t want to face whatever it is that’s hurting them, so they block it out by making themselves so numb they feel nothing at all.
Many other women, years after the actual physical, emotional or sexual abuse has stopped, engage in equally damaging behaviors: cutting themselves, becoming anorexic or bulimic, or living lives that teeter on the edge of disaster in other ways.
I’m not a psychologist, although I’ve seen plenty of them, so I don’t know what the single biggest factor is that separates women like me from women like my sister or, possibly, Whitney. Why did I make it out and why am I still alive, fighting and thriving and trying to make a difference? In the case of me and my sister, I seriously doubt it has to do with genetics.
What I think might be a major component to this difference is the ability to tell yourself that you have value, and believe it—long after an abuser has beaten you down and convinced you that you are absolutely worthless. I put it like this in the workbook I developed to help teach women how to regain their self-esteem:
“I believe each and every one of us was born with an intrinsic feeling of being valuable. Even if our parents mistreated, ignored or molested us (or allowed someone else to do so), that abuse and neglect could not wipe out what each one of us received from our Creator.
That old poster, with the little boy saying, ‘I know I’m valuable, ‘cause God don’t create no junk,’ is really true.
Before our birth, each of us was instilled with something much more powerful, much more concrete and long-lasting than anything that harmed us after we were born. It’s true that this gift sometimes gets lost or misplaced—but it’s always there, waiting like the water in a well, to be drawn up and used to quench our incredible thirst.
It’s a resource that may be buried under so much garbage, though, that you have to really dig to find it. But it is there. I know it is. I found it, and you can, too!”
For every Whitney, there are 1,000 other women who also can’t see their own true value. That’s why it’s up to us to remind them—at every opportunity—how valuable they are. In the meantime, we as women have to realize that it isn’t the words of a man, or the bruises from his fists, that define us: it is we ourselves.
It is the little girl we once were, when we made up stories or wrote poems, tossed a basketball through a hoop or beat a teammate to the finish line, won a coveted role in a community play or were chosen to represent our school at a state championship.
That child is still in there, buried deep within you, waiting for you to find her again. If you can put down the bottle or the pills long enough, I know you can do it. She deserves to be nurtured and cherished, because she has value. And no matter what your age today, so do you.
My sister might not yet believe that. And Whitney might not have, either. But Whitney did know it, at least on some level, when she said that “learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.”
Editor’s note: Daleen Berry is a national expert in the area of child sex abuse and interpersonal violence, as well as an award-winning author and an accomplished journalist who speaks about these important social topics at conferences around the country. Berry will one of two keynote speakers addressing a national audience at “The Many Faces of Domestic Violence,” the 18th Annual Conference of the Association of Batterers’ Intervention Programs on March 1, 2012, in Anaheim, Calif. She recently spoke to social workers from all over the country at the “Hope for the Future: Ending Domestic Violence in Families” conference at the University of California, Berkeley.
Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read a free preview, please go to Amazon.