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“But no one believes me.”
“I can’t make the nightmares stop.”
“Will I ever be able to just move on?”
After the abuse ends, the pain for many survivors doesn’t. Memories and flashbacks can play over and over like a bad movie, and many survivors voice that they don’t feel like anyone understands or, worse yet, even believes their account.
That’s why, for the last four years, advocate, educator and a survivor herself, Kristen Paruginog, has been hosting a Women’s Revitalization Retreat through her nonprofit, Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence. Each year, up to 48 survivors convene on a picturesque beach in San Diego to share their stories through workshops and activities aimed to educate, empower and connect them, before capping off the weekend by ceremoniously burning letters to their abusers in a bonfire.
“The survivor advocates support each attendee through open discussions and break-out groups. We welcome survivors who are ready to begin their healing journey and experience a lifelong transformation alongside survivor sisters,” says Paruginog.
The program encourages attendees to step outside of their comfort zone to truly experience healing like never before, she explains, though dismisses the idea that the retreat is therapy.
“It’s is a holistic approach to addressing domestic violence and assists survivors to embark on a new journey of healing. The women who are coming to this retreat have obviously been lacking something in their lives. This is a stepping stone that gets them to where they want to be.”
Anita Hildreth of Phoenix, Ariz., calls the weekend “intensely emotional.” Hildreth is a survivor of childhood domestic violence. She’s also the executive director of Theresa’s Fund, the nonprofit that operates DomesticShelters.org. Although she attended the most recent retreat as a volunteer advocate, her survivor status meant she couldn’t help but feel a connection to the other participants.
“My abuser was my father,” says Hildreth, who grew up not only witnessing him physically and emotionally abuse her mother and brother, but also endured the wrath of his emotional abuse herself. Twice, her and her mother and her siblings escaped to domestic violence shelters but each time, they would return home, her mother unsure of how to financially support the family on her own, and hesitant to divorce because of her Catholic faith. But also, there was fear: “My mother was scared that he’d find us.”
Hildreth says she spent most of her childhood angry, but also terrified of her father. In the 8 th grade, she says she felt so depressed she tried to commit suicide. She managed to escape her home after high school to attend college, a choice that she says caused her father to disown her, but which helped her life start taking a more positive turn.
“In an odd way, I have him to thank for getting my life back.”
The two never spoke again after her freshman year, and her father passed away 10 years ago. She still has a relationship with her mother, though Hildreth was resentful that her mother stayed with her father for as long as she did. “I was determined to do things differently for my children once I became a parent.”
Now a married mom of two, Hildreth says attending the retreat was the first step in letting go, a sentiment she heard other survivors of the weekend also express. “In one person in particular, I saw such a transformation. The first night, she said she didn’t want to be there. She was very closed off. The day after the letter burning ceremony, she came into the room practically skipping and was interacting with people, hugging people."
“Others said it felt like the weight of a body had been lifted off of them. They couldn't forget [the abuse], but by releasing it, they felt like they could move on.”
The 2017 retreat is scheduled for May 18-21 in San Diego. Applications will be accepted starting Sept. 1 and space is limited to 48, though there is a waitlist option in the instance that a participant drops out. The $200 fee to attend includes two nights accommodations, all meals and all programs. Airfare is not included.
Want a preview of what to expect? Watch a recap of the last Survivor Retreat in the video posted above.
Looking for someone to speak with? Enter your location to find phone numbers for domestic violence experts in your area.
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