Guest post on The Business of Me.
For too long, the link between domestic violence and chronic illness has gone crucially unnoticed. Unsightly scars, bruises and swellings are all too palpable and easily attributable to physical abuse, but most victims of intimate partner violence will tell you that that’s not where it ends. For a survivor who’s managed to get out of an abusive relationship, nursing her scars until they disappear is just one piece of the puzzle. What lies beneath the surface of visible blemishes, however, is a whole other animal waiting — often in vain — to be tamed.
Just ask Leslie Morgan Steiner, a survivor and author of the 2009 New York Times Bestseller,Crazy Love. As a young woman in her early twenties, Leslie entered a brutally abusive four-year long marriage. The beatings started five days before she and her husband tied the knot, and they continued until the day she left him. Now, at the age of 48, she is still trying to grapple with the long-term effects of the attacks she endured nearly twenty years ago.
But in Leslie’s case, as with so many other survivors of domestic abuse, “grappling with” is not the same as “being aware of.” More often than not, victims of domestic violence suffer from chronic illnesses that they don’t even think to hold their abusive history accountable for. Leslie herself experiences short-term memory loss and arthritis in her shoulders, joints, wrists, hands and ankles. What’s more is that had it not been for the groundbreaking research recently done by More Magazine and The Verizon Foundation, she would still be simply chalking her ailments up to nothing but old age.
“During that whole time, it never once occurred to me that I might be suffering from long-term physical damage due to the violence I experienced in my twenties, until I was contacted by More Magazine and The Verizon Foundation for this incredibly important study,” Leslie said in aninterview with MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts in observance of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The study that Leslie refers to is referenced in “A Hidden Cause of Chronic Illness” by Alexis Jetter – a riveting, in-depth article in the November 2013 issue of More Magazine that explores the connection between domestic violence and chronic illness.
According to the article, in 2008 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the annual medical care costs for health issues related to domestic violence range from $25 billion to $59 billion. This equates to approximately 20 percent more money spent on health care by women who are in abusive relationships than those who aren’t. These are extremely startling numbers when you take into account the fact that much of this expense is for women who have long since left their abusive partners and started their lives anew as best they could.
But no definitive amount of years or visits to the doctor can put an end to the damage that’s already been done. There is no timeline that can characterize how long after a woman has been free from physical, mental and emotional abuse that she’ll be able to bounce back to her “normal” self as if nothing had ever happened. Contrarily, sometimes it’s not until the woman tries to reinvent herself that symptoms even begin to surface, and by the time they do, it’s hard to tell where they stem from — until now.
A big part of the problem lies with disregardful doctors who dismiss the notion that any chronic illness could be the result of past intimate torment. It’s not enough to know that 81 percent of abused women also have a chronic disease, or that most of these women suffer from more than one illness at a time. It’s time to put these statistics to use and acknowledge the fact that these illnesses are not coming out of nowhere; they’re occurring because at some point in these women’s lives, often for years at a time, they were abused by their partner. Thanks to the analyses of More Magazine and The Verizon Foundation, however, this message is finally gaining valuable momentum. Last January, theU.S. Preventive Services Task Force proposed that doctors should screen all women of childbearing age for intimate partner violence. This is a huge improvement considering that a mere 24 percent of respondents in the study reported that they were ever asked about their relationships by their doctor. Chances are that an abused woman isn’t going to volunteer this information on her own, so it helps that such an incentive is finally in place. Besides, in the fight against domestic violence, and when it comes to coping with the incalculable destruction it imprints on its victims’ lives, knowing is only half the battle.