We were discussing the upcoming Hot Docs documentary festival. She recommended “A Better Man” about documentarian Attiya Khan’s journey confronting a physically abusive ex from over twenty years ago. How compelling and brave, I thought. But as intriguing as it was, I was incredibly busy building my foundation as a journalist.
But it kept showing up in my life, on my social media feed. It turns out “A Better Man” was so well received that it was running for two weeks after the festival. I realized this was probably showing up again because I had to face this and learn something from it. I found a Sunday screening that worked within my busy schedule- on his birthday.
I was a little nervous, unsure if I was going to be triggered by revisiting memories of intimate partner abuse at this point in my life when I’m in such a good place. I know all too well the pain of what witnessing something of similar circumstances can invoke in me, like a negative energy field lived in my centre grabbing my insides and twisting them forcefully- the way he used to do to my hair.
I bought the ticket in advance and awaited the day, almost hoping to just get this over with. When the day arrived, I entered a crowded theatre full of booklets and pamphlets on information and trigger warnings. There was a formal warning in the beginning and acknowledgement that there was a counsellor on hand should anyone feel overwhelmed.
All these measures took me aback. I wondered how I would react; were these measures put into place because it was so intense the first few screenings? I know a big part of me was just looking to see this through and get it over with, but was I going to fall apart watching this? Was revisiting an abusive past through Attiya’s eyes something I could handle right now?
There were a lot of things in Attiya’s story I could relate to, a woman I have yet to meet and comes from a different generation and culture from me. She talks about recurring nightmares and I remember having those for years, every night like clockwork. I would wake up in cold sweat at the same time at 3AM, from a vivid nightmare fearing for my life- even after things already ended. I used to remember what time exactly but it must be a good sign now that I can’t remember, or that I even get them anymore.
She mentions how she thought she was going to die this way, he was going to kill her one day. I remember having that thought constantly, until I accepted the possibility of my death and made peace with it because I couldn’t live a life of fear. I couldn’t be burdened with the constant worry. It was truthfully, very exhausting. And I learned to just live my life.
She recalls him calling her names like “dirty” and “Paki”, and I saw how hateful those words were. I remember the words he would call me, a slut for talking to other men, stupid or pathetic for not having designer brands. But in losing my innocence, I realized this was his own inadequacies he would project on me- it had nothing to do with me. I had unknowingly taken on a burden that never belonged to me. And in letting him go, I became lighter.
What this documentary emphasized is those who experience abuse need to feel a sense of justice, whatever that may look like. For Attiya, her sense of justice was having her ex appear for this documentary and take responsibility.
I realized for me, my sense of justice was destroying any sense of significance he had in my life, the way he tried to destroy my spirit. And I was doing that by using his birthday as a day to watch a documentary on abuse to acknowledge the truth of what I went through instead of celebrating him. In doing this, I saw how far I’ve come, how much I’ve grown from my past, how all the things that used to trigger me no longer did.
In other words, I was using his birthday to celebrate me.
I didn’t have to feel guilty about that, either. This is not a person who behaved in a manner worthy of respect, so I am not obliged to protect his feelings. I don’t owe him anything.
I had to thank him though, because although I was young and innocent, I had to learn my boundaries and see my own value, and this is what the monster taught me.
I understand a sense of justice is essentially reclaiming a sense of self. Throughout the screening there were parts that were painful and sad, but I was for the most part okay. I was even a little bored, which was my indication that I learned everything I needed from this experience and come out stronger and wiser. I moved on from it, no longer defined by my scars- I was myself again.
“A Better Man” showed me how similar all our stories of pain are, that there are patterns in abuse despite the differences in culture and generations, so we who experience abuse really are not “crazy.” And I saw in myself while watching this is that you can actually heal. You don’t have to pay for the actions of another for the rest of your life- what a huge relief. No matter our ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or any other imaginary fault to find in us, we can all come out from the ashes of our pain.
A few days after the screening, I woke abruptly from another nightmare. I haven’t had post traumatic nightmares in years. But this time my response was different; I thought to myself: “F*ck off I’m a journalist now. And I’ve got this article to write.”