Words by Kristi Zboncak // Images by Brian Tropiano and Yoon Kim
It was early 2016 when I met with Johanna Tropiano, a friend of a friend and someone I admired for her passion for social justice. I was a recent college graduate, working part time at an anti sex trafficking non profit, and carrying a broken heart from a long term relationship that suddenly ended 6 months prior. Johanna and I were meeting to discuss a potential career opportunity yet I walked out with life altering knowledge and a job offer I couldn’t resist.
Johanna shared with me her history of being in an abusive marriage for 10 years and the lack of help she received during that horrific time. As she began to describe the things her ex-husband would say and do to her and the ensuing feelings and thoughts she had, I froze up. I had heard the same words. I had felt those same feelings. I had thought the same thoughts. I had known that my last relationship was not healthy, nor was my ex the nicest person in the world, but for the first time, I allowed myself to think the words I was denying for months: maybe I had been in an emotionally abusive relationship.
With this thought lingering in my mind, we headed over to Annette Oltmans’ home. Annette and Johanna had been friends for several years, growing close over the fact that they both had been in abusive marriages. While Johanna’s ended in divorce due to her husband’s refusal to change, Annette’s marriage has since been restored through intense work, and their steadfast, sustained desire to change. The most painful and trauma-inducing experience they both survived, however, was when their community, friends, family, counselors, and church leaders either refused to believe them or responded with judgment, incorrect therapeutic methods, or patriarchal standards and Scriptural misinterpretations, pushing them back further into isolation and oppression when they reached out for support and help. Annette coined this traumatic event as “secondary abuse”. When primary and secondary abuse occurs in one’s life, one is a victim of double abuse. Annette and Johanna both had a lack of support from their communities, which is vital to having clarity and healing. Seeing the need for such a community through their experiences, they banded together and created The Mend Project.
Through hearing both their stories, I instantly understood the power of connection. They created a safe place to share their experiences, for their voices to be heard, for their hearts to mend. Within just hours of speaking with them, I felt like I finally had words to put with the feelings I had been suppressing for years. More importantly, I felt empowered, understood and encouraged. I knew I wanted to be a part of something that could affect others the way Annette and Johanna affected me.
At the Mend Project, we seek to clarify understanding of the causes and effects of primary and secondary trauma, provide healing models for both victims and communities in preventing double abuse, and ultimately create pathway models to hold perpetrators accountable, helping victims find their voices and restore their lives.
It is our hope to see change occur in all communities: church, family, friends, the workplace, school. We understand that healing can not happen in isolation and that no one is immune to abuse. When we gather and create a safe place for stories to be told, for voices to be heard, for a community to support one another, our hearts can mend.
To learn more about The Mend Project, visit themendproject.com.
Kristi Zboncak has worked domestically and internationally with different forms of social justice over the last 6 years including sex trafficking, AIDS and poverty relief, orphan ministry and post-war reconciliation. She is a survivor of covert emotional abuse of a long-term dating relationship at a religious institution where she thought it could never happen. Her personal experience combined with her years overseas fuel her passion for women’s rights and fighting on behalf of those living in oppression by means of prevention and intervention. She joined The Mend Project team as Director of Operations in 2016.