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What's in a Name?

(a whole lot, actually)

I've long been transparent about my personal experience with domestic violence. People often ask me if I'm worried about sharing my story because of my personal safety.

Usually, I say 'no'. I've long used a different name, moved myself and my family to a completely different part of the country, and have done a variety of things to protect my personal information. I feel as confident in my safety (and that of my family's) as I can be given my past.

What I don't usually tell people is that there has been one recurring issue: my name. While I do use a different name, and have for well over a decade, my official documents hold my former identity. For years I have fought for the right to change my name in a way that would be safe for me; which on the surface seems like it should be simple.

It's not.

There are no federal guidelines to support domestic abuse survivors regarding their identities (or many other needs, actually). Like so many rules, the guidance comes from laws that vary from state to state and the morass survivors have to wade through is confusing and in no way created to support the survivor. In the state in which my abuse occurred, and where I ultimately got divorced, I was allowed to change my name at the time the divorce was finalized. Only one catch - it would appear on the divorce decree and subsequent paperwork my abuser would have access to. That was an obvious non-starter. I relocated to another state and pursued a name change there, only to find out that it was one of the many states where people seeking to change their name have to place classified ads in their local or regional newspaper for SIX weeks, stating their original name and their desired name change. This obviously leaves survivors one Google alert away from all their identification and location exposed - all so presumably some lawmaker's brother-in-law can keep his newspaper in business. Check out the going rate for classified ads for 6 weeks - it's not exactly a bargain for the survivor, either.

I did learn, in that particular state, there was something known as a common-law name change. I was excited at first. I'd stumbled upon an obscure law, dating back to the early 1900's, that would simply allow me to declare my name, use it publicly for a prescribed amount of time, and then force the acknowledgement of it on legal documents. What I learned was the thing about obscure laws is that they are exactly that - obscure. No one knew or was willing to learn how to make my common-law name change really work. And so, I've spent the last 12 years picking at the old scar that is my name - and MY name. Every airline flight, tax return, even showing my ID to enter my kid's schools, opened up that wound. And eventually, like we do with so many scars, I built the thick skin required to explain myself as briefly - and vaguely - as possible. I tried to tell myself it didn't matter that much, that I could live with it. After all, what's in a name?

With due respect to Shakespeare, a lot actually.

My name was a constant reminder of part of my life I needed to move forward from. It altered my narrative, a key piece step in post-traumatic growth. And that made me think about the ways we do this in so many other settings. A woman at the the yoga studio I frequent, and with whom I've spent significant time, calls me 'Michelle' about 60% of the time. It's harmless and she doesn't do it intentionally, but a little part of me feels unseen every time she does it. That's minor of course, but that isn't always the case. When we insist on dead-naming a transgender person, when we leave street signs and parks named after racists, when we mispronounce so badly or rename someone from another country to make it easier for ourselves, and when we leave women attached to the names of their abusers, we re-injure, we re-traumatize, we open wounds.

A name can make you feel powerful - or powerless. It can fortify - or chip away. It can center you and keep you strong or it can leave you lost on an overgrown path.

10 days ago, I officially became myself. Thanks to the connection provided by a good friend, and the kindness of a skilled attorney, I preserved through an 8-month process to finally have a judge give me what I both desperately needed and already had, my own name.

It's a chance for that old wound to finally heal. Knowing there will soon be no explanation, no embarrassing and all-too-personal reveal, is a powerful salve. One I want to spread to many others. I am at once feeling this journey complete and only beginning. Work must be done to provide the kind of resolution I got sooner, easier, and for all.

What's in a name?

Identity. Safety. Peace. Power. And a future.



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