If you ask people who know me to describe me, words that would likely come up: independent, stubborn, smart, strong. Words that one typically does not associate with the stereotype of an abused woman. A woman with those qualities “should know better.” I debated sharing this story with the world, but it’s important for people to understand that abuse (in any and many forms) can happen to anyone.
It’s also important for others in situations like mine to know that they deserve better, and–while never easy–they can get out of the dangerous cycle holding them hostage.
Abuse comes in a variety of forms.
Looking back, all the warning signs were there. Immediate talk of “I can’t live without you” and moving way too fast. Explosive arguments. Confinement. A complete lack of personal space. Jealousy. The frightening lows were offset by highs of intense passion. That’s what makes abusive relationships hard to see for what they really are: I rationalized that I had never been loved like this, and, hey, everyone comes with baggage, right?
Relatively early on, he confessed to me that he and his ex used to get into these horrible, physically violent shouting matches. I should have known then, but my compassion and sympathy won out. After all, I am not the kicking, lamp-throwing, shouting kind. How could our disagreements ever escalate to that level?
We argued from day one (see “stubborn” in the first paragraph). I come from a home colored by the love of a single mother who didn’t yell much. I certainly was not accustomed to shouting men, and being around that kind of behavior just makes me shut down. This only elicited more rage from him. Each fight was worse than the last, no matter what I tried to do. It was like walking on eggshells. And it was exhausting.
Just because it isn’t physical doesn’t mean it isn’t abuse.
There was much talk about how “we” needed to find “middle ground,” which I always felt like translated into “you need to conform to how I want you to be.” But, in hindsight, I don’t think anything I could have done would have been good enough. It was like he would gather all the materials to make a bomb, and I was just the excuse for him to light it–whether or not that bomb had anything to do with me. I was the outlet for some deeply rooted anger inside him.
But he loved me, so there was hope, right? Hindsight causes me to question. I’ve read a lot of articles–many of them written by mental health professionals and abuse counselors–to try to make sense of what happened and prevent it from happening again (click here for some good ones). Some of them indicate his “love” may have been just a show. Narcissists and sociopaths are extremely charismatic, especially when it comes to influencing others to get what they want. I was a moth trapped in his web, slowly being poisoned to death.
See, the thing about abuse is that it causes you doubt. After a while, you come to believe you are doing something to deserve that treatment: some remark you made, something you did, or the way you behave (or just who you are). It becomes a vehicle for self-punishment, even if you can’t see it at the time. More on that in a bit.
The fights were boiling over to a dangerous level. The last one we had was him shouting at me for three hours while I was curled up in a tear-soaked ball on the bed, frozen with fear. I had bruises from where he had grabbed and shaken me, where he had flung my arms back. I had invisible bruises from where he had demeaned and belittled me. Some of these bruises may never heal.
My psyche trembles and shrinks at the thought of what would have happened if that had not been the last fight we ever had. I couldn’t live like that. I retreated to my mother’s–my safe place–to sort it all out. He followed me. I told him to go home, and that night, I slept with a hammer under my pillow.
My mom (and some close friends and ex-husband) helped me see that I didn’t deserve this treatment. No one does. And I had given more than a fair share of forgiveness, patience, and compassion. Mom shared that she had suffered with abuse like this in her past–a side of her I had never really seen before. “I don’t want that life for you. I don’t want you to live in fear, second-guessing your every move or word,” she said softly, clearly hurting for her only daughter. That was the moment of my resolve: I had to get out of this poisonous relationship.
The worst part? The part I’m most ashamed of? Part of me still loved him. Despite all of the emotional, mental, and physical abuse, like a fool, I still cared about him. But I had to choose myself–my safety, health, and happiness–over him. I had to choose me. Even if my self-esteem had bottomed out and I felt pretty worthless, I had to practice self-compassion. When things got murky in my head, I’d ask myself, “If your best friend was in this situation, what would you tell her to do?” That’s how I found my way out.
You have a choice.
And that way out was anything but easy. If he was so volatile in everyday life, how would he react when I told him we were done? I was terrified. My friends and I came up with safe words. I had standing offers from several people to stay at their houses, even without warning, if I needed a safe place to go. I had no idea what would happen.
But once he saw that I was no longer willing to play the role he had designed for me in his rage-filled drama, just as quickly as he dashed into my life, he was gone. There were the usual “we’ll still be friends” talks, but he changed. He became cold, distant, and eventually just disappeared without warning. We have not spoken since.
In the months that followed, I had PTSD to keep me company. I was drowning in anxiety, depression, and self-injury behaviors. I had become so accustomed to the self-punishment, I struggled with the void of it once the relationship was terminated.
Fortunately, I met a man who saw all the good in me that I could not see in myself. A man who was patient, tender, and kind. A man who understood what I was going through and how to deal with my triggers. A man who stayed my hand and quieted my uneasy mind. He was a good man who did not yell at me and would never raise a hand to me.
With his help and the help from friends and my mom, I began the healing process. I’m not sure I could have done it alone. And I don’t like thinking about how life would be with the alternative. How far it would have escalated… the damage that would have been done…
I still stumble. I still struggle with triggers. But several months later when I look back at it all, it’s like a nightmare. I fell asleep in someone else’s life, uncertain of how to make sense of it or escape, and then I woke up alone in my own bed, shaking in the darkness. But morning is coming. The birds are waking up, and warm light has started to kiss the earth.
I will be ok. But many other people continue to live in abusive situations every day. And abuse can start at any time in a relationship. If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, please know that you are worth more than that. Your life is worth more than shouting matches, punches, and angry words that tear you down. That isn’t love, and you deserve to be loved. If you’re ready to begin your own journey of healing, this resource will connect you with hotlines and shelters in your area that specialize in domestic abuse. Odds are if you reach out for help, you’ll save your life. And your life, no matter what you’ve been made to believe, is worth saving. You can heal. You matter in this world. Choose you.
You are stronger than you realize. Prove it to yourself.