Darkness can take many forms in this world. This is a story about how to survive.
Today is the day after the winter solstice. Today marks the time where days will begin to get longer and become lighter. The time when the truth will become illuminated. It is time to shine a light on the dark places I have walked through.
One of the reasons I have been hesitant to speak my story aloud (or put it into writing) is because I didn’t know where to start. I believe that all of our life experiences and choices are ever-evolving and culminating and building on each other to land us exactly where we are supposed to be at any given moment. Time is not static, so it has been a challenge for me to pinpoint an exact moment where my story “should” begin.
I have been asked to speak about relationships on an awesome online platform that serves hundreds of women, in particular, I have been asked to speak about my experience with divorce.
My divorce was non-negotiable. I am a survivor of domestic abuse.
To begin a conversation about relationships with a story about a failed one feels ironic and at the same time, some piece of it feels totally appropriate because, from the devastation and darkness of that relationship, I have been able to build my dream life. As a coach, using my own anecdotal story to inspire other people to make healthier life choices is my ultimate goal, so in a small way, it feels like cosmic perfection.
Before I begin, let me be perfectly clear; This is not a story about my “ex” he definitely does not deserve any more of my (or your) time or attention. This story does not define me, it is just a small part of who I am becoming. This is a story about how I overcame a particularly unfortunate set of circumstances and turned some of my darkest days into the rocket fuel that propelled me into my best life and how you can too if you find yourself in a similar situation. It is also a shared story because as of the time I am writing this (Dec. 2019), 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States have reported experiencing some form of physical violence by an intimate partner and 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have reported experiencing severe intimate partner physical violence according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide. 1 in 3.
You know me. I am everywhere.
I am your sister who is always ‘too tired’ to come to family functions and I am your favorite gal pal who you used to love going out for drinks with but mysteriously seems to have dropped off the face of the planet. I’m the mom in the school parking lot who never talks to anyone because I don’t know what to say or if by making friends, I will send my husband into a rage. Our stories need to be told because we don’t like to talk about these things but these things need to be talked about. Our stories need to be heard so that we can rally together and make those statistics obsolete. And if that’s not enough, our stories need to be shared so that we can begin to heal and to create better realities for ourselves, each other and our children.
[For more statistics visit ncadv.org for help text CONNECT to 741741]
For several years I survived an abusive relationship. The man I left was emotionally abusive every day and physically abusive on the days that I was feeling particularly strong. When his words couldn’t break me down, he used his hands. Not often, more frequently towards the end.
As part of my healing process I have done more extensive research on the psychology of abuse, I now understand what was happening psychologically and physiologically from both perspectives and I have the language to express that. At the time I was living it, I did not. All I knew was that it felt wrong and bad and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I kept doing to deserve to be treated that way.
It was always ‘my fault’ (that’s what he taught me to believe) and as it went on, I lost myself.
My strong, loving, thoughtful, kind, fearless, unapologetic, wild, adventurous self that I loved so much shrank and shriveled and became a tiny, scared, weak, lonely, isolated, complicated, embarrassed, shame-filled shadow of the woman I formerly was.
The best way I can describe it now is that it was like I was slowly bleeding to death from a paper cut. A PAPER CUT. A teeny-tiny, very annoying, astonishingly painful little thing that no one else can even see, and I certainly didn’t want to bring any attention to it. It appears harmless, you can’t imagine that something like that could ever be life-threatening.
A tiny cut, or a tiny verbal cutdown, a single drop of blood gone. All you want with all of your heart is to have the loving marriage you have always dreamed of and know you deserve, but one day you don’t do the dishes because the kids need your full attention, and even though you managed to get the rest of the house clean, ‘you are a lazy idiot who can’t even wash the fucking dishes’, a drop of blood gone. The next day you definitely wash the dishes to prove your love to him, but you didn’t wake up before him and make breakfast because you were exhausted from the emotional trauma of the day before. The fight that you got into kept replaying over and over in your mind all night so you couldn’t sleep. Did he actually hit you? Because of the dishes? Was it a bad dream? Now he is awake and hungry and you didn’t have breakfast ready so: “Clearly, you don’t love him, why should he waste his time with you, someone who is so lazy, undeserving and worthless? You inconsiderate bitch” – another drop of blood gone.
Every day it’s something and every day you bleed drop by drop until there is nothing left and eventually you are so exhausted and so sad that you can’t even drag yourself out of bed and you can’t figure out how it all went this far. You are feeling 100% confused at best and straight-up crazy most days, you are lost and hurt and life becomes a blur. But you don’t have time to stop and reset because by this time he is really pissed off and he likes to keep reminding you that; “You are so lucky to have a man like him who tolerates all this bullshit that you have created”. No one is there to tell you that it’s not you, it’s him. HIS behavior is totally NOT NORMAL and completely UNACCEPTABLE because he has isolated you.
Slowly, over time (so that you didn’t notice it happening) he has found reasons to dislike all of your friends and family members and created totally legitimate excuses for you to stop talking to and seeing them, except the one or two that support him or are totally oblivious. In the meantime, you are all alone, you, your kids, him and his bullshit. Now I know the signs and the cycles of abuse and how to recognize them and how to trust my own inner knowing and when to get out before any damage can be done but back then…
I was bleeding to death one drop of blood at a time through an excruciatingly painful paper cut that no one else could even see.
I also hid the evidence. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would treat anyone else that way and I couldn’t figure out why it kept happening. There was zero logic to it, so I never talked about it. I believed that it was my fault. I tried to empathize with him. I tried to understand where he was coming from and step up to work harder to please him and better support him because that was what I believed a “good partner” was supposed to do to make a marriage successful. People had told me that “marriage takes work” so I worked really hard to make him happy to no avail. I later learned that it is common for abusers to target empaths for this very reason.
Sometimes people could tell something was wrong and I would say things like, “I am just a little unhappy with my relationship right now” or “I am having a hard time in my personal life” or if it was someone I was particularly close to it might sound something like “I’m so unhappy with my life right now that all I do is drink beer and cry and now I’m getting fat too” but I could never bring myself to share the details. People offered advice like “you should make a change” or “you need to get yourself out of that situation” but no one ever gave me any specific advice or concrete action steps to take and I was grossly overwhelmed with the gravity of the situation. I didn’t have the capacity or the knowledge I needed to make it stop and I wasn’t willing to be open about it because I was terrified of what he might do to me if word got back to him that I had said something. I was even more terrified that people wouldn’t believe me or worse, wouldn’t care.
I started seeing a therapist so that I had an outside perspective but my ex strongly discouraged that. When I went anyway (against his wishes) he began to withhold money from me so I could no longer pay for therapy and therefore couldn’t go. Bleeding to death from a paper-cut. Luckily, my therapist had recognized what was happening – even though the word “abuse” was never used, and she had given me some invaluable tools upfront. She helped me understand that I was only partially responsible for my “unhappiness” in my marriage, as opposed to me being 100% responsible for the situation, which is what I was feeling and being told by my abuser. More importantly, she confirmed that I was 100% notcrazy to think that being treated badly within a marriage was not normal or acceptable. I could work with that. I had never been married before, I had no idea what to expect but I guessed that it could be better than what I was living through and having just one person in my corner confirming that there were outside forces working against me gave me the hope I needed to be strong enough to leave.
I was isolated and miserable and desperate for change, but it wasn’t all my fault. Thank God I had developed a deep well of inner strength and resilience at a young age because I was about to need it in a big way.
Now this is the point in the story where it would be very validating for me to go on and tell you all of the particularly violent details and how I eventually triumphed over my abuser. However, I’m not going to do that because what I really want to achieve by telling this story is to reach the people who are still going through something like this or worse, and shout out loud and clear: There is hope and you are not alone! You may not feel hopeful right now but I see you. I have been there myself and it is not easy to get out, but it is possible.
Let me just repeat that. It is not easy to leave an abusive relationship, but it is possible. There is hope.
Here are five tools; tangible action steps that you can take right now to start working towards a better future. Good luck!
1. Take notes.
I kept a journal and I wrote in it every day so that I had a detailed record of what was happening. I tried to visually record him once and he smashed my phone. Later I was able to get several recordings of him verbally abusing me which I did use in court when I finally left him. It is important to keep a written record so that you have evidence of what is happening, it will remind you that you are not crazy and later it may come in handy as evidence against him if you end up in court, especially if there are children involved – having something like that could make all the difference in a custody battle. If you can get video and audio recordings, that is even better. Email everything to yourself to an account that he does not have access to so that even if something happens to your phone or computer, you still have the evidence. If a journal seems too risky, write yourself emails of the details. Keep it short and unbiased, just the facts.
2. Start to rebuild your support network.
It took me a long time to leave. Almost a year. It wasn’t as simple as just walking out, I needed a plan in place. I needed to know that my children and I would have a safe place to land and that I could realistically afford to leave him. And the most important part of this story is that I didn’t do it alone. It took time and a lot of energy to build and re-build healthy relationships with good people. I had a strong, trustworthy support network in place by the time I actually left. This included a really incredible attorney – because the abuse doesn’t necessarily end when you walk out that door and having legal protection is very important.
One of my greatest lessons that came from this experience was learning to accept help when it was offered. Learning to gracefully let go of trying to do it all myself and say thank you when anyone was willing to lend a hand. No one should have to go through something like that alone. And I don’t believe that I could have. Lawyers and therapists are good people to have in your network.
3. Open a savings account.
You may recall that at this point in my story he was withholding money from me. I had no idea how much money he made or had in savings, he paid all the bills and I didn’t have an income because I was a stay at home mom. I bought our groceries with food stamps and gifts of grace from my parents. There came a point where I began to collect change and cash when I found it lying around the house or in the laundry and hid what I collected. I saved up enough to start a free savings account in my name that I never told him about. Any money that came my way went straight into it, a dollar here, a birthday gift there, I saved every penny. Eventually, I came across an opportunity to start a business from home with a network marketing company and I threw myself into that heart and soul. It became a lucrative source of income for me, I worked super hard at it because my life literally depended on it, and eventually I was able to earn enough money consistently to make the leap and leave. After I left, I got a second job as well because I wanted to make sure that I never had to depend on anyone else financially ever again. I didn’t love that job, it was exhausting but I reminded myself often that it was temporary and my freedom was worth it. If you find yourself with one of those, think of that job as an investment in a better future for you and your kids. You can look for a job you are passionate about later, once you are more settled. Life will feel more manageable when you are self-reliant and you will have more energy than you expect when you are not expending it all anticipating being maltreated. You will sleep better and you will be able to let your guard down and finally breathe.
4. Practice forgiveness.
This may be the single most powerful thing you can do for yourself. Forgive your abuser because his actions are born of ignorance and pain. Simple, not easy. Looking back, I realize that this practice has set me free. Even when I couldn’t forgive him, because I was too angry and felt that he didn’t deserve that, I could forgive myself for allowing myself to be treated so poorly. This was one of my very first steps on my road to freedom and it has made all the difference.
5. Learn to love yourself again and trust your intuition.
I had to learn to fall in love with myself again and begin to put myself first, even though this experience had caused me to become a person I really didn’t like very much. I used a lot of mantras, I found things that sparked my passion, I started small and built myself back up over time, trying to patch the pieces of the woman I used to be back together. Some of them didn’t fit right anymore and I had to spend a lot of time thinking about who I wanted to become next and learning to love that new person. I am still rediscovering myself. I am still falling in love with the woman I am becoming. This part can feel challenging and take time but you have to love yourself so fiercely that no one can break you. And you have to learn to trust yourself again. Your intuition is your best friend. Someone made you doubt that once but it was a lie. Your intuition never failed you, you just stopped believing in it or didn’t listen. Learn to listen again, it will always guide you accurately.
It is also important to surround yourself with people that you love and trust and who treat you with the respect and kindness that you deserve to be treated with. The truth is, someone can only treat you as badly as you allow them to, be strong with your personal boundaries. I’ve become well-practiced at saying things like “no”, “please don’t talk to me that way”, “that’s not ok” and “fuck off, ass hole!” (There is a time and a place for all of it). With a little practice, it will become easy for you to set boundaries with people who act disrespectfully towards you or your family.
I personally never used the word ‘abuse’ until years later. I was terrified and ashamed. It was painful to think that abuse could and did happen to me. I used to be so strong. It took me a long, long time to be able to say all of this out loud. I’m learning to be strong again. It is a process but I’m not hurt anymore and I’m rarely sad. You will get there too. I am now married to my great love. We treat each other with kindness and respect and every day together is really wonderful. I did always believe deep down that relationships could feel this good and I think that was part of the reason I was willing to try again. If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that I have stepped out of the darkness and into the light completely and no one will ever be able to abuse me again. Not ever.