How I'm Reclaiming My Power After Domestic Abuse And Divorce

by Heather Smith
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

I’m walking through Paris with my daughter combing the streets and sidewalks around the Eiffel Tower searching for the café. This particular café I’m searching for isn’t for the croissants and espresso; it’s the place where I’ll reclaim my power and find my next greatest ending and beginning.

I can feel this place in my body—as deep as my bones—because I’ve been here before, sort of.

This Paris café overlooking the Eiffel Tower was a made-up place I created in therapy. It’s where I retreated when images and thoughts of the violence, stalking, and terror I experienced at the hands of my ex-husband were too much to bear. It was my safe place and nobody else was allowed in unless I invited them. I had always planned to visit Paris with my daughter when it was over, to rid myself of years of torment and to find peace, sitting in that café knowing we’d made it through okay. It’s a spot where I would eventually take a deep cathartic breath and release the shame and stigma that had followed me around for years without my permission.

As we’re walking back to the hotel one evening hand in hand, I spot the café. My breathing slows and tears well up in my eyes. We’re here. We’re okay. We made it. I ask to hostess to sit at a specific table—my table, where I can see the glow of the Eiffel Tower. My body knows this place—it feels like we’ve been here before, as if my soul is guiding me and knows why we’re here. I’m on pilgrimage of sorts to reclaim the person I am (and was) before the trauma and before my body and mind were riddled with stress and fear.

Experiencing significant trauma changes your body and DNA—it forms neural connections in your mind where they didn’t exist before. It ravages your body with tension, fear, and uncertainty—but here in Paris for the first time in a long while I feel completely safe. My body is at peace, happy even.

Paris is my next beginning, and it’s also the ending of so much.

It’s the ending of my connection to a man who shattered the glass door of our home while I hunched over my sleeping daughter hidden in our bedroom, whispering and pleading with 911 to please, please come quickly—because this man was going to kill us. When police arrived they described the scene as violent and I asked, “Is this violence?” They stood in disbelief. Yes. Yes, this was violence and I needed to leave. (Protection Order #1)

People get a lot wrong about domestic violence, but there’s one biggie that captures it all: when you’re abused for so long the abuse feels normal because it is your normal. You’re desensitized to the abuse and left questioning your own interpretation—you’re made to believe that it’s overblown, excessive even. That you’re probably exaggerating and as long as he’s not beating you, does it count? Most women will attempt to leave their abuser seven times before they are successful and I’ve been trying for a while now.

This trip to Paris is the finale. It’s a middle finger to a man who haunted me at work, the aisles of the grocery store, at my home, and anytime I dared to venture outside. (Protection Order #2) A man who put cameras in my windows and broke into my house. A man who waited for me to pick our daughter up from daycare and then followed me home in a snowstorm while I called 911 begging them to help me before he finally killed us. (Protection Order #3)

It’s the ending to protection orders, divorce proceedings, criminal indictments, a court system that didn’t believe me even when I showed evidence, and a system that is patently designed to allow men (white ones in particular) to perpetuate violence against women over and over again. He’d be sentenced to four years in prison for what he did to us, but serve just six months.

This man was not only my daughter’s father, but the person I would protect her from with all my might. I would go through hell and back over the course of two years losing my liberty to walk around without surveying parking lots, grocery stores, and my basement level parking garage for threats. My strength and confidence would be tested—stretched until it could stretch no more, yet I was resolute in my choice to leave and find safety for me and my daughter.

I would move three times that year—all to locations where I had hoped he wouldn’t find us. But he always did. It wouldn’t take long before I’d see his car circling our neighborhood. More police. More protection orders. More court hearings where I was required to prove his conduct and all he had to do was deny everything. My lawyer friends would suggest I didn’t look abused enough in court and should try looking less put together. I was a lawyer after all and the assumption was that I knew how to work a court system for my benefit.

1 in 4 women experience severe intimate partner physical violence in their lifetime. 1 in 7 women will have been raped. 1 in 7 women will have been stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetime to the point in which they feel fearful or believed that they or someone they loved would be harmed or killed.

It took me years to realized that I didn’t choose to be in an abusive relationship—nobody goes into a relationship wanting to be harmed. Abusers choose their victims. They groom, gaslight, and manipulate until you’re so unsure of who you are that there’s no way you’ll have the guts to leave. But I did. The minute I gave birth, I’d experience a love I’d never known before and it would awaken a woman I didn’t know existed. A woman full of determination to move in a new, brave direction and build a life I’m proud. Great transformations need a beginning.

So today, I’m at the café on Avenue de Suffren with a bright red awning with the Eiffel Tower peeking out ever so slightly to watch over me, choosing to let go and be done. It’s the end and it’s the beginning all at once.

With me I’ve brought the gold necklace I wore to every single court hearing—a pendant of a little mama and baby giraffe whose necks meet to form a connected heart. I’d grasp this pendant during hearings and hold tight to the reminder that I was doing this for me and my daughter’s safety. I had planned to symbolically leave the necklace in the Paris café as farewell to the pain, but leaving it behind suddenly doesn’t feel right now that we’re here.

And I know why.

It turns out that this necklace doesn’t symbolize domestic violence, trauma, or struggle—quite the opposite. The necklace celebrates my innate power and strength as a woman and symbolizes the bond I have with my daughter.

This necklace is part of my story, and I get to choose how to write it.

Telling people that her father is our abuser and isn’t in her life has never come easy to me. But today, at this café in Paris, I’ve finally reached my lifetime’s limit of shame and instead I’m choosing to rewrite the story. Because everyone has a story to tell, and my story is a story of strength and the power of a mama’s unending love.