I’ve been staring at a blank Word document for (what feels like) hours. I mean, I’ve typed a few words here — a few empty phrases there — but every character has been deleted, every letter erased. Why? Because nothing seems reasonable. There is no acceptable way to say “I’m a victim of domestic violence and abuse.” It just isn’t right. It doesn’t make sense. And yet here I am, writing these words across the table from my husband, the man who once tried to drown me and punched me in the face.
Before I elaborate on my present situation, I suppose I should shed light on my past. I mean, I just dropped one heavy-ass truth bomb. A dark and shameful secret I don’t share with just anyone. But when I met my husband in the fall of ’96, he wasn’t cold or callous. He wasn’t violent, at all. He was a kid. My 12-year-old art companion and friend. And I grew up alongside him.
We read together, sharing the joys of poetry and literature — Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, and Stephen King. We went to shows together, moshing to Metallica and Motorhead. We partied in the pit for nearly ten years, and we played games together, from Mario Kart and Party to Super Smash Bros. But sometime between his 12th birthday and his 20th, he changed. No: His relationship with alcohol changed, and the boy I met — the cute, shy kid who was scared to hold me and kiss me and say “I love you” — became mean and violent. He became an abuser.
I could give you a blow-by-blow account of his abuse. I could tell you about the time he blackened my eye over a banana, or the numerous ways he would manipulate me and put me down, but those stories don’t add much color or substance. They are incidents, to be sure, but the details are trivial. They are mine, and mine alone. Plus, recounting them would be traumatic. I live with PTSD and sitting in my memories is a trigger, for me and my illness.
What I can tell you is that he was abusive. What I can tell you is that I was abused, and what I can tell you is that I stayed in this toxic relationship for decades. While he no longer drinks or hits me, I am still here. Why? Because our relationship is layered and complex. I love him, and always will. Because our relationship — and the abuse — hasn’t always been easy to identify. It hasn’t always been done with a closed fist, or an open hand. And because leaving is hard.
Leaving is (damn near) impossible.
I know what you may be thinking: Leaving is not impossible. Just get up and walk out. Leaving is as easy as opening and closing a door. But it isn’t. I promise you it isn’t. Why? Because abuse changes you, not just physically and emotionally but mentally. It alters your thoughts, changing the very structure of your mind. Abuse destroys your self-esteem. You feel weak and shattered, worthless and small. Abuse scares you, and the fear runs deep. Sometimes you are too afraid to move forward. You can’t see a way out, or a way to move on. And leaving an abusive relationship is dangerous. Statistics show that the most violent time in an abusive relationship is when one leaves — the hours, days, and weeks which follow.
There are other reasons for staying, too. Most abusive relationships are cyclic in nature. The bad times are almost always followed by apologies and an outpouring of love. There are “I’m sorry” and “I can’t live without you.” My abuser often said “but I love you so much.”
Some individuals stay because they believe they can change their abuser. Because they see and still love the person they were, not the abuser they became. And guilt and shame play a role, because leaving means admitting a dark and terrifying truth. It means acknowledging that you accepted shitty behavior and did nothing, at least to a certain degree. You stayed and allowed yourself to be beaten, physically or mentally. You feel weak. Out of control. Victimized. Ashamed. And this feeling can be incapacitating.
There are also logistics to consider: children, housing, healthcare, finances, scheduling, visitation, assets, and jobs.
I know it’s hard to understand why someone would stay. I mean, I can talk about the effects of abuse until I’m blue in the face, but unless you’ve been there — unless you’ve been hit or assaulted; demeaned, controlled, or put down — it’s impossible to fully understand the range of emotions one goes through (and their mental state). But it isn’t your job to understand them. It is your job to sympathize and empathize. Listen, without shame or judgement or stigma. And love them through it, no matter what. Because love is limitless and true love knows no bounds.
So please, don’t judge those who stay in abusive relationships. Every day is a struggle. Leaving is hard.
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