I’ve always considered myself a powerful, strong woman. An independent, “take no shit” sort of woman and — in most respects — I am: I have no problem negotiating a pay raise or fighting for a cause I’m passionate about. If I disagree with someone, I speak up. I don’t tolerate cattiness. I don’t do bullshit or drama.
But power and strength only go so far and even independent women like me can become victims of domestic violence and spousal abuse.
Make no mistake, I didn’t know what was happening, at least not at first. Not right away. I didn’t fall in love with a hateful, violent man. In fact, the man I fell in love with wasn’t a man at all: he was a teenager. A boy. A child, one who loved video games and Stephen King. And while we shared a love for reading, writing, rock music, and angsty, angry poetry in the early days, we never shared blows.
Nothing suggested he would become an abuser: my abuser. But then he hit me.
He punched me in the face over a banana.
I don’t remember much from that night. I don’t recall what happened before the attack, or why he attacked, and while I know we were fighting, I don’t recall the details. I cannot remember the specifics. What I do remember is that he was drunk and sorry.
So, so sorry.
And, given our unassuming history, I accepted his apology. I chalked the incident up to booze and a 20-year-old who couldn’t handle his liquor.
But then it happened again. And again.
He pushed me and punched me. He kicked me and struck me, and he mocked me. He used both his words, and his physical weight to keep me pinned down.
Before long, I was broken. This powerful, strong woman was mousy and meek, and instead of speaking up, I shut up. I pulled away from everyone I knew and loved. I had no self-worth.
I deserved to be battered and beat. Or, so I thought at the time.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Now, I know that emotional manipulation is common amongst abusers. They gain power by taking yours and they do so slowly, gradually. They change you over time, and while you may still have “good days” — while you may still have great days — those days are part of the game.
They are designed to keep you silent and complacent and confused as all fuck. And it works.
Make no mistake: I fought back. Well, I tried to fight back. I kicked and yelled and told him to stop. Some nights, I begged him to stop. But he didn’t. And I stayed.
For ten longs years, I stayed.
Why? Well, the long answer is complicated. It is riddled with “I’m not sures” and “I don’t knows.” But the short answer is that I was scared. I was terrified of him, and of me. I was afraid of the codependent gal I had become, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make it on my own.
The door was right in front me, but I couldn’t find my way out.
I also stayed because I believed him and his apologies. I still believed in the boy he was, not the man he had become.
But one day things changed. I simply stopped believing. There was no rock bottom or Hollywood “ah-ha” moment, I simply had enough. I grabbed my keys, my wallet, my bag, and the knife in my nightstand — the knife which I slept with every night for nearly ten years — and walked out: on our past, our present, our future, and us.
I walked out on us.
And it was hard.
It still is.
Make no mistake: I am not being hit anymore. I do not go to bed with blood on my face. But, the cycle of abuse is tricky, and the impact of said abuse lingers for years after you are “free.”
Long after the bruises fade.
I struggle with touch. Physical manifestations of love make me anxious and ill. I struggle with value and self-worth. I still see myself as a scared little girl who is damaged and weak, not a strong woman who has grown and overcame. I have major trust issues.
I have a hard time loving others and letting them in.
And “the fear” of being hurt again; of being hit again; of being helpless, hopeless and lost again is so real I often struggle to be — and to breathe. It consumes me and confuses me, and though it is completely irrational, I still feel the need to protect myself.
I want to run to my kitchen and grab another damn knife. To keep it close by.
Of course, I know I cannot function this way, and the shame of being so suffocated by my past is unnerving. It makes me angry and so damn disappointed because I want to move forward. I am trying, but in many ways I am still a victim.
My mind is still immersed in my past and the abuse I endured for far too long.
But the key word there is trying: I am trying because I want to build myself back up, little by little, piece by piece. Because I have to and because I know — in my heart of hearts — the fight is worth it. I am worth it, and you are too.
If you are reading these words right now, and you understand my struggle, please know you are not alone. And you, like me, deserve a life free from pain and abuse.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive situation, don’t suffer in silence. You can seek help and support by calling Safe Horizon’s 24-hour domestic violence hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE, or learn more at NCADV.org (National Coalition for Domestic Violence).