It happened so slowly...
Abuse is a sneaky thing. I recall growing up seeing depictions of abuse on Little House on the Prairie, or hearing horror stories of women killed by their boyfriends and thought, "How could anyone allow themselves to be treated that way?" With my fiery personality and draw to rebellion, I thought I would be the last person at risk for this dynamic in a relationship. I knew right from wrong. I knew my worth. I remember thinking- I would find an all-American snapshot of a sensitive "nice" guy and enjoy my teen years wrapped up in innocent romance, making memories to tell my grandchildren about high school dances and late night strolls. That's not what happened. I experienced the excitement any adolescent teen girl feels when given attention from a charismatic and mysterious individual, with whom they share an attraction. Of course. It happened so slowly. I even think now, when was the moment? When it became something dark?
Any survivor of abuse will tell you that things were once lovely. You don't go out on a first date that ends with insults and bruises- coming back for more next Friday night. That's not the game. It's a process. I was wooed. He was older, and a little broken. My desire to help (or codependent nature) was set on fixing that wounded bird with attentive doe-eyed gestures of kindness. The game is slowly played with incremental passive aggressive attempts at total control. It's so subtle that you may find yourself defending the abuser as being misunderstood. He's doing this because he loves me. He wants to protect me from the world. No one understands me like he does. If he points out my flaws, it's because he wants to help me grow as a person. If he doesn't like my time spent with friends, maybe they aren't good for me. Sure. That's it.
Come back with a gun so I can shoot you...
It was a full year before he slapped me. He hit a pothole while driving in an alley, and I giggled. When his hot hand struck my cheek, I was stunned- literally speechless. All the moments I felt abused women were fools for staying, all the judgements cast to hypothetical relationships became obscenely personal. Since abuse is often labeled as something that "leaves a mark," I had overlooked the methodical tearing-down of my self-worth over the past 12 months. The repeatedly exasperated, and daily mocking- Audrey, you're so stupid. The control that he imposed on me, that left me begging for him to stay, that I was sorry I wasn't good enough. Was that me talking? It wasn't long after, that I became isolated from my friends and family. My parents had been demonized, and despite their efforts at separating us, a desperately broken teen girl cannot be stopped from seeing her "true love." He had trained me to leave school, go to his apartment to clean up, and prepare dinner for him before he got off work. If I failed at this task, I would be apologizing in a variety of ways. Sometimes he sat on my chest until I couldn't breathe. I would cry and beg for him to stop, finally losing the will to fight- going limp. He strangled me often- a terror I dreaded, along with the itemized list of what made my body disgusting. Happy prom night. One evening as we watched the NBA finals, he looked at me sitting beside him and said "Someday, I'm going to leave to get a pack of cigarettes, and come back with a gun so I can shoot you." That was the norm now. Threats and fear.
The embodiment of charm...
One particular challenge was how likable he was. He had a group of close friends who believed him to be the embodiment of charm. He never disclosed his temper or spoke ill to anyone- just me. The times I attempted to test the water and comment to a friend, they accused me of lying, or trying to get attention. Especially the women. I tried to end things once. He wound up in the ER with a bleeding ulcer and told me he would die without me, that I was killing him. His friends thought I was a monster. His family rejected me. Yet he was willing to take me back if I would change, be better. I would never be better- enough for him. Luckily, after two years of this dance- he lost interest in me, and found another woman. He was done. I was still alive. But what was left in his wake? Not much.
Blur of numbing tactics...
I had wrapped up so much of my identity in this man, that without him- I was a shell of a person. Someone might think I would celebrate my freedom by seeking personal growth, or at the very least- do the dance of joy. It was a strange kind of grief. While I was thankful to be free of constant belittling, my worth was wrapped up in the rare scraps of kindness he threw at me. Without that, I was lost to my own thoughts- without direction. Drowning in depression. Of course I didn't have a name for it. I didn't know I had even experienced abuse at that point. I just felt disposable. I had tried so hard to be what he needed, but failed. In my eyes, I was worthless. The following years were spent in a blur of numbing tactics, bubbling agoraphobia, and PTSD symptoms that went entirely untreated. My depression was crippling, but almost welcomed with it's familiarity- an old friend.
It took me years to crawl out of the hole I had found myself in. Depression had it's claws deeply imbedded in me with a constant echo of his insults. I believed that I was stupid, unlovable, and incapable of a "normal" relationship. Comparatively, the time he had spent in this abusive dance with me was a cakewalk compared to the time I spent cleaning up the wreckage. Abuse hurts in ways that keep giving. Here are a few ways this relationship impacted my story:
Pink Floyd's The Wall was an anthem of sorts.
Six ways abuse hurts...
1) Self-esteem. I heard dozens of insults a day. From my intelligence to my looks, as far as I could tell- there wasn't much about me that was likable.
2) Trust. Since the development of the dysfunction was so subtle over time, there was a lasting impact in my trust for others. I found myself believing that kindness could change at any moment.
3) Defining love. I was raised in a home where love was never questioned. I knew I was valued and cherished from the moment I was born. To be told you are loved and be treated with blatant inferiority, the definition of romantic love was challenged for me.
4) Never relax. It seemed that throughout the cycle of abuse in this relationship, the game became a moving target. He could be laughing and playful one moment, and tell me he had to break up with me the next. There was literally never a moment that I felt safe from disaster.
5) Loneliness. I knew if I told people what was happening, that they would hate him. I didn't want to get him (or me) in trouble, so I often kept my mouth shut. Isolating from family and friends is a lonely place to be.
6) Happily ever after wasn't for me. I had always hoped to achieve the American dream. I wanted to marry my high school sweetheart. If this was it, I had to let go of the idea of kind and reciprocal love. That just happened to other people.
What I learned...
Truth be told, I learned a bit more than that, but it took a great deal of time, therapy and support to get there. I learned:
1) I'm actually quite smart. In fact, from the moment I made honors college, to the day I walked in my hooding ceremony for my master's degree, I shared a breath with my subconscious, a mental middle finger in his general direction. Take that.
2) I'm lovable. There are people that may find my optimism irritating, or my incessant need to analyze human behavior gratuitous. Still others, haven't been able to follow me down this road of personal growth- and all the choices that came with it. But the vast majority of my tribe find me to be a valuable part of their world. I'll put that in my pocket.
3) I get to write my story. Whatever the American-dream is, it's what I make of it. There is no social stigma that confines my ambition to a predisposed cookie-cutter life. I'm just me, and that's perfectly wonderful.
4) I'm resilient. My past could have established a pattern of attraction leading to any number of undesirable fates. I experienced. I learned. I made different choices that honored my value.
5) I can help others. While working with domestic violence has not been a theme for me in my career, advocating for the broken is a priority of mine. I know exactly what it feels like to be at the bottom of the rung, and I'm more than happy to throw a life preserver out for others in times of distress.
6) I am my own authority. I was given a great gift to be able to recognize unhealthy behavior, and I have the power to leave. No one has the right to tell me how I feel, or what to do- but me. Anything that isn't coming from a place of love, is not welcome in my world. Ba-bam!
I honestly wouldn't change any of it. With the myriad of hard times I've faced, I've come out on top with a perfectly beautiful life. These experiences have provided me the understanding necessary to embrace genuine growth. I'm not a survivor, but a thriver. Abuse leaves a mark, but much like any scar, it's a reminder of your capacity to heal.
*If you're currently in an abusive situation, and are in need of support, please reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You aren't alone. There is hope.