As I sit today with my coffee and my thoughts, I feel a deep calling to speak to something I have been working through for the last year. The journey to getting to this place has taken a while, and I’ve needed a lot of time and space to process where I was, how I got there, and where I’m going. For several years I had fallen into the constrictive hands of a physically and sexually abusive relationship with somebody that fell back into an old drug addiction. Close friends already know my story, and I hope that publicly sharing it will give me more closure, and help give at least one person some hope.
How it began:
I met me ex-partner five years ago. He worked in my field, loved dancing, and was of course charming. He was a proud recovered addict, sober for four years. He spoke often about being a father and how much he loved his son. He played and sang songs for me on my guitar. He had suggestions for my business, encouraged me to have an open mind, and was intense about his conviction to only spend time with the people that enriched the full and healthy life he wanted to lead.
Writing about it now seems ridiculous, as these things that made him appear so desirable and driven were really the roots of vines that would weave themselves throughout my life, choking off the light that I had used to grow my own goals and my own pursuits. He praised my dance career and my abilities as a bodyworker, however he took major issue with my friends, my roommates, and my restaurant job, encouraging me to kick them all to the curb for better options. At a time when I was unsure of where I was going as an artist, and not making enough money at the restaurant, it was very easy for him to paint a picture that led me to follow his suggestions.
What was underneath:
I didn’t realize at the time, but in zeroing in on my connections to others, he was isolating me. He said I didn’t need them and was better off hanging out with the friends he had instead. Those friends would all laughed at his overzealous nature and passion, saying “Oh that’s him alright, good on you for being able to deal with it!”. We spent all our free time together, and in just a few short months I found myself removed from my support system and confiding in him about everything. He always seemed to have the answers, so I came to him with every question.
Within that framework I was not able to see the slow switch when our interactions became about reward and punishment. He rewarded what he saw as “good behavior” with affection, and punished “bad behavior” with put-downs and criticisms. In essence, his idea of good behavior was me doing anything he wanted, and bad behavior was me doing anything I wanted. I soon felt deflated and directionless, fighting for his approval instead of my own happiness.
The dynamic between us escalated in intensity for years. His punishments escalated from yelling, to infidelity, to physical attacks, and eventually rape. My journey with him officially ended a year ago yesterday, but the traumatic memories follow me as if they had occurred just a few weeks ago. My relief in finally walking away from the relationship is often eclipsed by my regret at not doing it sooner, but I am working hard to forgive myself of that with every morning I open my eyes to a new day’s possibilities.
Why didn’t I say anything?:
How deeply I had been misled and manipulated left me spiraling in shame, as did the lengths to which I had hidden my struggle from others. Somehow I thought that if I was able to turn the relationship around and make it right, I could erase all of the terror and trauma. I felt judged by those that had said I should leave him, yet also abandoned by those that hadn’t said anything. I was lost, as my concept of what was right and wrong for me had been eroded and almost completely replaced by what he felt was right and wrong for me.
The first instance of rape was treated like another one of his many demands, as a follow through to something I had already been asking for. He convinced me that my body was his, and his cruelty was just a result of me not being a better and stronger woman that he would want to treat differently. I felt responsible for staying in the situation, didn’t know what to do or who to turn to, and so I kept quiet and blamed myself for not being better. Then last year was another rape, and the final straw, as it left me ill enough to have to go to the hospital. I didn’t think anybody would understand me, so still I kept quiet, simply saying we had broken up as I heading into the holidays with a brave face.
Thankfully the expansion and prevalence of the #metoo movement gave me a sense that I wasn’t alone, gave me courage, and fostered the baby steps I began taking to bring justice for myself. One night with a friend that would become my closest ally, I blurted out one of the many stories that had left me traumatized, and they encouraged me to speak up. It took some time, but eventually I picked up the phone and made some tough calls, opening the floodgates that eventually led me down the road to recovery. The first step of course was in recognizing what was really me, and what was the story of a controlling abuser. The image connected to this article is called the Power and Control wheel, and helped me understand a lot of what I had been experiencing. I moved, I reported his crimes, I started therapy, and now finally I am speaking out.
Reflecting on that time in my life I see that he had slipped in through a crack of my self-esteem that had been left by a highly abusive step-parent in such a way that I didn’t even realize what was going on. I had also become vulnerable to manipulation without a connection to my own support system. I hadn’t abandoned my friends, but I had lost much of the closeness with them that might have given me the courage to reach out. I put my trust in somebody else rather than putting my trust in myself, and subsequently lost my sense of identity. In a lecture given by Brene Brown, she speaks about trust, and how it is a multi dimensional concept that is as much about your relationship to yourself as it is about your relationship to others. Once my self-trust was broken, I placed less and less value on my own judgement.
In the work I have done with clients that have survived serious trauma, their biggest difficulty with processing their past is in the physical effects of PTSD, and the task of learning how to trust themselves again. Living in even a mildly traumatized state puts the brakes on making the small, daily achievements that will bit by bit rebuild a person’s foundation. Somatic and breathwork therapies can help a person unwind their nervous system, and short term goals can be a way to rekindle their self-trust and ability to self-care. Thankfully, once I faced my truth and reached out for support, my knowledge of what helps others so well helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel.
So, now you know the deeper reason for why I took on my writing challenge. I needed a creative and tangible reason to show up for myself every single day. Every goal that I accomplish, however small, helps me to feel stronger. Every day that I to get to a client, a dance class, or to coffee with a friend, I thank myself for sticking to my word. Every day that I write a new piece, I celebrate myself for maintaining my personal integrity.
I still have hard days, especially when memories pop up on Facebook, or when going through and deleting old photos. But now compared to several months ago is like night and day. My flame is growing and building heat, like embers of a campfire seconds before the new log bursts aflame with it’s renewed fuel source. I have had patience with this process, and feel buoyed by others that have come forward.
If you are a survivor, please take heart in the knowledge that you are not alone. So many people know how you feel and have been exactly where you are. Believe that you can learn to trust yourself and others again no matter how impossible it may seem. An invaluable resource to me was calling the RAINN hotline, where they offered a comforting ear and a list of numbers for professionals that offered deep understanding of my situation, giving me hope to pull myself out of the cold. If you are somebody that knows a survivor, remind them often that you are there to support them and follow through on your word! You might never know how impactful your presence can be.
Growth never happens linearly, and variables in life have thrown me off at times, but sticking with the smaller promises to myself have made the larger ones seem all the more manageable. Listening to music helps. Being in nature helps. Making art helps. Hugs help. Crying helps, but laughing helps a lot more. Most importantly, the new and old friendships I have forged with people have supported me and kept me sane. Isolation was the thing that left me at a disadvantage, and connection has been the thing to bring me back from darkness.