A struggle common to many survivors of domestic violence is reconciling the violation and betrayal of our most basic needs as an intimate partner in a manner that allows us to form an appropriate separation and distinction between the abuser in the past and those worthy of our love who shall come in the future. We can be hard-pressed to not find ourselves occasionally glancing back into the past, trying to use our negative experience as a compass to help us navigate our present. Unfortunately, even as we find ourselves doing this, we may not realize that doing so without making a definitive separation between the actions of those who abused us and those of friends in the present can allow barriers to honest relationships to flourish, resulting in further loneliness. Further, we don’t always realize that we are unfairly judging those in our lives now by associating harmless and / or unintentional things they do and say with the cruelty of those who abused us.
I am sure many of you have heard the saying: “Once bitten, twice shy.” This brings everything down to the most simple of explanations for our immediate shying away from becoming too close and the adjustments we make by overcompensating to protect ourselves from becoming trapped by someone else who is bound to hurt us. Or so we conclude based on the logic we have left in tact. It is a natural response, perhaps a need, to act so urgently to keep ourselves safe from the monster. For we trusted them, whoever it was who abused us, and they snuck in like a thief as we slept, feeling free, safe, protected, and loved. And when we awoke, we found ourselves in shackles, stripped bare of our worth, and vulnerable to repeated violation of our right to personal safety.
In addition to the physical and emotional wounds we sustained, many of them still unhealed even after we have escaped, we also were lied to, manipulated, cheated, and stolen from in the worst ways imaginable. It was our human drive for companionship, love, and unconditional understanding and acceptance despite our individual flaws that led us to where we now find ourselves, and we can feel fear at the thought that this need for love, for friendship could decimate us again.
One year ago, on December 21st, 2012, for the second time in one week, I acted boldly. I risked the last thread of whatever emotional stability I had left, picked up the handset at work, and dialed his number. Out of the blue. Well, perhaps for him, it was, because he had not spoken to me in over five years. At the time, he did not know that so many times during the years I was with Kevin, I had several times come to the cusp of dialing his number, and I always backed away. He wasn’t mine anymore, I told myself. I was with Kevin, even though against my will, and I could not bring myself to drag Kerwyn into the middle of the chaos.
When I heard his voice on the other end of the line, I was immediately take back to 2007. I smiled a little as I played my “guess who” game with him. His voice was gentle, kind, and disarming, and I actually forgot for one second that things had changed. That I was no longer the same woman I was before. When he knew me then, before four years of abuse had decimated me and rendered me a former shadow of myself. I forgot for a brief moment that I was damaged, penniless, and alone. That I had been abused.
I forgot, until he asked me how I was. Then I remembered the beatings, the insults, the threats, and I cringed. I panicked. What was I doing just calling him out of the blue and upending his life as though I had not been absent all these years? Assuming so boldly that he would want to hear from me? How could I answer this question he just shot at me like a bullet? A simple, harmless question. Yet my voice became unsteady, I became fearful, and I had to force myself not to sob like the hysterical female that I was sure everyone now thought I was. I could have lied to him like a lot of people would. I could have just focused on the basic pleasantries and not told him my secret. But he’s always had this way about him that caused me to surrender my ability to build and keep a wall, and I answered him with the truth. I could never hide anything from this man, even if I wanted to, for he also possesses the ability to see across the miles and know immediately that something is off. By the words I use, my tone of voice, how long it takes me to answer. He would know, and there was no reason to insult his intelligence.
I am not going to make you privy to the conversations we shared over the months to come. They belong to us and us alone, and I am going to selfishly hoard them and keep them between us as though they were all the last conversations we were to ever have. However, I can tell you that some of the conversations were intensely personal and emotional for me as I began to fumble my way out of the darkness. But the undeniable fact is that there isn’t one other person on the face of this earth that I would have let in so close to see the most sensitive phase of my vulnerability. No one but this dear, kind man named Kerwyn. He extended his hand to meet mine, and he helped me up, and when the insanity of Kevin’s poisonous verbal assaults crept back in stealing my ability to reason, Kerwyn brought me back and calmed the chaos churning like a whirling dervish inside me. And helped me find my peace. He helped me find my voice and how to use it in the best way possible, and he helped me find some middle ground so I could begin to work on rebuilding myself into the woman I have become.
This is not meant to imply that him being there for me has been without difficulty or annoyance for him, although I am sure he would find some way to minimize this, too. The past year has been, in some ways, just as chaotic for him as it has been for me. Perhaps in some ways more so, because not only does he have to navigate his own emotional responses to things that even when coming from an acquaintance are hard to hear, but he had to hear them and feel them from the point of view of someone having a deeper emotional bond of more than just mere friends. On top of this, he has had to figure out a way to tolerate my episodes of neurotic, irrational behavior.
Yes, I called myself neurotic and irrational, because I can be at times. All it takes to send the train wreck down the tracks is one innocent act, unintentional and incidental, and I just need to connect a few simple thoughts to somehow turning it into the same thing Kevin did. Living a normal life with PTSD can be difficult. Battling the false and twisted logic I was indoctrinated into can be exhausting, and sometimes, I get overwhelmed and react before reminding myself when and where I am. I give into a knee-jerk reaction and find myself temporarily doubting or becoming irritated with someone who, in the face of the aftermath, has been a source of stability and encouragement. Yet somehow, the switch is thrown, and I have to fight myself back to reality. And afterwards, I feel like a complete fool, because the logical side of me and my heart both know that Kerwyn and Kevin are on opposite ends of the spectrum, diametrically opposed in word, values, and deed and are in no way anything alike.
Finding a measurable amount of emotional stability has been fraught with many setbacks challenges along the way. I have faltered at times, but the further away from the abuse I get, the more I am able to reason with myself and mitigate negative reactions to incidental events. Kerwyn has been an integral part of that, and to those who told me in the beginning that I should focus on myself, I have to say you were wrong. I may not have been able to put it into words at the time, but when I reached out to Kerwyn a year ago, I did exactly what I needed to do. And I am amazed that I, despite my fragile emotional state, knew to do something that has made such an extraordinary impact on the course of my life. There was no substitute for that moment, or a moment since, for the only person I needed the second I picked up that phone.
I have to be clear that it wasn’t that I just needed someone. I do not substitute. I do not allow myself to be fooled into thinking that just anyone will do. True, I had feelings for him that persuaded and influenced my decision to call, but Kerwyn is the only person I have ever known to possess a natural kindness, gentleness, and compassion so ingrained into his character that you feel it envelope you when you are near him. He is the only one I ever felt safe enough to let all the way in, and he was the only one who I could entrust with the most private thoughts and emotions I could offer up to another person. He has never abused them or shared them against my will, and at that moment I called, all I needed was him. So I allowed myself this one indulgence, one year ago. I invited him back in and welcomed him back exactly where he belongs.
Thank you, Kerwyn, for the many ways you have helped me become whole again. Thank you for drowning the darkness out with your light. Your kindness, love, patience, mercy, and compassion is a gift.
For those of you struggling with this, you will in time find yourself wanting that companionship again. You will fear it and crave it all at the same time, but do not allow yourself to get caught up in the desire to be a partner that you jump in blindly, because you can risk entering into another abusive relationship if you are not emotionally ready. A few suggestions:
1. Do not trust your objectivity to be completely accurate. You may want to seek feedback from someone you trust about how capable you are to handle the emotional ups and downs that come even with healthy relationships. They may see emotional reactions you are blind to.
2. If you feel as though you need to be with someone to be of value or to have an identity, you are not ready. There is no substitute for the love and value that you can have for yourself. And it is true that you cannot properly love another the way they deserve if you are not able to love yourself.
3. If the thought of baring trauma of the abuse you endured makes you uncomfortable, you are not ready. Being in a romantic relationship requires the ability to communicate openly about things that can be quite painful. You have to be able to trust that he/she is not going to abuse that vulnerability when you offer it.
4. If you are uncomfortable being around new people, you are not ready. There is a necessary period of acclimation when you leave an abusive relationship. Most likely, you have been isolated enough to point where your ability to easily interact with others has been damaged.
In the end, only you can know when you reach a point where you feel you are ready to be in a relationship. If you feel you are, proceed with caution. If the person is compatible with you, there will be no need to push things along too quickly. The right person will be willing to let things progress at a pace that is comfortable for you both. And if you feel they are pushing too hard, take that as a sign that they may not be on the same page and discuss it before you make decisions that you cannot take back.