We’ve left. So now what? Many unfortunately mistakenly hold the view that because, as survivors of abuse, we have left the relationship, that it is over, the effects vaporized into thin air, simply because we are no longer there. Those who feel this way may falsely reason that since we are out of immediate physical danger, that it’s over and we should put it behind us and just move on, without any damage, without speaking of it lest we let the monster out of the closet. The ugly truth that no one on the outside ever seems to want to face head on: that as with other survivors of traumatic events, have to deal with the impacts of the violence we lived, whether verbal, emotional, or physical in nature, and how it has the ability to sneak in and poison or taint so many aspects of our personalities and lives, even at times so insidiously that until we are confronted with it at the most inopportune time, we have no idea that it is lying in wait to ambush us and dash us upon the crags.
They would not look at a survivor of a serious illness and say, “Get over it. You aren’t sick anymore.”
They would not dare look upon a veteran and say, “The war’s over; you’re home. Suck it up.”
They would not glance away from someone who survived a horrific crash and say accusingly, “Weren’t you the one driving? Why didn’t you die, too? Why should you be here? Wasn’t it your fault?”
They would not even think to look at a parent who has a lost a child or mate to death, “Stop crying about it. It isn’t going to change anything. Maybe if you got him/her to the doctor soon enough, maybe if you were paying attention to something besides yourself, you would have seen. You would have known.”
They would say none of these things. Neither would they abruptly interrupt them mid-sentence and change the subject to a discussion of common fodder and chatter. They would not emptily wish them well but refuse to help however they were able. There would be no holding back emotional support, no refusal to offer help, no denials of visits. Instead, they would offer a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear to hear them, to take in their struggles so even if all they could do was simply be there to provide emotional support and comfort them when temporary cracks show in their strength. If someone was weakened from battling an illness, they would offer to help run errands, to cook, to clean, to do laundry, and help maintain the yard. Perhaps if someone had the financial means, they would help when someone comes up short for a bill, so they don’t have to choose between their prescription or food, a therapy appointment or the electric bill. They help them, because they have seen them struggle, because they love them and do not want them to suffer more than they already have.
One should give pause to consider, then, how even our own loved ones can react when we flee the abuse and reveal this private, torturous pain we’ve carried alone for so long, foolishly hoping that those who we consider to be closest to us — our own family and friends — will be there to help us, to comfort us, and to listen to us without judgment, without criticism, and without harsh words. Unless we previously had strained relationships with them before the abusive relationship, many of us are often shocked and disturbed to find out that they are often some of the harshest, unkind, unloving critics when we share what has been done to us by force.
When they would instead be moved to action by someone revealing that they are afflicted by a potentially fatal illness, a vet arriving home, survivors of tragic accidents, and loss of loved ones often without waiting to be asked, many of them respond quite differently to victims of abuse reaching out for help or survivors who’ve made their own way out at great risk.
What types of things do we hear from those who do not respond so compassionately?
They tell us straight-faced that we are manufacturing the entire story.
- “I can’t believe you’d ever speak that way about him/her! He/She is always so generous and giving to everyone!”
- “What do you have to gain from this?”
- “You don’t have to be bitter about things not working out. Stop making things up and just move on… He/She obviously didn’t want you!”
They tell us that we must have misunderstood.
- “He/She didn’t really mean all those things that way. You know he/she would never hurt you.”
They use everything else but the abuser as the scapegoat.
- “He/She lost their job.”
- “He/She is under a lot of stress.”
- “It’s their illness.”
- “They never act like that unless they have been drinking / using.”
They tell us that it’s our fault.
- “Why did you have to always argue with him/her so much? You have to know that one day they wouldn’t be able to control their temper!”
- “You always pushed and pushed until he/she blew up.”
- “If you listened to them, maybe they wouldn’t have felt like they had to.”
- “What did you do to him/her? You must have done something!”
- “What did you say? You know you can’t ever keep your mouth shut!”
They tell us that it couldn’t have been that bad, because we stayed for so long.
- “He/She couldn’t have been abusing you. You stayed for how many years?”
- “No one would stay with someone if it was that bad!”
They surmise how they would respond in the same situation and point out how flawed we are because we did not.
- “You know what I would have done if I was ever abused? I’d leave!”
- “I wouldn’t even let someone do that to me! How could you let him/her walk all over you like that?”
- “I know if some man/woman ever even tried to put their hands on me, I’d leave / have them dealt with.”
- “I wouldn’t have ever been so stupid / blind/ naive to get trapped with someone abusive. I would have seen it coming.”
- “The first time he/she hit me, I would have called the cops so fast they wouldn’t know what hit them!”
- “I would have been strong enough to defend myself / set them straight / leave.”
- “I know if someone ever put their hands on me and then tried to make me believe it wouldn’t happen again, I’d call them on their lie. I wouldn’t be so gullible to fall for that!”
- “Money, kids, or not, nothing would have trapped me there. I’d want to leave bad enough that I wouldn’t let anything stop me!”
- “I wouldn’t be crazy / stupid / lazy enough to stay.”
Even worse than some of these things being said to us is the brush off when we try to talk about what we endured. There is a unique pain associated with a loved one swearing to you that you can always confide in them if you need to talk and then the one time you embolden yourself to do, they look at you and say, “You left. It’s done. Just move on and forget about it. No one wants to hear about it. In fact, you’re the only one who seems to think about it at all!”
However, the damage we endure from suffering any type, severity, and duration of abuse is very real and far more extensive than anyone can ever realize. Damage goes further than the immediate pounding of verbal assault in the moment it occurs. Damage burns deeper than the skin swelling, splitting, bleeding, than bones fracturing, than hair being ripped out and noses breaking. Damage is more far-reaching that overdrawn bank accounts, refusal to have personal possessions. Damage is far more isolating than only “temporarily” being cut off from loved ones.
Each word slowly stabs us to our hearts, and the poison flows with each pulse of cardiac muscle, exponentially expanding with each inhalation and exhalation of breath, and it becomes lodged within our mind where it quietly echoes even as we are unaware. It grows and creeps along poisoning every last bit of lobe until it has taken root. It acts as a puppeteer and takes control of our faculties, and little by little, we believe every last hateful, vile, malicious poisonous dart lodged within. Emotionally we die and wither away and think the worst of ourselves thanks to the hateful lies planted in our hearts. We shrink back, shirk attention, and divert attention away from ourselves.
Each physical blow builds within us deeply rooted fear and insecurity, often to the point where desperate and hopeless panic pervades every last millimeter of our environments. Noises become triggers. Sudden movements cause for flight. Our muscles have been conditioned to flinch, to jerk our arms over our heads to protect from physical assault, to respond in self-defense mode if someone comes up behind us in hasty fashion.
Our struggles with this are as wide and varied as we are. Our triggers are not exactly the same, the severity not formed from a mold, and the total toll of destruction not entirely visible even to ourselves. Our battles against PTSD are not waged or won in the same ways. Perhaps our behaviors may not make sense. Maybe you cannot understand why one person flees your presence when they hear a certain commercial on the television or why they cannot eat, smell, or even cook a certain food that you look upon as harmless. Trust and intimacy comes harder for some of us than others; some cannot stand at the edge of that precipice of dating, love, and intimacy for mortal fear of death that to them is very real but to you a phantom. The simple fact is that when you are afflicted and manipulated in the throes of PTSD, nothing is simple and everything has the potential to be harmful to you. But you can be sure that many will misunderstand, judge, criticize, or speak against your struggle with contempt and a lack of compassion and treat you as an object of shame.
I stand here today unwilling to own this shame. I stand here unburdened by a stigma I did not create or purchase. This blight I did not call upon myself for want of pity. When I speak of my circumstances and the horrors I endured, I am not calling attention to merely the suffering but the fact that I survived, that I escaped, and that I am alive today because of this. Just as a survivor of a potentially fatal illness, as a veteran, a survivor of a catastrophic accident, as a survivor of losing a loved one to death would do, we as survivors of abuse speak about what we have endured to raise awareness that it can happen to us at any time. We are compelled to speak out because so many still need help, understanding, compassion. We are impelled forward to speak because it happened to us, and with our entire heart we do not want it to happen to you.
I share the battles I wage every day to erode and disintegrate misconception and myth. To let you know that even though we have come through the worst of it, we are far from undamaged, far away from whole. I speak, because it cannot be ignored. I speak, because I do not want anyone to feel like they are alone. I speak, because these are my battles, and we all own them, because we all bear responsibility to uplift and build each other up no matter what tore us down.
For this purpose, I am currently in the process of opening a blog that will be solely dedicated to our personal experiences with those who abused us, and how their personality and actions have impacted us not only as they occurred but weeks, months, and years down the road. I have yet to determine the exact structure and format, but once I have it up and running, I will posting the announcement on my blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. I intend on creating companion profiles for the second blog on other social media. If you are interested in being one of the first contributors, let me know. I will be seeking a few additional brave souls to be moderators, so please consider whether or not this is something you would be interested in.