On the morning of Friday, December 14, 2012, I fled my apartment to escape the man who had been actively abusing me for over four years. My leaving was not thought out. By this point, I was so distraught and desperate to be free of him that I was mentally incapable of thinking rationally. There was no plan. There was no time to think. I was blindly impelled out of the relationship as a last-ditch effort to avoid what would have been the inevitable: a slow, painfully torturous death at the hand of the man who had once purported to love me.
If you have never been abused, there is no way for me to possibly explain fully the devastation that domestic violence causes. I’m not speaking, in this case, of the pain and suffering that exists within the context of active abuse. What I am referring to is the aftermath that follows, and while this damage is a direct result of the abuse, the battles I faced each day after leaving are fought on an unfamiliar front. Leaving is a life-changing event, but it’s more akin to a new chapter than it is the end of the story.
During active abuse, I lived in an environment which can only be described as a pressure cooker where I found myself chained to the floor as a ravenously hungry predator stalked and rage around me. Tension was near constant, and I existed solely in survival mode. The conditioning and gas lighting had worn me out and drained out every last ounce of energy I could offer up just survive the day, knowing full well that when I awoke the next morning (assuming this was not in the middle of one of his many sleep deprivation campaigns) I would have to walk through the mine field again. I lived every day of those four years in constant fear of losing my life, and when I left I did not see my escape as strong or courageous. I just was not ready to die despite the fact that I had resigned myself to the fact that being killed before I could get away was highly probable.
Those who haven’t been abused haven’t the slightest idea how bold the act of leaving an abuser is. Many operate on the assumption that once we leave, the abuse is over, and we should be fine. However, in reality, ending an abusive relationship increases the risk of danger. Leaving is one of the worst “acts of transgressions” we can commit against our abusers outside divulging all the secrets they work so hard to keep hidden in the darkness. Abusers thrive on power and control, and the act of exiting the abusive relationship rips this away from them. It also places the abuser at risk of facing consequences for their behavior. The moments in which we leave are incredibly dangerous. Even if there is no history of physical abuse, we have no guarantee that the abuser will not react in violence. In fact, approximately 75% of domestic violence fatalities occur when or after the victim leaves the abusive relationship, and the general window of danger extends for an average period of about two years after a successful escape. Although this risk tends to subside over time, major life changes, like the survivor beginning to date, a child’s graduation, buying a house, or getting a new job can reignite the risk of retaliation from the abuser.
Once we make it through the process of leaving the abuse, we now find ourselves faced with the daunting task of reclaiming and rebuilding our lives. Many of us no longer recognize ourselves and see only strangers in the mirror. We carry fear, shame, and sadness and face often profound emotional damage resulting from the trauma. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression can creep in and cause us to withdraw from life. Nightmares and insomnia can steal our sleep. Survivors who have children can find themselves in active emotional abuse months and even years after they have exited the relationship, as abusers commonly use the children as a tool to continue to cause emotional pain to the person who left. (And yes, they know they are doing it, just the same as they know the abuse is wrong.)
For me, the first year after I left my abuser was far harder than living through the 1,551 days of active abuse. Living in fear of losing my life was exhausting, but I was not initially mentally equipped to handle facing and reconciling the trauma I had endured. The act of disclosing the abuse to my supervisor at work was traumatic for me. I felt my ex standing behind me, hovering over my shoulder and hanging on every word as I hurled his secrets into the light. This is how strong the conditioning is – I could perceive his presence even when he was not around – and I knew the punishment this transgression would bring. The more I revealed to my supervisor, the more I had to talk just to silence his voice in my head. To this day when I share with others how I first disclosed the abuse, I can hear him in the back of my mind, hissing at me, “Just wait til you get home, bitch. Just wait.”
I felt violated later that day when I had to again relive the events of the previous night to a stranger who helped complete the emergency order of protection. I still get a knot in my stomach remembering how time dragged that afternoon as I waited for confirmation that the order had been served. When I finally did get the call, my panic spiraled out of control. I was so distressed that weekend that I spent each night pacing nervously across the bedroom floor, stopping every few minutes to peek out through the blinds to make sure he wasn’t standing outside watching the house. When I did sleep, it was only during day when I was downstairs with someone in the room. I’d awaken after twenty minutes still feeling my ex’s hands constricted around my neck.
Over the course of the next year, I felt like I was losing my mind. Panic attacks were commonplace, and they had become so severe that they quickly began to limit my life. Initially, I had to avoid many places that I either thought he would be or where something particularly violent had occurred, because I would become overwhelmed in desperation. Regardless of where I was, if the trigger was severe enough, it would become so overpowering that I would literally perceive that I was dying. Each time, I felt him there in the background, watching and waiting for an opportunity to ambush me. He had his nephew and friends calling me and my father looking for me while he was calling and texting my mother. I began to hear from friends and members of my congregation that he had been calling them trying to find out where I was. I began having nightmares with physical violence that was so vividly brutal, I would wake up still able to feel pain. On top of all of this, I battled with damaged self-esteem and re-emergence of depression now mingled with PTSD.
Almost four years later, I still have periods of time where I will have violent nightmares about the abuse I endured or being trapped in an enclosed space and incapable of getting away. Panic attacks, although less frequent, still strike. I am still recovering from the crippling financial abuse I endured. While I have repaired my credit score and paid off some of the debts, I still cannot afford to live on my own. Four years later, I am still working through the tedious task of cleaning up the damage, and I am likely to be doing so for a long time to come. I get frustrated with how difficult the process of recovery is, but just as I tell others going through the same struggle, there is no expiration date on the process. The abuse and conditioning that led me to be where I am occurred over an extended period of time, and it cannot be cleaned up over night simply because I am no longer with my ex. As with everything, there are always consequences of surviving such trauma, and there is no telling how long it will take heal.
Leaving is not the end. It is just the beginning, and it is in this part of our stories where we learn just how strong and amazing we truly are. So don’t try to push us through to the other side for the sake of your comfort. After all, it is not the end that matters most. It’s the journey we embrace along the way. Missing that would be a shame.