I think people tend to say, “But didn’t that experience help you grow?” when they can’t think of anything else to say in response to a difficult situation they’ve never faced. Truth is, I don’t need someone to remind me what my experiences with the abuse have done to my life, because I live with the side effects every day. I didn’t need to be abused to be strong. I didn’t need to be abused to appreciate life. And I sure didn’t need to be abused to grow as a person. These things happen to us because we have no choice. Trauma forces us to change, to grow, and go through each day carrying burdens no person should carry. The weight of them shifts, our emotional response to them may soften, but in some respects, we will always carry them with us. They have become a part of our histories that mold and shape us into who we are post-abuse. They do not disappear. I would much rather you look at me and be honest. Just tell me you don’t know what to say. It is possible to be compassionate without invalidating or minimizing trauma someone endured, and just because I remind you of this does not mean that I do not have gratitude for my life. It means I want you to stop telling me how to feel, because you are not me, and I am not a mold of your circumstances. This, of course, makes your assumptions, suppositions, and opinions invalid.
While I’m on this train of thought, God did not place me with my abuser to live out my purpose or to test me or validate my worthiness. Do you not consider God to be One of love, power, wisdom, and justice? Do you not consider that He cannot act out of concert with any of these four facets at any time? To do something contradictory to one is contradictory to all. It may be a show of power, but deliberately guiding someone to be entrapped by what I have survived is not loving, wise, or just. In saying these things you are actually accusing the God you believe in of evil, because a God of love, wisdom, and justice would not abuse His absolute power to torture someone into living out their purpose as a test in the form of torture and extreme duress. That would be the act of the devil. What you mean to say by this is that you cannot make sense of it in the context of your beliefs – much in the same way people do when a parent loses a child. When you say this to me, it is not comforting. It’s just a different way to invalidate my circumstances and tell me I’m being ungrateful when nothing could be further from the truth.
The subject of this post is not a situation I talk about much, but I feel that is something that should change. People tend to judge others who fall on hard times without caring to find out the why behind it. Perhaps because you think you’d know or do better. Or maybe you don’t want to risk having to connect with someone and face their vulnerability out of your own discomfort. If I’m going to be entirely honest up front, all circumstances aside, you never have a right to pass judgment on anyone because you don’t know what they’ve endured or who they are as a person just by a quick glancing over of their current circumstances.
In general, I do not struggle with shame at being a survivor of domestic violence. My ex owns all the responsibility for that, and I will silence anyone trying to bully me or any other trauma survivor into thinking otherwise. This one thing, though, is one of the hardest for me to talk about, because I know how people react to it. I see it in the treatment of others day in and day out. I’ve even heard it from a handful of the few people in my personal life who know. I shy away from it, because it’s uncomfortable and some days I’m just not in the mood to get sucked into the chaos and entanglement of people’s ignorance. But I’ve decided that this needs to change – not just for me, but so others who may have been through a similar situation might see that it’s okay to bring it into the light. This habit of society shaming others has got to end, and it won’t happen in silence.
Part of what led to deciding on writing about this is the comparative lack of information on homelessness during active abuse in relation to information discussing the link of fleeing domestic violence and resulting homelessness. There are plenty of sites handling this. Just Google “domestic violence and homelessness.” What I noticed in my own search to connect with others who endured being homeless with their abuser during active abuse is that there is a void of information. That void encourages silence of those who have lived through it, and I want that silence to end.
If you would like some background on how the situation developed, you can read this post.
But in the meantime, I have a confession: I lived in a car with my abuser during active abuse.
Out of all the humiliating things my abuser subjected me to during active abuse, this one circumstance in my life continues to be something for which I carry a burdensome load of shame. In the almost five years since escaping my him, this is one thing I hold incredibly close to the chest, guarding my vulnerability with my life because the weight of humiliation, desperation, and despair still cling to me at the very thought that this was a circumstance I lived through during my life. Those among you who haven’t endured something of this nature might feel the urge to interrupt me and tell me that I shouldn’t worry so much about the fact that it happened but focus on the fact that I lived through it.
People who live without safety and comfort of shelter are often ignored, scorned, judged, and ultimately marginalized by those who do not have to worry about where they are going to sleep at night. They are looked down upon as if they are no longer human, and they are often blamed for their situation. Truly, regardless of how they ended up on the street, they are still people – thinking, feeling, needing, hoping people – who have families and dreams. They are worthy of being recognized as such, and no one should be in that circumstance and be on the receiving end of such inhumane treatment. Regardless of whether or not their choices or lifestyle culminated in being homeless, they are human beings, and they are not inferior to or worth any less than you and I.
Today, I have decided that I’m reclaiming this part of my story and relieving myself of the shame I’ve carried. It is my hope that as I bring this secret into the light and heal the part of my heart that’s damaged from carrying this weight for so long I will help others come forward and do the same.
I think many people will have the knee-jerk reaction that I should have gotten a job and I wouldn’t have found myself in that situation. Let me stop you right there. I was working. The two issues that directly contributed to this were the fact that my abuser was not working while at the same time stealing my money – or taking it by force – and not allowing me to pay basic expenses like rent and electric, or even car insurance. Why didn’t I stop him, you ask? Simple: that’s kind of hard to do when a man who has 100 pounds on you drags you into the corner by your hair and repeatedly strikes you with a metal bar or uses you as the tool to destroy the bedroom. I have four evictions on record directly caused by him. We were on number five when I left.
After the first eviction, we slept overnight in the car at a gas station because he had taken my paycheck, and we had no money to get a room to stay in overnight. My abuser even tried pawning off my 17″ laptop on a motel manager in exchange for staying the night. Obviously, they refused. After the wasted attempt at bartering with the motel, my abuser drove around for an hour looking for somewhere “inconspicuous” we could park for the night.
Sometimes I wonder now if I had considered for a moment that this could be a harbinger of things to come, what I would have done – if there even was something I could do – to prevent it from happening. That night, I did not sleep. We were parked in the parking lot of a gas station/convenience store that was open 24 hours a day. People were coming and going the entire night, and I couldn’t help but to feel vulnerable and unsafe. The side lot where we were parked was poorly lit and out of view of traffic and the employees working overnight. Before I went to work the next morning, I had to wash up and change in the bathroom at the gas station. I still remember avoiding looking in the mirror, because I didn’t want to have to admit how bad things had become. Prior to that night, I had never once considered that I would be in the position of having nowhere to sleep. I also had no ability to imagine what life would be like if it were a permanent situation.
However, just over two years later, this is exactly where I found myself. At this point, there were no options for me. My family, friends, and I were completely out of contact. There are two sides to every story, but the reality is that sometimes I felt like I had been left to shrivel up and crumble away into nothing by those who knew me before my abuser entered the picture. I felt like I had been abandoned, cast off like some broken and worthless toy into a box and shoved into a corner to be forgotten. I felt, to some degree, betrayed. Part of me also knew, however, that with me came the trouble associated with my abuser who not intent on letting me free from his grip without a fight. I’m sure their silence and absence was due in part to feeling used and not wanting to deal with him. The fact remains, I was left there – by everyone – in the clutches of the devil.
Initially, we had been staying with someone my abuser knew. That arrangement ended when they had a falling out over his coming in and out all hours of the day and night. I had been barely able to give her money from my checks each week, but he didn’t leave me anything else. When I look back on the night we left, I can picture myself standing in her dining room – which had become a makeshift storage for my property – with him to my left and her to my right. The tension is still so sharp in my mind that I can feel my stomach tying up in a knot and staring at them like a deer in the headlights. She said I could stay but he had to leave.
Those of us who have been abused know how this turns out and how that decision was made. I wanted to pull away from him and tell her what was going on. I wanted to scream the truth out from the top of my lungs and be free of it, but I choked. His hand was gripped around me wrist, and he pulled me through the kitchen and out the backdoor, shoved me in the car and took off down the street. We drove around for a few hours trying to find somewhere to park, and all the while, he’s in the driver seat screaming about how stupid and weak I am, how I don’t do what I’m told, and he can’t stand the sight of me.
I wanted to vomit, but I held it back. My mind was racing a mile a minute, and I could barely hear his ranting after a while, because I was worried about things that didn’t matter to him. Where was I going to sleep? How was I going to get a change of clothes and take a shower for work? What about food? What about the car? If you’ve followed my blog long enough, you most likely know that his not allowing me to pay bills cause more than just utility shut offs and evictions. The registration on the car had been suspended, and he was driving it around – and doing so often. His decision to start an argument with his friend put us in the position of losing the only thing we had left. Each time he drove, he risked getting pulled over. Daily, I lived with the possibility that the car – the mass of glass, rubber, and steel – that had become “home” could be taken away from us at any time. What would I do then?
He finally settled on parking overnight each night at a truck stop that had showers, and that space of asphalt between the chipped, stained, and fading white lines became my bedroom. The lights overhead made it difficult to sleep, and I constantly worried that one of the truckers parked in the back lot or some crazy stranger would come along and do something while constantly worrying about being caged up in the little space with the psychopath that was my abuser. I felt vulnerable, I felt insecure, and I desperately wanted to escape the confines of the trap I found myself in.
I often wondered how the frequent traffic in and out missed him slamming my head against the door or jerking my head back with a fist full of my hair tightly gripped in his hand. Did they not hear him yelling at me and mocking me as people walked past? How did they not see him follow me into the building and sitting out in the hall outside the women’s restroom when I needed to use it? Why didn’t the person taking the money for the shower not question why he always had to go in with me? Why don’t any of you see? I was right there the entire time, and I was treated like I was invisible. Like I didn’t matter.
During the evenings after work and on my days off, we spent most of the time in parks pretending to be there because we wanted to when we really had no choice. The blanket and random food, the laptop – none of that was there because we were relaxing. We had nowhere to go until it was dark, and I hated every second of it.
The worst question that’s plagued me since this experience is “What if someone finds out?” None of us want to be judged, mocked, or looked down upon as inferior and be held up as objects of shame. To be seen equally as human beings, to be acknowledged, and to be treated with compassion and granted the basic right to dignity are common needs we all share. Even as I find myself outraged and hurt at the same time to see others enduring what I did or worse, when I apply those circumstances to myself, I somehow become overwhelmingly self-conscious and try to stuff away the shame in the darkness and shadows so no one knows my dirty little secret.
Over the past few months, I have struggled with whether or not I wanted to go back and revisit this dark place and drag it out into the light. There are still wounds there, flesh seared and scarred with stigma, self-loathing, and humiliation. Under any circumstances, this would be the case, but I found myself hoarding away this shame while also being trapped in a cage of steel and glass with madman hell-bent on being my destruction. The pain of the trauma is still fresh enough that saying those seemingly little words tears old wounds back open. And I do not like to bleed out my vulnerability in public.
I’m tired of caring what you think. I’m tired of carrying this weight, and I’m not doing it anymore.
So here it goes again: My name is Amy, and I lived in a car with my abuser.
I have reached a place where I actually want people to know, because there may someone somewhere at this very minute carrying the weight of this stigma on their shoulders with no one to talk to. Maybe someone out there reading this right now thinks that they were the only one. If this is you, I want you to know that you are not alone, and you have nothing to be ashamed of – and you cannot heal the trauma you don’t release. Whether or not you realize it, these things we survive despite the odds stacked against us and the trauma and stigma that cling to us when we first leave feel inescapably permanent, but we still have risen up out of the darkness. All these things we have survived are what make us strong – and we are allowed to hurt as long as we need to. We can figure out the rest together.