It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about being in an abusive relationship. It’s not that I’ve ever forgotten. Even though the last time I was hit by a man who supposedly loved me was fourteen years ago I know that who I am today is defined, in part, by who I was, and who I was with, then. But I don’t think about it. I don’t write about it. And I certainly don’t talk about it.
I’m not ashamed or embarrassed – any more. I’ve long since realized that there’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. At one point in my life I blamed myself for staying in that relationship for five years. I still struggle with assigning blame where it belongs: to this day I’ll say “when my arm was broken” instead of “when he broke my arm”, but I’m working on that.
I blamed myself for going back, time and time again. I was fortunate; my parents were nearby and I could run home when things got too bad. I didn’t do that often, not only because even though I was in a toxic relationship I was still fiercely independent, but also because they didn’t understand. Hell, how could they? They were mad at him, but they were also mad that their strong, willful, stubborn daughter would stay with someone who would hit her and kick her. Unfortunately, that made it seem like they were mad at me.
One time I called the cops. We were separated and trying to work things out. He’d been leaving cards and love notes on my car, and because I wanted, needed him to be a different person I began seeing him again. We went out to celebrate the holidays and after one drink too many I had to call 911. Because it was a holiday weekend in the winter he spent three barefoot nights in an air conditioned cell with inmates who stole his food. That should have been the end. Stay at my parents, file the paperwork, and sayonara, asshole.
I called his mom to let him know where he was. Now she was mad at me, too. So, when he got out and apologized and cried and told me how much he loved me, I felt like he was the only one who wasn’t mad at me, and he had every right to be.
Things get pretty messed up in your head when the person you love hits you.
I look back at that woman now and I don’t see how she could be the same person I see every day in the mirror. Except…I am. That was me, then.
After I put him in jail we had a quiet year and a half. Our relationship wasn’t good, but there were no more bruises. Then we went to a party. He wanted to leave. I didn’t. He broke my arm. For awhile I told people I fell down the stairs. (Abuse does not foster originality.)
Behind the lie I was planning my escape, and six months later I moved in with a friend; another seven months later our divorce was final.
I understand why I stayed with him; I know why he acted the way he did. The hard part was realizing that just because I can empathize or sympathize with someone does not make abusive treatment, in any form, acceptable. Once I got that through my thick skull I was able to stop blaming myself, to stop being embarrassed and ashamed and to just get the hell out.
It still took me some time, a lot of time, to heal. After I left him I immediately jumped into a relationship with a man who was bipolar and self-medicated. At least this time I wised up – I didn’t marry the guy! We broke up six months before I moved to Chicago in 2001, and that was my last long term relationship until almost three years ago. It took me that long to trust my judgment in men, and I’m happy to say that this time I got it right!
The thing is, I know I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t been through all of that, and I like me. I’m strong and independent and keenly aware of what I will and won’t accept in how others treat me. I turned fear and shame into a will to create something meaningful. But I was only able to do that because I had family and friends who gave me a place to go when I was ready to leave.
Not everybody has that support system. Even those that do are afraid to reach out because the victim is often blamed. But one thing I can tell you from my own experience, is that domestic violence is different for everyone. Behind the makeup covering the bruises and all the trips down stairs there’s someone who would be so much better if she, or he, were given space to grow without fear and without shame.
Here’s to a whole lot more people saying “It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about being in an abusive relationship”.
I wrote this because I was asked to speak about my experience at “Voices of Victory”, a fundraiser for the House of the Good Shepherd domestic violence shelter. If you’d like to help, Voices of Victory is accepting donations through November 2, 2012. The state of Illinois also has a list of Domestic Violence Agencies by city.