Trigger Warning: Story contains depictions of emotional & physical abuse
When I was younger I spent nearly 4 years in an abusive relationship.
At the time it just seemed normal, but it was bad. It was really bad. I was in denial at the time, but my life was in danger.
It is still hard for me to admit that sometimes because my abuser had my head so tied up in knots. It wasn’t until later that I learned about abuse cycles and gaslighting and when I first had them explained to me, I could see that they applied to me, but in a very distant way. A clinical way. Like I could see that there was this person whose situation was identical to mine and I could see that these scenarios applied to her, but that person wasn’t me. It couldn’t sink in and be my truth. There were always excuses for him and always reasons that I was different or I deserved it. I would think to myself that the circumstances that no one saw were nuanced that no one could label them and be sure they were abuse. And what if they were wrong? What if I was wrong? What if he was innocent of all these things and I really was crazy? That’s what he told me, right?
Let’s be clear: Gaslighting is a noxious, terrifyingly dangerous thing and it’s hard to break its hold over someone.
However, finally, with a decent amount of therapy, I came to see I wasn’t crazy. There is no other word but abuse for what he did to me. Loving people don’t hold you down and try to hurt you, threatening to break bones until you scream and ask for forgiveness. Loving people don’t chase you around the house wielding knives. Loving people don’t abuse your cat. Loving people don’t slam you against walls. Loving people don’t control who you can see or what you can wear. Loving people don’t force you into sex. Loving people don’t threaten to kill your friends. Loving people don’t wrestle you to the ground for “fun” and then hold you down when you’re begging them to stop. Loving people don’t then tell you everything they’re doing is your fault and for your own good or that you’re crazy and it didn’t happen the way you remember it.
Looking back today, I feel sorry for the girl I was when I was 18 to 22. I was so young and so vulnerable to this kind of predation and I was living in isolation from my friends and family. I used to beat myself up for not escaping sooner, but I now forgive myself for that and know that I did what I could with the tools that I had. All told, I kept myself as safe as possible, I got my cat out of the situation as soon as I could, and I left when I had a clear way out. I still have complex feelings about trying to leave and then going back to him a few times, but I can’t fix what’s in the past and as I said, I’ve learned a lot about abuse cycles and I’m working hard to apply those concepts to myself for the sake of self forgiveness.
I think that’s hard for abuse survivors: forgiving ourselves even when we’re not the ones who need forgiveness.
I think that ultimately I have to find good in what happened to me and now that several years have passed, I’m starting to.
I am a more resilient person and a more compassionate person because of what I went through. I am very grateful for what I have because at the very least, at all times I feel like I have love and safety and that’s not a basic human need I’ve always had met. Basic safety is something that many people on the planet lack. I can truly empathize with that since I’ve lived without day to day safety. I’m not sure everyone can truly appreciate how fortunate they are for this simple aspect of life. Most people in the developed world take it for granted, but it’s a precious gift. I wish every day that people who live without safety find their way to it.
I’m also more compassionate toward others because I never know what they’re going through. I was very secretive about my situation. I felt I couldn’t tell anyone because that would have made things more dangerous at home and he was careful not to leave marks where they would be visible. I try to be kind and patient and understanding that people may be putting on a brave face over horrible difficulties.
Above all, I am a more resilient person, even though it doesn’t seem like it sometimes with some of the mental health problems I’ve been left with. I am not very resilient with little things, but I have gotten through horrible major life events since my abusive relationship and as awkward as it sounds, I can feel myself drawing on the same defense mechanisms I used while being abused. “I got through that. I can get through anything. Everything has an end to it and if it gets worse, I will deal with it then, but right now, I just have to focus on what’s happening now and my primary concern is the people (or animals…remember the cat) around me.” I am usually calm in times of crisis, and I’ve been able to be a major support for family members as a result. So far this has mostly applied to medical and emotional crises, and family deaths. I don’t know how it would extend to natural disasters or more chaotic, adrenaline fueled events as I have an adrenaline related mental illness. However, I can typically take a deep breath and keep a clear head even when dealing with strong emotions and just get through it and deal with the emotional fallout later. The people around me know that they can turn to me when things are bad.
All of these emotional strengths have come out of my time of trial.
In short, I can’t just go along seeing a whole 4 years of my life as a loss; a waste. I have to see some positive. This is my positive. My abuser made me feel weak and helpless for so long, even after I left. But in the end, I’m stronger. I’m not weak at all.
I am still sad that I went through this time in my life. Nothing is going to change that. Never mistake my appreciation for the strengths I’ve gained for gladness that this happened to me. It was horrible and there’s no changing that. I’m angry at my abuser for what he did to me. Or at least I try to be. Some days anger lapses into fear and general anxiety if I’m perfectly honest with everyone. I’m still working on that. We’re allowed to be a work in progress. However, I am starting to try to turn it around and find hope and good in what I can’t change about myself and my past. We grow through adversity and whether I like the situation or not, it helped make me who I am today. Our past defines us, but we can choose how it defines us.