It's amazing what details humans can recall, some are forever lost while others hold on fast and you can never escape them. It was near the end of my first trip abroad to Ireland. I was staying in Cork at a lovely bed and breakfast. I spent the morning in Kinsale, a quaint but uneventful village in County Cork, I saw a preserved castle and a church built in 1190. In the afternoon I went to Cork City Gaol, I thought it was equally creepy and cool. With some time to spare before dinner I strolled through the Old English Market, which is an indoor street market where vendors sell food and hard goods. I bought buttermilk soda bread as a gift for my family. When my stomach began to growl a little too loudly I popped into a small Italian restaurant and tucked into a sizable portion of tortellini. Overall it had been a really fun day, but after walking around all day I was ready to crash in my room at the B&B and catch up on some reading.
As I was walking back from dinner I passed a woman who was in severe emotional distress, tears were streaming down her face and she was swallowing a sobbing cry. Her face was bruised and red, it looked like she had just been beaten up. It was impossible not to notice, but I didn't know what to do so at first I kept walking. Then my conscience got the better of me and I turned around and hurried up next to her. I walked along side her and asked if she was alright. She took a moment, and took a peak behind her and then looked towards me without turning her head completely. She nervously sniffled, "Yes..." Then she walked on. I didn't know what to say or do, she walked away while I stood there, the words caught in my throat. I wanted to take action but I lacked the wherewithal to know what action to take. I was so drawn to her. I could feel the energy of her anguish. She was terrified and hurting, and I was naive and foreign. When I got back to my room I wrote a rant in my journal, decrying the state of the world and the unequal treatment of women and the "the anger that makes everyone crazy." I've never forgotten that and every now and again I wonder what happened to her.
I spent the better part of my academic career researching and writing about gender inequalities. An impassioned feminist, I'll gladly school anyone on what feminism truly is and why it is so important. I'm not scared of the label, I think it's totally badass. Speaking of badass, I also have always been big on kickass female characters in the media. Fully aware of the negative aspects (such as how Lara Croft was definitely designed via the male gaze and was not designed for me) I still love them. I love strong female characters, I love strong characters in general who stand up and make themselves count. When I was young my room at home was covered in inspirational images, quotes, and pages from magazines that pushed me to be the best I could be. I felt like nothing could hold me back and no one could stop me. I was never going to let what I imagined happened to that woman to happen to me, and if it did I would get out as fast as my legs would take me. Anyone who knows me well would probably tell you that I'm a pretty strong and independent woman.
I feel compelled to write about this now because I finally have enough distance from the past experience to reflect on it without it triggering something in me. I also cannot, in good conscience, not speak out. A childhood friend of mine recently suffered the devastating loss of her best friend, who died by the hand of her estranged husband (they are raising money for her young children who no longer have a mother, if you would like to donate please visit their Facebook event page for more information). With so many stories of abuse that circulate, I know surprisingly few people who would admit to having suffered abuse. Is it because we are ashamed of it? Because we blame ourselves? Because we're scared? For me the answer is yes, yes, and yes. I was in abusive relationship.
I'm writing this blog post without an end point in mind, I can tell you that as I write it my heart is racing faster than it does when I go for runs with the most energetic dog on the planet (she pulls me to run, I don't get to jog if she's with me). I'm fidgeting a bit more than usual at the moment and my mind is pulling me in multiple directions. I am fighting with myself to not just delete this post and put up a quick one with pretty pictures. Whitewash the truth. Paint over the painful past with a beautiful portrait of what I imagine my life should have been. Too many people don't ever get a second chance, I can stay silent no longer, because everyone deserves life after abuse and no one deserves abuse in the first place.
I spent my life afraid of people I didn't know. I would pay extra to take a taxi at night if I had no friends to walk home with in college. I locked my bedroom door at night. I walked with distance between myself and alleyways. I was so busy protecting myself from strangers that I never took a second look at my closer relationships.
I was always so independent and headstrong, I was blindsided. I didn't think it could happen to me so I didn't even realize it was happening. I reasoned away the problems and I believed the words when he said "I'm sorry" for the hundredth time. I believed I could change it, I believed I was part of the problem. Maybe it was my panic attacks, I tend to freak out when they happen because I hate feeling out of control and because I panic I feel more out of control. Maybe it was because I struggled to find full time employment. I thought if only I could stop being so depressed everything would be better. I thought that I was overreacting, because I do overreact and have my entire life. I thought maybe it was cultural differences. By the time I was so deep into it that I was crying every single day, I had become so isolated and dependent I could not see a way out. I was ashamed of the life I was living and of the lies I was telling my family and friends. I was deleting emails because he would secretly check my email and then freak out at me later if my sister wrote me something that was critical of me or of him. If my mom wrote me that she missed me, he would take it out on me and try to convince me that my family just didn't want me to be happy.
This could happen to you. This can happen to anyone. This happened to me.
Ever hear the cliche that abused women are accused of saying too often, "But he didn't hit me." Well, yeah, the bruises were from being shoved and having doors shut on me and being grabbed and dragged. Never hit. Threatened to be hit, yes, but never actually hit. Then flowers and telling me not to tell anyone and that it would never happen again. Pathetic apologies that were not genuine, I facilitated the reconciling. If I could make everything ok now, then maybe the bad things could be forgotten. Lies, wearing long sleeve shirts, telling people I worked with that I fell off my bike even though I didn't have a bike. I thought maybe I was bruising easily, because I do bruise easy. Everything was excused away, I believed it could change. If only we could make it beyond the next planned vacation, I mean we already had bought our tickets. I don't want anyone to worry about me. I can handle it. I thought if only I could work enough to save up enough money I could afford a way home. He'd taken me away from a great job and then blamed me for having difficulty finding a new job in our new location. Then once things were working out for me finally in the new location, he moved us again to a different place. It was my fault, I was told over and over. There was a voice in my head that knew, no, this is not right. No one should cry this much. No one should be told they are stupid over and over. No one should try to drive a wedge between their partner and their family and friends. He's just really stressed, I tried to believe. But he's paid for so much, I gave him leeway. The manipulation had spiraled out of control. It was so manipulative that by the end of a fight he had me convinced that I was a bully and that I was manipulative. He had me almost believing that my tears are fake. That my feelings are invalid. I can change him, he used to yell at me for eating too loud and sometimes dropping food or eating out of leftover containers, but now he doesn't notice the way I eat anymore, the rest will change too. He told me that the debt I am in due to my enormous amount of student loans was a waste because "a lot of good your degree is doing you." Had me believing I am a waste of space. That I can't do anything right. I spent hours every day reading about manipulative relationships versus abusive relationships. I thought I needed to prove that my situation fit into a specific situation, I was trying to find how it didn't meet the requirements of abuse. I didn't want to be a victim.
Believing it could never happen to me is what blinded me to the fact that it was happening. It can happen to you.
Escaping was one of the scariest things. I believed I cannot make it on my own. That I am a loser and a leech. That no one else will ever put up with me. I held onto the lie that everything was fine right up until I finally made it home, until I touched down. Until I touched my family again. Until being around my best friends made me feel whole again. I held onto the lie until I was strong enough to break the ties. I was so scared, I'd become so scared of the impending fights that I spent every waking moment full of anxiety about what would happen next. I truly believed I was a failure. I had become convinced that this kind of life was all I deserved because I couldn't work hard enough to make anything better happen. My depression and anxiety mixed with long term domestic abuse was a molotov cocktail. I was lucky to live through each explosion.
There was a voice in my head, a feeling deep in my heart that this is not right. That I am stronger than this and that I could make a change. All I had to do was reach out, I reached out to my family and they took me home. I allowed myself to be enveloped by my family's loving wings. I was taken home and found the strength to spread my own wings again. My life today, compared to what it was like then, is not just countries apart but a world apart. I'm living a life where I am respected and where I am loved for me and where instead of crying everyday I laugh all the time. My smiles are genuine. My joy is true. My love is healthy.
I don't know what the answer is, we need to raise our children to respect themselves and others. Teach people how to handle their anger. Teach children how to talk and not to scream and shout. We will all get in an argument now and again, and we must learn how to fight fairly. Leave the name calling and the demeaning language and hitting below the belt at the school playground. We are accountable for the abuse we let happen in this world, but the victims are not to blame when someone crosses the line.
Victim blaming does nothing but encourage more abuse. Even with all my feminist education, even with all my girl-power beliefs...I still didn't want to admit to being a victim of abuse. I felt weak. I felt like someone else would think I was exaggerating. I was afraid that I was exaggerating. It wasn't until one night when I got drunk and showed someone the pictures I'd saved on my iPod of the bruises that I FULLY accepted the truth. I'm here to tell you that your feelings are valid. That your pain is real. Relationships must make you feel safe and secure physically, sexually, emotionally, and financially. Trust your gut and don't believe it can't happen to you. I've heard people say, "Yes, she was abused, but she had a really hard childhood I don't think she was brought up to be a good judge of character. Poor girl." "Yeah, she was abused, but she saw her dad hit her mom so I think she thought it was normal." Please, if you've ever said anything like this, do the world a favor and shut up. I was brought up in a loving and supportive family. My father was kind and caring and giving. My parents never fought. I was never abused or mistreated, by anyone, ever. It can happen to anyone. It happened to me.
If this is happening to you, I want you to know that you are not alone. No matter how isolated you are, no matter how far into the rabbit hole you have fallen, you are not alone. There are more good people in this world than bad. You have survivors who want to help you. Even though I have never met you, even though I may not know each and every one of my readers, I want you to know, I believe in you.
Resources For Help:
Published 29 October, 2013
Last updated 21 August, 2018
By Kristance Harlow
In an emergency call 911
Find more resources here
Child abuse hotline (USA based)