May 14, 2013

Seeking Self: A Domestic Violence Survival Story. ~ Cortney Harden

It was the perfect combination for disaster.

He was a smooth talker, the most charismatic person you could ever meet. It didn’t hurt that he had a chiseled body and sexy eyes. I, on the other hand, was overweight, insecure, stressed out and smack-dab in the middle of grad school.

But, most of all, I was extremely naive.

He told me all kinds of lies, including how he turned his life around after an abusive childhood. He sounded like a great person, and he had me at abusive childhood. See, I was studying to be a social worker and all I wanted to do was save the world.

Little did I know I should have been saving myself.

It started with an argument here and there. I noticed he had an unpredictable temper, so I tried not to upset him. I found myself walking on eggshells, avoiding certain topics and working hard to appease him. He always made up for arguments by buying me flowers or a new purse. But soon the temper tantrums turned into rages. Sometimes he’d threaten me and throw furniture around. Eventually, it was me he was throwing around.

I didn’t even realize he was beginning to control every aspect of my life. He opened up credit cards in my name without telling me and racked up tens of thousands of dollars of debt. He blamed me for everything that was going wrong in his life (including his not being able to get a job), and made me feel guilty for going to school. In attempts to keep the peace—and embarrassed by my bruises—I dropped out of school.

Beaten down both physically and emotionally, I had nothing left. I was isolated from my friends and family, in debt, and had not an ounce of self-worth. One question I kept asking myself was: How could I drop out of grad school to spend two years of my life in a domestic violence relationship?

The cycle of abuse is complex, and at the time I had no idea he was suffering from a serious mental illness called Borderline Personality Disorder. I yearned to break free yet I didn’t have the strength or the resources to just walk away on my own.

When I tried to leave, he’d threaten to hurt me and my family.

And that’s just what happened.

For months, we were in and out of court for his multiple arrests for domestic assault,  yet I stayed by his side in fear of retaliation. My life was on the line and I didn’t think I had it in me to save myself.

The most pivotal point of my life was the day his probation officer handed me a pamphlet and said, “Hon, it’s time you got some help from a social worker.”

I was embarrassed because if I’d stayed in school, I would have been that social worker, yet I knew he was right. Somehow I let go of my pride and mustered up the courage to call for help to begin the painful journey of untangling myself from domestic violence.

I knew I couldn’t do it alone, but I still had a hard time asking for help. After all, I was supposed to be the one helping others! Also, asking for help made it all too real—it was scary to admit things had gotten so out of control so quickly.

I spent the next two years in counseling facing the aftermath of my shattered life. Through talk therapy, my counselor helped me rediscover what was important to me and what kind of life I wanted and deserved to lead. Together we created a clear vision of how I could move forward. That vision involved putting myself first, reconnecting with my family, making school a priority so I could finish my degree and finding a loving, supportive partner.

With her support, I developed self-awareness and gained control of my life. It wasn’t easy but I humbled myself enough to welcome love and support from friends and family again. They offered financial help, understanding, a place to stay, and things the things I needed to rebuild my life again. It was difficult to accept these gifts but it was necessary to get back on my feet. Looking back, it was actually a way to empower myself.

With a clearer head, I gained answers as to how I ended up in that situation. Turns out, I’d never confronted years of negative self-talk and feelings of inadequacy—all stemming from difficult life events as a teenager. Also, I did some research on Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) to gain insight into his disorder which allowed me to replace hatred with forgiveness. BPD affects a person’s ability to regulate their moods—causing them to be impulsive and unstable at times. I now know getting help was the right thing to do and without it I may not be here today.

As I slowly developed self-compassion, things started to improve. I started practicing yoga and mindfulness, after hearing about it from a support group for other abused women. This propelled me into a deeper understanding of myself and a way to reconnect with my body. Without asking for help, I never would have been able to get back on my feet and finish my degree or have the amazing life that I have now.

Today I maintain a healthy weight and body image, own my own business helping others create the life they want, am married to the man of my dreams and live in Hawaii.

Oh ya, and I’m happy!

The emotional wounds will never go away, but they don’t hurt anymore. I’ve accepted them as part of my life without allowing them to hold me back from living the life I choose. And although these lessons were painful, I have found value in my experiences, including the ability to ask for help when I need it. These days, I’m not afraid to reach out for support or inspiration from others.

I know firsthand how overwhelming pain and suffering can lead us astray and cause us to think we have to go at it alone. If you’ve been through a traumatic experience before or are currently trying to cope on your own, please don’t give up.

If those around you are not supportive, seek out a professional or call a hotline. Healing from trauma can be scary to tackle alone so I’m letting you know it’s okay to ask for help.

But, facing your fears will empower you to break free from whatever is holding you back and from living the life you want.

Cortney Harden, MSW, RH is the Owner of Mindful Wellness and is passionate about helping  others explore their own personal power.  Cortney offers affordable wellness coaching to help you reach all your wellness goals. Based on the Island of Oahu but also offering virtual sessions, her approach is to help you make mindful actions that are in line with your personal values and commitments to self. She believes everyone has the right to create a healthy and balanced life that is meaningful to them.

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Ed: T. Lemieux

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