Last week, elephant journal published my article Why I Stayed: A Letter to My Ex.
I’ve since received dozens of messages from women who have experienced, or are still experiencing, an abusive relationship exactly as I had. Our stories are eerily similar.
Time and time again, these women asked me not the question about which I wrote my first article, “Why did you stay?”, but another, more troubling question: “How did you leave?”
They asked me this because they are a part of a secret tribe—my tribe: a group of countless, invisible women of every ethnicity, every age and every class all over the world who have been, or are being, abused. They asked me how I left because, although there are so many of us, we are often isolated from one another. My article was a rare opportunity for them to reach out and seek help, solidarity and maybe answers.
For me, the abuse I endured still looms so pervasively that I often forget the how of having left. In some ways, I will never leave. In some ways, I am still leaving.
But the pieces of me that have been rescued were not saved by accident. Here is how I did it:
1) I finally released my fantasy of him.
Despite years of evidence that I was with a very bad man, I refused to believe it. Part of my refusal was due to pride—I could not admit that I had been such a horrible judge of character and so easily conned and seduced. And part of my refusal was hope—hope that the man I’d fallen in love with was still in there somewhere, and if I waited long enough or said or did just the right things, he would reappear and I would be vindicated.
I did not think of myself as an “abused woman.” That phrase never even entered my head until years later. Like many, my boyfriend never once hit me or physically threatened me until the end, so the abuse was harder to qualify.
If you’re not sure whether you are being abused, here are some things to look for in your partner:
- Abuses alcohol or other drugs.
- Has a history of trouble with the law, gets into fights or breaks and destroys property.
- Doesn’t work or go to school.
- Blames you for how he/she treats you, or for anything bad that happens.
- Abuses siblings, other family members, children or pets.
- Puts people down, including your family and friends, and/or calls them names.
- Is always angry at someone or something.
- Tries to isolate you and control who you see or where you go.
- Nags you or forces you to be sexual when you don’t want to be.
- Cheats on you or has lots of partners.
- Takes your money or takes advantage of you in other ways.
- Accuses you of flirting, “coming on” to others or cheating.
- Doesn’t listen to you or show interest in your opinions or feelings; things always have to be done his/her way.
- Ignores you, gives you the silent treatment or hangs up on you.
- Lies to you, doesn’t show up for dates or disappears, sometimes for days.
- Makes vulgar comments about others in your presence.
- Blames all arguments and problems on you.
- Tells you how to dress or act.
- Threatens to commit suicide if you end the relationship, or tells you that he/she cannot live without you.
- Experiences extreme mood swings; tells you you’re the greatest one minute and rips you apart the next.
- Tells you to shut up or that you’re dumb, stupid, fat or calls you other names (directly or indirectly).
- Compares you to former partners.
The day my boyfriend called me a whore and held a gun to my head, I understood. He was naked before me in all his shittiness. I was able to finally see him as he was, not as I wanted him to be.
Allowing myself to feel the pain of his cruelty—really feel it for the first time—snapped me into the present moment. I didn’t realize it, but I had stumbled upon a tried and true technique for clarifying my thoughts: being mindful.
To let go of what we wish might be and instead accept what is, we can breath and observe our emotions as they come and go. We can stop trying to block out the sadness, the desperation and the fear and instead allow our feelings to be exactly what they are. We feel these things for a reason. They are a sign that something is desperately wrong; those emotions will help propel us forward.
For me, letting the fantasy go was surprisingly easy once I did it. Everything was clear. Even if I died trying, I had to leave.
2) I started to prepare in secret.
I had to be sure of where I was going to go and how I was going to get there. I hid away money and planned my escape. Like most abused women, I was justifiably frightened of walking out on this guy. Here’s why:
- A woman is more likely to be killed by a male partner (or former partner) than any other person.
- About 4,000 women die each year due to domestic violence.
- Of the total domestic violence homicides, about 75% of the victims were killed as they attempted to leave the relationship or after the relationship had ended.
I didn’t know those statistics then, but I knew that my leaving would provoke unimaginable rage. Indeed, he stalked and threatened me, coming to my new home and my work repeatedly despite a restraining order and two actual arrests.
The key to planning and executing the safest exit is to find an ally—a friend, family member or co-worker. We must be absolutely forthcoming about the truth with our ally, and know that we can trust him or her to keep our secret until we are ready to reveal it.
With this person we can plan a strategy—figure out a new place to live, stock away cash if possible and determine the safest time to leave. This is also the person we can call if/when our abuser stalks or threatens us and who is willing to help us do things like file restraining orders or get to court dates.
It is possible to do all of these things on our own, but much more challenging and potentially dangerous. Remember, people are more willing to help than you might imagine.
3) After releasing the fantasy of him and planning my escape, the most important thing I did was start talking.
I told everyone what was going on: my friends, my family, my employer. Once I started, I couldn’t stop (and still haven’t). I asked for help and received it in abundance. Nobody judged me; everyone was relieved that I was moving on and did anything they could to ensure that I managed it. Their reactions permanently changed how I view the world. I realized it is ripe with goodness.
Abuse only thrives in secrecy and silence. As soon as I stopped hiding and protecting both him and myself from embarrassment and the truth, I was free—physically, mentally and spiritually.
Nobody can break the chains of abuse alone. Women who are trapped need strong hearts and willing hands to help change the direction of their lives, but it is we—the secret tribe—who must take the first step.
We need to shout out our stories until we are heard, and shine a light into the darkness where abuse hides. We need to trust that when we do that, we will be met with kindness and compassion, and that even if some people let us down, there will be just as many others who won’t. We need to keep shouting and searching until we find our angels, and then one day, we can be angels to somebody else.
When that happens, when we unfold our new wings, we’ll see that they are strong enough to carry us wherever we want to go.
Author: Erica Leibrandt
Editor: Caroline Beaton
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