“Loving you was like going to war; I never came back the same.” ~ Warsan Shire
I’d always considered myself a smart girl, a girl who had lines, who had boundaries, and who would never tolerate a man behaving badly.
But I was also a nice girl, a girl who loved unconditionally, who trusted people implicitly and lived under the assumption that everyone was like me: a good person at heart, though imperfect, someone who didn’t possess a malicious bone in my body.
I was incapable of bringing harm or suffering to someone on purpose, so I naively believed everyone else was equally nice.
Especially the one who I’d fallen head over heels in love with, and who had initially returned my love in abundance, vowing his loyalty and devotion until death do us part. In the beginning, I was the object of his flagrant affection. I was adored. I was placed on a pedestal so high that I had to look down to see the clouds. And I loved him back with equal measure, often thinking: Life was good.
Until it wasn’t.
There wasn’t a specific day that it happened. There wasn’t that “aha” moment when I realized I was a victim of emotional abuse. The awareness didn’t come until months after I escaped.
There wasn’t even a turning point, per se, in our relationship. He was charming and loving and wonderful until he wasn’t, until he was cruel and malicious—intent on putting me in my place through intimidation and harassment. Sometimes it was in those moments, lasting only seconds or minutes, when the change would happen. The words would leave his mouth and I would sit dumbfounded, questioning my hearing, disoriented and wondering who was this man in front of me and where did the love of my life go?
Being in an emotionally abusive relationship feels like being sucker punched, then looking around for the one you love to help you get up, but discovering he was the one who made you hit the ground in the first place. It’s a relationship of surprises, of trick doors and funhouse mirrors, in a circus that we don’t remember buying a ticket to, but then waking up inside of one day and realizing the one we love is the Ringmaster.
Escaping an emotionally abusive relationship is no less mystifying.
When I first left, it felt like I had finally reached land after swimming my heart out, believing I wouldn’t make it—coming close to drowning on several occasions. I gasped for the air that now was now abundant around me. I stumbled and fell and retreated and regressed numerous times, trying to make sense of what had happened much like a toddler trying to understand quantum physics.
How could this happen to me? Or, did it really happen? Am I crazy as he used to say? Is my memory playing tricks on me? And if it all really happened, why didn’t I leave sooner? Why did I put up with it year after year—the manipulation, the bullying, the lying, the cheating? How weak was I?
How f*cking stupid could I be?
As it turned out, surviving, recovering from and eventually thriving after emotional abuse would be the only validation I needed, like a giant billboard on the side of the road, lit up in neon and sparkling with glitter, assuring me that I was none of these things. I was not weak or stupid or pathetic in any way, whatsoever.
Simply put, I was a person who got played in the worst way. An honest person who never in a million years assumed the man she fell in love with and was loyal to and would have done anything for was the same man who, with the skill of a master manipulator, created the illusion necessary to keep me in his web, to continue his abuse.
I’ve learned that emotional abuse is like cancer, initially invisible to the naked eye and using that to its advantage to further poison a person’s body, soul and mind. Which means that recovering from emotional abuse requires no less time and energy and self love to rid the body, soul and mind of such poison.
I’ve learned the difference between making mistakes and intentionally causing another to suffer. I beat myself up for how I responded to the abuse: I shouted, I screamed, I called him names. I became someone and acted in such a way that I no longer recognizable to myself. But my behavior did not reveal the kind of person I actually am. This behavior was in response to being at the receiving end of a nonstop assault on my soul, by the one I loved and trusted more than anyone in the world. I’ve learned that I am fully capable of owning up to my mistakes from the past, but that there are no “mistakes” made by an abuser. They know exactly what they’re doing.
I’ve learned that the pain does eventually secede, the tears do eventually stop falling, the fist gripping my heart and squeezing until I am brought to my knees does eventually loosen its grip until finally letting go.
I’ve learned that it’s okay to let go of the illusions that all people are essentially good. The fact is, most people are essentially good and have no ability to intentionally cause intense pain and suffering to another, especially ones they love. But not all people.
The moment I embraced this truth was the moment I guaranteed my safety, knowing I would never find myself in the same situation again.
I’ve learned that most people in my immediate circle—friends, acquaintances, even some family members—were happier when I was silent in my suffering. Somehow my story shed light on a darkness they didn’t want to admit existed. And because of that, I’ve learned how to let these people go and grant them the space to stay in the past, since it would be unhealthy for me (and, frankly, a waste of time) to use my precious energy or strength to try and pull them to my side.
I’ve learned that some people will simply keep their position on the fence. And I’ve learned it’s in my best interest to leave them there.
I’ve learned that PTSD is not just for soldiers, that a battlefield can sometimes look exactly like a human heart, and that while wounds eventually close and heal, scars remain forever. But I’ve also learned that eventually these scars will be void of any emotional attachment, and that where I once felt shame and guilt for possessing them, I am now filled with love for myself. These scars serve as a reminder of the beauty in me that survived.
I’ve learned that recovering from emotional abuse is not a linear process, neatly mapped in order, from A to Z. Instead, the journey more closely resembles several births, each one carrying its own set of labor pains that zigzag from flat line to intense peaks without notice. And I’ve learned that it is during this unpredictable and oftentimes tumultuous journey that my genesis has occurred, granting me the ability to emerge with the wings that would later help me fly.
I’ve learned that I am much stronger than I originally believed. There was a point while I existed in the darkness when I prayed for the ability to behave like him: to turn a switch and become cold and unfeeling, to tower over him while he cried and begged for release, to respond heartlessly in reaction to any of his feelings. And, consequently, when I was unable to act this way, giving him a taste of his own medicine, I felt even more pathetic, having yet to learn who the real weak one was, and how there is no strength required for a coward to hide behind a mask of cruelty.
I’ve learned that there is no right answer, no specific manner, no this way or that way to escape, survive, recover and heal from the trauma of emotional abuse. There is only moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, even when all we really want to do is crawl into a corner and go to sleep for good.
I’ve learned that it was during moments of intense pain and suffering, when I had no answers and no one to help or guide me, when my heart was doing its hardest work, and all I had to do was lean into the pain, feel it and then move on. Because sometimes it came down to a process that was exceedingly simple at its core: the process of identifying the darkness I was suffocating within, identifying the light in my future that waited for me (even when I couldn’t yet feel its glow), and then consciously and actively creating movement, no matter how small, to get me there.
The greatest lesson I’m still learning is that of forgiveness. And how my healing is dependent on how much I show it to myself, first and foremost. I forgive myself for making the mistakes I did, for staying too long, for putting up with too much, since I now know the truth about emotional abuse.
The truth is, I was losing at a game that I didn’t even know was being played.
I was in a war where the enemy could not be identified, so I was easily tricked into surrendering, opening the walls of my heart to what I saw as a gift from the man I loved, but ultimately ended up as a Trojan horse and my eventual downfall.
I have forgiven myself. I am kind to myself, making up for all the years that I wasn’t. And today I stand fully in the light, no longer a victim but a strong survivor.
Today when I look in the mirror, I immediately recognize myself with love.
I am wise. I am strong. I am beautiful.
And I am still learning.
Author: Suzanna Quintana
Images: flickr/Global Panorama
Apprentice Editor: Bretton Keating; Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock