About 10 years ago, my terribly abusive ex-boyfriend nearly killed me. Now, I’m a mental health counselor and doctoral student that has a clinical and research focus in trauma and resilience, pregnant with a son and preparing to marry the guy of my dreams. MAN, how life can change. I didn’t think success or love would happen for me – that’s what he drilled into my mind, and I believed him. I was unbearably hopeless. This is my most vulnerable story, where I’ve held so much shame, my most painful memories, and the piece of my life I’ve tried so hard to disconnect from…the awful, defeating, toxic, nearly deadly relationship I suffered in high school that unfortunately still affects me today, both mentally and physically.
I thought I’d mostly cleansed myself of his effects long ago. I knew some stuff would never go away – that one physical scar on my leg will always serve as a reminder, and I’ve been undergoing fairly regular chiropractic care since due to damage he caused my neck. I still feel uncomfortable in short sleeves after that year of hiding bruises of hand prints around my arms. I did the emotional work – years of it – but some emotional scars do remain. I thought I could simply close that chapter of my life, put a big lock on it, stick it in a box, and throw it out of some emotional window in my mind. Unfortunately it has returned a few times, like Jim’s magic beans in The Office. I never thought I’d publicly own any of this, but it being Domestic Violence Awareness month and thinking of all the clients I have seen who had gone through something similar, I feel a surge of courage. This story isn’t about him or what he did to me. This story is about how I found my worth again to establish not only a healthy relationship, but also sense of identity after my self-worth had been ripped from me, shredded apart, and stomped on repeatedly. I can’t tell that story without giving at least some background, though.
I don’t look back at high school fondly. I try to not look at it at all. It’s a dark cloud that I’ve stepped out from under. I had many losses in high school, myself being the greatest. He subtly and craft-fully drove wedges between me and every single thing in the world around me outside of himself. I felt utterly alone. Many people criticized me for my position, not knowing how desperately I tried to escape. The things some of my peers…and some teachers…repeatedly called me a slut for were far from consensual. Consent does not come from threats or coercion. There were some truly amazing people along the way, and all it took to make that impact in my mind may have been one seemingly small comment of validation, assurance, acceptance, or kindness. Even if they don’t realize that they helped me, those will all forever hold a place in my heart, and those are the times I choose to remember the most.
The manipulation sunk its claws into me, the threats of killing everyone I loved kept me from ripping free, and the hands around my neck forced me to stay. If there was a picture of gaslighting in the dictionary, it would be a picture of him and I. He planted seeds of doubt in my mind, minimized how he hurt me, hit on all of my insecurities, and isolated me from any tie I had to reality. I questioned my own sanity. I constantly second-guessed myself to the point I stopped trusting myself entirely. I didn’t know which way was up. He wore me down until I was absolutely exhausted mentally and emotionally. I let him in the depths of my mind, and he watered those doubt seeds until they grew into a giant, toxic garden that I got absolutely lost in.
I tried reporting and pressing charges. The key word here is tried. They took pictures of the bruises all over my body, of the red around my neck, of my precious personal things he had smashed into the concrete and broken. I thought I was in the process of becoming free, and I felt some (short-lived) relief. The system failed me miserably. That distorted my already fragile sense of worth and sense of reality even more. He laughed as he described in detail how he’d murder me if I ever tried that again, cutting pieces off of my body and framing my body parts for his walls. He told me that if I didn’t come over immediately to talk things out and make things “right” without telling anyone where I was going, he would torture everyone I cared about, pets included. I believed him, and I was absolutely terrified. I felt I had nowhere to turn. He had told me so many times that he was all I had, and he became all I could see. That’s when it got even worse for me, mentally. I was convinced that as long as I could keep him happy, I was alive, and more importantly, the people I loved were alive. In the end, in at least one part of my mind, my goal wasn’t to save some pathetic relationship I knew was going to become deadly, but to survive and protect my loved ones, planning my exit strategy for the right moment. I also largely felt deserving of what he did to me and what certain people said to/about me. I battled with this one in my mind for quite some time. He had me convinced that he was the only person in this entire world that could ever love me – that he was doing me a favor by loving me. In another part of my mind, I worked hard for that love, and some tiny piece of me hoped I could gain it. If I could just be good enough, he would stop hurting me, he would stop cheating on me. I just had to be better. This is the part of my past self that I haven’t come to terms with as well – my current self has to work really hard understand her. I’m certain that hope is the only thing in this world stronger than fear. My current self feels so much pity for that past part of me. She is the most painful to address, but I remind myself of that pesky little phenomenon of gaslighting.
The night he strangled me until I blacked out was when I knew that “making him happy” was no longer my ticket to survival, and that I didn’t hope for his “love” anymore – I’d rather be alone and loveless forever than deal with…that. That was a big realization for me. I felt like God spoke to me that night – I finally had the nudge I needed to get out – to claim my life back for myself, and start walking, just in any direction, out of that mental doubt garden I was lost in. I finally had enough to take the risk of leaving. When a person is leaving an abusive relationship such as this one, it is the absolute MOST DANGEROUS time. This is when most domestic violence homicides happen. I knew this. I did my research before I left him. A huge part of me knew that this leave had been coming for a while. At the flip of a switch (or maybe the flip of going unconscious) I valued having ownership of my life more than I valued simply staying alive, and I was ready to take that risk.
What happened in the following weeks and months is a blur. I had all the trauma symptoms, checking the locks on the doors multiple times a day. There were lots of Taylor Swift breakup jams on at all times. She was unknowingly my BFF through it all, helping me feel empowered and strong even in the darkest and scariest hours of the night. I woke up from the same horrible nightmare dripping in sweat and hyperventilating every single night – where he was trying to kill me in a crowded room and nobody even looked at me – for months. That’s what the relationship felt like, and my mind replayed it repeatedly in my sleep. The nightmares decreased gradually, but occasionally came and went for several years. I didn’t have to see him at school anymore, thankfully, but I had a constant fear that he was having me watched – that’s what he told me, anyway. He would pop back up now and then, navigating around my blocking him, telling me details of my life that he shouldn’t have known. Even after going off to college, I lived a quiet life. I was still simply surviving.
I was wholeheartedly convinced that I didn’t deserve love – that I was unworthy, never good enough, a joke, defective…I wanted to unzip my body and step outside of this damaged, dirty physical thing that didn’t feel like it belonged to me. I navigated through my entire life with this lens. I’m not sure when the change began, but it was slow, gradual, and it took a lot of courage.
I forced myself to live my life despite my fear that he was coming after me. I had a taser, several pocket knives…I held my keys in-between my fingers in every parking lot. I checked my surroundings constantly. I never went anywhere after dark. I had an escape plan for every single place I was in at all times. I had constant anxiety, constant fear. I persisted, though.
I traveled, I moved around, I went to lunch, brought my dogs to cool places, and truly did life by myself after years of breaking free. The fear eventually subsided. What started out as years of journaling turned into an anonymously published book about the abuse I endured. I went to counseling. I found a feeling of success in life. It took a while, but I established an identity that had nothing to do with him. I felt powerful. I felt strong. My fiance Zayne had tried to date me several times over the years. Sometimes I look back and feel like it’s such a loss I didn’t go on that date with him the very first time he asked – we could’ve had so much more time together. Honestly, though, I needed that time. I wasn’t ready – I wasn’t whole. I think there are disclaimers to this, though. We certainly don’t need to have life 100% figured out, know exactly who we are, or eliminate all of our issues to be healthy partners in romantic relationships. Bettering ourselves, discovering ourselves, and learning new things about the world and who we want to be is truly a never-ending journey. We absolutely cannot, though, expect our partner to put us back together after being hurt – that’s something we have to do ourselves.
Keep in mind – it’s been 10 years. Learning how to love and how to be loved in a healthy way took a while. Some of these things I worked on throughout these 10 years gradually, some of these things I’ve only realized I needed to work on after beginning a family, some of these things I couldn’t have possibly been ready to work on until I had worked through so many other things first.
I had to redefine what my idea of love was supposed to feel like. With my ex, “love” felt like a drug. The lows were low, but man…the highs were high. It was a constant roller coaster, a constant surge of emotion. I didn’t know I could feel that much. I believed that giving him up was giving up this intensity that I grew addicted to, and nobody else could truly satisfy that craving. I spent years simply looking for what was safe – what felt boring. I wanted the opposite of him – surely that was the answer – and I settled over and over again. For the longest time, I didn’t know that I didn’t know what actual love felt like. I spent a lot of time dating the first person to come along – the first person to call me pretty, the first person to make me feel special, the first person to show any interest in me. Remember – I was convinced that I would be lucky for someone to love me. It didn’t matter how I felt about that other person. I came to the conclusion that there had to be more to love. I stopped doing that, and eventually became picky. I didn’t date someone unless I truly wanted to. Wild concept, right? We don’t actually owe anything to someone just because they show interest? It took a while for me to get that memo. I didn’t actually learn what romantic love felt like until I felt it with Zayne. The first time we reconnected as complete friends and got lunch together with no intention of things becoming more, I knew before they sat our food down that he was different. I didn’t rush into it like I normally would have, though. I took my time to see how I truly felt. Was it “wow this person says nice things to me”, or was it “oh okay I actually genuinely want to spend my time with him”? That wasn’t something I had done before. Months and months later on our first date as adults, I knew before the concert started that he was the person I was going to marry, and I knew that it was what I truly wanted. It wasn’t a roller coaster. It also wasn’t boring, though. I thought it was either/or before. It felt safe, but exhilarating. It felt accepting, warm, inviting, wholesome, vulnerable, scary, and intense in an entirely different way. It felt like I wanted to share my really amazing dessert simply because I want to share that joy. It felt like I wanted to be a better version of myself in a healthy way. It made me feel like I had space to be human. I finally had all the highs without having those awful, painful lows. That’s what I deserved all along, and I kept myself from getting it for far too long.
I had to let go of the idea that the world was unsafe. If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it took me a while to establish a sense of security and safety.
I spent a lot of years thinking the whole world was against me. I was totally incapable of stepping up the ladder to find a sense of love and belonging. I kept everyone at a distance. I craved connection, but kept myself from receiving it. Of course I experienced fall-outs with people, had a few awful interactions, and encountered experiences where others didn’t have my best interest in mind, and these things initially easily reinforced my idea that I couldn’t trust anyone. Over time (and through lots of hours of therapy) I experienced more positive than negative – but I had to be open to that experience. Our brains seek information that we already believe – if a new piece of information comes in (like maybe not everyone is all that bad), our brain has to make a choice – distort, dismiss, or accept. The acceptance option takes a conscious awareness and effort to take our mental horse blinders off. My abusive ex’s mother watched a lot of the abuse happen, and would raise her voice at me, joining in on the yelling, blaming me for what her son did to me. I didn’t feel safe – I wasn’t safe. I didn’t think this one would affect me in future romantic relationships, but it actually (probably) affected me the most. Several relationships ended and lots of heartache ensued because of this belief I subconsciously held. Stepping into meeting friends and family of a new love interest can feel extremely intimidating, and it wasn’t possible for me to have any form of success when my brain was hypersensitive of every comment, every look, every single little thing coming from the people in their life. Don’t get me wrong, there have absolutely been people in the life of my boyfriends over the years that made it extremely clear that I wasn’t their cup of tea, but I was eventually able to separate those people from the rest and (for the most part) ignore that negativity, and form meaningful relationships with the ones that mattered. I was finally able to feel safe in my partner’s world.
I had to learn that I could communicate how I felt, and then learn how to communicate how I felt. I set boundaries. My abusive ex twisted everything to be my fault – he cheated? My fault. He broke my phone? My fault. He slammed me into a wall? You guessed it – my fault. Gaslighting was an art form for him. I didn’t speak up. I couldn’t. I really didn’t know how to speak up when I stepped out of it all. I never experienced a tough conversation going well, so I held so much in. I didn’t express my needs, my frustrations, my wants, anything, for such a long time with anyone. When Zayne and I first got together, I laid out my deal breakers. I came down pretty firm with these things. I was done being nice and agreeable, and instead respected myself enough to be honest about what I wanted and needed, not caring if I seemed difficult or high strung. This actually warranted me even more respect from the world. I had tried this a little here and there through the years, but setting boundaries and enforcing them are different things. I became very timid when my boundaries weren’t respected in the past. Zayne and I actually almost broke up (or did break up…for a day) pretty early on because he disrespected a boundary of mine. I was done being timid about my boundaries, and was standing by them. What he did after was different than experiences I had before, though – he took accountability, he showed remorse, and we had a very long and very raw conversation that was full of love and respect. It made us closer.
I had to learn what was healthy, and what was unhealthy vs abusive. After I learned how to communicate how I felt, I went to the complete opposite side of the spectrum. In my mind, it was abusive, or it was healthy – black and white. I was hyperaware of every little thing. I became critical with extremely high standards. I had “nevers” and “always” in my mind – he should never do this, he should always do that. I struggled with this – I should have standards, but they seemed impossible to live up to – even to me, the one setting them. That certainly wasn’t healthy. I had to accept that we all have unhealthy habits, traits, moments, etc. As imperfect humans, we will fail. We will absolutely have unhealthy arguments. Things will be said out of anger, mistakes will be made, hurts will happen. What’s healthy is owning those moments – taking accountability, talking it through from a place of love and understanding, and committing to grow from it. Unhealthy moments don’t make for an unhealthy relationship – in fact, they can strengthen a healthy one. They provide opportunity. I had to separate unconditional acceptance of each other as humans from approval of behavior. It’s abusive and toxic when we’re unwilling to work on our unhealthy side – when there’s gaslighting, turning it on the other person, an avoidance of dealing with the issue. Relationships are healthy when we’re eager to heighten our awareness and take action to be the best partners we can be (without changing who we are, of course). That’s respect.
Above all, I loved myself. I believed I was worthy of love. I tiptoed through life for a while. I slowly began acting like I was worthy of love and taking up space in this world, even though I didn’t quite feel it yet. Over time, my behaviors began to influence my thoughts, and my thoughts influenced my emotions. The more I told my mind I deserved to love myself and be loved, the more my mind believed it. I had to forgive myself for my past, and I had to accept myself. I found a sense of identity, reclaiming control of my life. I felt clean. Only then did I find someone who truly accepted and respected me, too.