Sunday, June 11, 2017

When Love Hurts: A Story of Surviving Abuse


Content warning: post mentions physical abuse, emotional abuse, infidelity, emotional anguish, dysfunctional marriage, miscarriage, substance use, mention of suicidal ideation, divorce, faith


Once upon a time there was a 14 year old girl.
She met a boy her age, and they connected. And on and off for the next 13 years, more on than off, they were together. She loved him. He loved her. But the relationship, once sweet and loving, eventually became abusive and toxic.

Some of the toxicity might have been due to youthful ignorance and the typical problems that plague young relationships. Some of it was due to lengthy periods of maintaining a relationship long distance at a time when cell phones, FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp, and most social media didn’t exist. Some of it was due to carelessness; some due to infidelity; some due to baggage and old habits. However, a sizeable portion of it might have been due to the fact that they were initially connected not by common interests or mutual friends, but by a “trauma bond,” which later led to co-dependence.

There were an unlikely couple in the eyes of most people, and it is true that in many ways they couldn’t have been more different from one another. They were different races; they were of a different gender; they came from different socioeconomic classes; they lived on different sides of town; they had different religious backgrounds; their families were from different cultural backgrounds. Yet in some very significant ways they had a great deal of similarities. They had both survived childhood abuse; they had both endured loss; they had both constructed a protective shell to shut out potential predators - but unfortunately, also potential supporters. Additionally, both shared the experience of not “belonging” in the world they occupied and struggling with a sense of being rejected for being “different.” But within one another they found acceptance and support, and from that a strong emotional bond (formed from shared histories of trauma) developed.

Through the years they clung to one another, emotionally intertwined in a way that neither had ever known nor could explain. They often joked about their “twin brains” and how easily they were able to finish one another’s sentences and thoughts. They spent as much time together as they could, sneaking on the telephone late into the night to talk until they fell asleep because neither wanted to hang up. They skipped school a few times to meet in the park or at McDonald’s or to ride buses downtown and walk around...just to be in one another’s presence. They shared similar ideas and had a few (though not many) of the same interests, and they had a deep understanding of one another, which was good. This was hastened by their relationship becoming physical as college began, adding another layer to their already growing bond and further cementing their seemingly unquenchable desire to be near/with one another.

But over time, the boundaries of what had once been their distinct identities began to blur, and they bled into one another. Fused by love, but also by co-dependence, they both lost who they used to be and become something new. Something that was sometimes beautiful, but because they were both broken, it also became ugly - jealous, insecure, incomplete, and unhealthy.

They were young and immature, and they made mistakes. She hurt him, and he hurt her. She cheated on him, and he cheated on her. She lied to him and he lied to her. They split up, but both felt unfulfilled and empty without their “other half” and came back together after a year. In order to demonstrate their commitment to one another, they moved in together. So that they could make ends meet, she dropped out of college, forfeiting her academic scholarship, and began to work full-time, leaving her former life behind to let him know she was serious. They both swore that they had grown as a result of their youthful indiscretions and they would not make those types of mistakes nor take one another for granted any longer. They promised to forgive one another, and for several months after their reunion both were intoxicated by their exhilaration and gratitude at being back in one another’s lives and the promise of a joyful future together, with hopefully marriage and children to follow one day. She figured she would be able to return to school to complete her degree one day; it was a worthwhile sacrifice for the love of her life, and she was convinced he would have done the same for her.





Those initial months back together were like a honeymoon, and it seemed that their love and their friendship was even stronger than before. However, in time the celestial fog of bliss dissipated, and it became apparent that during the time they had been apart the seeds of dissension had taken deep root while the recent “forgiveness” was only surface level. Gone was the ease with which they once interacted and the openness and trust. Resentment, bitterness, and suspicion festered within them - particularly in him, but also in her. Their relationship began to resemble a battlefield, and they were both ruthless warriors; kindness, respect, trust, and compassion were the first casualties. Self-worth, integrity, and fidelity were soon to follow. Their lives became a blur: days filled with quarrels; nights filled with make-up sex, and their hearts and minds both compromised.

She sometimes wondered when she looked at him, his face red and contorted with rage during yet another argument, his fists balled and voice raised, what had happened to her best friend, her soulmate. And whether she cowered in fear, as she did some days, or became infuriated and screamed right back at him, as she did other days, she wondered what had happened to her too. Where had their love gotten poisoned? Why couldn’t they get past this period? When would the unhappiness go away? And how, with everything collapsing upon them, could she still feel such a deep, consuming love for him, even when he filled her with disgust, or anger, or fear?

Things got bad and then they got worse. And yet she still loved him. She broke every rule, every standard she had ever had, for him. She tolerated things she had promised herself she would never accept from any man. She began to hate who she had become, but not enough to be without him. Her love for him, the only love she had ever felt for any man, had grown so large, so powerful, so consuming that it nearly asphyxiated her. And though her self-esteem was shredded and her psyche trampled, he still set her heart soaring and her body ablaze. Despite the tears, the fighting, the pain, the lies, the disrespect, and even the fear, living without him was not an option. Any hurt their union caused paled in comparison to the pain of being apart from him. When they feuded and separated, she could feel physical pain - sharp, stabbing agony in her abdominal region - from his absence. She was co-dependent...she was addicted...she no longer knew who she was without him. She needed his presence, his love, his embrace, his reassurance, his touch to feel alive. She was no longer anyone if she was not part of him. She belonged to him, and he to her, and that was the most real thing they both knew.



He could make her feel so high and at the same time so low. She sustained herself on the good moments. The hours they would spend engrossed in conversation as they lay in bed at night. The inside jokes they shared, and how they could laugh so long and hard with one another that hysterical tears came. The invigorating debates they had about various philosophical concepts. Sentimental moments together on anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays. Nights of passion that still took her breath away and infused her body with ecstasy and fulfillment. Whispered promises to one another, and plans, and dreams, and potential. The good times were so good. She could see the love in his eyes when he gazed at her; could feel the light from his smile. When things were good with them, all was right with the world.

But then there were bad moments, and they increased. Although from ages 14 to 18 years old there were practically none, at age 20, there were a few; by 22 there were more; by 25 there was an equal amount of good and bad; by the time they were 27 the bad outweighed the good. The bad was really bad. Cornering her in the closet where no one could hear her muffled screams when he was in a rage. Strings of lies and inconsistencies, and gaslighting when she dared to inquire further. Disappearing money when bills and rent were due; unusually high mileage on their vehicle; paranoia and irritability followed by erratic mood swings. There was the STI he brought home while denying infidelity. There was the baby he brought home (conceived from a woman he'd been with), and the accompanying “baby mama drama” that ensued as a result. There were the irrational outbursts that were no longer contained within their home and now occurred in front of his family, their friends, and even at her job. There were the constant accusations and the constant manipulation and argument-baiting and threats and games and lies. The broken promises. Even after he made her his wife (in an elopement ceremony where no one else was present but the officiant and staff), the abuse continued, and her despair grew.



He treated her like crap and treated himself worse. She had never been hurt so badly by another human being in her life, especially one who professed to love her. Despite how badly he treated her, she still loved him. And because she knew how sick that was, she hated herself for it. For still loving him even as his “love” was destroying them both. She left him. She came back. She left again. She came back. He left. He came back. She found someone else to be with - a revenge affair that blossomed out of control before she could cut it off, before she could keep from getting caught. He left. He came back. She left again. But she came back. She couldn’t stay away. She always came back.



She couldn’t leave, not really. She couldn’t quell the insatiable yearning for him - to hear his voice, to feel his breathing against hers as he slept, to kiss him on his eyes, to hear him tell her he was sorry and it wouldn’t happen again and he was going to change and please believe in him and he could never love anyone else the way he loved her and that he only hurt her because he was scared to lose her and didn’t mean it. He told her he would kill himself if things ended between them, and she believed it, as she had been driven to try to take her own life during low periods. She saw it dragging both of them down, but neither could get out. He lost himself in weed, in alcohol, in pills, in other women, in porn; she lost herself in anger, in long hours at work, in increasing anxiety and debilitating depression; in food. They conceived, and then subsequently lost, two children through the years, and both parties secretly blamed the other for the loss, converting their grief into bitterness.

They tried to get help. They went to therapists. They went to pastors. They sought advice from friends. They went to church. They bought books. They would make some progress at treating one another better, but it never lasted. Eventually it deteriorated and regressed back to the status quo. She hated herself for needing him and hated him for needing her. She hated that despite all of the destruction, they still had happy moments. They still had tender words for one another and still did kind things for one another and still craved one another’s presence - even in the midst of all the turbulence. It didn’t make any sense - except it did, because nothing about their relationship made sense to anyone, even to them. It was like a dream at times and like a nightmare at times. It felt like neither of them would ever rouse from their gilded cage; that they would continue to drift along, breaking away pieces of themselves until there was nothing left, and still refusing to let go.



Image is a meme with white letters on a black background with text that states, "The heart gets confused when it's constantly told 'I love you,' by the same person who destroys it." -r.h.Sin

But one day she was shaken awake. She came home from work on her lunch break to eat lunch at home, and the phone rang. He wasn't there (she didn't know where he was because at the time he was unemployed, having quit yet another job). She answered the phone. It was a female voice asking for her husband. Assuming it was a former co-worker, she wasn’t concerned by the call, and asked to take a message for him; she was shocked when the person identified herself as his girlfriend and then asked, “Are you his sister?” Heart pounding and voice trembling, she could barely squeak out a reply that no, she wasn’t his sister; she was his wife.

The girl on the other end of the line drew her breath in surprise, and then went silent. And when the girl spoke again, after she apologized and declared repeatedly that she’d had no idea he wasn’t single, out spilled everything. How he had sought out this woman online, and how they had been involved for nearly a month. How the two of them had a romantic out of town weekend planned for the following week. How he told her that he “worked nights,” which is why she had never called in the evening, only during the daytime.

Listening to her husband’s girlfriend apologetically repeating that he had never mentioned having a wife, she was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of intense clarity. She thanked the girl for her honesty and assured her that she harbored no ill will toward her. Then she ended the call and immediately called her job to let them know she wouldn’t be back for the rest of the day. Next, she called up some of her friends and one of her cousins, told them she was leaving him, and asked if they could help her pack because she was scared he would come home and find her preparing to disappear.

These were the same people she had practically cut out of her life because they didn’t approve of her relationship and she grew tired of their unsolicited advice about how she deserved better and should leave him. The same people she almost never visited or called because the tumultuous relationship with him occupied the majority of her time and energy. The same people who she had told that she chose him over them, and that if they couldn’t accept him, they had no place in her life. She had no one else to turn to but the same people she had shunned for him, and though they could have ignored her plea for help, they all came to help her. Packing hurriedly in order to finish before he came back home, she and her girls worked in nervous silence until one of her friends gasped loudly in surprise...she had found a huge stash of drugs hidden in a cabinet.

More surprises. A secret girlfriend, a secret drug stash IN HER OWN HOUSE...she wondered what else she didn’t know.

Her whole life was a lie.

She left that day.




But she almost fell back under his spell. He called her crying and begging and making excuses, and she nearly fell for it. She took his calls and she agreed to meet with him to “talk things over” and consider whether she would give him another chance. His apologies and blame shifting and promises and gaslighting and word twisting and declarations of love confused and overwhelmed her; his presence weakened her. She found herself in his arms again and her mind scrambled as she tried to make sense of what she was doing. Ashamed of not having the willpower to stay away from him, she lied to her family and most of her friends that she was not in contact with him even though she was. He began to pressure her to formally reunite with him and for them to move back in with one another, and she was running out of excuses to continue to delay things.

She was buckling under the stress; her hair began to fall out and her performance at work suffered, resulting in disciplinary action and a demotion. Meanwhile, he was still making contact with her, and she would often yield, unable to stop herself from answering when he called. They were still living apart, and he was growing frustrated with her attempts to pull away, angrily demanding that she cut off her closest friend because he was male and according to him, "A married woman shouldn't have male friends," and flying into a rage when she refused to comply with his demands.

She had recently began attending church regularly, and eventually confided in some people there about what she was going through. Though she had hidden most of the abuse from her parents, she also decided to confide in her (male) friend and then her siblings, seeking encouragement to help her garner the strength not to answer his calls, not to go see him, not to reach out to him. She didn't know if she was going to be able to follow through as she never had before, and support from others helped boost her confidence that she would be able to do it. That she was stronger than she believed herself to be.

She cried alone in her bed night after night as she began the process of withdrawing from him, of extracting what was left of who she had been and trying to heal. She prayed for strength to stay away from him. Many times she failed. But gradually she gained a bit of strength and was able to resist, to talk herself out of it, to point out to herself the inconsistencies in his words and actions. To be less afraid. To start the process of reestablishing a little bit of her dignity.





It took months to disentangle herself, and even when she finally severed all contact, filed for divorce, and moved to another state, she couldn’t entirely erase him from her mind. Her love evolved into fury at how she had been mistreated and disappointment in herself for her role in allowing it to happen. The anger kept her up at night seething with rage at how much she had lost until she realized that being consumed by anger meant that she was still in bondage, just in a different way - because she still thought about him constantly, but with hatred instead of love. She realized that she needed to move on; she needed to let him go.

But how?

How could she “forgive and forget” and go off into the sunset? After everything that had happened, after she had wasted nearly half of her life? She DIDN’T forgive him for what he did to her. And she would NEVER forget what happened.

How could she ever be released from this? How could she get past it?

Eventually, she didn’t - not really. She worked on forgiving herself for being an enabler and for remaining in an abusive situation. She made efforts to affirm herself, to establish boundaries to protect her from being taken advantage of for “love” ever again, to acknowledge that she deserved better than what had happened and that even though she bore some responsibility for some of her poor choices, it was NOT her fault. She released herself from the guilt that she had harbored for years, let herself off the hook.

She did not release him.

She didn’t want to think about him any longer. He had already taken so much from her, and she didn’t want to devote another minute to him - not even to let herself go through the process of grieving her relationship. She refused to give him any more of her life.




So she disassociated.

She decided it was best to move forward and put it out of her mind as if it never happened - any of it. No "soulmates." They didn't exist...he didn't exist. No longer willing to think about it, she compartmentalized and killed the whole thing off in her mind. Put it - and herself - out of misery. Not another feeling; not another thought. She wouldn't allow it. That period of life was dead, just like he was dead to her.

Dead.

She buried him - and the whole situation - and piled dirt, logs, bricks, metal pipes, whatever she could find atop the remains to ensure they would never be resurrected. She was done. Screw it, and screw him. Forever.

She went back to college - now having to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and to juggle long work hours to pay for tuition, housing, and living expenses since she no longer had a scholarship to help defray the cost. She devoted her attention to positive things - her schoolwork, her church, volunteering, in time her new relationship - which was a healthy and safe one. She graduated from college and moved again to a different state, and then to another. Life happened - a much more peaceful life than the one which had once been her normalcy. Time passed. She left her twenties behind and entered her 30’s. She became an advocate; she became a wife; she became a mother. She was no longer that lost young woman.

Yet she still was. Because that person was a part of who she was too, and had been a part of her journey. And she didn’t deserve to remain hidden any longer like some secret shame.

So about a year or two ago, she - I - started writing about it. At first just a little here and there; over time a little more and a little more. It was difficult to do at first, and frankly, in some ways it still is. Because even though I am in some ways a pretty open person, this isn’t an easy thing to talk about. It leaves me feeling very naked, very vulnerable. And because I had pushed it out of my mind for so long and because it isn’t part of my present, in some ways it would be easier to just leave it where I placed it. I now have a supportive, loving husband who has never raised a hand to me, has never cheated on me, is not verbally abusive or abusive in any way, and does not mistreat me. I have a family, I have various pursuits that I care about; I have a career. I have a relationship with God and I have greater awareness of self. I no longer live a life plagued with emotional and physical abuse. But I once did, and maybe by talking about it I can help someone else.

Too many people are silent about domestic violence and that only helps to fuel a culture of secrecy and continued abuse - including within the church, but not only there. So many people feel unable to confide in someone else or unable to leave; they feel trapped. I’m here to tell you that I know it isn’t easy to leave, and I recognize that I was a lot more fortunate than many people in that I didn’t have children with him, I had a job, I had people who were willing to help me when I was finally ready to leave, etc - and even with all of those factors in my favor it was still hard for me to leave. So many people have none of those things.

I have daughters. They are so beautiful, so smart, so caring. The idea that they could someday be in an abusive relationship or marriage fills me with apprehension. I don’t want that for them - or for my sons either, for that matter, as abuse can happen to a person of any gender (or of no gender). Sadly, abuse is an equal opportunity entity, and no one is immune.

Abuse changes you. You’re never the same. But although it might have scarred me, it didn’t beat me. It didn’t destroy me. I am still here, and I am free.


And whom the Son sets free is free indeed.




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