Heal­ing af­ter abu­sive re­la­tion­ships

What it looks like to (be­gin to) re­cover from an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship

The McGill Daily - - Contents - By Anony­mous

Irecently ran into an ex at a party. It may not seem like a big deal be­cause, sure, we all see our exes from time to time. But my ex was abu­sive. In Canada alone, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence has been iden­ti­fied as one of the most com­mon forms of vi­o­lence against women. And, it takes an average of seven in­stances of abuse to leave an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship. This is rarely talked about, and yet abuse is in­cred­i­bly com­mon.

While only a few months have passed since I of­fi­cially left my abu­sive part­ner for the last time, I fi­nally feel like I am able to breathe again. I can fi­nally get out of the bed in the morn­ing. But just a few months ago, I was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son. I was ir­ri­tated eas­ily, found sim­ple tasks dif­fi­cult, and stayed in bed most days. Dur­ing the most abu­sive parts of the re­la­tion­ship, I didn’t leave my bed at all. The most I could man­age was to get to the bath­room where I would lock the door so my room­mate wouldn’t hear my boyfriend yelling at me over the phone.

I wish I could say I ended it, so that I’d be able to look back and pat my­self on the back for the strength I had dur­ing my dark­est days. But the scari­est part to all of this is that if he hadn’t de­cided he no longer wanted me, I might still be with him. I wouldn’t even have the words that I do now to de­scribe how I was feel­ing. We weren’t mar­ried and we didn’t have kids, so there seemed to be no obli­ga­tion for me to stay with him, le­gal or oth­er­wise. And yet, I couldn’t leave. My con­fi­dence had been com­plete- ly shat­tered, and I felt as though I had nowhere to turn. Some days I still hear his voice in the back of my mind, telling me no one will ever love me as much as he did. I now know this is a lie.

Dur­ing the so-called “hon­ey­moon phase” of our re­la­tion­ship, I felt so con­nected to John*. He seemed funny, charm­ing, and sen­si­tive. I felt like we re­ally cared about the same things. Ev­ery sin­gle morn­ing I would wake up, and feel cen­tered. I could be fail­ing a class, or fight­ing with a friend, but none of it mat­tered be­cause I had a part­ner. Some­one I could look to and feel so priv­i­leged just to be able to speak to. Bor­ing events were sud­denly ex­cit­ing with John by my side. We would write let­ters for each other’s plane trips, and skip classes to spend time to­gether. He would drive to my house just to see me for ten min­utes, be­cause we couldn’t go a day with­out be­ing to­gether. It was sick­en­ingly sweet.

So later, when I was ten months deep into what felt like my worst night­mare, I kept look­ing back on all the good times we once had and would think, “He’ll come back, the guy I love will come back.”

But he never came back, be­cause he never ex­isted in the first place. He told me what I wanted to hear, gained my trust, and in the blink of an eye, he took all the ro­man­tics away. He once said to me, “The per­son you love the most is both your heaven and your hell.” I went from his heaven to his hell in the blink of an eye. Where I once re­ceived flow­ers upon him greet­ing me, I barely got a smile. He would take ev­ery op­por­tu­nity he could to tell me ev­ery­thing I had done wrong that day. He would drive fast in cars to scare me, scream at me for wear­ing some­thing sheer, ig­nore me if I made a joke he didn’t like in front of his friends. I was walk­ing on eggshells ev­ery wak­ing moment of the day.

My re­la­tion­ship with John pro­gressed in­cred­i­bly quickly. Af­ter two weeks, he told me he loved me. One month later, he said that one day we would get mar­ried. Two months later, we were nam­ing our kids. Things hap­pened very, very fast. So fast that I hardly had time to catch my breath. I spent ev­ery moment with him. The one time we had to spend seven days apart from each other, we made sure to stay in contact con­stantly. It was so in­tense that the mere thought of not be­ing able to contact him was daunt­ing, al­most as if we couldn’t breathe with­out each other. Key fac­tors to abu­sive re­la­tion­ships are iso­la­tion and con­trol. With­out John, I had no one; with­out John what could I do? He didn’t like when I went to par­ties with­out him, he didn’t like it when I had fun with­out him. Be­ing apart from John meant my life was on pause, un­til I was in his pres­ence again.

Six months in, our re­la­tion­ship reached a turn­ing point. We started ar­gu­ing a lot, but we never went to bed an­gry. I was caught in a cy­cle of fight­ing, then cry­ing, then apol­o­giz­ing, and fi­nally go­ing to bed. This be­came rou­tine. Then one day I wasn’t al­lowed to cry when we fought any­more, be­cause it made him feel too guilty. So I apol­o­gized, and tried to hold back my tears.

I be­gan to no­tice that I was apol­o­giz­ing for a lot of things, even for some­thing as sim­ple as buy­ing a shirt with­out first get­ting his ap­proval. How­ever, he would im­pose his will very sub­tly, in a way that I now recog­nise as ma­nip­u­la­tive. He would ask, “Why would you buy some­thing I don’t like? I only ever want to wear things you like. . . Don’t you feel the same?” My re­sponse be­came, “Yeah. . .I guess I do.” From there on out, any time I went shop­ping I would spend most of it in the chang­ing room ask­ing for my boyfriend’s ad­vice. My clothes then turned into a plain and un­der­stated uni­form: jeans, t-shirts, and tank tops. Noth­ing that would show too much skin, just enough. Sim­ple colours were al­lowed, but colours like pink were ab­horred.

Once my friends started see­ing how un­happy I was be­com­ing, they sud­denly be­came John’s worst en­e­mies. One friend in par­tic­u­lar, Matthew*, who had been my best friend for quite some time, caused se­ri­ous is­sues be­tween John and I, to the ex­tent that even if Matthew’s name only briefly showed up on my phone, I would get in trou­ble. Any­time I hung out with Matthew, I would have to leave early, and I usu­ally left cry­ing. I ended up feel­ing torn be­tween my friend and my boyfriend. How­ever, this wasn’t ex­clu­sive to only guy friends; I had to cut out some of my clos­est girl­friends from my life, just to save my­self from the ob­scen­i­ties John would scream at me when­ever I spent time with them. The sit­u­a­tion es­ca­lated to the point where I wasn’t al­lowed to be with one friend sim­ply be­cause she smoked. John would say, “You shouldn’t keep that kind of com­pany in your life.” So, I cut them all off, one by one, cold tur­key. To this day, there are friend­ships I’m un­able to re­pair be­cause of the dam­age that was caused to them dur­ing my time with John.

It wasn’t un­til nine months into my re­la­tion­ship that I had my first moment of clar­ity about my re­la­tion­ship, and I re­al­ized I had lost my voice. I mean, I would say noth­ing. I just fol­lowed his plans. I hung out only with his friends and his fam­ily. I couldn’t even re­mem- ber the last time I had done some­thing that didn’t re­volve around him. Shortly af­ter this series of re­al­iza­tions I had to go to a party with John be­cause he made a point of never miss­ing out on any so­cial event. He spent the ma­jor­ity of the night ig­nor­ing me and flirt­ing with some­one else in front of me. This was rou­tine for him. Noth­ing new. If I ever ad­dressed his be­hav­iour, he would say, “I’m a flirty per­son! You knew that go­ing in.” I would nod my head in agree­ment, and feel stupid for even bring­ing it up. He was al­lowed to be jeal­ous, but it came off as ob­ses­sive when I was. For John to ap­pear to be the kind of cool per­son he so des­per­ately wanted to be, his girlfriend had to be the “per­fect” part­ner. Calm, ca­sual, funny, but not cen­tre-of-at­ten­tion funny, be­cause he al­ways had to be the one to steal the show. I had to stay thin, but be down to eat two pounds of wings with the guys on boys’ nights. My makeup could never be over the top; I could only ap­ply a sim­ple cover up. I had to keep my hair down al­ways; if I was in work­out at­tire I could put my hair up, but it could never be in a bun, a sim­ple pony-tail was all that I was al­lowed. So, on this par­tic­u­lar night, when I drank too much and cried in front of his friends be­cause I was so clearly de­pressed, I had bro­ken this spec­tre of per­fec­tion, and it was in­sult­ing to him. I had em­bar­rassed him. I be­lieve this was the first night that John phys­i­cally abused me.

The next morn­ing, I woke up to im­me­di­ate guilt. I had drunk way too much, and I wasn’t al­lowed to.

Ev­ery time I tried break­ing up with him I was al­ways met with a speech about how crazy I was act­ing, about how stupid I was to think he didn’t love me, about how dif­fi­cult I was mak­ing his life.

Key fac­tors to abu­sive re­la­tion­ships are iso­la­tion and con­trol. With­out John, I had no one; with­out John what could I do?

I think of all the things I’m ca­pa­ble of be­cause I am no longer with John. I think of how strong I am, and how proud of my­self I am.

It is so hard to ex­plain the in­ner work­ings of my re­la­tion­ship with John. And when it comes to abu­sive re­la­tion­ships, walk­ing away is the hard­est and most in­con­ceiv­able part.

And so I was the one who apol­o­gised that morn­ing. De­spite the fact that I felt aches all over my body, de­spite the fact that my legs and arms were mys­te­ri­ously bruised and his story didn’t match my mem­ory of the night, I was the one who woke up full of shame. For the sheer em­bar­rass­ment I must have caused him. Months later, when I asked my friend about that party and the way I be­haved at it, she told me that I was there for about half an hour be­fore I went out onto the street to talk to John. No odd be­hav­iour, no out­burst in front of his friends. What my friend told me matched up with what I could re­call from that night. How­ever, John’s story was some­thing like,“you yelled at me in front of ev­ery­one and could hardly stand up.” Wouldn’t I have re­mem­bered caus­ing that much of a scene? But he in­sisted that my mem­o­ries were wrong.

Months went on and things only got worse. I could hardly get out bed, I wasn’t en­gaged in any so­cial or aca­demic life. Any­time I went out I would leave early, usu­ally cry­ing. John would yell at me over the phone for go­ing out with peo­ple. He didn’t trust other guys. And he didn’t trust me. He would tell me that the things that I wore when I went out were too provoca­tive, that some­one was bound to come up to me and do some­thing, and who was to say I wasn’t go­ing to let them? Let me be clear, this never hap­pened. I was very faith­ful to John. And be­cause my par­ty­ing seemed to cause him stress, I stopped go­ing out.

Be­yond my so­cial life, the ef­fect of my re­la­tion­ship on my men­tal health meant that even go­ing to class seemed like the most dif­fi­cult task. I sud­denly had no pas­sion for any­thing. I stopped writ­ing, which had al­ways been a much-needed cre­ative out­let for me. I couldn’t talk. I hardly ate. I was the clin­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of de­pressed. From John’s per­spec­tive, I was be­ing over­dra­matic. He didn’t be­lieve in de­pres­sion. He would say, “You want to be sad,” or “You want the at­ten­tion.” I didn’t think I did, but I would end up be­liev­ing that maybe he was right. Af­ter all, he was my boyfriend, he could only have my best in­ter­ests at heart. Which is why when he ma­nip­u­lated me into drop­ping any the­atre ex­tracur­ric­u­lars at univer­sity (I had been in shows and on film since I was ten), I will­ingly obliged be­cause I would have done any­thing to sal­vage our bro­ken re­la­tion­ship. And just like that, my life­long ca­reer goal crum­bled to pieces. I started think­ing about a dif­fer­ent ca­reer path en­tirely, one that would be more un­der­stood by the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, and in par­tic­u­lar, by John. I have never ever wanted to be a lawyer, but dur­ing my first year at univer­sity, I be­came con­vinced that that’s what I wanted. As the months dragged on, my sit­u­a­tion got worse; ev­ery time I tried break­ing up with him I was al­ways met with a speech about how crazy I was act­ing, about how stupid I was to think he didn’t love me, about how dif­fi­cult I was mak­ing his life. All he wanted was a nor­mal girlfriend, why couldn’t I be that for him? And I be­lieved ev­ery sin­gle word of it.

By the time Christmas break rolled around, I couldn’t even rec­og­nize my­self. How­ever, I told my­self that ev­ery­one goes through change at univer­sity and finds it dif­fi­cult at times. I be­lieved that’s just what was hap­pen­ing to me. But it wasn’t just dif­fi­cult. Life it­self be­came un­bear­able. I toyed with sui­ci­dal thoughts and while I never acted on them, I was des­per­ate for a way out.

It is so hard to ex­plain the in­ner work­ings of my re­la­tion­ship with John. And when it comes to abu­sive re­la­tion­ships, walk­ing away is the hard­est and most in­con­ceiv­able part. I couldn’t imag­ine life with­out him. I as­sumed, un­til re­cently, that I would never again have the kind of con­nec­tion I had with John. I thought I would never find love or hap­pi­ness again. I be­lieved I had to stick it out with John be­cause I be­lieved that the per­son I loved was go­ing to come back. He had to come back. But he never did, be­cause the per­son that I first fell in love with was never re­ally who John was. The lov­ing, car­ing guy I thought he was, turned out to be one of the most ma­nip­u­la­tive and con­trol­ling peo­ple I have ever met.

John found my weak­nesses and pulled at them when he could. He used my own thoughts against me. Any­time I felt low, he would push me even lower. Abu­sive part­ners are ob­sessed with hav­ing the up­per hand, with hav­ing con­trol. They hate be­ing out­smarted. For John, I was noth­ing more than a tool in his life. He used me when he needed me, and when he didn’t I was just a nui­sance he tried des­per­ately to for­get, un­til fi­nally I be­came too big of a prob­lem for him.

Re­ally he just found greener grass. John hated my con­fi­dence, but what he hated even more was that I wasn’t con­fi­dent—nev­er­mind that he was the cause of my in­se­cu­rity and had fu­elled it pur­pose­fully. John would re­peat­edly tell me I was “not the per­son he fell in love with.” So, he be­gan to move onto other girls, all while keep­ing me around be­cause he wasn’t ready to lose con­trol of me yet.

Be­fore he had com­pletely let me go, on one of my last nights with John, I was pushed down a flight of stairs. He bit me (in a non­sex­ual way) and re­peat­edly ver­bally abused me. I woke up the next morn­ing al­most un­able to walk. My arm was puffy and bruised, and I had scratches all up and down my legs. I couldn’t put the words to­gether to ex­plain what hap­pened to me. When my mom asked why my arm was swollen, I shrugged.

I re­ally hope that one day I will be able to be more open about what hap­pened this night, and that more peo­ple will be­lieve me. There is no photo ev­i­dence, and my mem­ory only re­tains snip­pets of the events from that night. But I know ex­actly what John did to me. I know ex­actly when and how it hap­pened.

A few days af­ter the in­ci­dent I broke down to my sis­ter on the phone and ex­plained ev­ery­thing to her. I ex­plained that the ver­bal and emo­tional abuse had been go­ing on for months; I thought he had hurt me be­fore, and I wanted out. Thus be­gan the long and gru­el­ing ther­a­peu­tic process of “un-brain­wash­ing” my­self. I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t the prob­lem—i had been a vic­tim of abuse.

Months af­ter John and I had bro­ken up, we were still hook­ing up oc­ca­sion­ally. He would prom­ise me that this was just a stress­ful time for him, and that even­tu­ally we would get back to­gether. We never did. John would contact me when the tim­ing was right for him, which was usu­ally when he was horny, and I would come run­ning ev­ery time. And ev­ery morn­ing I’d wake up hat­ing my­self a lit­tle bit more. How could I keep do­ing this to my­self af­ter what he’d done to me? Who was ever go­ing to be­lieve my story when I con­tin­ued to go back? Even­tu­ally I cut off com­mu­ni­ca­tion with him. In re­sponse, he re­cur­ringly sent me ag­gres­sive text mes­sages in­sin­u­at­ing that I was a whore and telling me that he was happy he had got out when he had. Then the mes­sages stopped. I blocked his num­ber and deleted him from my so­cial me­dia. To this day we are no longer in contact.

But the fear still re­sides deep within me. The very idea of see­ing him makes me shake. John is my boogey man. When I re­cently saw him at that party, it made me ter­ri­fied to be alone. I ran to the bath­room to try and calm down, but found I could hardly breath. I felt as though my life were on the line. Even though we’re thou­sands of miles away from each other now, I still have night­mares about what he is ca­pa­ble of do­ing to me, just be­cause he is big­ger, stronger, and much, much an­grier than I am.

I wanted to share my story be­cause I want sur­vivors to know that they are not alone. But I’m afraid of what will hap­pen if I use my real iden­tity. I hope that one day I can be hon­est about ev­ery­thing, and delve fur­ther into a con­ver­sa­tion about my ex­pe­ri­ence with abuse. How­ever, there are some things that hap­pened that I’m not even able to ad­mit to my­self yet, let alone other peo­ple.

If any­one is read­ing this, and is in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion, I urge you to seek help. You are worth it. You do not need your abuser. Abuse is com­plex and frus­trat­ing. It can be hard to pin­point the signs, and if your story is any­thing like mine, you con­sis­tently think that you are the prob­lem. But you are not, and there is help. Talk to your friends, fam­ily, find your sup­port sys­tem and do what­ever you can to get out, be­cause your life is worth it.

As I write this, I’m look­ing out at the view of a lake. I used to come here when things were par­tic­u­larly bad with John, to clear my mind. Now I look out onto this lake, and I think of all the things I’m ca­pa­ble of be­cause I am no longer with John. I think of how strong I am, and how proud of my­self I am. And I wish I could share this feel­ing with ev­ery sin­gle per­son who has ever ex­pe­ri­enced abuse, be­cause it is such a beau­ti­ful feel­ing to know that you will be okay.

Abu­sive part­ners are ob­sessed with hav­ing the up­per hand, with hav­ing con­trol. They hate be­ing out­smarted. In Canada alone, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence has been iden­ti­fied as one of the most com­mon forms of vi­o­lence against women.

Thus be­gan the long and gru­el­ing ther­a­peu­tic process of “un­brain wash­ing” my­self. I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t the prob­lem—i had been a vic­tim of abuse.

Fred­erique Blan­chard

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