Healing after abusive relationships
What it looks like to (begin to) recover from an abusive relationship
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.