The bruises have faded and are gone. The holes in the walls have been patched and painted over. Legal proceedings have concluded. From the outside looking in, the ramifications of an abusive relationship end as soon as you find your way “out.” It’s the day that’s celebrated. For me, that day was November 13th, 2018.
A year ago, I wrote a two-part blog series detailing my experience in a relationship riddled with domestic violence. I spent time recounting the night that I finally got “out” and focused on the toll that that relationship took on my mental health as I was in the throes of the relationship. This year, for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I want to shed light on the impact that this kind of relationship has on one’s mental health later on down the road; the way it seems to alter the fundamental structure of one’s way of thinking, of one’s behavior in future relationships, and the self-image that is crafted in one’s mind moving forward.
When the initial relationship ended for me, I was inundated with “I’m so proud of you's” and “let me know if you need anything’s” which filled me with a sense of strength about the situation. I remember my pride in having not cried over the end of the relationship aside from the trauma filled evening in which I was able to have this man removed from the home we shared together. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the ending of that relationship was going to be one of the best choices I had ever made in my life. I was able to ride that high for quite a while. I spent the upcoming holiday season with my family, saw my work in my career improve exponentially, and watched myself rebuild friendships that had been lost over the course of time in which I had become increasingly isolated.
My first noticeable red flag though that while on the outside, things seemed to have almost instantaneously improved with the conclusion of the relationship, things were remaining incredibly rocky internally, was my outright inability to feel safe. I recall choosing to stay at work often until well after 7 or 8 at night — something incredibly abnormal for a teacher. But this provided me with the ability to prolong my return to a home by myself and I took advantage of that more often than not. When at home, chairs were strategically placed in front of doors to ensure a warning sign were anyone able to manage to get into the house. I consistently slept on my left side to allow myself to view both the bedroom door and living room area from my bed while remaining within arms reach of the knife that I kept in the bedside table for defense. An LED strip of lights was used as an adult-excuse for a night light that was never turned off once the sun went down. Blinds remained drawn day and night. Showers were as quick as possible because of the understanding that I was almost completely defenseless at that moment. I knew these behaviors were not normal but I had also convinced myself that it was the consequences that were remaining from having to live out the lease for 9 months after I was able to have my abuser removed from my home. I was certain that things would dramatically improve once I was no longer living there.
The downfall to this logic though was that this obsessive desire for control of safety was not exclusively tied to that small two-bedroom townhome. I experienced a wave of panic every time a friend gasped in public, thinking they were indicating that they had just seen him. A sighting of a figure with even vaguely the same body stature as him would have my heart racing immediately. I avoided places we had gone together not because of any aversion to memories of time spent, but rather out of the inability to process what would happen if we ran into each other.
I recall the first time I did run into him after everything. I am forever grateful that I was with my best friend — one of those friendships that had to be reinstated after I continuously pushed everyone out of my life during the relationship. We were standing in an outside section of a bar when I turned around and saw his unmistakable gait passing just outside of the railing. I remember feeling frozen in time, truly understanding what it means when people say they felt as if time slowed down. Four years later and I remember exactly what he was wearing — the feeling of shock in that moment has emblazoned that bright orange t-shirt on my mind. As I remained frozen, the gut-punch reaction that my friend had was to mobilize and confront. Her movement towards the exit of the bar and in the direction of him, her voice already carrying to him as he sped up walking, dragged me out of my trance. I stopped her from making any further movements — was it out of fear for her safety? My safety? An inability to even fathom what those next moments would look like? I, to this day, do not know the answer to that question. The remainder of the night had its edges significantly blurred with a mixture of excessive alcohol, nausea, and the familiar pangs of panic fluttering just on the outskirts of my brain, waiting for me to sober up just enough to fully engulf me. That night, I stayed at my best friend’s house unable to comprehend the thought of going home alone and contemplating the possible repercussions of him having seen me in public for the first time. Was that going to be a tipping point for him? I didn’t want to find out.
Fast forward four years and I no longer sleep with chairs stacked in front of my front door; I don’t have an overwhelming fear of going home nor the sun going down and turning my comfort of day into the fear of night. But my feeling of safety has remained compromised. When I meet new people, am in new homes, I feel the familiar anxiety burbling in my stomach. My eyes get shifty and I catch myself slipping into moments of studying those around me until my conscious awareness can catch up and convince my brain that I am not threatened. Safety and fear remains an issue.
But perhaps the biggest challenge, the one that has consumed much of my head space over the past four years revolves around who I am now in relationships. I should mention, relationships have never been a strong point of mine. Some of my challenges in that department have been long standing—far before the implications that have occurred as a result of entering and subsequently exiting an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. But there are overwhelming changes within myself that are a direct correlation to the effects of that relationship.
Almost immediately following the conclusion of the relationship, I noticed a significant change in my reaction to the way in which I am spoken to. I have always been a very outgoing and outspoken person and although I am not proud to admit it, I could be confrontational at times–seeing it as a way of sticking up for myself. Now though, a lot of those qualities have been diminished to an almost lack of existence when a man begins to speak aggressively or in a loud tone towards me. It sounds silly as I write this to think that something so simple can cause a full body reaction in me–and yet I know it to be true. Regardless of the circumstance, I can identify each specific internal and external reflection of having been in an abusive relationship when I am met with aggression from a man–I verbally shut down, often times with a flurry of apologies, tears well in my eyes (something that frustrates me to my core), my heart begins to race, and my priority in these moments is very straightforward–have the yelling completely stop as soon as possible. I have also noticed that my mind will race for hours, or even days later when an instance like this occurs. I will dissect every word I said and action I made prior to any verbal altercation in hopes of understanding what led to it and how to prevent it in the future–a completely unrealistic goal.
A constant attempt to justify wrong-doings of any man in my life now has become yet another plaguing symptom of having been in an abusive relationship. Looking back, my relationship was constantly filled with painting a much different picture of my ex to those around me. It was imperative that my family, friends, and co workers viewed him as a wonderful person that treated me well. He didn’t like for me to have phone conversations without him being in the room because he wanted to ensure that only happiness and positivity was being expressed on the phone. I ended up internalizing a crippling habit of justifying any and all negative behavior from men that I have dated since the conclusion of that relationship. Regardless of how minor or severe a transgression, whether directed to me or anyone else, I quickly jump on the defensive. Frequently, my justification on these behaviors relies on me attempting to identify something that I personally did that influenced the cause for these behaviors.
Four years removed from a relationship that took an immense toll on my physical and mental health, and I am still battling with the lasting challenges within. I have a constant fear that I now have an embedded inability to be in a successful and healthy relationship. I have struggled with healthy ways of thinking about relationships as well as healthy ways of thinking about myself.
A little over a year ago, the WhiteFlag App was introduced to me by the same best friend mentioned above. In moments in which my head space is swirling with panic and anxiety, nights in which my thoughts and concerns over safety are overwhelming, I turn to WhiteFlag. I am able to talk to those that have been through situations that are similar to my own. I have been able to discuss coping skills that have helped others in times when their mental health is waning and apply those to myself when mine is struggling. Not only have I benefited from WhiteFlag myself, but I have been able to talk with those that have needed guidance and are just beginning their journey following the day in which they “got out.” WhiteFlag has given me the opportunity to connect with those like me. Every October, for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I am reminded not of what I have been through but the strength that I have gained in the process. WhiteFlag has given me the opportunity to reflect with other survivors, share experiences, and truly understand that the challenges I have faced, both past and present, are not any that I, nor anyone else for that matter, will have to face alone ever again. WhiteFlag makes sure of that.
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