Freedom: Life After Domestic Violence
Trigger Warning: Domestic Violence.
I am a survivor of Domestic Violence. Even six months later, it seems surreal typing these words. It’s so easy to naively pretend that it could never happen to you—you’d never miss the red flags, you’d never let anyone treat you like property—but I am here to tell you that is not the case. It can happen to anyone, because abusers are the most charming people you’ve ever met. They’ll sweep you right off your feet, convince you that they have nothing but your best interests at heart, and, in the process, convince everyone close to you that they are “great” for you, too. By the time you realize what is happening, you’ll be so tired of swimming that you’re almost content to drown, because that’s your only way out. You’ll wake up one day and you won’t even recognize yourself anymore. At least, that’s how it happened for me.
I met her in passing at a friend’s house. We said nothing more than “Hello, I’m (name), nice to meet you” and went our separate ways. The interaction was memorable in a way that I could never quite put my finger on. Later, she would tell me that she knew I was her “soul mate” the moment she met me. Even later, I’ll recall this moment as the day she decided I was going to belong to her.
Fast forward to a few weeks later. We’ve now been casually reintroduced on several occasions. I am incredibly drawn to her; she’s charismatic and mysterious. She is incredibly sweet and interested in hearing all about me—everything from my heartbreaks to my family, she wants to know me. I’ve never met anyone who has cared about me so much, how could she be so perfect?
A month passes. Something is wrong, and I can’t put my finger on it. We’re dating now, and everything between us is great, but something is off with her. There have been several instances now where she has done things that made me question her words, but how could I question her? She continuously surprises me with flowers, poetry, gifts—I feel so spoiled. She describes conflict with her exes, including repetitive cheating and fights that got physical, which makes me incredibly uncomfortable. “But they made me do it,” she’d say. There was always a semi-plausible story behind the prior incidents. Slowly but surely, I push these admissions to the back of my mind. She would never treat me like that. Right?
Less than a month after we’ve been dating, she tells me she loves me. I am ecstatic, how could I be so lucky? Never mind that she barely knows me, no one has ever made such an effort to understand me or treat me so well. I can’t believe how amazing everything is.
But something is still off. A week or so later, she stops going to work, but I don’t push her about it because I am concerned that it will upset her. She loses her apartment because she has a falling out with her ex, allegedly over her seeing me, so I offer to let her stay with me. How could I do anything else? She has been so wonderful to me.
Another week passes. I am now noticing signs of serious mental illness, including periods of dissociation where she doesn’t seem to know who I am. She refuses to go to a therapist or see a mental health professional. Her mental state continues to deteriorate until myself and a friend are forced to take her to the ER in the middle of the night, where she is Baker Acted (in Florida, a person can be held for up to 48 hours for a mandatory psych evaluation if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others, and it is commonly referred to as being “Baker Acted”). After an intervention from a family member, the Baker Act is rescinded as a secondary psych consult deems her healthy for release. Less than 24 hours later, she is released into my care and supervision. For the next two months, I will barely see my friends or family as I spend 24 hours a day making sure she is okay. She will eventually go to a few therapy sessions and improve, and I will continue to take care of her until she recovers enough to leave the house again. During this process, she will be diagnosed with PTSD. I will be forbidden to disclose this to our mutual friends, and she will deny the need for further counseling for the remainder of our relationship.
It’s a new year. I’m so excited to put the past few months behind us, but something has changed. She now seems to have a problem with everyone I am close to. I begin to second guess friendships, family, everything, as she tells me that “they don’t care about my well-being.” She reminds me that I saved her life, and that she loves me so much, and that she would “never manipulate me like people in my past have.” At her urging, I slowly begin to cut ties with friends. She just wants the best for me, right?
February. There have now been several instances where I have suspected that she is not faithful, but I am quickly told that I have no basis for these claims. There are ongoing health issues in my family, so I am too distracted to deal with the prospect of infidelity and continue to remind myself that she loves me.
April. I am depressed. I try to confide in friends, they assure me that she loves me, because that’s all she ever talks about with them. They don’t hear the never ending fights, her telling me that my feelings are wrong, trying to control every aspect of my reactions. I feel empty. All I do is go to work, come home, fight, and then repeat. Maybe it’s time we take time apart?
May 7, 2015. She asks me to marry her, during my favorite song by my favorite band at their concert, which I have been looking forward to for weeks. Of course I say yes, this is the proposal of my dreams! And she loves me. I write the last few months off as my fault—after all, I’ve been depressed for other reasons, right? I’m so lucky she has stayed with me since January, especially since I’ve been so moody. We’ve only been dating six months.
The afterglow didn’t last long. The week we are back from our engagement the fights are back. I contemplate killing myself because I should be happy and I just feel numb. Why do I feel so numb?
June. I total the car on our way to work one morning and my dad has major surgery. I don’t remember what happy feels like. All of the things I love bore me. She gets mad when I don’t act like we are perfect in public, but all we do is fight at home. She’s started making comments about my phone and reading my texts over my shoulder more and more frequently. She thinks all my friends are hitting on me, and I’m encouraging it. I don’t understand why I make her feel this way. Why am I so bad at dating?
July. How am I so selfish? She tells me all the time, I never appreciate what I have. I don’t talk to my friends anymore, unless I’m at work. She doesn’t like when I interrupt our time together by texting. My entire schedule revolves around making sure I am always available to hang out with her when she is free and I never leave the house anymore. Sometimes, I make her mad and she leaves and turns her phone off to get away from me. She never tells me what she does and I just cry and wait for her to come home. I know there’s something wrong with me. Why am I so fucked up? She keeps hinting that she wants a ring, too, so I arrange to get a ring from her family because I can’t afford one. I pay for almost everything because she is saving up for a car and we’ve been sharing mine. Either way, I try to propose after Pride, and it’s a nightmare. She gets mad that I had a drink with her friend and screams “Don’t even fucking think of proposing, if that’s what you planned.” All our friends are there and I am so embarrassed. I cry until we get to the car and leave. Why can’t I do anything right?
August. I finally have found a therapist I can afford, and I’m in therapy to deal with my crippling anxiety and depression. I have panic attacks regularly and it’s ruining my relationship. I tell my therapist about all the things wrong with me but carefully leave out anything she does or our fights. Our lease is almost up and I am not sure I want to live with her but I don’t know what else I could even do. She recently told me she didn’t want to be monogamous anymore and that if I didn’t like that I could leave. She even hooked up with someone else—and told me. But that’s just because I’m worthless. I am selfish and terrible. I can’t lose her, she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
September. We move into a house rental. I am ecstatic. Therapy is really helping and I am so glad to be out of the old apartment. It feels like a fresh start. I’m learning about boundaries in therapy and doing things on my own. I feel empowered for the first time in months. I’m doing all the things she told me she wanted me to and I am going to finally be good enough to be with her. She’s going to love me again. Everything is finally getting better! I tell her about my homework from therapy, which is to make all my decisions for the week without anyone else’s input. I decide to go out with my coworker and friends, and she is also invited. This does not go well, and when we get home she screams and smashes her phone because I refuse to tell her the “truth” about what I talk to my coworker about. I wonder why she isn’t happy that I am getting better.
Late September. She refuses to get a new phone so it has been difficult scheduling who has the car to drive to work. I’ve been biking to my coworker’s house and carpooling with him so she can have the car. Plus, I enjoy the freedom. I am actively trying to make changes and set boundaries with her because I don’t believe she recognizes how some of her actions towards me have been hurtful. I know she loves me and I know that it’s probably just remnants of the PTSD. Lately, she’s been really angry. She keeps saying that everything I do “triggers” her, and she yells and smashes things. I never respond, I just try to be calm. For some reason, my lack of response makes her even more mad than when I yell back. I tell my coworker about all of this at work, but never text about it. He’s the only person who knows everything that has happened because I’m afraid that if I text about it, she’ll read it and get even more mad at me. I’m not allowed to talk about our problems. He reminds me time and time again that I don’t deserve this, but I don’t really believe him. Plus, I know she’s such a sweet person. I remember who she was when we fell in love, don’t I?
October. The night before my 25th birthday. She makes elaborate plans and tells everyone about them, but then gets upset and screams at me instead. She falls asleep on the couch and I cry myself to sleep, alone. This happens often. The following night, we go out for my actual birthday. She screams at me the entire car ride to our friend’s house, but then tells everyone how much she loves me and how lucky she is to have me when we get there. I am incredibly confused. I don’t want to keep doing this.
October 12th. We go to see Andrea Gibson speak and I am feeling so incredibly empowered and inspired. We fight but it doesn’t faze me. I know this is ending and I think it might be for the best. She needs therapy, too, but she refuses to go. I know I’m getting better. I know I feel better.
October 13th. I arrive home from work to find her extremely upset. She screams and yells, then apologizes when she realizes it is having no effect on me anymore. Last week she punched the door and now I really just try to avoid upsetting her. I’m really glad we got a two bedroom rental, I’m going to have to figure out the rooms when we separate. I know it needs to happen, at least for a little while, so we can sort things out. My coworker is keeping me sane, and my therapist finally knows that I’m not the only fucked up person here. Things are getting better.
October 14th. It’s our one year anniversary. I make her a hand drawn card. I come home from work and meet her at the gym. She freaks out at me for asking her a question and I bike home to avoid being in the car with her. I am hoping she cools off by the time she is home. No luck. We break up, and she tells me we were never meant to be. I don’t even mind, I’m so tired and numb. I still give her the card and she says didn’t get me anything. I find it strange, but assume she probably knew we were going to break up anyways. I can’t stand being in the house so I ask if she wants to go walk around downtown. She agrees, and we go. When we get downtown, she is all over me, and I am so confused. We just broke up? Why are you all over me? We run into her friend and she tells him how great we are and I am literally nauseated by the exchange. I ask to go home and she gets irritated that I don’t want to enjoy “what little time we have left together.” I can’t even pretend that things are okay, so we go home. She lays down on the sofa and I lay down on the bed. These days, I’ve been sleeping with my phone on the other side of the room so that she couldn’t accuse me of texting. Tonight, not feeling well and exhausted, I make the mistake of putting my phone on the nightstand next to me. As I drift off to sleep, she comes in screaming, demanding to know who I was texting. After the third, “JUST ADMIT YOU WERE ON YOUR PHONE.” I say, “Does it even matter? We aren’t together anymore.”
This sets her off. She demands to have the engagement ring back, which I gladly hand over, and she sprints out of the house. After ten minutes of contemplating whether or not I should follow, I put on shoes and walk out. I know where she’s headed—Lake Maggiore, right across the street. I walk over, hoping to see her throw the ring into the lake, and ending this misery. She stands, dramatically, at the water’s edge, with the ring clutched tightly in her fist. She asks why I bothered following her. Tongue in cheek, I reply “I just want to see you actually do it. You’ve been threatening to do this for weeks. So are you going to?”
A few more minutes go by, and she finally storms over to me, shoves the ring into my hand and says “You know what, do what you want with it. I don’t fucking care.” She marches back to the house and decides she is going to sleep in the shed and that “she doesn’t want anything from me.” Shortly after, she comes back in and tries to cuddle me. Apparently, I haven’t been released yet.
October 15th. I am trying to get ready to bike for work but my house keys are missing. I am texting her and she isn’t answering and she has the car. Finally, I give up and bike to my coworker’s and leave the house unlocked. I tell him about the night before. I still haven’t heard from her and I have no idea where my keys are.
A few hours later, I check my email to find that she has emailed me a response. She has decided that she is doing a “month of silence” in which she does not communicate aloud or via text, only via writing or email. This is something she had been threatening for several weeks as well, so I am not necessarily surprised. I ask about my keys. I am being punished and I can tell. After a fruitless email exchange and a bad day at work, I call my therapist and ask for her advice. She tells me that I do not have to put up with this kind of behavior, and I agree. I send an email informing her I would not be participating in the month of silence and if she needed something she could text me. I do not hear from her again until I arrive home.
I walk in the door to find her pacing in the bedroom. I say hello and put my stuff down. She grabs a piece of paper and a pen and says, “Why didn’t you answer my email?” I tell her that I did, but I waited until after lunch. She checks and reads the email stating that I would not be participating on her iPad. She writes again on the paper, “Why did it take you so long to respond?” I say, “Honestly, I debated answering you at all.” This time, all she wrote in response was the word “selfish.”
I walk into the bedroom to change my clothes and she follows, still silent. I finish changing and walk into the living room to hear a literal explosion of sound from the room. She is yelling at the top of her lungs about how “you are so fucking selfish” and I “can’t do this one thing for her” and so on and so forth. I stand silently by the door as she continues to scream until she picks up her iPad and smashes it on the ground. At this point, I frantically exclaim, “What are you even doing?!” picking up the shattered iPad from the floor and motioning towards the damage in the room. She steps towards me and screams, “GET THE FUCK OUT.”
The word actually feels like a foreign language as it crosses my lips. I stand, back to the door, in disbelief that I really just heard my own voice utter such a phrase.
“Why are you so fucking defiant? Get the fuck out?”
Again, I am literally shocked by the strength in my voice.
Now she’s screaming, inches from my face, and she says, “If you don’t get the fuck out, I’m going to put my hands on you.”
I’m actually in shock now. “….what?”
“If you don’t get the fuck out, I am going to put my hands on you.”
Something snaps. “No.” I’m not doing this. This is not my life. From somewhere deep inside I heard myself say, “This is my house, too, and I’m not leaving.”
Shaking and bright red, she raises her fist and I flinch as her hand collides with the door next to my head, leaving a second hole in the door (the first caused by her fists, as well, the week prior). She grunts in an almost inhuman show of rage and walks out slamming the door behind her.
I don’t know how much time I have or what I need to do before she comes back, so I wait to make sure she left the yard, call my coworker, and head straight for the car. I spend the next couple hours with him, before realizing I need to go back to the house to get clothes so I can stay with him until I figure something else out. I head back to the house and she is there, so I call and let him know and head inside. Big mistake.
I walk in and immediately begin packing a bag. No words, no questions, just packing. She walks up to me and asks, “What are you doing?” I tell her I’m not staying here after what happened earlier. She demands, “WHO DID YOU TALK TO?” and I say, “No one.”
“Who the fuck did you talk to?”
“Does it matter? I’m not staying here.”
“Who told you to leave?”
This question hits me like a ton of bricks. Staring back at her, in complete disbelief, I ask, “What makes you think someone has to tell me to leave you after what you said earlier?”
Her entire demeanor changes. She collapses onto the floor, sobbing. She’s now between me and the door, on her knees, begging. “Please, I’m sorry, please, just take me to my mom’s. I need help. Please just drive me there.”
“No.” I keep repeating this word. I am not about to get into a car with her, and I don’t trust this new found sadness. “I’ll call a friend to come get you, but I’m not getting into a car with you.”
“Please, please, I need help, I know I need help.” It’s so hard to watch her like this, I want to believe her so bad but something tells me I shouldn’t. Again, I offer to call a ride for her. Still sobbing, she keeps begging. “Please, I need help. Please, just take me to my mom’s.” For a split second, I consider what she is asking. Just as I am about to cave, she cries, “Please just tell me who you were talking to.”
I felt every single hair on my neck stand up. “No, this is manipulative, and I’m not falling for it this time. I’ll call you a ride but that’s it.” She continues to cry and say “I know, I’m sorry, I know.” At this point, the only working communication device left in the house is my cell phone. She finally agrees, so I call her best friend and ask her to come get her. I literally say “I do not feel safe, I need you to come get her.” Her friend refuses to come get her without speaking to her. I make her promise not to smash my phone, and hand her the call.
She tells her friend that it is okay to come get her and the she will see her soon. She lowers the phone and ends the call. I extend my hand for her to pass my phone back when she locks eyes with me and growls, “I’m going to find out who the FUCK you were talking to.”
At this point, I am aware that this is about to be life or death. If she sees the conversation with my coworker, I am positive I will not survive this encounter without serious physical harm. All the stories about fights with her exes that became physical came rushing back. The time she knocked one out, the time she choked the other—that was about to be me. Holy shit. Fight or flight reflexes kicking in, I dive for the phone and try to yank it out of her hands. No luck. She bolts out of the house with my phone in hand. Without a second thought, I’m sprinting after her. She has the only way to call the police in her hands and if she destroys it, I am actually fucked. She jumps the 6 foot fence in a single leap and heads down the driveway. I’m close behind, also jumping the fence in a single bound. She’s sprinting into traffic now, and I’m realizing how far over my head this situation is. Giving up on the phone, I turn and sprint to my neighbors and pound on the door.
“I NEED YOU TO CALL THE POLICE, PLEASE ANSWER OR AT LEAST CALL THE POLICE.” I’m screaming through the front door of my neighbor’s house, who I’ve never met. “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE.” She’s running towards the door now, just as the neighbor opens it. She shoves my phone into my hands and says “No need to call the police, it’s all good.” My neighbor tries to ascertain what is happening and asks if I still want her to call the police. I tell my neighbor that if she leaves, they don’t need to call the police. I don’t want her to have a record, I just want her to leave me alone. She agrees to stay outside with the neighbor until her friend comes to get her, and I go inside and lock myself in the house. On the way in, I call my coworker and tell him to get over here ASAP. He tells me he is on his way.
I get back into the house, lock the door, and sit down on the living room floor, crying. But something tells me that this is not a good idea, so I stand up, walk into the bathroom, and lock the door. Moments later I hear the deafening sound of her kicking her way through the front door, ripping the safety chain clean off the door. I am now locked in the bathroom and she is pounding and screaming at the door. I am threating to call 911 but I still don’t want her to have a record. She’s sick, she needs mental help, not a felony. “Please just leave before I have to call the police. PLEASE JUST LEAVE.”
“FUCK YOU, ALEX. I should have NEVER FUCKING DATED YOU. I NEVER LOVED YOU. I FUCKING HATE YOU. FUCK YOU.”
A single house key is slid under the bathroom door, and all noise ceases.
Moments later, my coworker arrives, and we assess the damage. I call the non-emergency number and ask for an officer consult at the urging of my coworker. Blue and red lights in my driveway, I can’t stop shaking.
I keep telling the officer that I don’t want anything to happen to her, she just needs help. He doesn’t seem to be taking the threat seriously since she didn’t “put her hands on me.” He recommends calling her family. He tells me my only other options are a Domestic Violence injunction or pressing charges. After all, taking my phone and locking me in a bathroom constitutes imprisonment. I confirm with the friend that picked her up that she is not coming back and spend the night in my home, which now feels more like a warzone than anything else.
The next morning, I call her family and tell them what happened. They are not surprised in the slightest by anything I’ve said. I go to work and try to act normal. That night, I pack my bags to go see my parents. On the way out of town, I again try to talk to her family, and they are not surprised by her violence. She’s always been like this. How could I have not known? Why didn’t they get her help sooner?
The following days were a blur. I told my parents everything when I got home, with the help of one of my best friends. The following Monday, three days later, I filed a DV injunction against her. I cried as I filled out the papers at the courthouse. The only box I could not check under the domestic violence list was that she had physically harmed me—and that was only because I was able to hide. I felt a glimmer of hope when I saw that one of the options I could request was court mandated therapy, because I was still certain that the person I loved could never do any of those things to me. She was just sick. As I walked out, I saw a poster. “October is domestic violence awareness month.” I felt numb.
I was wrong. In the week and a half leading up to court, more and more details surfaced about her that I didn’t know. I was not the first person to fall victim, but I was damn sure that I wanted to be the last. I was scared and frustrated with the lack of assistance the court provided to petitioner—I was essentially my own lawyer and had to provide my own evidence. My temporary injunction was denied and I was terrified of what she might do once she was served court summons. I sought legal help from a local DV nonprofit and prepared for the worst. I stayed on friends’ couches because I was afraid she might come home and I couldn’t change the locks while she was still on the lease. I don’t think I slept or ate for almost 9 days. But I survived. And shortly after, we went to court.
The lack of remorse she displayed in court was perhaps the most gut-wrenching part of it all. After reading my petition, listing the things she had done, the judge asked her, “Did you do all of these things?”
“Yes, I did, but I have PTSD.”
Every single hope I had, every wish that this was not as bad as it might seem, all melted away and I was left standing there, emotionally stripped, in front of my abuser. Make no fucking mistake—she knew exactly what she did. She played the game well. I think my shock was shared by the judge, who seemed bewildered by her complete admittance of guilt with no rebuttal whatsoever. I don’t think anyone could believe how nonchalantly she had said, “…but I have PTSD.” Like that was some sort of “get out of jail free” card you can just flash to get away with anything. But this time, it didn’t work. The judge affirmed my petition and the DV injunction was granted.
I don’t think I stopped shaking for days. I didn’t start eating normally for weeks. I had a hard time sleeping in the house, even after the locks were changed. I wondered if I was going to have to move. I had nightmare after nightmare of being chased. I wrote and wrote and wrote, because it was the only thing that made me feel sane. It was the only way to clear my head. And, day by day, minute by minute, I found myself again.
Hindsight is always 20-20, and at first, it was easy to beat myself up for ignoring red flags. The first month, I googled things like “did I cause my abuse” and “why do I miss my abuser.” There was still a part of me that felt responsible for how she treated me. I wondered if the pit in my stomach would ever go away, and if I would ever sleep through the night again without waking up gasping, sweating, screaming.
Eventually, I did. I can’t tell you exactly when it happened, but one day I realized I was way better. And then the next, a little better too. It’s been a long road, but I have learned more about relationships and love than I ever knew, and I know that I will be a better person for it.
Domestic Violence doesn’t always look like black eyes. Abusers don’t always seem angry or socially awkward. They’re often very well liked, so much so that it is hard for people to accept that such a charming person can behave violently. One of the hardest things for me to cope with, even to this day, is when I tell people what happened and they say things like, “I don’t think she’d do anything to you now.” I never thought she would hurt me, yet here I am. The dismissal of my experience has been all too common, and I’ve separated from many mutual friends because they just couldn’t believe she was “capable.” But I know better.
Abuse doesn’t always start off in obvious ways. My abuser spent months laying the foundation to completely unravel who I was, making me feel like my perspective and feelings were completely irrational, so that she could control every aspect of my life. And, for a while, she did—everything I did for almost 9 months, I did for her. But, thanks to a fantastic therapist and a coworker-turned-best-friend, I found a way back to who I was and was able to find the strength to leave and protect myself. Ironically, shortly after she was served court summons, she came out with PTSD publicly—after months of forbidding me from disclosing her mental health issues. Abusers always find a way of blaming the victim, and my case was no different—she never missed an opportunity to tell me that I “triggered” her, and I’m sure her version of our story is similar to the one she told me about her and her exes—“they made me do it.”
Someone who loves you will not hate everything about you or try to change core aspects of your personality. Someone who loves you will not become possessive, jealous, and accusatory to such a degree that you no longer have friends. Someone who loves you will not threaten to leave, destroy your home, or keep you from your dreams. Love is not a competition of who “cares more for you.”
This week, I celebrate six months free. I share my story because I want others to know they are not alone. I want people to see—and feel—what abuse can look like, so that if they ever find themselves in a similar situation, they might see the red flags and get the hell out. I never thought I’d be where I am today, but I am proud of who I am and what I have been through. I will not be silenced, nor will I allow this experience to break me. I still have to work hard to maintain healthy boundaries in my relationships, and I still have nightmares from time to time, but the people who love me are patient and walk with me through the more difficult moments. I am incredibly grateful for my friends and family who have relentlessly supported me—I don’t know if I would be here without all of you.
I encourage anyone who finds themselves in an unhealthy relationship—find someone to talk to. My coworker was my saving grace, because the only time she did not monitor my communications was at work. And friends—watch out for each other! Major changes in personality and temperament upon entering a relationship may be signs of emotional abuse. When in doubt, ask. Also, PLEASE remember that PTSD or other mental illnesses are NEVER a justification of abuse. End of story. And, finally, know your local resources for victims of DV. You never know if you or someone close to you will need them.
To read more by Alex follow them at inventeddesign.wordpress.com,.