Reemerging into the world after leaving an abusive partnership is… terrifying. It’s particularly challenging learning how not to wear your insecurities like a glittery cocktail dress, drawing every eye in sight to attention. My particular cocktail began as self-doubt with a splash of inferiority. Then six months into marriage, my doting husband–the mega church pastor–added his own twist to the potent concoction: a double shot of disdain with a generous pour of chastising, gaslighting, and blame, shaken with a bit of mockery, and finished with a twist of zesty disgust at the mere sight of me. He would usually offer an icy chaser in the form of an unrelenting verbal attack–bringing me to the point of drunken stupor–or (his favorite) sobering me up by stonewalling me for days with intricate deliberation. The life I found myself in was not unlike how it might feel to be a stray dog in the street–full of mange and starving for life, thoughtlessly avoided but never actually sought after to be cared for, spoken to, or protected. I had been pounding this cocktail for a decade, and what began as poison slicing my voice as it made its way down my throat eventually became the standard by which I classified normal.
Normal that men pretend to adore women at first then become monsters once they’ve signed the marriage license or tied them down with a child. Normal to feel duped, trapped, and foolish for actually choosing this person to marry (of ALL the men in the world!). Normal, having canker sores all over my mouth, shingles at the age of 24, and pinched nerves every six weeks for years on end. Normal, being “coached” on what can and cannot be said to friends/bosses/family members/strangers. Normal, never quite knowing if I’m safe or in danger when he’s around. Normal is the sinking hollow in my chest and gut when I lay down in the quiet of the night. Normal is not knowing if I actually am alone in the world or if I really do have someone in my corner. Normal, not recognizing the woman staring back at me in the mirror (or is that a skeleton? It’s hard to tell). Normal when lies are the truth and the truth are all lies.
The poisonous cocktail of abuse destroys a person’s ability to decipher normal.
In logic, I knew I was human, but I only ever felt like worthless trash, unapologetically crumpled and tossed away. I was desperate for proof that I was actually visible to other humans. I clung to humanity as best I could, holding every eye that acknowledged my existence at the grocery store or passing along the sidewalk, hanging on every word when people spoke kindly to me, and gaping in disbelief when I saw the “fairytale freak-husbands” who were attentive, gentle, and supportive of their wives (they were clearly putting on a really good act… but for who? I couldn’t ever figure out why they went out of their way to keep up the persona of “doting husband” at times when it seemed so unnecessary–like in the parking lot or the driveway of their own home–who were they trying to fool? Who did they think was watching? I never did understand men’s trickery. It was baffling and frustrating).
One day the entire filthy trance came to a screeching halt when my daughter innocently and valiantly stood for justice (and the preservation of her mother’s dignity). At just five years old, she interrupted one of her daddy’s eerily controlled, but fiercely charged beratements and locked eyes with me. “I love you, Mommy. I love you. MOMMY! I love you.”
And that–it turns out–was the slap in the face I needed to end the cycle that was swallowing me whole. No more throwing back twisted cocktails of abuse. No more waking up sloppy and emotionally hung over. And no more spending days spinning out dazed and confused.
It was over.
I blinked hard and fast. What was this feeling? It was like someone had poured cold water over my head after being coated with sweat for years in the raging sun. The truth was coolly washing away the stickiness of the emotional abuse I had caked on every inch of my skin, my lips, my eyelids. I was beginning to see things as they were. I could move about as I chose for the first time in years. I even tried flexing and stretching again–my muscles and my will. It was equal parts liberating and horrifying. I could breathe–like actually inhale without a concentrated effort.
And there was something else. Something strange, but familiar, creeping towards me. It was light and airy, but dashing and flighty. I couldn’t put my finger on it for days; each time I was close, it would disappear. But finally, I found the courage to reach out and touch it. It was the enchantment of my childhood, but I had not seen it for quite some time. It was hope.
Oh, no. I won’t dare hold onto hope again. It’s too dangerous. Too unpredictable. Too scary for someone like me to keep around. I was no fool. I knew how dark and twisted life–and people–could be. I wouldn’t fall into that trap again. Not ever.
But eventually, it was hope that would carry me through the horror of facing my reality: I was a victim of domestic violence. I argued with this one for a long time. After all, he was a pastor and he never laid a hand on me. How could I be a victim? It was hope that gave me the courage to ask questions, seek help, and absorb the truth. The truth is abuse isn’t just physical–it’s mental, emotional, financial, spiritual. It isn’t always classified by bruises on skin, but on the often unseen power and dominance over another person. That, I couldn’t argue with. Intimidation and control were the staples of his power over me. Seemingly strong and confident as I was, I was no match for his twisted words and constant power plays. I also learned that there is no certain “type of victim”. Abusers prey on the fragile and the strong, the broken and the successful, the isolated and the known.
Hope led me back to my will. My will carried me straight to my power. And my power broke the chains of my addiction to this cocktail of abuse. See, it wasn’t enough for me to realize anyone could be a victim of abuse–how was that going to help me avoid getting into a similar situation again? I needed more data. I had to know what it was in me that led me to choose and stay with my abuser. I went on a mission to excavate the previous 10 years of trauma and go back to the beginning; to study every choice I made, every choice I ignored, and every choice I gave up. I had to know so I wouldn’t do this again. I had to know so I could protect my kids from it and teach them how to watch for signs. I had to know so I could help other victims.
See, for victims of abuse, their sense of self is hidden behind some locked doors–usually labeled fear and insecurity. Sometimes those doors have boards nailed over them called lies, loss, rejection, and failure. On the other side of those fears and insecurities, are all the tightly taped boxes of bad beliefs we victims–like hoarders–tend to hold onto: “I’ll never find better. It’s not really that bad, sometimes it’s good. I’m not good, worthy, or enough. No one will believe me. I’m stupid, small, and meaningless. I’m not strong enough. I can’t do this alone. I’m nothing without him/her. He/she will take the kids from me. He/she will ruin me. I am ruined. No one will ever want me now. I am broken.” Once those bad beliefs are removed, under the floorboards lie the mounds of self-doubt and self-abandonment we accumulated along our journey through hell.
And it’s this overhaul of the cobweb-filled home, decked with labor to bear that keeps victims in the ties of their abusers. It’s nothing less than overwhelming to face this house of horrors–at least when we try to do it alone. In fact, I would venture to say it’s impossible to do alone, without any help or support along the way. It’s the death of a soul–this abandoned wreckage we find ourselves in. Without hope–a lifeline, the right tools, and a circle of support–it’s absolutely paralyzing to face.
This is where my work began: my quest to understand victims of abuse. Me.
Five years later, I’m here, coaching women (and men) through their own stories of toxic cocktail consumption. I throw lifelines, hand over tools, and whisper truth to those who walk their own path of abuse. I get to do this now because I found the key to freedom. I know where the gift of empowerment hides within the soul. Every story is a little different, but every soul holds the same power–the power to fight, live, heal, love, and be whole again. They call this kind of power self-worth,and I know where and how to find it.
This is what we all need to be talking about–friends, family, survivors, advocates, officers, social workers, teachers, clergy. Leaving intimate partner abuse isn’t a simple decision. It isn’t a matter of “just doing it already” or even a matter of “finding the courage”. It takes bravery AND resilience, a fleck of clarity AND the stamina to see it through. Victims need shoulders to cry on, arms to hold them up, caretakers to watch their children, resources to cover their needs, and time to walk out their healing. And not just for a month or even a year. Sometimes they won’t even see the posttraumatic stress until years after they are out of their abuser’s reach. The healing process for victims of abuse can neither be predicted nor formulated. Each of us are unique in the way we cope with the devastation of where our story has led us.
But, no matter who you are (victim or not) and no matter what your story (touched by abuse or not), the cycle of abuse will always begin to end with this: talking. So, speak. Use your power and share your words. Reach out. Lean in. We’re all around you, 1 in 4 of us–victims and survivors alike. Just do me one favor: Never underestimate our power to survive and heal.
If you or a loved one are experiencing abuse in your home, please call 800.799.SAFE (7233) or visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline and talk with a trained advocate today. If you understand what this article mentions, you understand domestic violence. Find the next right step for YOU. Sending you strength and BIG, warm hugs.