October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month, a campaign spearheaded by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The campaign focuses on mourning those lost to domestic violence, celebrating those who have survived, and connecting those who work to end domestic violence. A few years ago, the hashtag #WhyIStayed and later #WhyILeft began trending after footage of an NFL player, Ray Rice, hitting his then fiancée, Janay Rice, was shared in the media. The stories of domestic violence that came forward were heartbreaking. They reinforced that domestic violence can happen to those of all genders, socio-economic statuses, races and ethnicities. The stories offered understanding and explanation of what domestic violence can be like and how it plays out. They also offered hope. The hashtags hit close to home for me so here’s a glimpse into my story of why I stayed and why I eventually left.
I spent nearly two years in a relationship that was mentally and emotionally abusive. It started out like any other relationship that I had been in. We were both young, well educated, had stable jobs, came from middle class, two parent families. You wouldn’t have known there was ever an issue between us. But things began to change subtly and slowly until I was living a nightmare of constant fear and insecurity. Over time what I ate, what I wore, who I spent time with, when and what I drank, how I cleaned my home or took care of my pets, and so many other things began to be dictated to me. If I rebelled and did my own thing, I paid for it in the verbal tear down that always eventually followed. I was called terrible names, accused of heinous offenses, and made to feel like I was a failure in every aspect of my existence. It was framed to me as him trying to help me become the amazing person he knew I could be. It wasn’t worth it to fight back though because the fight was exhausting and never-ending and I was always the one who ended up hurt.
I found myself in a state of shear exhaustion and so depressed that despite my work in the mental health field, knowing that it was an abusive relationship, and desperately wanting out, I couldn’t muster the energy to take those steps. I even considered suicide in the darkest moments but that required energy and effort too and I didn’t truly want to end my life. I just wanted out. I wanted my home to be a safe place. I wanted my mind to be my own. I’ve heard people describe leaving as a process and it really was. My path out started by friends discovering pieces of my story when I broke down one night at a friend’s home. They rallied around me offering their support and then checking in with me while, in time, I became ready to take more definite steps. My parents were critical in refusing to let me disappear again and making it known that they would always have my back if I ever needed them. It took me a year to get out.
Getting free of the actual relationship was hard but my story doesn’t end there. I walked away with mental wounds that took time to heal. I sought out my own therapist. I avoided things and places that triggered memories of the abuse. I started dating again but I struggled to trust that other relationships would be any different. When I met my husband and I began telling my story to someone new for the first time, I waited for him to leave because my wounds were still too fresh or hard to cope with. Yet he stayed, he listened, he respected what I needed. Today, we have an amazing relationship built on trust, respect, support, and love. It isn’t always easy; we work hard at maintaining a relationship that makes us both feel valued, content, and cared for. I’m thankful each day for what we have.
My story is fortunate in that the relationship was never physically violent and was short-lived in the grand scheme of things. Many others suffer much worse for much longer. There are resources and supports out there to help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) is just one such resource. If you or someone you know is struggling to escape domestic violence, please know there is hope. The story doesn’t have to end in violence.