Life is super weird sometimes. Day by day things seems to be going according to plan, according to your routine until all of a sudden you’re up late one night scrolling through old blog entries or Facebook photos or diary passages and you realize how different your life has become, how different you have become. In the height of all of the drama surrounding the Ray Rice domestic violence media I’ve allowed myself to think a lot more about domestic violence and the minds of the victims.
Driving home from work last week, listening to Taylor Swift and watching miles upon miles (or kilometers upon kilometers) of evergreen wilderness pass me by I was in that sort of meditative state you often find yourself awakened from as you pull into the driveway of your home and ask yourself “how did I even get here?”. It’s freaky how detached from consciousness we can become while operating a moving vehicle. As I turned the corner off the highway onto the winding country road that would lead me home, Taylor’s “Dear John” began to play softly and pulled me out of my meditative driving trance.
It was the very song I’d listened to on repeat crying for what seemed to be hours on end just months prior. It was the song that reminded me of feeling buried alive in my own home, in my own relationship. I felt suffocated by the bad decisions I made, I felt drowned by the lies I’d told to myself and those closest to me and most of all I felt trapped because I didn’t know how I could possibly ask for help when I felt as if I was six feet under and no one could possibly see or hear me. Feeling suffocated was the reason I stayed. I blamed myself, justifying the ways I’d dug my own grave, stood too close to it, and reasoned it was only a matter of time until someone walked right up and pushed me into it.
It wasn’t until an anxiety induced break down one night that I grew too fearful to sleep in my own apartment. I literally fled without telling my boyfriend at the time where I was going. I was so afraid he would come looking for me, that he would hurt me, I stayed with my best friend finally, tearfully spilling out the secrets I’d kept buried for so long. It was during the chaotic frenzy that I realized there was a way out. I no longer had to keep my dreams of living without constant fear of my significant other as just dreams.
Both domestic violence and mental illness are serious topics that come with stigmas, stereotypes and varying opinions. Both topics are far too deep and far too complex to accurately depict the severity over a blog post, or three, or five. Both topics have been overwhelmingly crowding media attention over the past month. You could fill a library of books on domestic violence or mental illness alone and still have unrepresented voices, valuable opinions still missing. All I can share is my story, which in all fairness is just one story and one small representation, a piece in the grander puzzle. Dating someone with a mental illness, can present a set of challenges, however I don’t think it is fair accuse all people living with mental illness as incapable of healthy, loving relationships. In my situation the two issues domestic violence and mental illness happened to go hand in hand but it would be a ridiculous over generalization to suggest that is always the case. However, as with all individuals dealing with emotional issues, I think choosing to become involved with someone romantically as they are still learning to cope with their mental illness can lead to a very toxic situation very quickly. When a significant other uses you as a method of coping with their mental illness it is only a matter of time before the relationship becomes destructive.
I don’t want to be anyone’s “anti-depressant”, I don’t want to be the person constantly urging my significant other not to pull the trigger and end his own life. And I certainly don’t want to be manipulated into staying in an unhealthy relationship with suicide threats or acts of violence. When you’re living with emotional abuse and manipulation combined with domestic violence it’s easy to look in from the outside and wonder why someone would put up with such an unhealthy situation. Yet when you’re the one in the center of it all, there are so many reasons why you stay.
You don’t stay because you like being thrown onto the pavement during a midnight fight outside your apartment, you don’t stay because you like being called a “whore” or because you like being told “no one will love you the way [he] does”. You stay because despite how much you’re kicked and harassed and insulted, you’re still loving and kind. Because he may have crushed your dignity and belittled your mind but your heart is still there and being abused doesn’t make you any less tender or caring. Because you can’t stand the idea of looking into the tear filled eyes of your abuser’s mother and feeling like you could have stopped him from ending his own life.
Because when you’re physically abused you’re usually emotionally abused as well. Predators don’t just beat you in elevators and leave you crying alone 7 days a week. There are the times when they hold you and comfort you and dry your tears. There are the times they promise you it won’t ever happen again, or that he’ll work on treating you the way you deserve. You give him another chance not because you think it’s okay to be treated this way, not because you’re weak but because you’re trying to be strong and there’s this idea that being strong sometimes means going through pain for the benefit of other people. It’s easy to try and live by that love lesson but with some twisting it can destroy you in the end.
The reason I left wasn’t because I suddenly stopped caring. Even when I was able to admit to myself that I was being used and manipulated I couldn’t shake the sadness that came with the realization that I’d committed two years of my life to a relationship based on control and manipulation. While I’d given so much of my heart, my real dreams, my love, I’d received manipulation in return. I’d loved someone who took my deepest fears, insecurities and inadequacies and was a master at using them against me. It seemed easier to continue living under the false impression that I was loved, to keep giving myself fully and succumbing to manipulation and deceit because escaping was so scary. Escaping meant admitting to myself that I’d given so much of myself to someone who repeatedly intended to hurt me. In that moment leaving felt weaker than staying, which I why I can empathize with the women who stay in abusive situations.
I would never advocate for a woman to stay, no matter how severe, no matter how scary, no matter how much you rely on your abusive partner physically, emotionally, or financially. You should always leave because you deserve better, because no one should suffer the emotional damage that comes with abuse of any kind. Yet, I think we should be a little slower to judge the women (and men) who stay in abusive relationships. These people are stigmatized as weak, as lacking self respect, as stupid and it is for this reason those being abused are so hesitant to come forward and tell their story, to admit what is happening to them and to ask for help.
Until you’ve allowed someone into your heart who continues to take advantage of your love and loyalty it is difficult to understand that victims of abuse aren’t weak. Victims are incredibly strong, they’re resilient and more often than not they are doing the best they can, using all the energy they have to survive. When a victim opens up to you about abuse, while it may seem like the best option is to empower them by telling them that “strong people leave” it can feel degrading. A victim has been fighting what feels like a non stop battle and I think we forge that they have been strong for a long time.
When someone opens up and tells you their story, whether it is happening currently, in the recent past or years ago, despite the “severity” of the situation, resist the urge to boast “I would never let someone treat me that way”. Because until it happens to you you can’t possibly understand. The most intelligent, self respecting woman can be manipulated into staying in an abusive relationship. The best thing we can do to support these women, is to provide a safe and judgment free atmosphere. I guarantee they are judging themselves every time they look in the mirror and see a the dull lifelese eyes they too never thought they would acquire. I guarantee they hate themselves when they are forced to lie about bruises, tear stains, or bags under their eyes from late nights fighting. These women don’t need you to bash them for weakness, or remind them that society perceives them as hopeless or pathetic. They need to be reminded they are powerful and to feel like they will be supported as they channel their strength, their power, in a different direction.