By Sara Forcella, See the Triumph Contributor
I’ve never considered myself a survivor. I never thought I would be in an abusive relationship, or that the pain I was experiencing in my relationship was abuse. I never labeled the unhealthy behaviors. I never labeled myself, nor did I ever label my partner. But, finally, after years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am a survivor. That that word, for me, is a badge of honor that I want to carry. It means that I got out, that I triumphed, and that for it I’m a stronger being.
Some people might say that I’m not your typical ‘survivor.’ I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies, where I spent most of my time studying the dynamics of interpersonal violence and advocating for survivors. I currently work as an advocate for college-age survivors of interpersonal violence. I facilitate trainings about relationship violence--about the power and control wheel, about the cycle of abuse, and about the warning signs. I have blogged for See The Triumph for over two years now. And never once have I written to you as a survivor. But today, I have decided that I owe that to you, and to myself.
If you met me, you’d probably look at me and never guess that I was in an abusive relationship. You may never know that I endured years of emotional and verbal abuse during more than one part of my life. I don’t have bruises or scars--none that are visible at least. My partner never laid a hand on me. Never hit me, grabbed me or even tossed me around.I had no physical proof of what he was doing to me; I couldn’t show him my bruises and say ‘you’re hurting me.’ I could only try to explain to him that his words and actions were slowly breaking me. This form of abuse was much more secretive, much less visible to the outside world. For years, I never was even able to truly put a label on what he was doing; instead, I made excuses for his behavior and blamed myself for the emotional pain that I was experiencing.
My partner also wasn’t someone that you might picture as an abuser. He was good looking, athletic, a college graduate, a hard worker, and very well liked. He wasn’t boisterous, or even outgoing. In fact, for the most part he was shy, went with the flow, and never challenged others. He was loved by his family, friends, teammates, employers, and even my friends. In fact, he was so well-liked that when I tried to explain what I was experiencing to others, nobody believed me. They’d say I was overreacting. That ‘he’s so nice,’ ‘I could never picture him doing that,’ and ‘he wouldn’t hurt a fly.’ The fact that nobody believed me made the abuse even worse. There were times when I would mentally beg for him to hit me, to give me a black eye, because then there would at least be some sort of evidence of his abuse.
The truth was that my abuser was smart. He used things like put downs and blame to make me weak. I was told that every single problem in our relationship, and even his life, were my fault. It was my fault we were broke, my fault he was unhappy, my fault he couldn’t find a good job, my fault that his family didn’t like me; everything was always my fault. This story that he repeatedly told me soon became my truth. I took on all the blame for everything that ever went wrong in our lives. He also used isolation: we never left our apartment, never went out with friends or family, never enjoyed a night out on the town. I barely had close friends by the time our relationship had progressed. I spent all of my time with him, texting him or talking to him on the phone. I figured this was just because we were so ‘in love,’ but I soon realized that I was completely dependent on this other human being. Somewhere along the way, I had lost myself. I couldn’t do seemingly simple things like go grocery shopping or walk my dog, because when I did I’d have an anxiety attack. Getting up each and every day became nearly impossible. My abuser also used threats as a form of abuse. Threats that he’d leave me, threats that no one else would want someone so broken, threats that he’d even tell his family that I was dealing with anxiety and depression. He used gaslighting; he’d say and do things and then act like they never happened at all. He acted as if I was the crazy one, or I was the one in the wrong; like there was no logical reason to be afraid of him when he got intoxicated and threw his belongings across the room. While he never hit me, he had a strange way of using intimidation to let me know that he was strong and fully capable of hurting me if he ever wanted to.
Looking back now, I get mad at myself for not seeing all of the red flags in our relationship sooner. Because, these are typical abusive behaviors, I repeat, these are all forms of abuse! Sadly, by the time I realized that I was in an abusive relationship, I was so far in that I wasn’t quite sure how to get out. I wasn’t even sure that emotional abuse was a good enough reason to leave my partner. He was so nice to everyone else around him that I thought I was the problem, that the abuse was my fault and that if I changed enough maybe it would go away. Again, these are common feelings shared by many survivors. The fact was that he had stolen my self-confidence and independence. His abuse had triggered me to have anxiety attacks and sink into depression. All of this, again, I thought was somehow my fault. I slowly started losing myself; everything that I once loved, and all the friends I once talked to every day, just disappeared. I was walking through life worried about what kind of person I’d come home to. At work, I was preoccupied with my own personal struggles. Everything in my life started falling apart--and my abuser kept getting stronger. In a way, it seemed like he liked my dependence on him, like he liked the shell of the person I had become, because I was easier to control.
To be honest, I’m not quite sure what made me decide to leave; I don't recall the straw that broke the camel's back. However, I do remember the person that gave me strength to take those steps. I remember calling my mom and sobbing to her over the phone, from over 600 miles away, begging for her to listen to me and believe my story. It took one person to believe me. To tell me that she saw the abuse, and that it wasn’t okay. It took one person to tell me that I wasn’t crazy and that I deserved to be loved and honored, without being abused. After hearing those words, after being believed, I knew that I’d rather be single than be in a convenient relationship that was wildly unhealthy. Like many survivors, I was scared to break things off, afraid that he would harm me, even though physical abuse had never been part of our dynamic. I was scared that I would never find love again. Petrified to live alone. Fearful of failing on my own, of falling flat on my face. Nevertheless, something amazing happened the second that my partner walked out the door and never came back--I slowly began to realize that I didn’t need him, and, more importantly, that I didn’t deserve the abuse that he had put me through.
Recovering from an abusive relationship is not an easy process. I still have all of the figurative scars and bruises that his words and actions left on me. I still struggle to believe that I can be in a healthy and loving relationship. I struggle not taking on the blame of others. I’ve had to make a conscious effort to push myself out of my comfort zone--to make friends, and go out on dates (because that was something that I wanted). I’m relatively new to being in the role of a survivor. But, there’s something amazing about looking back on all of the progress that I have made over the past few months, since leaving that relationship. I have seen my anxiety and depression decrease an incredible amount. I am extremely independent; something I now pride myself on. Overall, I am just a happier and healthy person.
I wasn’t sure that I ever wanted to write about my own personal experience with abusive on See The Triumph. Honestly, because my abuse wasn’t physical, I never really thought it was quite fair to call myself a ‘survivor.’ But, then I thought about all of my students, and all of the wonderful folks that have shared their stories with me over the years. Would I ever tell them that their experience didn’t matter just because they didn’t have physical proof? No way! So here I am, ready to take ownership of my identity as a survivor of emotional abuse. I want others to know that being a survivor does not mean that you have had to be physically abused. Emotional and verbal abuse are no less forms of abuse than physical. I am not less of a survivor than someone who’s endured physical abuse. The abuse I endured was just as real. It took me just as much courage as any other survivor to say that enough was enough, to end things and pick up the pieces of my life. If my story helps one person realize that emotional and verbal abuse ARE forms of abuse, that they are unacceptable, and that you never, ever, deserve to be in a relationship where these behaviors are present, then accepting this label and writing this piece will be worth it. It only took one person to believe me--so today, I am telling you that I believe that your story and pain are real.