What I Learned From Overcoming an Abusive Relationship

What I Learned From Overcoming an Abusive Relationship

Author’s note: This article discusses dating violence and abuse.

My first boyfriend was a gentle guy.

He didn’t talk a lot, walked with his head down, eyes on his shoes. He sometimes joked that I was a human firecracker — that I squeaked and popped enough for the both of us.

We were complete opposites, but we fit together in a young, passionate, fiery kind of way.

No one ever told me what the “warning signs” of domestic violence were. No one told me that the way he checked the text messages on my phone every time I got a new one wasn’t him being protective, it was him being controlling. And no one told me that the first time he threw me down the stairs because I tried to leave him wouldn’t be the last.

But, even if they had, I probably wouldn’t have believed them.

The next few years consisted of me being physically, emotionally, and mentally pushed around by the first person in my life I had given my unconditional love to. The worst part was that I never even left him. He left me. He got bored, he cheated on me, and he left me. I spent the next few years feeling lost and as though I had had every piece of my former self stripped from me. I had no idea who I was or how I was supposed to care about anything or anyone ever again.

That’s what no one ever tells you about domestic violence — it isn’t the trust issues or the pity you may find in people’s eyes that make being a survivor so hard, it’s learning how to find yourself again. You go from being in a relationship where you’d completely lost yourself to that person, violence and control are all that you’d come to know, and then it isn’t there anymore and you don’t know what to do.

After a lot of time, many a conversation with myself, and friends who refused to let me sink, I did find my way back to who I was before my bad relationship. The way this worked for me was to do it one step at a time — I started by going back to the things that I knew made me happy before. It was my attempt to fill the hole that gnawed at me, the one that made it hard for me to look at someone in the eyes or to get undressed, even when I was alone.

My sophomore year I ended up in a class about violence in families. Although I kept my own personal connection to the subject a secret from the rest of my class, it taught me a lot about my own experience, and unexpectedly, how lucky I was.

In that class we talked about how race, economic status, and gender affected the cycle of intimate partner violence (a gender neutral, umbrella term that we often used). I was shocked to learn that many women of color didn’t reach out for help when they experienced IPV because they didn’t feel they could trust the police, or because they feared they would lose their children or their homes. That was when I realized that although my experience with domestic violence was traumatic, I was privileged to be surrounded with people who understood, supported, and most importantly, believed me.

I spent the next few months of that class volunteering with the mentoring violence prevention program which was designed to educate high school kids about the ways that gender power dynamics, race, and socioeconomic status affected victims of domestic violence. During this time I formed strong friendships with some of the other women in my class who had been through experiences similar to mine. Although some days it was extremely difficult to find the motivation to talk about my past, I kept doing it and at the end of the semester, I started feeling more like myself again.

For a long time, I would roll my eyes at all the people who told me that being a survivor would make me stronger, that one day I would look back on it as a learning experience. While I sometimes still resent those people, I also now understand what they meant. Today I no longer feel like a victim; I don’t look at my past experience with domestic violence as something to be ashamed of. Instead, I use it to propel my activism, and although it’s still hard for me to talk about, I have a deep appreciation for the fact that I can speak about it if I choose without fear of retaliation or rejection. So I do talk about it, often in fact, if not for me then for the women who don’t have the same privilege of doing so.