What Happens After You Leave?

My apologies for the lapse in updating, I’ve been taking some much-needed time to rest and visit with family and friends and just do daily life. Sometimes even I need a break from difficult topics to remember that there’s such a wide spectrum of experiences out there–good, bad, and neutral. While I hold my own experience with abuse much more lightly now–I don’t think about it daily or even weekly at times–what continually presses on my mind is how to educate womxn about healthy relationships and to prevent others from staying or getting into these relationships in the first place.

Rather than do what I usually do on this blog and try to speak more generally, what I’m going to do instead is speak more personally, and tell the story of what happened after I split with my abuser and the aftermath of that first delicate year. Because I was so afraid of my abuser in those last weeks, I asked my parents to move in with me because despite his raging at me and telling me he couldn’t stand to be with me anymore, he refused to leave our home. I knew I was in over my head at that point and I didn’t want to involve law enforcement because he was, of course, too smart to break any laws, but he was still terrorizing me daily. When I heard his vehicle coming up our drive, I would sometimes throw up, and often had panic attacks. Making that call–admitting that I was being abused and that I needed help–was one of the most shame-inducing experiences of my life. Not only was my marriage a failure, but I had to admit out loud what was really happening. My parents were horrified, but not that surprised, and though they weren’t always capable of providing the empathy I needed and wanted, they saved me from further harm. Though he was furious that they were there, it had the predictable effect of stopping the abuse. He wasn’t going to abuse me in front of anyone else, he was far too narcissistic for that. And I knew it.

After a while, he voluntarily left, and I packed up all his things. In the garbage cans behind our flat, he had thrown nearly half of his belongings–papers, clothes, some of my belongings. Nearly everything I had ever given him. In those piles of stuff, I found court papers–papers that showed that he had been convicted of domestic violence against a former partner. Which of course, was not the narrative I had been sold. But there it was, his criminal record right in front of me. It cracked what remained of my denial, and what seeped out was pure pain.

In those early days I couldn’t eat anything but baked potatoes. Somehow they were comforting, felt safe. I rapidly lost 15 lbs, and drank more than I usually did to try to stop my heart beating out of my chest. Like a frightened rabbit, I was quick to startle. When I could finally get to sleep, I would wake often with panic attacks. Every day, I was exhausted. I felt like an apparition haunting what had been a home I’d created with so much love and devotion, with so much hope. It seemed that was all crashing around me, and when I looked at myself in the mirror, I wondered how I had lost myself for so many years. Because I already had to work in a clinic and deal with the pain of others, in my free time I couldn’t watch anything gritty, anything realistic. So I read the Sookie Stackhouse novels–all of them. One after another. I immersed myself in a made-up, campy world of vampire romance because my world hurt too much to contemplate. But I kept working. In fact, I don’t think I missed a day of work because of my divorce. Which in retrospect, was probably not a good thing, but at the time it was a point of pride.

What I did next is something I really, really don’t recommend: I almost immediately got into a romantic relationship with someone who couldn’t provide me or anyone else with stability, and within it tried to cover over the open wound that was my abusive marriage. Because I was so vulnerable and wounded, I didn’t recognize that I was catapulting myself into a relationship with someone who was superficially very charming, but nearly as disordered as the person I had just left. My therapist would say this all very plainly and still I would stare blankly at her. She didn’t understand, I thought, that this person was holding me together. I felt wanted again, important again, valuable, beautiful. And of course that was all an illusion, and that person took more than they gave me. But I did learn that I could move on, that although my ability to trust others had been damaged, that I myself was not damaged, not really. Despite what had happened to me I did not seal off my heart in hate. I did not lose myself in addictions. I did not fall apart, though I felt as insubstantial as a ghost, and that feeling lasted for the fuller part of a year. Because I couldn’t afford my place on my own, I got a roommate. There was a lot of financial fallout from my divorce, as I was the only one with good credit, so everything we bought on credit, I had to absorb. I was too scared of him to ask for help paying this debt, so I just filed myself and let him get away without financial responsibility. At the time, it seemed like my only option. Though leaving the marriage cost me and put me behind financially for years, I have to say, it was worth my freedom.

When my ill-fated rebound relationship ended, I finally had the breakdown I deserved, and decided to sign up for a retreat at a nearby Buddhist monastery. It was there that I started picking up the shards of my broken heart and piecing my soul back together. Which is to say, that I cried during hours of meditation. If crying is a meditation, then I was a master. I made friends that are some of my closest today, and who witnessed me at my most wounded, and loved me through it. From the monks and nuns and my friends in the practice, I found the nurturing and stillness I needed to finally allow myself to feel what had happened. Because when you’re in an abusive relationship, you had to shut down your feelings. It’s far too threatening and you won’t survive unless you do this, but it costs you so much. Before I could heal, I had to thaw.

It took years from that point to develop the ability to be in a healthy relationship, or any relationship at all. First I had to piece together the real relationship, not the one I thought I was having. I had to re-write the story, and that was excruciating. But it was also the ticket to my freedom from abuse. I knew that I would not tolerate that kind of treatment ever again, and furthermore, I dove into research about these personalities, the red flags they fly at the beginning of new relationships. All that I write here, I learned during that time of study and empowerment.

The only way out is through, survivors. But you don’t have to walk it alone. Many of us have trailblazed before you, and there’s a discernible path. There are helpers along the way, loving others who will illuminate your way. The pain of withdrawal from a toxic relationship eventually settles, especially if you can go no contact. With time and conscious work, you will be able to accept and release the experience. It becomes a chapter in your life rather than the defining story.

Trust the universe. Trust yourself.

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