I love books – but not these books. These books, with their gorgeous covers and soft pages, lay buried yet not forgotten in the farthest corner of my bedroom. They are expensive books, most of them – and they are mostly empty. I can’t bring myself to fill them but I can’t bring myself to throw them away. The mere sight of them makes me cringe. These books carry my deepest secrets. They violate my innermost denial. I hide them from everyone, but most of all myself, because to look at them is to confront a bold, raw testimony of the things I’d rather bury and forget.
Things like this:
“”I’m ashamed of you! You’re an embarrassment to me every time I’m seen in public with you!'” … Without a word, I cross the hall, open the door, and sit on my bed. I look in the mirror. I’m fat. (Name) said so – that’s why she’s ashamed.”
“‘Who raised this pig?'” The question, blunt and brutal, cuts me to the quick. For the last ten minutes, I have not said a word. My replies have all been shrugs and facial expressions. My throat is tightening up and my vision is blurred with tears. ‘Who raised this pig?’
“‘Who raised this pig?’ The words echo in my mind, stabbing at my sanity like pin pricks. I am worthless… The words echo in my mind and sear my heart. I can’t soothe the burn. It aches and aches. I want to claw it from my chest. Every beat infuriates me. “Who raised this pig?’
“I nearly crumble into tears but I know round two is coming… Surely enough, the battle cry comes. ‘Nick!'”
“Opening the medicine cabinet, I reflect on the time, last year, when I tried to commit suicide with pills. I remember telling people – my friend Claire, a few others – just to see if they cared at all. (Name) was right when she said I was doing it for attention. I needed to know that somebody cared. That’s all I wanted. Claire did. I hold no bad feelings toward her for telling on me. I wanted her to care. I wanted (name) to understand that I was in pain… (but) I remember feeling like she was more concerned that I told people than worried that I might do it.”
It took almost a decade after that fateful day before I finally had the courage to call this cruel and toxic behavior by its proper name: abuse.
Abuse was a word I never thought I would claim. I thought abuse required bruises and scars, some sort of physical mark to validate the internal anguish of the soul. Since I was never physically harmed, my scars are not on my skin – they are on my soul. I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes it’s easier to heal broken flesh and broken bone than it is to heal the hidden fractures of the heart and mind.
These hidden harms are so easy to overlook, justify, excuse, forget. It’s easy to rationalize and look the other way.
It is so hard to see it for what it is,
even and sometimes especially for the person who is suffering it.
With the constant beat of blame as our cadence, we begin to believe those who berate us. We become convinced that our abusers are right and our emotions are wrong. After all, the truth hurts, right? So we rationalize that these things we’re told must be true because they hurt so deeply.
We turn our pain inward and learn to hate ourselves for being weak, for being emotional, for letting the abuse affect us. We blame ourselves – our inadequacies, our failures, our shortcomings and flaws and stupid mistakes – for every cruel thing that is said to us.
We decide that we deserve it.
We betray ourselves and brace for another round. We forgive and forget as time goes by and the memory fades. We doubt our memories and convince ourselves that we are making mountains out of molehills, that whatever happened can’t have been as bad as it seemed at the time. We blame our memories, once again taking responsibility for the abuser’s actions, and we justify our abuser’s behavior to everyone, including ourselves.
And we endure it again. And again. And again.
But we can break the cycle.
Almost 9 months ago, I reached the breaking point in the primary abusive relationship in my life. After nearly three hours of cruel conversation, this person told me they never wanted to see me again. It wasn’t the first time and I knew, eventually, this person would try to reconcile. As I contemplated that, I came to a startling and unexpected realization:
I don’t have to listen to this any more.
As a 25 year old woman, it should have been obvious… but to me, right then, this realization was unexpected and empowering. I could be free. I don’t have to keep playing this game. I have a choice.
The author in me craved to put this decision in writing, so I wrote this message in an unsent letter:
“To enjoy your company and preserve our friendship, I’ve endured an equal measure of compliments and criticism, an equal dose of admiration and abuse. You have extreme mood swings and say things that are beautifully kind and horribly cruel within a few breaths of each other. If you get upset, it’s like all hell broke loose and every shred of civility disappears.
In most things, I can deal with it. I’ve dealt with you taking me to Olive Garden and then lecturing me about how overweight I am while I stare at my favorite foods and feel too guilty to eat – just like you wanted me to. I’ve dealt with you meeting me for what was supposed to be a fun day in town and then pulling my kids’ shoes off just to see if their socks match (on a day when they otherwise kept their shoes on all day) – just so you can accuse me of not taking care of my kids. I’ve dealt with your criticism about my house and how I live my life – just so you can prove how inadequate I am. I’ve dealt with it and I haven’t retaliated. I do my best to forgive and forget. I love you and my relationship with you has always seemed worth the emotional cost…. until now.
The emotional rollercoaster you love to put me on has a name – emotional abuse.
The cruel and hateful words that you spew at me whenever you are angry have a name – verbal abuse.
Abuse. There – for the first time in 25 years I’ve said it. Abuse. I have never been abused by my husband, as you so often accuse. But I have often, regularly and consistently been abused by you.
Like I said before, I will always, always love you. Always and forever. But I will not always tolerate your verbal abuse and your toxic opinions… I have dealt with verbal abuse my entire life but I don’t have to put up with it any longer.”
My friends, I’m not going to lie and say it was the easiest decision I’ve ever made. It wasn’t. It was the hardest, most gut-wrenching experience of my life. Breaking that relationship meant shutting the door – no, slamming and locking the door and throwing away the key – on some of the most precious and beloved members of my family. It was excruciatingly painful. There was heartache and tears, grief and sleepless nights.
No, it definitely wasn’t the easiest decision I ever made.
But it was the most empowering decision I ever made.
I was empowered to confront the lingering effects of this abuse. Empowered to overcome my social anxiety. Empowered to love myself, to dare to believe that I might be worth something, that I might not be a failure, that I might not always be the problem in every situation. Empowered to embrace a life where I wasn’t responsible for other people’s emotions. I was empowered to declare war on the toxic thoughts that had been drilled into me for 25 years and emerge a better, brighter, happier person. A person who loves without fear and hopes without limits.
It’s such a better way to be.
I’m still in the trenches of healing and there is still a long road ahead of me, but I’m hopeful and I’m moving forward – and that’s what matters most.
My sweet reader, if you or someone you know is trapped in an abusive relationship, don’t lose hope. There is immediate help available at 1-800-799-7233 and http://www.thehotline.org/.