As I sat down to write the stories of the women at a local women’s shelter, as I listened to them recount their stories to us, as I encouraged them to tell the world, so the world understands, the hypocrisy of my words were not lost on me. I didn’t need anyone to tell me what it was like to live in an abusive relationship or the struggles faced when getting out. I lived it and I got out and for a long time, I was ashamed. I was ashamed that I had allowed myself to be in that position. I am not going to lie and say none of it was my fault. That my own bad choices didn’t play a part. Regardless though, I’m sure many who know me probably find it hard to believe. I still do at times.
The abuse I endured was not physical. I didn’t have black eyes and bruises to make people understand. It was mental. It was locking me in the bedroom so I couldn’t get out until I agreed with him. It was poking me all night to keep me awake when I had to work the next morning until I agreed with him. It was speeding down the highway, blowing stop signs so I couldn’t get out of the car, until I told him what he wanted to hear. It was attending cookouts without me and telling me it was because other people didn’t want me there. It was constant berating for not being a part of his many “money making” schemes and choosing instead to work multiple jobs to keep a roof over our head.
Abusers, men or women, have a way of making you think you are the center of their world. They have a way of making you think everything they do is for you. Mental abuse is not overt. It doesn’t start out with locking bedroom doors. It starts out with little things. And they play on your weaknesses and we all have them. For me, it was low self-esteem. Not in most areas. Not in my strengths, my intellect, my ability to work hard and rise to the top. My low self-esteem was regarding my looks. I didn’t fit the cookie cutter model of the perfect woman I had grown up seeing. I was always just a little overweight. (Of course, looking back at pictures now, I wish I could go back and tell my teenage self, her adult self would give her eye and teeth to be that size again. ) As embarrassing as it is now to say, a part of me was honestly grateful that he paid attention to me. A part of me was excited to just say that I was in a relationship.
It is important too to understand, very few people, if anyone, knew I felt that way about myself. It wasn’t taught to me. I created that image of myself all on my own. But he picked up on it immediately. And he was a master at wearing a mask. Everyone loved him. Everyone thought he was awesome. And there was a point, I did too. He wasn’t like that in the beginning. Really, looking back, the only clues I had of his true personality was his jealousy. He was extremely jealous. Now I realize, he was jealous, because of the things he did, not because of things I did.
The threat of physical violence eventually occurred. I will never forget the moment he raised his hand to hit me. Something about the look on my face stopped him. My words were simple. “Go ahead. You have to sleep some time.” I still had some fight at that moment. But I’m also not an idiot. The next time that happened, there would be no stopping him.
The only self-worth that remained when I left that situation was the self-worth taught to me by parents. I was a shell of the person I used to be. To be honest, I had nearly lost my fight. At the point I decided to leave, it was a last ditch effort.
The only difference between me and the women at Serenity House, is I had a place to go right then. I didn’t have a wait list. I didn’t have to beg. I picked up the phone. I called my parents. I cleared out the bank account without him knowing. A friend who had also gotten out of a situation, the only friend I had at the time, opened her doors to me until my flight. I left everything behind. Childhood mementos. Things you take with you when you move from home.
Except for clearing out the bank account, I didn’t need to leave in secret, because I know, he honestly didn’t believe I would actually leave. The most irritating thing to me looking back was the look on his face as I threw clothes in a bag. He didn’t bother to apologize, because he knew his hold over me was strong enough. Thankfully, he was wrong. He was only wrong though because of one thing; I had a safe place to go, far away from him. I was given the time to regroup. I was given the time, out from under his thumb, to find myself again. By the time he realized I was stronger than he thought, it was too late.
And there are latent scars, even though I am now in a healthy relationship and married to a wonderful man. I am less likely to trust openly. I am more likely to react in any way that shows no one controls me. I am brutally honest and blunt. I don’t want to be lied to and I won’t lie to others to get what I want out of them.
I have often sat in a room and heard people say, “I don’t understand how a woman can let that happen to her.” or “I don’t understand why she doesn’t leave.” You honestly don’t need to have experienced it to empathize. If right now, you lost everything, where would you go? If you say with family, you are lucky. What if the people you love the most, the ones who tell you they love you, constantly told you that you were worthless? How long could you hold out? Where would you go? If you say with family, you are lucky.
The only difference between me and the women at Serenity House is I had a place to go. With this article, I am doing what the women at the shelters can’t do yet. I am putting a face and name to the story. I am not ashamed anymore. I refuse to be ashamed.
I can’t say I understand what it is like to be threatened with death. I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to fight that fight. I don’t understand what it is like to have children to consider when I left. I got out early. But places like Serenity House give those women an option, when they may not have another.
Shame on any man or woman who uses the love another has for them to control them. It isn’t the victim that should be ashamed. It is the abuser. And we, as a society, need to flip that switch. Because right now, it isn’t that way.
Michelle Leigh Miller is an independently published author, freelance writer, and blogger in Southeastern Ohio. Basically, she is just writing words.