A dear client has been facing the effects of PTSD from the spouse abuse she suffered and has been sharing her story in greater depth with me through writing. She has found this freeing and empowering. I suggested that others who've suffered similarly might find the finding of her voice helpful with them finding theirs. She graciously agreed to share part of her story here. —JS
"I’m a victim of emotional and sexual abuse."
It’s taken me 11 years to own that sentence. It has not defined my life, but it has haunted my life. Now that I can own it, it no longer owns me. Or at least I’m closer to it no longer owning me.
Part of owning it has been telling my story. It’s only been one written and emailed memory at a time to one person, but putting it out there has made a huge difference. Eventually it will all be out there and I won’t have to sit alone with it anymore. Since the day of my wedding, the two-and-a-half months of marriage that followed, and the almost 11 years since the day I left him, my story has been unshared. I’ve dealt with it alone. A few people know pieces of it, but not the whole story. I have been ashamed. I have been scared of judgement. I have feared people would not believe me. I have worried what he (my ex-husband) would think if any of it got back to him, which left me still under his power as I kept his secrets. I’ve mistakenly thought that by speaking the nightmare out loud it would make it more real. Guess what, it was real. It did happen. Speaking it out loud has been the best thing I’ve done in the 11 years of combating the disabling effects of PTSD symptoms and trying to process it alone.
Here is part of one of the memories I wrote recently. I chose to share this one with a larger audience because to me it speaks so loudly to the silent suffering of those who are enduring abuse behind closed doors. This was a turning point in my decision to leave him.
Quick background note: I married a man who morphed into everything I would want in a husband while we dated and then returned to his actual self the hour we got married. After the ceremony he became someone I didn’t recognize. He was a monster.
“I remember sitting on the couch one night while he talked to me. He was upset about something that he was sure was my fault. It was always my fault. He was throwing punches at my character; emotional abuse in a nutshell. I was tired of hearing how awful I was. It didn’t ring true to my soul, but it still carried an unwanted weight and fatiguing effort to resist believing it. With so much repetition, it was hard not to believe sometimes. Then the strangest thing happened. Suddenly, I heard nothing. I saw his mouth moving and I was well aware of his face, but the noise went silent. Then as quickly as it had gone silent, I heard his voice again, but not his words. It sounded like the teacher in the Peanuts cartoons talking, "mwa mwahh bwua wahhaa bwa". I just stared at him and listened without comprehending a single syllable. I know I tried not to smile, but I wouldn't be surprised if he saw a little twinkle in my eye and a curl in the corner of one side of my mouth. I smirked partly because hearing Charlie Brown's teacher in the midst of what was supposed to be a threatening and painful lectured was amusing. I was smiling, too, because the voice in my head also took on a whole new sound. It was fighting back. As he blabbed on and on, my inner voice was shouting, yes, full on yelling, "hit me, just hit me! C'mon you coward, hit me! Show the world who you really are and what you really do behind closed doors! Put it on my face! C'mon HIT ME HIT ME HIT ME HIT ME!"
"That, of course, is not funny, though an attempt at any level to recognize the mistreatment and fight back was a good thing compared to the usual confusion that led to my submission. Plus, the act of pleading with him to hit me, though just in my head, tapped me into a day dream that brought me hope, and thus the smile. I dreamed of being able to walk out the door with my packed bags and have the whole world know, without question, that I'd been wronged. To have the whole world give me 100% support and glare at the perpetrator. To have the whole world understand in one glance, what I'd been through, at least enough to draw me in and hold me safe without ever questioning why I left. In fact, they'd be cheering my name for having the courage to get out of an abusive relationship.
"But he was too smart for that. He didn't hit me. I was so disappointed. Then I was sad that I was disappointed a full grown man didn’t slam his fist into my face. Wow, I needed to get out of there. Who thinks like that? I did. I did because I knew it would be easier to justify leaving to a skeptical world with the evidence on my face than to try to explain my leaving by claiming I was experiencing something just as harmful, though I didn’t have proof, I couldn’t quantify it, and I’m not even sure I had the words or desire to describe it.”
This is not to down play the effects of physical abuse or say that victims of physical abuse can easily leave their perpetrators because they have proof on their bodies. It’s much more complicated than that. There is so much shame in abuse that it’s hard to go before the world whether or not it’s written on our faces and that’s to say nothing of what kind of threatening circumstances they are being held in. I experienced emotional abuse and physical abuse (through sexual mistreatment), both types hidden to the world. I cannot, and would not dare speak for those whose bruises and scars were displayed for all to see. This is just my experience and thought process as it were in those moments. Each victim of abuse has their own journey and stories of the resistance that held them, or currently holds them, captive. I can only speak for mine.
As I continue to tell my story and own the word victim, I’m also embracing another word; survivor. I will keep marching on until I am whole again and maybe my story will help others along the way and they can march with me.