**Trigger warning: details of domestic violence, may be upsetting to some.
Unfortunately, survivors of trauma are often re-victimized throughout their lives. There are many reasons for this, but for me it was because it’s what I was used to. We tend to seek out relational patterns that we’re familiar with, even if they hurt us. It’s also because chronic childhood trauma causes faulty neuroception. This means that my central nervous system is on constant alert, and I’m more likely to interpret safe situations as dangerous. It also means that I don’t always see signs of danger and miss red flags.
The main thing I want people to know about domestic violence is that it’s all about power and control. It’s less about anger and more about control. That’s why I always try to teach people about the power and control wheel of domestic violence. Also, it’s very important for people to understand that domestic violence isn’t always physical violence. Emotional abuse is extremely damaging, traumatic, and can have long lasting effects on the individual.
The first relationship where I experienced domestic violence was when I was 20. I had been living in a residential for young adults run by the Department of Mental Health for a year, but it wasn’t working out. I had no options and couldn’t hold a job because of my panic attacks and suicidal ideation. It was a really dark time for me, and I ended up back at my parent’s house because I had nowhere to live. My little sister was away at college, and I remember feeling very alone. I used to dream about having a dog to protect me. I was cutting a lot, and it was severe. I often needed stitches. That’s all I can really remember about that time. I know that living with them was killing me. There was a young woman my age who I met at the residential, I’ll call her B. She kept asking to hang out after I moved out of the DMH house. I figured why not, I was lonely. We used to drive around in her truck and talk. One day she said she had feelings for me. I didn’t find her attractive at all, but I liked her company. I felt safer around her. I started dating her, and eventually I moved into the apartment she shared with her brother.
Things were ok for a few months, but one day she got really upset over a small disagreement. She threatened to kill herself and grabbed a knife from the block in the kitchen. I was begging her to stop, but she came into the bedroom and stabbed the mattress about two inches from my thigh. That’s when I should’ve run and never looked back. But I give myself the compassion and understanding now that I had no options back then. I either lived with B, or I went back to my abusive parents. I felt like the latter wasn’t even an option. So I dealt with the pain of the scary relationship I was in by drinking and dissociating.
Over the next 5 years, she beat me countless times. She was a big woman, and her biceps were huge. One day when she was delivering pizzas, she got mad at her boss and punched her car door. This was a metal door, and she left a huge fist mark in the side, with knuckle prints and everything. That’s how hard she hit me, she never held back. I barely felt it though, my dissociation protected and numbed me. Sometimes I’d take pictures of my bruises as evidence, but then I’d get scared and delete them. I know she gave me countless concussions. I remember once I was on the floor on my knees because she had thrown me down, and she came up behind me and punched me in the back of the head. I saw black for a little while, but I don’t know if she knocked me out.
One day she called my therapist in the middle of fighting with me. I’m not sure why, maybe because she knew it would stress me out and also humiliate me. My therapist called the cops to do a wellness check on me. The police arrived and were going to arrest B. I begged them not to because I was scared it would make her even angrier at me. I knew how to talk to cops, so I said she was in college for human services, and if she got arrested it could affect her ability to get student loans and finish her degree. Unfortunately that worked, and they said they could lose their jobs, but they’d write it up as a verbal dispute. A few days later, they sent me a useless restraining order pamphlet in the mail. But B made me feel like I needed her to survive because I was on disability and couldn’t afford my own apartment. I felt trapped, so I stayed.
She almost killed me multiple times throughout our horrible relationship. She told me that I was a loser and couldn’t survive on my own. She choked me one day, and I thought I was going to die staring at the ugly fake wood paneling in my bedroom. She also took my seatbelt off when she was driving and I was in the passenger seat, and she wouldn’t let me buckle it. She threatened to drive us into a telephone pole, and she swerved away from the pole at the last second. She once left me stranded with no wallet or phone for hours. I had to beg people to get a ride home. This is the power and control I’m talking about. Abusers look for people who will tolerate their abuse, and then they make them scared to leave. Often victims don’t have the financial resources to leave, and they know that.
There are countless horror stories of abuse that I could tell, but the point is that she had all the control. Or at least I thought she did. I had much more power than her, but I didn’t see it yet. The last year we were together, her violence escalated even more. She was constantly punching me and breaking my stuff. She destroyed all our furniture, flipped our kitchen table over, punched holes through the bathroom door to get at me, broke my possessions, etc. I remember seeing her punch the coffee table, and it just collapsed into pieces. She would take objects that were important to me and the younger parts of me and break them on purpose. She told me I’d never be able to live without her because I was a loser on disability. I believed her. But one day after talking to a friend about how I didn’t deserve being treated like that, I’d had enough. A lot of my friends just chose to look the other way, but this person told me what I needed to hear. I realized I had to do something, so on my 26th birthday I went for a walk with her in public and broke up with her as nicely as I could. She was calm at first, but then she started to rage and be violent again. I was eventually able to find an apartment I could afford, and I moved out and started grad school. Once I got away I never spoke to her again.
When that nightmare was over, I decided I needed to pick someone safer. Six months later I met my ex wife. She seemed kind, listened to me, had her life together, and she had confidence. She was smart, and I really liked talking to her. We started dating two months after we met. I didn’t see the red flags at first, because I thought her behaviors were normal. Like I said, it’s all I knew. She was controlling and hated when I visited friends. One evening early on in our relationship, I was hanging out with my best friend and her boyfriend. I told my ex wife I’d be home by 11, but we were having fun, so I called her and said I’d be a bit later than planned. She lost her mind. But she was more upset than angry, I guess that’s why I didn’t see it for what it was- an attempt to control me. I spent half an hour on the phone in my car parked in front of my friend’s house trying to calm her down and console her. She won, and I drove home. This was a huge red flag. She manipulated me to get me to stop hanging out with my friends. It worked, I slowly started to isolate and see my friends less. There was another time I came home a bit later than planned, and she yelled at me and pinned me down on the bed. I tried to get up and leave the room, but she wouldn’t let me leave. I eventually got away and barricaded myself in the bathroom. I was afraid that I’d make her upset again, so I just spent time with her and not my friends. Anything a partner does or says to make you feel scared and isolated from friends or family is not good, and it’s a big warning sign.
Again, it’s about control and power. Usually abusers are insecure and may have been traumatized in the past, so they try to control others to alleviate their pain and feel powerful. It makes sense, because being traumatized often makes people feel powerless. I just wish people would work on their issues instead of turning into an abuser themselves and hurting others. Sometimes my soul hurts when I question why others couldn’t treat me the way I treated them. There are other ways to feel like you have control and power back in your life, abusing people is a cowardly attempt at this. What makes me feel powerful is exercise. When my body is moving and I can feel my strength, I feel alive and in control. If I had the money, I’d probably take a martial arts class. But for now swimming, running, and rowing helps a lot.
Anyway, after being married for 9 years, I realized I was in another abusive relationship. I was mad at myself at first for not seeing it, especially when I was trained in domestic violence and could usually assess it in the families I counseled as soon as I met them. But it’s always harder to see your life in an objective way. I try to be compassionate with myself because I was still trying my best to survive. People kept telling me that my wife was really good for me, and I guess compared to B she was. But they didn’t see the daily yelling and control. She yelled and it triggered us, she controlled all the money, saying it was hers, and she resented me for having to quit my job when it made me sick. I also couldn’t get my disability back because I was married, so I was financially powerless. It made me depressed and increased my feelings of worthlessness. She only hit me once. We got into an argument after a concert in her car. I admit that I definitely shouldn’t have thrown my cup of soda at her, but it enraged her and she chased me down in the parking garage and punched me in the back of the head. I had forgotten about that incident because of my dissociation until I overheard my ex wife telling her mom about it on the phone. Her mom must’ve then asked if I ever hit her, and my ex wife replied, “No, she isn’t like that.” I have this conversation on a recording, but my state doesn’t allow recordings when the person is unaware that they’re being taped, so it was inadmissible in court and therefore useless. She emotionally abused me for a long time, and I didn’t see it because it’s what I was used to. I also forgot about the physical abuse in the beginning of our relationship because of my DID. This is another reason people with DID are often re-victimized. We don’t remember the abuse, so we stay. As the abuse intensifies, it can get harder and harder to ignore, but I was still extremely dissociative.
Again it took a few caring and objective people to help me see that I deserved better. I read an article about emotional abuse, and after doing some thinking, I decided to carefully talk to my wife about it. Of course this did not go well. She was very mad that I tried to talk about the article. A few days later, I overheard her saying some horrible things about me to her mother on the phone. The worst part was my daughter was in the room and heard everything she said. I think that’s the hardest part about this last abusive relationship, she emotionally hurt my child too. That breaks my heart and makes me feel terrible. My ex wife threatened to stop paying my car payment and other things I needed. She laughed at me for trying to survive without her. She threatened to tell the family court judge about my DID. This terrified me because I know judges are not educated on specific mental illnesses, and I was worried it could go very badly for me because of stigma. My ex had me crying on the phone and begging her to just take it to mediation instead of court. She claimed she didn’t trust me because I said she was abusive, even though I never once said I’d take our daughter from her. I always let her see her daughter, because I understand attachment. It was for my child’s sake. There was no reason for her to threaten and scare me, she was just mad that I was trying to get away from her. She had lost her control over me and was still trying to get it back. She also broke into my foot locker to take pictures of my journals to use against me in court. When I saw what she had done, I was terrified and felt very violated. But somehow I got through the divorce. Luckily I had a domestic violence counselor who was in court with me, because my ex played many mind games and tried to pay me a lot less child support. I didn’t back down, and in the end I was able to find enough resources to live alone.
There were a lot of scary and uncertain times, but I’m glad I got away so I can be happy in the future. I gained a lot of strength, and I truly believe in myself and my resiliency. It was a painful life lesson, especially because it affected my child too. But I wanted peace for her, for both of us. It hasn’t been easy. My ex wife still occasionally becomes verbally abusive, like this morning when she dropped off my daughter. There have been times, like last week, where I have to tell her to leave my house or I’ll call the cops because she’s yelling at me. I don’t even let her in my house now. I hate that I have to still talk to her because we have a kid together, but I do my best to protect myself and set boundaries. My counselors say they’re really proud of me.
I’ve come a long way. Before the divorce I was always in a relationship, but I’ve been single for a long time, and I’m ok with it. I dated briefly, but I met some toxic people and gave up quickly. One of them sexually assaulted me when I was drunk, and I was angry at myself for a while. After this, I decided to never overlook red flags again. I’ve decided that I’d rather be alone my whole life than be in an abusive relationship. Hopefully I won’t be alone forever, but my point is I don’t want loneliness or fear to drive me into the arms of the wrong person. I deserve real love, respect, and trust. I’m trying to be patient. I’ve also done a great job of becoming financially independent, so now I don’t feel like anyone can control me. I won’t let someone have power over me like that ever again. I even used to avoid certain places so I didn’t run into B, but I’ve realized that if I change my behavior to avoid her, she still has control over me. A few months ago, I ran into B for the first time in 13 years at the YMCA. I swim there 2-3 times a week, and as I’ve mentioned before, it’s really important that I swim. It was school vacation, and she was there with a teenager for open swim. I was lap swimming with my friend in the lanes. B tried to approach me, but I ignored her and kept swimming. At the end of the swim time, she wouldn’t get out of the pool. I knew she was trying to intimidate me. I didn’t want to be alone in the locker room with her, so I told the lifeguard and he let me continue swimming. She had to leave, and I stayed where it was safe. I was proud of myself because I swam like a badass and didn’t let her affect me. I also talked to people at the Y, so I feel safe there. B knows that’s my safe space, so hopefully I won’t see her there again. It was a scary situation for me, but it gave me a sense of mastery. I don’t feel afraid of her anymore. I just thinks she’s a coward and kind of pathetic.
Society does not do a good job of teaching women (and men) the signs of domestic violence. No one ever learns about how it’s rooted in power and control. And emotional abuse, as damaging as it is, is seen as less of a problem, so these victims are less likely to get the help and support they need. The truth is, emotional abuse is just as dangerous as physical abuse. I had a friend who was being emotionally abused by her parents because she was terminally ill. She couldn’t do anything for herself because of her medical limitations, and her mom was her PCA. I almost called the disabled persons abuse line, but she was too scared. They were her only supports, so she was under their control. I spent a long time talking to her about the ways they tried to control her because she was miserable and suffering. She understood, but fear held her back. When she passed away, she was working towards getting a new PCA. But she just got too sick, and it never happened. Domestic violence can take many forms. Also, as you can see from my story, LGBT individuals face serious challenges in accessing help. Cops sometimes don’t think domestic violence is as serious if it’s between two women, so victims are left to deal with it themselves. (The same goes for sexual assault and LGBT victims).
Thank you for reading this long post. I just want people to understand that an abuser won’t change if they go to an anger management course or see a therapist for their anger. They need to complete a specific domestic violence course for abusers. Or they need to be honest with their therapist if they’re being abusive to a partner, so that the therapist can work with them on their power and control issues (the latter usually never happens because abusers can’t admit they’ve done something wrong, they usually victim blame).
I hope these stories help explain a bit more about this pervasive problem in society. The best thing you can do is educate yourself. Study the power and control wheel, and try to think of examples for each segment. Talk to your friends and loved ones about it, teach them about the power and control dynamic, and speak up if you see or hear something that concerns you. There are 24/7 domestic violence hotlines, and you can just text them and chat online if you need help. Thehotline.org is one. The victim doesn’t have to even speak on a phone to get support. I worked in a domestic violence shelter, and it really did feel like a safe space for women and children. So I urge people to believe in themselves and ask for help if they’re scared. There are lots of resources out there for victims. I really think that if human service workers and the public in general were more educated on this topic, it could help a lot of people.