By the end of summer 2016, my world had come crashing down. I had broken free of an abusive relationship, one that I never saw coming (although I guess this is how it general works). I thought the worst was over. Little did I know that the period after breaking up with an abuser is actually the most dangerous of all for a victim. Because the abuser has lost control and is willing to stop at nothing to gain it back.
The initial weeks and months after I broke up with my abuser were probably the hardest of my life. After the night it ended and the cops came, I honestly thought I would never hear from him again and he would just leave me alone. Although we were in the same graduate program and worked in labs in the same building, I thought he would never try to bother me again, that he would be too scared I would file charges and he would lose his entire career, like he almost did once before. Yet again, I was the naïve one.
Six days after that night the cops came, I received e-mails from him asking to talk. It may seem perfectly harmless on the surface, but I knew what was hiding behind this seemingly innocent request: he wanted to verbally attack me, manipulate me and convince me that everything was really my fault, and to get me to go crying back to him, just like he had done before. I was not going to fall into that trap again. For the first time, I could see through his games and manipulation tactics. I did not respond to his emails.
Then he tried stalking my car and parking next to me in half empty parking lots. Again, this may seem completely innocuous to an outsider. But I knew him. He had no reason to park next to me in empty parking lots except to try to gain back some sense of control and show me that he was not going away. Next he tried going through a mutual friend (who turned out to not really be a friend at all), and convinced this friend to let him up to our lab to use our twenty-year-old microscope, even though he had access to dozens of state of the art microscopes in his lab. After being in the program for two years and doing the same kinds of experiments over and over (because that’s grad school), he suddenly decided that he needed to use our barely functional microscope for his experiments. Still, this may be perfectly innocuous to someone who has never been in this situation. After all, it’s only a microscope. But his motives were clear to me: he was not going away and he was not backing down. This man was smart. He knew what he was doing, he knew that it would make me scared, and he knew he could get away with it.
All of these behaviors are typical for abusers to exhibit when the relationship ends – playing games to make the victim feel insecure and unsafe, but at the same time, not doing anything so overt or threatening that they could be charged for it (although sadly, many do resort to more extreme methods and violence). The ultimate goal is to make the victim feel like she is the crazy one, like maybe all of these things are harmless and it’s all in her head. And that leads to perhaps the most suffocating kind of isolation imaginable. Because not only do you feel that no one will believe you, but you start to question whether you believe yourself.
In my case, this behavior went on for several months. My heart raced every time I entered and left the building. I did not leave my lab unless absolutely necessary. I had trouble focusing in lab, constantly on edge and my body in a permanent fight or flight state. I still managed to complete my experiments, but I kept messing up silly little things and some people in my lab started to get annoyed with me. I wanted to scream the truth at the tops of my lungs and tell them the hell I was going through. Most of the time, I still want to scream.
Although it’s been 8 months since that horrible night we broke up, not much has really changed. Fortunately, my abuser has not played any games in several months and I think at this point he is finally done. But there is still an undeniable sense of control that he has over me and my life. Something as simple as getting a cup of coffee at school requires careful calculation: what time of day is it, is he likely to be out, is he in class, where is he least likely to go on campus? I know every hidden entrance/exit, stairwell, hallway, and elevator in my building to minimize chances of seeing him. It’s not that I fear he will hurt me, but I just cannot bear to see his face after what he has done to me. I still cannot accept that he is just going to get away with this yet again; that there are people like him all over other campuses doing the same kinds of things and just getting away with it; that the victims have to change their lives completely just to attempt to feel safe and the abusers just keep on living like nothing every happened; and above all, that we must still feel as though we are trapped in a prison of isolation, when that’s exactly what we fought so hard to escape.
And this is why it is so difficult for a woman to leave her abuser. Because unlike her friends or family, she alone knows exactly what this person is capable of. What’s more, the abuser may make it impossible to leave – whether he supervises her whereabouts 24/7, prevents her from having any money of her own, or worse. In short, it’s not as simple as many people think it is. The truth is that when it comes to something this, you cannot understand it until you’ve been there yourself. You cannot comprehend the fear we carry everyday, the constant walking on eggshells, the sleepless nights, the trauma of what it’s like to see someone you love turn into a monster right before your eyes. You may understand parts of it and you may certainly have experienced other kinds of pain, but until you have been where we have been and seen the things we have seen, you will never understand. So please, never judge a victim for leaving or staying or whatever she chooses. Chances are, she’s already received enough judgments to last a lifetime.
Below is a poem I wrote a few days after my abuser and I broke up describing the kind of isolation an abusive relationship brings, even when it’s over.
You will never understand
Until you’ve been beaten down
And shoved around
Told you’re not enough
By the person that you love
You will never understand.
Until he lays a hand on you
When you told him not to
Until he shoves you out the door
And his roommate has to tackle him to the floor
You will never understand.
When he bangs on your window, trying to get in
When you tell him to go away
But he won’t listen
When the cops come and intervene
Between the one you love
And the things you should have seen.
When the dream turns to a nightmare
The love vanishes into thin air
The sweetness turns to cruelty
And you still hang on
And, hoping its not what it seems.
When you try over and over to please him
But nothing ever does
All your efforts
Well they just turn to dust.
And you still fight and you still cling
For a future that cannot be
The man you love,
he really isn’t who he seemed
and the worst part, is no one would ever believe.
He hid it so well
A master of disguise
Even I, fell under his spell.
But I have woken up
I can see the truth
This isn’t love
This is nothing but abuse.
They say there’s plenty of other fish in the sea
But they don’t understand
I’m worthless, that’s what he told me
I can’t love, I can’t give
When that’s what I thought I was doing
Hoping my heart could find a way to save him.
So please don’t tell me that you understand
until you’ve seen the things I’ve seen
until you’ve been stripped raw and left on the street
until your life is slipping through the palm of your hand
until then, you will never understand.