I played hooky today. I am not usually the kind of person to do this, but today was different. Today I was supposed to give a presentation for students in my graduate program. Before this past year, giving a presentation to this group of people would not have been a problem (although I still would not have wanted to do it). But now, being around people in my program brings fear, risk, and uncertainty – because I was abused by a student in this program when we dated last year. Any event that involves my graduate program gives me an anxiety attack because there is the chance he will be there. And today, I was terrified that my abuser would show up to my presentation; that he would walk in right as I was starting to present and I would feel a thousand daggers going right through me, as I do every time I’m forced to see him; that I would have to give a presentation to the man who abused me and a crowd of ignorant bystanders who have no idea of the hell he put me through.
So I did something I have never done before – I skipped the presentation. I called in sick and spent the day doing things that make me happy. I got a massage, walked around the park, and went on the swings at the playground (something my abuser always forbid me from doing). For the first time in what feels like forever, I said No.
In an abusive relationship, we quickly learn that saying No and putting ourselves first can have very serious consequences – not having dinner ready in time, saying no to sex, not wearing the clothes that he deems as appropriate or fashionable. All of these things can lead to a hostile outburst from the abuser. All of our time and energy must be devoted to them, to following all of their rules to the letter in order to minimize chances of an outburst (even though that’s impossible). And this is why being with an abuser becomes a psychological prison – because we lose that basic human right of being able to say No.
Even outside the realm of abuse, women are implicitly taught from day one that “No” is a dirty word. We are taught that we must do it all – give everyone whatever they want when they want it. We must have the perfect job, get the big promotion, take the kids to soccer practice, and get dinner on the table by 6:00. But more importantly, we must do all these things and never let them see us sweat.
Now you have probably seen those memes and quotes that say, “saying No is a full sentence.” While it may sound silly (as I used to think), it is completely and undeniably true. We have no obligation to satisfy others at the price of our own sanity and well being. We have the right to turn down that extra task someone asks us to do at work, to not make dinner one night and let someone else do it, to say no to sex, to play on the swings, and to skip presentations. But above all, we have the right to walk away when a partner threatens us, hurts us, puts us down, and tears us apart from the inside out.
Like all things, it is easier said than done. But as I have learned today, saying No is liberating, intoxicating, and feels absolutely amazing. It means putting yourself and your needs first. It means claiming your life back.