Today is an important day. Today marks the one year anniversary of when I broke up with my abuser. It has officially been a full year since I walked away from him and the prison he put me in.
By August 9th, 2016, I felt like I was falling apart. I didn’t eat, sleep, or breathe because all of my energy and attention was focused on preventing an explosion from my abuser (which was, of course, impossible). And on August 9th last year, the explosion came on full force. I said the wrong thing, as per usual, and I had to be berated for this. But for the first time, I could not sit back and take it anymore. I could take one more threat, put down, or accusation. August 9th 2016 was the night I realized I could not live this way anymore. It was the night I finally said “Enough.”
It doesn’t really feel like it has been a year though. A lot of times, it feels like it was just a few weeks or months ago that everything conspired out of control. Maybe it is because he spent months bothering me and harassing me after it ended. Perhaps it is partly because I spent months recalling all the details I had repressed, all of the things he did and said that were not okay or normal but I ignored at the time; all of the things I “should have seen.” But as I have learned, when you’re in an abusive relationship, you cannot always see or acknowledge those red flags and warning signs that may be so apparent to someone else. Your vision is clouded by the times the abuser is sweet and caring, by the memories of the honeymoon phase when everything was perfect, and by the desperate and clinging hope that things will return to that blissful state and that for once, they will stay that way.
But that’s not how it works with an abuser. Life with an abuser means living in a constant state of fear, turmoil, and chaos. It wears you down and tears you apart until you feel like you have nothing left. Until you can’t leave the abuser because you just simply do not have the physical or mental energy to do so. And that is why life with an abuser is a prison and why it is so incredibly difficult to escape. It is why you should never ask a victim “why don’t you just leave?”
Because leaving is so much more complicated than people realize. And as I have learned this past year, so is the aftermath of the abuse. Many people think that because you are no longer in the abusive situation, you are magically free from the fear and the trauma you have become so accustomed to. But this could not be further from the truth. It’s not uncommon for the fear and distress to continue long after the relationship is over, and this is not irrational or unfounded either – the risk of homicide significantly increases immediately after the victim leaves. But even when the threat is no longer present, when it seems like the storm has finally calmed, the trauma is still there – the memories and the flashbacks, the drop in your stomach or the skip of heartbeat when a trigger is present, the peering around corners and the constant fear that he will reappear at any moment. For me, the hardest part was when everyone else forgot what had happened and moved on, but I still remembered like it was just yesterday.
This past year has been a struggle for me to say the least. My abuser works in a lab in my building and is a student in my graduate program. I am technically free from him, but a lot of times it simply doesn’t feel that way. Reminders of him are literally around every corner, and he could potentially be around any corner as well. I still have flashbacks and I still have nightmares, although they have very slowly started to decrease in frequency.
I won’t kid myself. I know that I have a long way to go. But I am doing it. I am fighting each and every day to keep my head above water, even on days when I feel like I am drowning. I have moved to a new apartment to try to start over and distance myself from the memories, at least physically. I have reconnected with old friends and found some amazingly supportive people in unexpected places. I have made significant progress in my research, am writing a paper for publication, passed my qualifier exams, and am officially considered a PhD candidate. And I have started a blog to share my story and hopefully help other survivors feel less alone.
And if there is one thing I have learned over the last year, it is that we are not alone. Survivors are everywhere. I have met them here on this blog and I have met them in my own life. So many of us have stories to tell. The world just needs to listen.
I don’t know what this next year will bring for me. After all, the life of a grad student is very uncertain. But I know that I will never stop speaking and I will never stop using my voice. I truly believe that words can set you free. It was my words that gave me my freedom back exactly one year ago today, August 9th. My abuser had silenced my voice, but I took it back that night. And this next year, I will continue to use my voice to reclaim my life and my freedom each and every day, one word at a time.