I’ve written this story 50 times over. First fiction was my only attempt at letting the truth of my life out. Then, after escaping, writing out the facts, the tortures, the things I had kept hidden for so long became my daily ritual. Saying them out loud to friends was no longer terrifying, I wasn’t ashamed anymore. Still these truths put me in a very vulnerable place. My abuser is still alive, still free and living a normal life in the same city I live in. But how can I expect others to share their stories if I am not willing to share mine?
I was in an abusive relationship. It all started in my final year of graduate school at the Savannah College of Art and Design here in Atlanta. After struggling for so long to find my footing as a writer and as a new resident in a new city, I had finally found my groove, my people, a real momentum had started. But then I met him and everything stopped.
There were red flags in the beginning. I ignored them, I found excuses for him. He was jealous, he wasn’t used to dating someone who loved being the center of attention. I needed to dial it back, to help him. I dug myself so deep into a hole of change that eventually no one knew who I was anymore, and neither did I. The abuse, at first, was all mental and emotional. There was a lot of manipulation, insecurity fueled outbursts (look I’m still making excuses) that were remedied with gifts and kindness. The cycle had begun.
By the time that the physical abuse began, I was so far inside the shell of the person I once was that getting out seemed impossible. I lived with him. He had created a world so filled with lies and repercussions that getting out alive was no longer an option. I fought for therapy, thinking it would help. The therapist was a lie, something that was said to be happening but ended up not being true. The alcohol was an issue. He would agree to stay sober, limit his intake, but a day, sometimes even just hours later, those promises shattered.
There would be good stretches, the problem with those were that they followed something horrible. One Christmas, after embarrassing me at a party with a verbal lashing, he threw me to the pavement as we were leaving and kicked me while I was down. After dragging myself up and into the car, he punched me in the face repeatedly and broke my nose. I, of course, created the most obvious lie: a door had hit me in the face at the holiday party. “We had a wonderful time until my clumsy butt ran into a door face first”.
This should have been it. But unfortunately getting out takes time. It took me many more times of these similar incidents happening until I was able to say goodbye for good. There is always a promise for better that makes you linger. In his own sick and twisted way, I know he loved me. And I hoped that the love I knew I deserved would one day win over the darkness that seemed to be conquering our lives.
One night, after a streak of good days, the spell was broken and I couldn’t take it anymore. After having my head smashed against the passenger side window on our way home, I went on a rampage of tearing pictures and ripping clothes out of closets while he threatened and accused me. To seek his revenge on me for no longer cowing to his fist, he called the police.
I went to jail that night. But I made sure that when they put me in the back of the police car that I told them everything. Everything that he had ever done to me I wanted on record, just in case. I was in the Fulton County Jail for a weekend, on the following Monday, my heart broken Dad came to my hearing and witnessed his baby daughter in a county issued jumpsuit and cuffs. I was released and sentenced to take 6-months of domestic violence counseling. The counseling was a room full of women, very much like in jail, who had been beaten down and then locked up, serving the same sentence as their abuser. Seeing the interior workings of our justice system, jails, and supposed rehabilitation were beyond enlightening.
It took me about a year after I went to jail to be able to leave. For a while, that experience almost brought us closer together. Since he was also taken away that night and received the same sentencing as I did, he was the only one who knew what that was like. What jail felt like. What the people inside are fighting against, the depression that sets in every time the counseling sessions would begin. But that eventually began to wear off as normal life began again. The following May I began packing things into my car and driving to my parents house in Florida. I never had a definitive answer but my internal whispers of get out had grown into screams. Even when I was in our home, I would lock myself in a downstairs bedroom.
One evening, while locked away, I called a friend who I hadn’t spoken to in a very long time but my gut was saying call her. I did, and the second she said hello I told her everything. This call saved my life. She told me that she had gone through the same thing. That she had gotten out, that I just needed to take my time and not rush it. That no longer how long it took, getting out was the solution and there was no shame. Two weeks later, I ordered a U-Haul late one night. I called my parents and told them that I was packing everything I could and coming down there. They drove up from Florida the next day, lifted my mattress and my couch into the U-Haul and closed the garage as I tossed my keys inside.
I wish that I could find the words to describe what that felt like. I cried the entire way to Florida, but not out of sadness, it was complete relief. I’d lost 40 pounds and was completely exhausted from the nights that I was forced to stay awake to stay alive. When we arrived in Florida, my mom covered me in essential oils and tucked me into bed. I slept for 16 hours and awoke only once screaming his name in panic that I’d let myself make the dire mistake of sleeping when his face had taken that familiar dark shift.
Jail was shameful. The relationship was shameful. The lies were shameful. What had become of my life was shameful. I’d told only a few close friends what had happened, but the more I said everything out loud, the better it made me feel. I saved some details from my parents to keep their hearts in tact. There will be many things they find out during this process that will tear them apart. But I survived. I got out. I found myself again. I found joy again. I found laughter again. I found that familiar but long lost sense of abandon again where I feel able to run and dance. I don’t have to question every word I utter or shift in gaze. I am free. I am no longer ashamed of what happened to me, I am thankful that I have a supportive family that I could lean heavily on while I rebuilt myself. The stories I accrued during that chapter of my life became fuel for change. If I can be at least one persons necessary phone call out then that is enough.
Throughout this project, I’ll tell you more details as we talk about everything involved with abuse and as I talk with more survivors. This project is incredibly personal to me. I wish I would have found someone sooner who would have told me that I didn’t have to feel ashamed, and that I didn’t have to hide what was happening to me. I wish that I wouldn’t have allowed societal stigmas keep me from voicing the truth earlier. I hope that this project saves lives. It’s a lofty hope, but the more we talk about the realities of abuse, the less likely it will be that others will remain in the dark, hidden deep inside their carapace until it is too late.