I am so glad that the topic of domestic violence is getting more attention in the media these days.  Sadly, it took a video in an elevator to do it…..instead of the regular public service campaigns you see from time to time.  The discussion has caused some women (and some men) to write about their experiences – with the hashtag #whyIstayed or #whyIleft.

Here is mine.

I was in my early 20’s and at University.  I had never been in a serious relationship before.

He was brilliant and outwardly very confident.  I immediately put him up on a pedestal.

He used it as an excuse to look down on me.

When I look back, I see there were red flags early on:

a) if we had a miscommunication, it quickly became my screw-up.  I had to be the one to apologize.  He was testing to see if I would stand my ground and stick up for myself.  I didn’t.

(eventually, everything I did was “wrong” unless I did it exactly as he wanted it.  I lost the ability to make any decisions for myself)

b) he made small criticisms about the people I cared about – family and friends.  He was testing my alliances, my bonds…to see if they could be influenced.  I often shrugged them off, even though it didn’t feel good to do so.

(eventually, he had distanced me from my friends and family…my safety net, people who might have been voices of reason.  I became very lonely – clinging to him like a life raft – but also feeling guilty for having pushed away so many people who loved me)

c) his future goals, present interests and everyday needs always took priority over mine.  He was testing to see if I would notice when things weren’t equal or fair.  He was so convincing and smooth that I actually believed it – this is how you show love for someone…you take care of them.  But in my selflessness, I never took a step back and asked “But why isn’t he doing the same for ME?”

(eventually our world revolved around him.  I only cooked what he liked to eat, I dressed in clothes he approved of, I helped him with projects, I used my spare time to do errands that supported his dreams.  When he was out, I was to patiently wait at home until he called or came home.  I wasn’t really allowed to have my own hobbies or interests or spend my free time as I wished)

I distinctly recall one argument we were having where I said “But you are supposed to love me for how I am right now!” and he actually said “I can’t do that.  You have so much potential. I love the person you could be“.  He somehow made it sound like a compliment – that I had the potential to be amazing and lovable.  But first, I needed to do what he wanted and be his nurse and companion and lover and counsellor and cook and cleaner and masseuse and breadwinner…..and do everything exactly as he liked.  Then, apparently I would be “perfect”.

He never saw real potential in me, where I would grow into the amazing woman I was born to be.

I don’t think he ever saw anything amazing in me at all.  I could have been anyone.

Ours wasn’t a violent relationship.  It was psychological, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse.

The longer I stayed, the more his influence over me grew – fed by my weakness and meekness.  The longer I stayed, the smaller I got…until I felt like an empty shell.

Why did I stay?

I stayed (3.5 years) because after awhile I was no longer myself.  He was a cult leader and I was the only member.

He had broken me down in such a way that I actually believed the things he said about me.

You have to understand that I did not have the ability to reach out and ask for help.  I didn’t realize I needed help.  This was just how life was.

I was a robot, going through the motions, doing everything “right” yet never doing anything for myself.  I no longer had the ability to even stop and ask myself “What do YOU want to do today?  What do YOU want to eat?  What do YOU need?”.  Decisions had been vetted through him for so long that I had learned to skip over my own wants and needs.

I stayed because I never realized that what was happening in my relationship was abuse.

Maybe if I would have seen a list somewhere, describing the kinds of things that constitute abuse, I might have compared them to my own situation.  But I never did, and nobody ever pointed them out to me.

Why did I leave?

I think the first step….the first flicker of hope in my little withered heart…was when I realized that I had the right to say no to sex.  And I knew that if I said no and he kept going, then I could call it “rape” and I could either tell someone or I would have some power and leverage over him.

At that point in the relationship, I didn’t think I could just get up and leave.  Or escape into the night.  That required power and strength.  I had none.

What really saved me was when I went home for Christmas.  We had been fighting a bit and in one instance I had stood up for myself a little.  Since he was already pouting, I said I would take the bus home for Christmas, alone.

One afternoon over the holiday I was in my childhood living room, and suddenly something shifted in me so clearly that I had to sit down.  I realized that I felt different there….I felt relaxed and happy….and FREE.  I could wear what I wanted, act how I wanted and do what I wanted.  I said out loud, “Oh my God.  I am happier when he ISN’T in the room with me.”

That inner shift, that realization, was the beginning of the end.

I won’t say that I took the bus home and we easily parted ways.  It was 2.5 months before I could actually say to him “I don’t think I love you anymore” and go stay with a friend.  But I always knew I was going to do it.  I felt at peace with that knowledge, I just had to wait for the right time.

The 6 months after we broke up he was worse than ever….he even made me feel guilty for leaving, so I had to regularly go to his new place and take care of him.  One night he drove me out of the city, saying he would leave me there and hoped I would get raped on the long walk home.  Awesome.

The best thing I did during that time was to take his own words and use them against him.

He would beg for us to get back together and I would say “No….you were right.  I have no moral character, I am a liar, I am a terrible person.  I need to go see a counsellor.  I don’t want to come back to you until I know I am better.  You said these things about me, so the best thing I can do is try to fix them.”

You see?  He was screwed from then on.  Because he KNEW that when I saw a counsellor, she would hear my stories and definitely tell me that it was an abusive relationship and that I should cut off all ties forever (which I did).  But he also knew that he couldn’t go back on what he had said about me, because he would lose his power.

I got my own place, I saw a counsellor regularly and I cut off all communication with him (on her advice).  Within 2 weeks it really felt as if a veil had lifted from my eyes and heart, and I started crying on the day that I stopped and asked myself “What would you like to do today?”.

If you are in a relationship now that doesn’t feel good….doesn’t bring you joy….and you don’t feel free to be yourself, learn from me.

Write down all of the things your partner does that makes you upset or scared.

Look up information on abuse, domestic violence and healthy relationships.  See how your relationship compares.

Talk to people – if you don’t feel ready to talk to someone you know about it, call a help line.

You have the right to feel safe in your own home, as do your kids.

You have the right to have a voice, to express yourself and to have dreams and goals.

You have the right to feel loved, cared for and appreciated.  Just as you are.

If it’s early enough and you can make a clean break and walk away because you see red flags, do it.  Tell your partner “Your behaviour with me has been abusive/unhealthy.  I don’t know who taught you that it was okay to treat someone that way, but they were wrong.  There are programs out there you might want to look into, to learn how to be a better partner.  But I am not going to concern myself with whether you get help or not.  I am just walking away.”

If your relationship has been going on for longer and you feel you need more of an “escape”, reach out to people.  People who care about you, crisis lines, even people who you don’t think would help but might (neighbors?).

Find your little flicker of hope, and fan it.

If it goes out, re-light it.

There is a whole new life waiting out there for you.