Archive for the ‘abuse’ Category

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When I was little, I had quite the temper, and most of my angry moments were reactions to situations I considered unfair. That was a big deal to me, as a child. Fairness. I didn’t always have the greatest perspective as to what would actually be most fair, but if something seemed off to me, I certainly wasn’t going to be silent about it. This incessant need to correct all the supposed wrongs in my world brought me to a head with my mother as I hit puberty.

I clearly remember ripping into her verbally over what I construed as favoritism among siblings and unfair treatment. After speaking my piece, I walked away to go take a shower and let off some steam. Before I had locked the bathroom door, my father confronted me. His own anger was palpable and disconcerting, as my father rarely became angry about anything. He told me to NEVER again speak to my mother that way… and he handed me a piece of paper. He asked me to read it, informed me that my mother was unaware he was sharing this with me, and asked that I destroy it and not share it with anyone else after I’d read it.

I was too shocked to dwell on the “injustice” that had caused me so much distress, and after my father left the room, I began reading. It was a suicide letter that my mother had written and left for my father the night before. Apparently, under the guise of heading out to a church meeting, she’d driven to a bridge from which she’d intended to jump. I remembered my father leaving us home alone not long after she’d gone, and I put the pieces together. He’d gone looking for her. Either he’d found her and talked her down, convincing her to come back home, or he’d been out searching for hours as she had second thoughts and decided to return on her own. Whatever had happened, she’d left intending to kill herself but was now here… so I could yell at her. Her shocked and hurt expression just before I’d turned to walk away then became a permanent fixture in my memory.

I changed that day. In some ways for the better and in some ways … not, and all those changes were tied to the traumatic knowledge that my mother was suicidal. To this day, I am plagued with a sense of guilt for every action that has ever contributed to my mother’s depression. I spent the rest of my childhood and the beginning years of my adulthood feeling responsible for maintaining my mother’s happiness. An impossible task. She was never happy. Never satisfied.

As a teenager, I found myself walking on egg-shells. I was constantly gauging my mother’s emotional health and looking for ways to improve her happiness. Had my mother been remotely mentally sound, while this feat would have been unwise, it would not have been terribly difficult. As it was, the task and responsibility I’d given myself practically drove me insane, and it most certainly did drive me into my own state of depression. There was always something that would upset her, and as the years passed trying to figure out the precarious balance, it became clear that this was an impossible battle. And yet, it continued.

On the upside, I found myself striving to be a peacemaker among my siblings. I became very introspective, very thoughtful, very empathetic. I became very skilled at putting myself in other’s shoes and explaining opposing viewpoints in a way that all could understand and thus reach compromises. I became very patient. I was so patient that people did not believe me when I told them I used to have a temper. I began to pride myself on this patience and sought to cultivate it. I eventually convinced myself that I simply was not an angry person and that I was actually incapable of experiencing anger. By the time I reached young-adulthood, I sincerely couldn’t even remember what it felt like to be angry.

But I DID know what it felt like to be invisible. In my endless efforts to please my mother, I had shaved off nearly every shred of my individuality until I had become little more than an extension of her, because expressing myself – my wants, my personality, my desires, my interests – conflicted with keeping her happy. While most teenagers were acting out and journeying through their years of self-discovery, I was slowly giving up the pieces of my self, bit by bit.

My “rebellions” were tiny and easily squashed. I remember, for example, a shopping trip in which my mother insisted that I pick out a shirt for myself that I really liked. I was always wearing my older brother’s hand-me-downs and was perfectly happy with his clothes, but my mother wanted me to pick out “girl” clothes in an effort to drive me to act more feminine. I did find a shirt I liked – It was a form-fitting tee with a large motorcycle on the front in red, white, and blue stars and stripes and the word “REBEL” in bright, large lettering. She allowed me to buy the shirt, but after wearing it only a few times it mysteriously disappeared and I later found it in a bag of Goodwill donations. I said nothing, but I felt broken.

Similar small but significant scenarios throughout the remainder of my youth caused me to give up on expressing myself or even to allow myself to take interest in anything that might draw the ire of my mother. Instead, I sought to excel in the only pursuits that brought her any semblance of happiness – church. I spent my childhood ignoring anything and everything that might cause me to question the teachings of the church my mother cherished, and devoting my time to church activities. This only served to further shave away my individuality, as it conflicted with doctrine on “The Family” and gender roles. Personal success was measurable only in homemaking skills, temple attendance, and ultimately marriage and motherhood.

It was not easy to carve away all the things that made me “me”, and I still had my moments of minor rebellion. But each conflict led to my further compliance, and a deeper and deeper emotional unrest. I escaped in books, academics, and wildlife rescue, my guilty pleasures, as these interests were shared and encouraged by my father, and eventually I went away to college. What a time of turmoil and discovery!

Out from under the thumb of my mother and the constant need to please her, I finally started to explore my interests. I took joy in my classes and new-found friendships. I engaged in extra-curricular activities I’d previously denied myself. And… I stopped going to church. I allowed myself to question. And guilt started to eat me up. Still, I attempted to hide myself from myself, and when I started developing interest in sexual topics I hid and repressed and repressed and hid until depression started interfering with my ability to keep up my grades. And I practically ran back into the arms of the church in a desperate effort to find someone with whom I could find sexual release in the only role that would please my mother – marriage.

Of course, I blew it. In my unsound mental state, I attracted a predator and found myself in a relationship with an abuser… not that unlike my mother or the religious institution she cherished. Only where they used manipulation, guilt, and emotional blackmail to coerce conformity, the man I married used his fists to force it. And still, through it all, I felt responsible – this time for my husband’s happiness. I felt guilty when I failed to predict what would upset him, and I continued to shave away my individuality to meet his expectations. And… I continued to pride myself on my patience, literally turning the other cheek and tolerating physical blows as I found myself striving to understand the perspective of my abuser and correct my behaviors to ensure his happiness.

This toxic relationship did not last long, resulted in severe trauma, and… opened my eyes. As I started seeing therapists and working towards recovery, slowly, it became clear that the root of my problems lay deeper than the abusive relationship that caused my trauma. Being around my mother and going to church both brought up constant triggers. When I stopped trying to convince myself that I was overreacting and instead took the time to recognize and dissect the behaviors and teachings that were making me so uncomfortable, I realized that I’d been dealing with subtle abuse my entire life.

As I’ve started uncovering the truths about myself and the world around me, I’m finding a need to acknowledge something that has been years in the making. Anger. My entire life, I’d been squelching anger. I’d convinced myself that anger was B.A.D. bad, all because I had blamed my mother’s suicidal thoughts on my twelve-year-old outburst. I had become so concerned with keeping others happy, that I was unwilling to do or say anything that would rock the boat or cause distress. I had refused to allow myself to feel angry about anything, and now… I feel angry about everything.

I am angry with my father for putting such undo responsibility on a child’s shoulders.

I am angry with my mother for never acknowledging, loving, or nurturing the child she had and instead striving to shape and mold me into what she considered acceptable.

I am angry with my ex for taking advantage of my youthful desperation, naivety, and inexperience.

I am angry with the church leaders that drove away a lesbian friend with their bigotry.

I am angry with the authors of The Family Proclamation for defining gender and gender roles in a manner that is counter to science and an attack on my own personal identity.

I am angry with the Mormon prophets for discouraging critical thought and demonizing those who’ve left the “fold” in their ever increasing efforts to tighten their hold on the membership and keep them from seeking truth.

I am angry with apologetics for all their excuses and cover-ups attempting to justify the blatant immoralities of their scripture.

I am angry with the originators of the various religions for all the misogyny, abuse, sexism, racism, homophobia, genocide, bigotry, and more perpetuated in the name of “God”.

I am angry with creationists for their denial of sound science on the age of the earth, evolution, and climate change which perpetuates fear of vaccinations, genetic and stem cell research, and halts progressive action.

I am angry with religious leaders that perpetuate rape culture with teachings of “virtue” and “modesty” that place all responsibility for sexual misconduct on the shoulders of the victims.

I am angry with theists for turning tragedies into messages about the “love of God”.

I am angry with individuals that consider foul language more offensive than apologetics.

And I can go on and on and on. So. Much. ANGER. And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t want to go back to the status quo. I don’t want to go back to trying to keep everyone happy. I don’t want to go back to ignoring. I don’t want to go back to hiding. I’ve used up all my patience, and I’m all out of fucks to give.

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Today is the six-year anniversary of the day I left my abusive husband. I didn’t even realize that was the case until I found myself wondering why I was having a PTSD flare up. I couldn’t pinpoint any triggers, but the last few nights I’ve been up with insomnia. I’ve been anxious, irritable, tense, and then today I started feeling paranoia set in, and I found myself trying to track my ex down online, and trying to make certain I wasn’t traceable through my old name. Nothing had happened to cause me to feel triggered.. and then I realized the date.

Six years ago today is the day the events in my blog post “Don’t Look Back” took place, and today I feel myself constantly looking over my shoulder, checking out my window, flinching in response to shadows. I feel a “twitch” insisting I look up a background check on my ex, just to be sure he’s still living in the same place, still hasn’t moved, still hasn’t come looking for me. I feel an obsessive need to find something, anything he’s posted online recently, just to be sure he hasn’t gone off grid. Just so I know where he is and what he’s up to. But to what end? How long will I keep having to deal with this fear?

I haven’t gone anywhere today. I’ve stayed inside, only stepping out long enough to let the dog use the bathroom. But that’s only seemed to increase my sense of paranoia. I’m near tears. Why do I feel this way? After everything I’ve been through, all the progress I’ve made, all the healing, all I’ve accomplished, all the time that has passed… How does my biological clock pick up on nothing more than a date and trigger my body into a panic?

Why don’t I feel safe? Why am I still terrified by his temper? Why am I still haunted by his angry eyes, the sense of his fingers pressed into my throat, his raised fist, his massive bulk? Why do I keep expecting to hear him pounding on my door, breaking my window? Why am I overcome with a desire to flee, to wake my son and leave everything behind and just drive away?

And as I contemplate that feeling, I realize I’m constantly preparing myself for the possibility I may need to flee. Minimizing my material possessions, avoiding social interactions with neighbors, avoiding community involvement, keeping disconnected emotionally and socially, keeping an emergency fund on hand… Without a moments notice, I could be out that door and driving half-way across the states. I’m used to starting fresh. Comes from being raised a military brat.

But there’s no need for me to feel so afraid. There’s no need for me to remain disconnected. There’s no need. I’m safe here. Aren’t I?

It’s been six years. I have a new name. I live somewhere he’d never think to look for me. I have a protective dog for a companion. Most days I’m happy and well and “free”. I don’t even think about him, or when I do I know it’s just an unrealistic fear triggered by something trivial that reminds me of one of our fights. I write about it, talk about it with my therapist, and move on. And then I have days like today… and I realize I’ll never really be “over it”. My PTSD isn’t going to go away. Healing doesn’t mean I’ll get “all better”. It means I’ll learn to cope, I’ll learn to deal, I’ll learn to handle the bad days and live for the good days.

On the anniversary of my flight from abuse, I want to remind myself that I made the right decision, that I have grown and changed in so many ways! I’m a completely different person now. A stronger person. A more confident person. A happier person. A more passionate person. I’ve escaped so much more than an abusive marriage. I’ve escaped the prison of my own closed mind and self-inflicted limitations. While it has been a struggle, I’ve not lost the idealism of my youth. I’ve overcome the threat of death itself, and I won’t let ANYTHING hold me back any more.

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I would like to thank A Strawberry Pushes Through Insanity for nominating my blog for the “Once a Victim – Now a Survivor” Award. This award is for those who have gone through mental illness of any kind, abuse, trauma, and especially PTSD. Here are the rules:

1.Thank the blogger that nominated you.

2.Nominate 5 – 10 bloggers to pass the award to.

3.Post questions for your nominees to answer (You may use the same as these below)

4.Inform your nominees and post a comment in their blog to let them know they’ve been nominated.

I consider it a great honor to be nominated for this award. My blog started as an effort to share my thoughts on the faults and dangers of religion, specifically how my experience with domestic violence opened my eyes to the similarities between an abusive relationship and a relationship with the God of any standard religious institution. I wanted to have a place where I could share my thoughts openly without fear and knowing that my words would be read by others who might be influenced to escape their self-enforced captivity. I wanted to share my journey, and show those still entrenched in their religious upbringing that atheism is nothing to fear- that opening their minds to the truth and their hearts to the possibilities is liberating.

But in a short time, my blog has become so much more than what I initially intended. I haven’t really written as many posts on religious topics as I have reflecting on my abusive relationship, my current efforts in coping with PTSD, and on my journey in coming to terms with my self-identity. I want to help people find freedom and connection, a sense of understanding and recognition… It is my hope that what I write will be read by those who NEED to see what I’ve experienced and see that it is possible to overcome trauma. It is for this reason that I’ve titled my blog “Inform, Inspire, Inflame”, because I wish to inform the uninformed, inspire the uninspired, and inflame the hearts of the apathetic, depressed, and disconnected so that they may discover their own passions and resume their lives with vigor.

My time as a blogger is still in it’s infancy, so it was quite a surprise to receive this nomination, and it has filled me with a sense of validation – that though my blog has meandered from my intended course, I am accomplishing something of importance. And so, it is with great pleasure that I name my own nominees for this award:

The questions I have been asked to answer (and my responses) are listed below, and I would like to ask my nominees to answer the same questions in their acceptance of the award:

  1. In what way do you feel blogging can help people with psychological trauma or mental illness?
  2. Why would you recommend blogging to someone who suffered from mental illness?
  3. How has blogging helped with your healing, or personal journey?
  4. Do you have any advice for a person who has a hard time understanding their emotions?

(Below answers all four questions. I started to break it down by question, but realized that it kind of all ended up flowing together.)

Writing is an extremely cathartic process, and blogging even more so. The simple act of putting your struggles to paper (or keyboard) allows you to process the pain and emotional turmoil associated with the memories that must resurface. You have to find the words to articulate it, have to think about how to break it down into sentences and structure it into something that makes sense. Taking the time to commit those troubling thoughts into written word is an opportunity to process what might otherwise remain trapped inside, and blogging it puts it out where others can see it. Others can read it. Others can comment and share. And you realize you’re NOT alone. There are others who share your pain and appreciate your efforts to put your thoughts where they can read them.

Blogging can be an immense help to those suffering from psychological trauma or mental illness, because it creates a support network. You make friends. You connect with others trying to process their own struggles, writing about their efforts, and sharing their own strategies for overcoming the turmoil. You feel validated. You feel strengthened. And you help others feel the same.

A few of my blogs were prompted by flashbacks and intrusive thoughts associated with my PTSD. Often, I find myself up with insomnia, with images coursing through my mind too quickly to follow and my emotions riding a roller coaster in response. When it gets particularly difficult, I know I have to get it out, but I wind up sitting in front of the computer screen just staring at it for hours, trying to think through the pain and find the words. Every time I write something about what I’ve been through, it’s the same, and I rarely even get one word down the first time I sit down with the intent to write it. I come back, again and again and sit and stare, until finally, the words start to form.

The emotions associated with trauma aren’t easy to understand. They are raw and powerful, visceral and intense. Don’t let them build to a breaking point. Talk with someone who can listen and understand. Talk with someone who can help. And write. Writing is amazing, because not only does it help get it out and in the open, it gives you an opportunity to look back. When you finish writing, you’ll likely feel a sense of relief and with that a sense of exhaustion. A weight has been lifted. Sleep it off. Then come back and read what you wrote. This helps process it further, as when you read it, you start piecing together clues and recognizing why you were feeling so stuck before.

There’s a whole world out there of people who share your pain and who want to help. You don’t have to be alone. Don’t remain a victim. You’re more than what happened to you. You’re more than your pain. You, too, are a survivor. And together, we are strong.

Enduring Freedom

Awareness of PTSD is building, and with it support for war veterans. With just a little thought, it’s not all that difficult to imagine what it must be like for soldiers who come home from war bearing invisible scars. They’ve been through some of the most intense experiences our world has to offer, and endured what nobody should have to endure. These battle-hardened individuals have faced death, terror, pain, horror, and suffering, and the memories remain with them.

Few, however, are aware of just how many people struggle with PTSD who’ve never left their homes. You see, PTSD is not a combat only disorder. This disorder can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. While war certainly qualifies as traumatic, it is not the only trauma a person can go through. Domestic violence is the MOST prevalent factor in individuals developing PTSD. Children are especially at risk, with approximately 50% of children who experience abuse in their homes later developing PTSD symptoms.

The problem with PTSD that has resulted from abuse as opposed to PTSD that has resulted from combat is that it isn’t as easy for people to understand. A combat soldier triggered by Independence Day fireworks displays is easy for people to understand. Getting triggered by a pile of dirty dishes in the sink…. not so easy to understand.

A “trigger”, as it relates to PTSD, is any stimulation or sensory input that reminds an individual of the trauma they experienced. Fireworks sound a lot like gun shots and mortar shells, so hearing them can remind a soldier of their time spent on the battle field. This “triggers” their fight/flight response as the brain relates the sound to danger. It also triggers the resurfacing of the memory in which the soldier really was in danger. Sometimes this triggered memory hits with such intensity that the soldier then experiences a “flashback” and completely loses track of where they are. They feel like they are THERE. Back on the battlefield. Fighting down that reaction, reconnecting with reality, convincing yourself that you are in no immediate danger and there is no need for your body to be reacting so viscerally can be exhausting.

For those who’s traumas are related to domestic violence, the triggers won’t be as obvious as fireworks. And they won’t be the same for everyone. The triggers are as unique as were the individual traumas experienced. For me… washing dishes is a trigger, because I was washing dishes when my husband scarred me for life.

I remember standing in front of the sink with a dull ache in my lower back and ankles. I was eight months pregnant, and I’d been standing there for over an hour already, because we’d allowed our dishes to keep piling up until we couldn’t put off doing them any more. My hands were dipped in the warm, sudsy water when I heard my husband scream in anger and frustration from the bathroom. I immediately tensed, my fight/flight response already kicking in as I knew what that sound meant. A fight.

He shouted out from the bathroom that he’d stepped on my razor and that he’d told me not to keep it in the shower. Without even thinking, I responded on the defensive, answering that the cap was on the razor so there was no reason to be making such a fuss about it. I heard the resultant tantrum, as he punched the wall, threw the razor, and turned off the shower. Then silence, and within moments he was standing next to me. Sweaty, wet, towel wrapped around his waist, and a crazed angry look in his eyes that I refused to meet. He was towering over me from behind, glaring at me, and breathing heavily but saying nothing. I opted to ignore him and continued washing the dishes, but my heart was pounding.

I was terrified. I knew, at the very least, I was going to be hit. That much was unavoidable. It didn’t matter what I said or did at that point. Once the beast was unleashed, it wouldn’t stop until it inflicted some form of pain. Even more agonizing though was the waiting. Why didn’t he just get it over with? After what felt like an eternity, but was probably in reality only a few minutes, his patience with me reached it’s end and he snarled at me, demanding an apology. I don’t even remember the exact words we exchanged at that point. I just remember that I’d become defiant and strangely, outwardly “calm” despite my racing heart.

I remember telling him off. I remember telling him there was no reason for me to apologize and that he was being childish. Some additional words were passed between us that I don’t remember, but I distinctly remember refusing to meet his gaze and continuing to wash the dishes while he hovered directly behind me. Then, something I said finally tipped him off his edge, and the violence ensued. But while I’d been hit before, this time was different. He shoved me into the sink. Hit me in the side of the head. Grabbed my neck from behind and choked me, and when I attempted to kick out his knee cap to make him let go, he tossed me to the side and grabbed a butcher’s knife off the counter.

My defiance immediately dissipated into a heap of blubbering abject terror. He had me cornered – the only place I could go without making an attempt to run past him was further into the kitchen, trapped up against the wall. He said something about cutting my stomach open and I melted onto the floor. I lost control of my bladder and found myself in a puddle of my own urine. My voice changed as I broke down into uncontrollable sobs. I curled up in the corner into the fetal position, knowing there was no escape and that if this man chose it I was going to die.

Seeing me so broken apparently achieved whatever goal he’d had in mind, and after eyeing me maniacally for a few moments, his demeanor changed. He put the knife back on the counter and started apologizing profusely, but when he tried to approach me, tried to touch me, I swatted his hands away screaming as if he were following through with cutting me open. I didn’t come around until my fear had run it’s course and worked it’s way through my entire body, wracking me with painful sobs, silencing my voice, and leaving me weak and frail and exhausted.

That moment changed everything, and my relationship didn’t last much longer before I found a way to flee. Now it’s been almost six years… but I relive that moment every time I stand in front of a sink full of dirty dishes and place my hands in that warm, sudsy water… When I manage to keep the sink clear, cleaning dishes the moment I dirty them, I can push it to the back of my mind and only feel a little tense for just a moment. But once a day’s worth of dishes have piled in the sink, my mental blocks kick in and I become avoidant. The pile gets bigger and bigger until I can no longer put it off… and then I roll up my sleeves and face the battlefield.

I used to enjoy playing cards. I never gambled. Never made bets with money. I wasn’t even all that competitive and rarely put in much effort to “win”. But it was fun to get together with family or friends and just pull out a deck. We’d play Kings in the Corners, Rummy, Solitaire, Speed, Bullshit, Five Card Draw… We’d laugh and joke and try to bluff each other and read each others “tells”. We’d bet with cookies or dish duty. It was fun.

So when I was about six months pregnant and bedridden by doctors orders due to severe morning sickness that had left me weak and dehydrated, and my husband found my old deck of Spiderman playing cards in the desk, it was a great opportunity to have a fun way to pass the time. I showed him some of my favorite card tricks, taught him how to play Kings in the Corners (which he’d never heard of before), and we played a few rounds of speed and bullshit together. Then he wanted to teach me how to play actual poker. With betting.

When I told him that I’d never played with betting and I wasn’t really interested in doing so, he insisted that betting was an important part of the game and he couldn’t teach me how to play without it. He dug out his poker chips, explained how much each color was supposed to be worth and how much people typically started with. Then he dealt us both a hand and a couple “dummy” hands so he could explain the rules of poker.

We played for quite a few hands, but because I was just in it for the fun of it and not all that competitive, I was losing pretty quickly. I considered it a good lesson – to never gamble for real, because I’d lose a lot of money, FAST. But my husband seemed to be getting frustrated with my lack of aggression in the game. He felt that the reason I was losing was because I just wasn’t understanding how to strategize for the win. He proceeded in trying to explain to me that some cards have a higher likelihood of being drawn than others. That… didn’t make any sense to me.

You’ve got the same number of aces as there are twos, or any other number in the deck for that matter. The same number of spades as there are diamonds… Each card had a 1 in 52 chance of being drawn. No card was more likely than any of the others, because there weren’t any doubles in the deck. “No, no, no” he insisted. “Here, draw a hand.” He tried to show me with an example. “Look,” he said. “You’ve got a Queen, a ten, a seven, a four, and a three. Now, it’s better to give up the queen, even though she’s a face card, because you’re more likely to draw a six or a five than you are a King or Jack”.

I started shaking my head. That STILL didn’t make any sense. What he was saying was WRONG. You are NOT more likely to draw one card than you are another in a standard deck of cards. You just aren’t. “No,” he still insisted. “You are.” He tried another example, and another, and I just started getting frustrated. I told him that he was wrong. That what he was saying wasn’t statistically possible. I told him that maybe certain “sets” of cards are more likely to be drawn than other sets, making certain hands smarter to hold out for than others, but no individual card has a higher probability of being drawn than another.

I tried to show him why I was getting frustrated. I separated out the deck, putting all the twos together, all the tens, the Kings, etc. I showed him what everybody who plays with cards knows, and what I knew he was already familiar with – you’ve got sets of four for each card, one of each suit for every number. So your chances of drawing any particular number had to be the same in a full deck. If you could remember what had already been played (count cards), you could keep track of the higher statistical probability of drawing remaining cards, but most people can’t keep track of that in their heads.

Now, though, he was getting mad. “No, that’s not what I’m saying,” he insisted. “THIS is what I’m saying…” and he tried yet another example, explaining it the exact same way as he had with every other example he’d shown me. After he’d gone through it several more times, I stopped him mid-example and asked if he could just explain it a different way. That the way he was trying to explain it didn’t make any sense to me and that it still sounded like he was trying to say you were more likely to draw a ten than a Jack, which wasn’t true.

Finally, after much deliberation, he changed his wording ever so slightly and stated that one was far more likely to draw a “number” card than a “face” card. FINALLY, it made sense, but… that was exactly what I’d tried to say to him when he first started trying to give me his explanation. It was pretty basic statistics. There are 16 face cards in a deck of 52 and 36 numerical cards. So when you lump it into groups like that, YES you are more likely to draw one than another. So, statistically speaking, it’d be smarter to go for a straight that included numbers than a straight including face cards.

When I breathed a sigh of relief that we’d finally gotten through some kind of communication barrier and made a connection, my reiteration that this was exactly what *I’d* tried to say at the beginning, just… enraged him for some reason. He didn’t like me pointing out that what he was saying before and what he was saying NOW were different. “No,” he said he’d been saying the same thing the entire time and *I* was the one who was wrong. I couldn’t know more than him about this, because I didn’t even know how to play poker. I didn’t need to bring statistics into this, because statistics and “book learning” were useless and pointless compared to hands-on experience. He knew what he was talking about, because he had experience playing poker, and he kept winning against me. So my input didn’t mean anything.

I felt insulted and belittled, and I couldn’t understand why he felt so offended by my desire to point out that we were on the same page. That what he was trying to show me and teach me actually matched up with statistics, once he worded it correctly. When I asked for the cards back, to try and show him what I was talking about one more time, he flipped. Literally. His temper had been building throughout our “conversation” and it had apparently reached a breaking point. He grabbed the few cards I’d picked up out of my hand, ripped them in half, and then flipped over the desk onto the ground, spilling and scattering everything that had been on top of it and/or stored within it’s drawers.

And if I hadn’t scooted my chair back and away in time, that table would have hit me too, and knocked me onto the floor. I felt weak and vulnerable, and I couldn’t move very fast. My stomach was protruding enough to cause me to have to waddle everywhere, and I was terrified by his sudden outburst. If he decided to treat me the same way he’d treated the desk, there was no way I could maneuver well enough to get away. All I could think to do was put my back against a wall and curl into the fetal position to protect the baby growing in my uterus.

He raged for awhile, and I waited in shock for the storm to pass. I couldn’t understand how something as simple as a card game could bring out so much anger. I couldn’t understand his insistence for being right, all the time. I couldn’t understand why he felt the need to push and push and push to make a point, but when I wanted to meet him half way and explain *my* side, he wouldn’t have any of it. It just made no sense at all. He was being completely irrational. How could such a horrible outburst, that left me feeling unsafe and insecure, be prevented if I didn’t even understand what had caused it, or if the cause was so far “off the wall” there was no way I could ever see it coming?

When he finally calmed down and helped pick up the mess, he refused to apologize. Instead, he claimed that he’d acted that way on purpose. That he had calculated and planned the whole affair and that he’d been in control the entire time. He claimed to have acted the way he did to teach me a lesson. He said he wanted me to see what it felt like to not be listened to.

At that point, with that overturned desk, the tables of our relationship had turned. I became wary, vigilant, and cautious, always watching out for his next outburst. And cards… were not “fun” any more.

“Crazy In Love” – A walk-through exhibit on display in the student center ball room. See how many early warning signs of a dangerous relationship you can identify!

I was between classes, and I had about an hour to kill when a representative from the Women’s Center handed me their flier. I didn’t have anything better to do while waiting for my next class, and the flier sparked my curiosity, so I figured why not?

When I entered the ball room, I found a row of “stalls” covered by curtains and a pair of young girls waiting at a table to instruct those arriving to tour the exhibit. They motioned me over, handed me a piece of paper, and explained what I was to do. Each “stall” depicted the bedroom of a college student as it would have been found at different stages in her relationship, and between each stall was a computer set to play a vlog post from this student. As I entered each room, I was to peruse and examine, looking for “clues”. Feeling a bit like a private investigator, or Sherlock Holmes, I was intrigued and ready to piece together the puzzle.

Enter the first room:

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The room was fairly typical of what would be expected of a college dorm. An open journal detailed the first meeting with the new boyfriend. A calendar on the wall indicated important dates – tests, study meetings, gym workouts, scheduled outings with friends, sorority activities, scholarship interviews, etc. There were pictures of friends and family on the walls, magazine cut-outs of potential purchases for the room, graduate school applications on the desk. It was easy to see that the girl who slept in this room was a hard-working, goal oriented individual with an active social life and a healthy drive for success.

The first vlog showed this peppy, happy girl introducing her new boyfriend to her family. Said boyfriend seemed eager to make a good first impression… and stake a claim on his new “territory”. I couldn’t help but notice his almost uncomfortably close proximity to his girlfriend through the whole video, arm draped over her shoulders and keeping her hand in his without ever letting go.

Enter room number two:

Another journal entry indicated that though they’d only been together a few short weeks, the girl and her new boyfriend were now engaged and planning on moving in together. She seemed to be madly in love. Infatuated, even, and the rest of her “plans” had taken a toll. Calendar dates for outings with friends were crossed out, cancelled, and replaced with “quality time” with the boyfriend or shopping trips to look for bridal gowns or other preparations for the wedding. A “to do” list indicated a need to pick a date, a honeymoon location, and other various pre-wedding preparations. The stack of applications that had been on the desk in the previous room was now on the floor – the desk flooded with bridal magazines and cruise advertisements. Little post-it notes from the boyfriend were scattered across the room, critiquing everything.

The second vlog showed a still “peppy” girl, now, however, intent on convincing her family that they weren’t taking things too fast, as they were just so hopelessly in love. The boyfriend was a little less interested in making a good impression now, and was instead focused on correcting statements made by the girlfriend.

Things start to intensify in the third room:

Now the room is flooded with messages from the boyfriend. Plans for an outing with friends are overlapped by a note stating “I thought you were going to spend time with me?” or “I thought you weren’t going to hang out with this person any more?”. Hopeful images for bridal gowns were plastered on the wall with question marks and synonymously shut down by the boyfriend with commentary that one was too revealing, another too expensive, etc. A phone log indicates missed calls from concerned friends and sorority members, a missed interview, and even professors concerned about late assignments. The journal entry now indicates that they’ve been fighting, and that the boyfriend got worked up enough to hit her during one of their arguments.

The third vlog shows a now disinterested boyfriend who has to be called to come to the screen and seems too busy to engage. The girl is telling her family that they are getting a dog, but the boyfriend isn’t willing to agree on a name. When he goes off-screen, the girl apologizes to her family for their delay in completing the vlog and blames their difficulties on the stress of wedding preparations.

The fourth room:

The boyfriend has now completely taken over. Everything is a chaotic mess of beer bottles, ash trays, cards… The attempted wedding preparations are buried under dirty clothes and pleading notes are shot down by further criticism. The journal entry is now written from the point-of-view of the boyfriend who indicates his distaste with his girlfriends decision making skills and his need to be there with her every moment for shopping and preparations to help save her from her own poor taste. A nasty note on the calendar demands the girlfriend get the room clean before his plans for having the guys over for another card game and drinks.

The final vlog, before the last room, the girl is alone now. She’s telling her family that she’s broken up with him, moved out, and gone to the police for a restraining order. She seems scattered, nervous, and confused, and half-way through the video someone starts pounding on her door. She looks panicked and gets up without turning off the feed. The boyfriend comes barging in, holding the restraining order paper work in his hand and demanding an explanation. He sees the camera, asks if she’s filming this and knocks it onto the floor. The video cuts out to the sound of breaking glass and the girl screaming…

At this point, someone else who’d been going through the rooms gives a dismissive cluck, rolls her eyes, and comments “so dramatic”… Meanwhile, I’m reaching a breaking point. With each room, I’ve felt my heart-rate increasing, my breathing becoming slightly shorter and more shallow. It’s not a fun puzzle anymore. I’ve numbed myself and am just going through the motions, trying to get through to the end without thinking. I can’t let it sink in. Can’t let it process. But that comment… “so dramatic”… seems to break open the flood gates.

I get one glance into the final room. I see broken glass on the floor, smeared with the streaks of bloody finger prints, and I snap the curtain closed. I can’t step in that room. I can’t. Before I know it, I’m striding across the ball room floor and heading for the nearest bathroom, where I break down in sobs. Gasping, panting, pacing… The scream. The blood. The glass… It’s too overwhelming. And over and over, ringing in my head, is that offhand comment – “so dramatic”.

BloodyGlass

It takes me almost thirty minutes to calm down enough to leave the bathroom, but my nerves are shot. I skip my next class and go back to my apartment instead, but I can’t stay inside. It’s too confining. I feel trapped. Like I’m suffocating. So I take my dog out for a walk in the fresh air and finally am able to settle down enough to quiet my mind when I find a nice cool patch of grass to lie in with my dog standing guard over my prone form.

The “Crazy in Love” display had been spot on. The “clues” in each room had worked like triggers, bringing memories of my own experience flooding back in waves. I could identify characteristics of my abuser in the boyfriend, characteristics of myself in the girl. Each room represented a stage in MY relationship with my now ex-husband. Each vlog represented MY emotional state at different stages in my abusive relationship. It was superbly executed. Excellently thorough. And it brought back the terror in such volume, it took me about a week to “fully” recover from the exposure.

More than anything though, I wanted to find the girl who’d been standing beside me and uttered those callous words. I wanted to tell her how REAL it was. How PAINFUL it was. How TERRIBLE it was to be afraid for my life. I absolutely ached with the desire to point out every single “clue” that had been in those rooms and make it clear to her that she could end up experiencing the same turmoil if she didn’t watch out. If she didn’t open her sheltered, ignorant mind to the evidence that was staring her right in the face.

While those rooms may have only been an exhibit, while those vlogs may have been completed by actors, it was very, very REAL.  And the statistics are absolutely tragic. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime, and 1 in 3 female homicide victims are murdered by their current or former partner every year. Knowing what to look for early on and how to get out before it becomes violent can save countless lives. So the next time you think what you are seeing or hearing is dramatic, take some time to think about how traumatic it would be to experience first hand… and pay attention to the “clues”.

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The sound of passing cars roared in her ears, drowned out all other sounds, leaving her with nothing but her thoughts. Thoughts that left her shaking in a jumble of confused and muddled emotions. Fear, guilt, depression, exhilaration, anger, concern, nervousness. Her body felt like a bundle of quaking branches in a heavy wind. She was running on nothing but adrenaline.

The woman sat there, open and exposed to anyone passing on the street, wearing a grungy, dirty, stinky pair of jeans and shirt. She waited on the bench, ignoring everyone that passed, shoulders hunched, eyes averted, attention only on the sleeping baby in the stroller in front of her. She appeared to be on the verge of tears, but the determined set of her jaw prevented such weakness.

She had taken the largest step of her life when she walked out that door. Her husband sat inside, unaware of the plans spinning in her head. She was just leaving on a quick errand. She’d be back in a few minutes… The minutes lengthened, and lengthened, and she knew by now he would be worried. She clasped and unclasped her hands, looking down at her feet, up at the traffic, and back to her son. By now he’d be wondering what was taking her so long. He’d know something was going on. Then the sharp squeal of worn brakes sounded in her ears, the hiss of air, as a bus came to stop by the bench. Palms sweaty, she gripped the handle of the stroller and rolled it onto the bus.

He’s probably calling the police, thinking she’d run into some kind of accident. He’s probably panicking, searching the house. Maybe, by now, he’d gone in the bedroom and seen the pile she’d left behind digging for the items she was going to take with her. Was he angry? Was he sad? Was he distraught? In tears? She felt horrible. Terrible. How could she follow through and do something so awful? There’s was still time. She could go back. Apologize. She could comfort him and let him know everything was going to be okay. She could avoid the worst of his reaction to her betrayal, if she quickly returned.

No. She’d already made her decision. It was too late to turn back now. If she ever set another foot inside that door again, she wouldn’t make it back out. She was on that bus, with her son, on her way to safety and freedom. She had to stay strong. If for no other reason than for her son. She couldn’t go back. She couldn’t stay with him any longer. She couldn’t wait for him to hurt their son.

The day I left my abuser will always remain a vivid memory. I remember the fervent panic. I remember feeling like everyone was watching me – feeling like everyone could somehow see through my bedraggled appearance and that they knew I’d just walked out on him. I remember expecting to see him coming after me at any moment, around any corner… years after that day, I was plagued with nightmares of his presence just around the next bend.

I remember, despite everything, feeling like I was the one in the wrong. I remember feeling like I was making the worst mistake of my life. I remember being flooded with concern for HIM and HIS well-being. I remember thinking his discovery of my departure would drive him to suicide, and feeling like his death would be on MY conscience. That thought almost sent me running back. I started contemplating excuses for my delayed return that he might find convincing, thinking I could just turn back and act like I’d never even made this foolish endeavor.

I was sleep deprived. I was hyped on adrenaline. I was probably even hallucinatory. I’d spent at least the last week walking on egg shells, having been broken beyond my ability to truly care about my marriage, but terrified of him reading my lack of commitment in my body language, my tone of voice, my solemnity… I continued to exchange “I love you”s, kisses, snuggles.. but my heart wasn’t in it. I loathed his touch. His hand on my cheek made my body rigid with the desire to flinch and turn away. Eye contact brought a lump to my throat as his gaze filled me with terror I hoped he could not see. Every breath, every step, every second was an effort of sheer will-power and determination to survive, to find and seize my opportunity for escape, because the only other feasible end I could see now was my own death.

And the only reason I did not take that end for myself was to save the life of my infant. See, what had finally broken me, the moment that shattered my gilded cage, was witnessing my husband hold our five month old crying son mere inches from his face and spouting such venomous, snarling fury that his eyes seemed red with rage and spittle flew from his mouth. That look had been directed at me on several occasions, and it had always resulted in a beating. I saw my son’s entire body go rigid with fear, temporarily frozen, eyes wide in shock, and then a scream of absolute abject terror, and I snapped. In a flash, the baby was safe in my arms, I was scolding my husband and soothing my child, and everything had changed.

After that ordeal, my husband tried to guilt me for pulling the baby away from him. He tried to guilt me for scolding him. He withdrew, acting very solemn and depressed, and he insisted that *I* had wronged *him*. I offered an insincere apology, soothing the waters and saying what I knew he wanted to hear in order to prevent an explosion, but I was done. He’d done the unforgivable. He’d proven himself uncontrollable. He’d threatened an innocent, harmless, babe and STILL insisted that HE was the one who’d been harmed by the encounter. All the carefully threaded webs of deceit, chains of manipulation, and chords of control started to unravel as the excuses he’d used in fights with me failed to take root when the victim onto whom he was attempting to throw blame was a BABY. There was NO excuse. NONE.

From that moment on, the one thing that kept me going was my desire to protect my child from harm. In a state of pure hyper-vigilance, there was little room for concrete thought. I was driven by instinct, and instinct saw me through the minefield until I was able to secure an opportunity to flee.

It is difficult now to imagine myself pursuing the life I then thought I was meant to lead. My life’s journey has led me down a vastly different road than anything I could have ever imagined as a child, a teen, a wife, a young mother… I am a different person now, and yet the same. These experiences helped shape me and have become ingrained in my memories, but the result could never have been predicted through evaluation of those very experiences.

There have been other critical moments, like the day I left my abuser, in which I’ve had an opportunity to look back. I believe we all have such moments in our lives. They are pivots in our individual journeys. They are fulcrums for change. Had I given in to my fears that day and turned back, my life story would be vastly different. Of course, not all life’s pivots are so extreme, but there are certainly those moments in which we must fully commit ourselves to our chosen direction and plot the charted course. Because we do not know where the road of change will lead, often we may choose the “safer” course simply because we know what to expect.

But life would be short-lived and barren indeed if we did not take our leaps. We all have our moments where we must look upon our current lot in life and come to a decision. 1. Continue on this path, or 2. Make a change. Change is terrifying. Change is “unknown”. Change is unpredictable… but when that which IS “predictable” and “known” can lead one only down a path lacking in love, joy, happiness, or fulfillment.. it becomes time to embrace the change.

Do not allow your life to be held hostage by manipulated fears and imagined concerns. Do not allow your life to become stagnant, simply because you can see no other feasible alternative. While this memory was once haunting, it is now an inspiration. I realize now that hope is found in our own courage and resolve – to embrace those changes which open the doors of opportunity and growth. When you find yourself facing one of those pivotal moments, when you must decide whether to leap forward into the unknown or continue in the relative safety of your current course – I urge you to take that leap! And don’t look back.