I didn’t see him walk into the room, but I felt the blow on the side of my head that erupted in three distinct thoughts:
- I can’t believe this is happening
- I can’t believe he is doing this to me
- I can’t believe this is over
I was 22 at the time. He knew that if he ever hit me, that the relationship was over. So, as he kept slapping me, punching me and pushing me against the wall, I was confused. We’d just told my parents that we were going to get married.
There were easier ways to tell someone you’d changed your mind.
“You don’t want to see me when I get drunk,” he would tell me. It was just one of the many warning signs that I ignored. Deep down, I knew that the relationship wasn’t healthy. I just didn’t believe that I was worthy of anything better.
As he kicked me on the floor, as punishment for loving too much, the male roommate came to the doorway. I cried out for help but he just ran back to the kitchen as my fiancé threatened him too. I was rewarded for my plea with a fist to my forehead.
That could’ve been what caused the blood to splatter on the white wall. Later, he would tell people that he just slapped me.
I knew that I wouldn’t feel the physical pain immediately. When my father beat me up in my matric year, the adrenalin kicked in (just like it did now).
Eventually, he stopped, forced my car keys into my hands and told me to f*&k off. I asked him for a towel to wipe the blood off my face. He closed the door on me instead. I knew that I wasn’t in a position to drive. Luckily, a neighbour took me into her house so that I could clean up and call my family to come get me.
I felt defeated as I waited for them.
After years of watching my mother being beaten up, I wanted to escape the cycle. I thought that he might be different. I didn’t know then that I’d been trained in years of co-dependency cycles, watching and participating in dysfunctional patterns.
I didn’t know then that girls who grow up in homes plagued by domestic violence are more likely to internalise the violence they’ve been witness to and become withdrawn, experience depression, and be drawn to abusive partners who feel ‘familiar.’
All I knew was – my heart was broken. And I felt trapped in a life I didn’t choose.
Why doesn’t she just leave?
No one wants to talk about abuse – and therein lies its power.
Research shows that it takes on average seven attempts to leave a domestic violence relationship. This is why it might seem easier for people to turn a blind eye to the abuse that they know is going on around them. They rationalise that there is no point in trying to do anything because she will just end up going back to him.
Another scary statistic is that the majority of domestic violence murders committed by abusive partners occur after an attempt to terminate the abusive relationship. Women who are stuck in this silent hell literally fear that they will lose their lives if they leave.
The abuser has been skillful in weaving a web of lies over the victim, eroding her sense of identity and alienating her from her friends and family. They become the centre of the victim’s world – and it feels like there is no way out.
I never really understood this until I was living this reality myself. Minutes after the person I thought would love me forever proved that he couldn’t – I was more worried about him than the pain I was feeling.
- He didn’t mean to do this.
- He regrets what he did.
- How will I live without him?
As I write this, it feels shameful to admit that this was my automatic reaction after I experienced a violent episode that could’ve taken my life.
And yet, there are millions of women stuck in this spiral that feel powerless to escape the shame. They have thoughts like:
- It isn’t all bad
- I won’t be able to make it on my own
- I have to stay for the children
- I will never find love again
- He’s right: I am stupid
Untangling the web of abusive relationships involves an intensive process of recovery and healing. It starts by the ‘victim’ having the courage to investigate how her life circumstances have contributed in shaping her predisposition to be attracted to the “Bad Guy”.
The night that I spent walking in my worst nightmare was a defining moment in my life. My father made me go to the hospital, then to the police station so that we could lay a charge of assault. He was oblivious to the irony of the many times that going to the police failed to stop his own violent tendencies.
What really changed that night was me – I made a choice.
I’d seen the honeymoon cycle of apologies and promises to change revert to the violent thunderstorm so many times with my own mother. I knew that if I ever went back to my own Prince Un-Charming, I would end up in the hospital the next time. Or worse.
And I really wanted a different life.
I experienced severe long term effects of growing up in a domestic violent home. It affected the way I showed up in the workplace, it affected my relationship with money, it affected my relationships with others on various levels. I had several health issues due to the underlying complex post-traumatic stress and persistent anxiety I’d learned how to internalise.
I will admit that the road to healing and recovery is arduous. It involves choosing the pain of getting better over the pain of staying the same, every day. It involves taking your life back, a painful inch at a time.
And no, you can never get the years back that you lost. But you can regain the years that you still have left. You can overcome the pain of brokenness and enjoy the pleasure of wholeness. The experience of abuse may have shaped your past, but you don’t have to let it define who you are.
I now have a healthy relationship with an incredible man. I am not simply a surviving but am truly thriving in a life that looks vastly different from that 22 year old version of me.
I’ve changed generational patterns so that my daughter doesn’t have to heal from the same things I had to overcome. This is how we can change the story of gender based violence: by making one powerful choice at a time.
You are valuable. You are strong.
You can change your story.
I have. You can too.
Article first appeared online on IOL