The reality is that domestic violence always starts in the psyche. The victim often does not even recognize that it has begun. First it’s a comment about someone else, then it’s a criticism of you, then it’s repeated criticisms, couched in helpful terms or comparisons.
Let me tell you the story of a relationship I had in college.
First, he stalked me across campus. Everywhere I went, he turned up. It got to the point where I went everywhere with a friend. My friends surrounded me with their support and protection. Then, towards the end of the semester one of my good friends got suspended and went to stay at his house, off campus, so she could keep her job. I tentatively visited her there (she wasn’t allowed on campus). I was nervous but figured nothing could go wrong as long as I was visiting with her and never alone with him.
Oh, did he pour on the charm. Within two weeks, he had me, hook, line and sinker, finally believing he was a good guy and I had misinterpreted his actions throughout the prior months. My friend certainly approved of him and appreciated him. I went home for the four month summer and we began a correspondence (pre-email days). In one letter, close to the beginning of summer, he wrote that if I responded, he would assume we were going to be engaged when I returned to school. Keep in mind this was about 1 month after we had even begun to interact positively…. I was young, naive and didn’t take him seriously, I laughed it off.
When I returned to campus, he had taken it seriously. Without discussion, without asking, he assumed we were engaged when I arrived. Oh, did he shower me with love and gifts. There was a big sign on the lawn of the women’s dorm shouting to the world that he loved me. He wanted to spend every spare moment with me when we weren’t in class or at work. He would take me to his house to study in the evenings and return me to the dorm at curfew.
One evening, soon after my return, we were giving another friend of mine a ride in his car and he said to me “why don’t you have a body like that girl” — pointing to someone walking down the street. My friend was stunned he would say something like that.
He began to be sexually assaultive, while at the same time telling me that when we married he would hire prostitutes and never actually have intercourse with me. He starting hitting me if I didn’t do what he wanted, but never hard enough or in a visible place. His insults became worse, his controlling, jealous behaviour increased.
I rarely got to see my friends, especially alone. My roommate barely spent any time with me. One night I stayed in to study and she talked me into going to the TV room to watch “Friends”. When we returned to our room, he had left 5 messages on our answering machine, each one more and more demanding to know where I was. It was a sign of a worsening problem. My roommate refused to let me laugh it off. She shared her concerns with me. She empowered me to make a change.
While my friends were becoming concerned for me, I had hidden things well, they didn’t fully see what was happening. When I did, finally, break up with him he somehow manipulated my male friends into believing I was being cruel to him. Why? Well, I broke up with him just as the honeymoon phase was ending. The night I finally ended it, I was afraid for my life. We were driving back from a nearby town and he got angry … about something … and was driving like a maniac. I was sure he was going to crash the car.
He damaged me. I felt unattractive, unloveable, undesired. I feared him. But… you know that saying “You can’t see the forest for the trees”? Abuse is like that. You can see the trees. You see the sapling that is abuse. You see the towering tree that is the grand gesture. You see the bush that is fear. You see the bushes that shower flowers on you. You see the sapling growing a bit bigger, but it’s just a little tree still. You see the weeping willow that surrounds you with it’s beauty, until that tree grows and you are trapped within it’s branches, unable to escape. What was once a beautiful, bright grove becomes a terrifying darkness, the path out is overgrown with weeds and thorns.
It’s a terrifying walk out of those woods once they have grown around you. It’s a long walk. It’s not an impossible walk, but it will feel like it some days. And, even after you are out of that terrifying forest, the nightmares reach out and entrap you with their tendrils, making you think that sometimes you are still there.
I walked out. I got counseling. I thought I was healed. I still have flashbacks and that’s been over 20 years ago now. I have better control over the memories, so now they don’t attack me unawares, but they are still there waiting for me to let my guard down. I still feel the damage he inflicted on my psyche. The bruises, they fade. The assaults, they end. The emotional abuse, that lasts. That is a message, an arrow, to the heart and the heart takes a lot longer to heal.
A song for those waiting for and working toward healing: