“We have been through quite a bit, but we are alive, we are survivors, and we are thriving.“
***Trigger Warning: Sexual assault
The Abuse Story
My first husband of nearly 16 years was very abusive. As abusive relationships often do, the abuse started more subtly. If you don’t know the nuances and subtle ways abusers get to you, slowly gaining control as they whittle away your self-worth and self-esteem, it’s sometimes easy to fall into a dangerous relationship like this. I had lower self-esteem, was naïve to people who acted like he did and didn’t understand it, and I was a timid, largely compassionate empath: the type of person an abuser looks for. I felt for him because his own story was hard. He had been abused as a child. But having never dealt with it and developing mental health issues, he became a violent abuser. It started as mental, emotional and verbal abuse, and escalated to physical abuse.
I didn’t leave. I had always prayed he would change and believed he could. But I realized too late that God isn’t going to wave a magic wand and “fix” someone who doesn’t think they need help and isn’t willing to seek it. My first husband knew he had major issues, but I think pride and fear kept him from facing them and getting help, so he allowed it to destroy our marriage and ultimately, him. On the last day of our marriage, he ambushed me at gunpoint in our home. He was supposed to be out of town for a few days, but came back that morning and I didn’t know it until I returned home from taking my children to school and went in to our home. To be succinct, he bound my hands, brutally sexually assaulted me at gunpoint, making me fear for my life, but ultimately, turned the gun on himself and ended his life that day.
As you can imagine, this was very traumatic. There were so many things I was dealing with immediately: telling my children and comforting them, worrying about them, hurting for them and myself, physically healing from the attack, figuring out where we would live (we couldn’t bear to be in our home after what happened there). My children were heartbroken and hurting, and I couldn’t fix it. But I would do everything I could to help them heal and be healthy again.
When Did You Start to Feel In Control
Months later, after I’d taken care of all the practical things like paperwork, finding a rental home, and getting us all settled into therapy, we started to find the “new normal” you hear about. We were still hurting and struggling, but the three of us had found a rhythm to our lives and had bonded together even more than before. “The Three Musketeers” I used to call us. We were the only people in the world who knew what we were going through and only we and God could be inside our pain when it was raw. I went through a very difficult period where I was treading water, crying almost non-stop. All the detail things (like mentioned above) were taken care of and I could no longer distract myself with tasks. I was in pain. I was sobbing at night, weeping by day. Lost, begging God to make the pain stop. I didn’t know what was next or how to get there. I only knew that I had to go through this process of grieving, coping, learning, and eventually, moving on better than before. I read encouraging books about survivors of hard things, started writing again, allowed myself to cry, talked and vented and cried with friends, and when the calls and texts stopped at night, it was me and God. That’s when I began to get stronger and eventually felt almost brand new, un-oppressed, hopeful, and at peace with who I was. It was hard work getting to this place.
Tips for Dealing with Flashbacks
I think if anyone has been through trauma, finding a therapist they mesh well with is so important. They can give you many tools to help you cope and heal. Flashbacks come. Often they come in cycles like you won’t have nightmares for months, then they’ll come nightly for a week. Be gentle with yourself. Are there any triggers you notice?Talk to someone, share about them. Sometimes that gives the triggers or memories less impact. EMDR therapy has helped me and I would recommend trauma survivors explore that as well. Surround yourself with people who support you and understand that you have flashbacks, and explain to them how they can help, even if they don’t quite understand all of it.
What are some boundaries you've put up to protect yourself?
Boundaries are of vital importance to us all. We must have healthy boundaries in all relationships. This is something I learned in the past few years.
I have learned to say what I need. I have three chronic illnesses so boundaries protect my health as well. Sometimes I have to say “no” to things I can’t physically do or if I need a break and am tired, or if something (like a violent movie) would be upsetting because of my trauma. Healing is a process we are still undergoing. I am protective of my children, of course, but I have set boundaries for them as well. I protect their stories. They each had different relationships with their biological father and I only tell MY story. I allowed them to grieve how they needed to, to remember how they choose, and, they and only they, share their own stories. I got their permission before ever sharing mine. I have gotten tougher with boundaries and talk about them a lot. It’s true that you teach people how to treat you. I no longer engage much with people not interested in mutual kindness and respect.
What are some techniques you use to bring positivity into your life?
I remember how blessed I am.
We have been through quite a bit, but we are alive, we are survivors, and we are thriving. I am remarried to an amazing man whom my children love and he loves them in return. I have learned what being a true partner and being cherished in a relationship means. I make it a goal to encourage others who have been in hard places. I want my story to encourage their survival.
Advice For People in Abusive Situations
It’s so easy to tell someone to “just leave.”
Abusive relationships are incredibly complex and dangerous. Statistically, when a victim decides to leave, that is the most dangerous point of the relationship, likely because the abuser is losing their control. Remember that your safety and that of your children is priority. Find a local shelter, pastor, therapist or someone else you trust who can help you make a plan to get to safety. You may have to start over and that’s okay. You can do this. But you have to get to safety. You do not deserve to be abused. It is not your fate.
What Are Some Things That Would Have Made it Easier to Leave?
I think for myself and others, fear and lack of resources keeps them in abusive relationships. Whether their finances are being controlled or they’re slim or the fear of where they will live, fearing he will come after them, fearing for their lives and their children’s lives…all these things keep women there.
How Can Society Help You More?
What Are Some Things You Enjoy Doing Now?
I love writing and always have, but in the past few years my passion and ability have been rekindled. I use it now to share my story, encourage others, and educate them. My favorite thing is to spend time with my children, husband, and our pug.
What Helps You See the Beauty in the World?
I have always appreciated the literal beauty of the world, nature, and the miracle of it all. Having stared possible death in the face, you really embrace simplicity. Material things mean much less and experiences with those you love mean much more. I realize that everyone has a story and some of those are incredibly tough stories. And some people are in the midst of living through them right now, so be gentle and kind. There is beauty all around. We just have to choose to see it.
What makes you feel confident?
Everybody has their insecurities, but knowing I’m here for a reason and I’m a survivor, makes me feel strong. My family’s love and support make me feel confident. Being 49 and feeling fierce also makes me feel confident.
What Makes You Feel Beautiful?
I have my body image issues at times, but the older I get, the more I love myself and don’t care if anyone approves of my sense of style or choice of hairdo, etc. Our scars become signs of victory and our cellulite and wrinkles become signs of life, that we are getting older and that’s always a blessing.
What Makes You Feel Empowered?
Through EMDR, I learned about taking back my power. Being in an abusive marriage and particularly the vicious attack I endured, made me feel powerless. I noticed a pattern of me giving away my power and being fearful so often. Working through some of the trauma in this method, helped me take back my power. When I notice myself “giving it away” so to speak, I stop myself. I own my own power and it feels freeing not to be fearful all the time. He can’t hurt me anymore. I’m a survivor.