What I Wish You Knew About… Being In An Abusive Relationship

I was an ambitious little girl. Growing up, I wanted to be married to Michael Jackson in addition to being an actress or a lawyer. I’m now considered a grown-up, who unfortunately did not get to marry Michael. I do well in my career, I have a home and some pretty awesome trappings. I am also an abuse statistic.

I never thought it would be me. For the most part, finding myself a part of that kind of screwed up statistic was devastating. The ‘sisters with blisters’ club is not one you voluntarily sign up for. And yet there I was, an adult who for the most part adults quite well. A self-sufficient lady who was highly regarded by some and could hold her own out in the world. Looking at me, no one knew the weight of the shame I carried on my shoulders and the sadness I hid behind my bright smile. Did I deserve it? Did I have it coming? After all, I am a rational adult who should’ve known better than to have stayed. I signed up for this and gave up the right to be called a victim when I stayed after the first time. Right?

Here’s what you ought to know…

Leaving is not as simple as standing up and walking out of the door. If it was, no one would stay past the first time. The psychology of abuse is not black and white. The cycle is not that simple. From the outside looking in, I can see why you would think that. I used to as well, though I never imagined it would be me living through the experience. Abuse is for others, I used to think. Until it was for me. 4 years into a loving relationship, he hit me. By that time, I was already invested. Our lives were intertwined. Whilst we did not have any shared furniture, we had memories. Great ones. And we had plans.

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Even if your abuse isn’t served daily, it’s difficult to reconcile the beau you fell in love with, to his version of Mr Hyde – the one whose presence you dread. Maybe your beau is physically abusive, maybe emotionally, maybe verbally. I hit the tri-factor. I soon learnt that the saying about sticks and stones is absolute crap. No type of abuse is better. Fists, backhands and cables hurt. The wounds from those heal, sometimes leaving scars on your skin. Words hurt like a thousand paper cuts. Those wounds bleed eternally as your subconscious mind spits them out at random, a constant reminder that you are a failure.

Half the time, it’s almost as though you dreamt it. It happens fast, the apology is sincere, and you carry on. Wash, rinse and repeat. And whilst you aren’t looking, your self-esteem becomes eroded. And then the strangest thing happens. You start to feel shame. Shame that you, a grown person, who is rational and capable is in this terrible situation. Shame becomes your companion, an ever constant presence. Where shame resides, nothing rational grows. Hiding your shameful secret is the shackle that keeps you there, because once you leave the cats’ out of the bag. The questions come, hitting you like hailstones on a tin roof. “Why did you stay?”, “didn’t you know he was like this?”, “why did you marry him?”, “wasn’t there a sign?” Thank you for your morbid curiosity, but your questions are of no help. And so you stay because you have no rational answers to irrelevant questions and no strength to deal with the curious onlookers. You stay to put off facing the critics and the bystanders with their looks of pity.

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Then you start to change in tangible ways. The chemical balance of your brain readjusts as you try to cope. Death or prison are everyday options, much like chicken or beef served on a flight. You know that the way things are deteriorating, one of you will end up dead and the other in prison. You’ve come to terms with that. I was in fight mode for 3 years. I did not realise that I had become a shell of a person during that time. There was no light in my eyes and I had stopped laughing and smiling. I only noticed that in retrospect whilst looking at old photos. My flight response was triggered by the birth of my daughter. Only when I was entrusted with the life of another, did I realise the value of mine. I rediscovered my inner core of steel. But I was still in resting state, not ready to make any moves. Watching and waiting in the hope that he really was sorry and that he really would stop. But he hadn’t finished fixing me. I still wasn’t better. And so I learnt, they never stop. You do.

Enough’ is not a uniform standard. I remember years ago I was watching the movie Enough (the one starring J-Lo). My father was reading his paper on the couch, and would occasionally glance up at the TV. Then at one point where she was all bruised up from a beating, he looks up and says “she hasn’t had enough”. That was sadly prophetic, because fast forward a few years and I’m in the same situation. I stayed because I hadn’t had enough. I often tell this to people who talk about how they wish someone they know would just leave. Each person’s ‘enough’ is different, and you cannot impose your standards on anyone else. For some, it’s the first threat of violence, it’s when he bloods you up, when you lose your hearing or sight, or when you’re six feet under. We all leave when we’ve had enough. 

I love you. You can’t leave me. If you do, I’ll kill her”

Let’s say you’ve finally decided that you’d had enough, and you’re ready to come out and face the critics and onlookers. You want to get a protection order because you are afraid for your safety. All you’d have to do was relive the horror of your abuse by documenting it word for word on an affidavit. But only if it’s physical abuse. The verbal and emotional stuff is a tad difficult to document. No visible scars, you see. After that, you have to tell a Magistrate what happened. He gets to be there to deny everything. If you’re meticulous about taking photos and recording conversations, you’ll get your protection order. If not, the magistrate may just look at you and say “oh, he only hit you three times. That’s not enough. You also have no proof of the threats to your child”. When that’s over, you get the additional pleasure of him telling you how much of a failure you are, and how vindicated he feels because you didn’t get a protection order. Just because a Magistrate didn’t think it was enough, doesn’t absolve him of the abuse he inflicted. Pity he doesn’t realize that.

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Until I was ready to leave, I said nothing. I once had a bloodshot eye from a backhand and someone jokingly asked if he had hit me. I turned around and said yes. This was a good friend, who shuffled around awkwardly and immediately pretended as though I had said nothing. I did not speak of it again. Some things are just too heavy for friends and family. When I was ready to leave, I sought the help of a professional. I left all the drama on her couch, and by the time I walked out of my home with my bags and baby I had no weight on my shoulders. I was not angry, I was not depressed. I was hopeful. I was able to process the divorce from a place of rationality because I had processed the pain and had come to terms with my role in the demise of the relationship. I had walked my journey therefore no amount of in-law intervention could convince me to go back. Our African cultures tend to fail us in that regard. There are just some things that can’t be fixed with sorry.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is real. I will never be the same. Ever. I have healed and moved on. But lurking in the background of my psyche are memories of that time. Memories and intense feelings of inadequacy that can be triggered by an insensitive comment and leave my mind in foetal position for days. You’ll never know because I’ve perfected the veneer of normal. Well, new normal, that is. New normal smiles and is happiness personified. New normal trusts people, has intimate relationships and loves without limit or restraint. New normal no longer suffers fools. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice there is no twice, you don’t get a second chance at me.