Why I Stayed and What I Learned

It’s hard for me to talk about domestic violence, but not for the reasons you might think. Yeah, all the predictable reasons are there:

  • Because I still internalize the wrong-headed idea that I let someone abuse me, that you can’t be strong and capable and get knocked around.
  • Because I worry about the fallout from naming living abusers.
  • Because nobody ever put me in the hospital, so it really wasn’t that big of a deal.
  • Because I still think the term “emotional abuse” sounds fucking stupid. Like somebody hurt my widdle feelings and now I need therapy for it. “Emotional abuse” doesn’t do justice to the way this bitch unmade my brain.
  • Because, like most people, I re-frame the abuse in terms of what occurred, instead of what it did to me.

But I also have a hard time talking about domestic violence because the prevailing wisdom is that a person should immediately leave an abusive situation, and part of my story is that, if I had it to do over again, I would never give up what I learned by staying as long as I did. I’ve always wanted to write about this, but I feel like my experience could be so easily misinterpreted. This isn’t about minimizing abuse, and this isn’t about blaming the victim, nor is it about baiting an abuser, or living in denial.

My mother terrorized me, especially in the last few months that I lived with her, after my first failed attempt at leaving. My truck was half in her name in order to save on car insurance, and the only place I had medical coverage was through her health insurance. So when I tried to leave the first time, she told me she’d report the truck stolen if I tried to take it, and she held my birth control hostage, which is important because that’s what keeps endometriosis from turning me into a semi-conscious, vomiting mess one week a month.

I tried to leave that first time because I knew that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to leave. Having to go back only made me more determined, and I knew that I’d have to trick her into signing the truck I bought and paid for entirely into my name. I also knew that I’d have to find my own healthcare, to which I am eternally grateful to Planned Parenthood. I always say that I owe them my life, and this is why. Without free access to healthcare, I would have had to decide between staying with my mom or navigating a chronic, debilitating condition without treatment. Part of coming back meant approaching it a different way, so that when I left the next time, I left for good.

If I had succeeded in leaving the first time I tried, I don’t think I would have half the confidence I have today. When I was a kid, I got hit by my grandfather. I never stood up to him, and I lived with a sick pit of terror inside me for years. When my mom started on her abusive progression, I thought I was taking ownership of the situation by fighting back, something I was too small to do before.

But I was still reacting on pure fear. There was nothing intellectual about screaming back at her when she screamed at me, shoving back at her when she shoved me. All I’d managed to do was turn my flight into fight. I was still no better than a cornered animal. When my sponsor suggested that I stop answering her, stop reacting and stay calm, I couldn’t. Fighting her had become a reflex.

I justified a lot of my own yelling and shoving because she did it first. I didn’t have to treat her like a daughter should treat a mother, or even how one reasonably polite house-mate treats another because she was the instigator. She’s the one who kept me up half the night telling me about her suicide plans, she’s the one who literally dragged me out of my bed in the morning. She was always the first to scream, shove, threaten and hit.

Over the weeks and months, I practiced staying quiet when she was loud. I had hoped that this would inspire her to similar action, but the truth was that when I offered no resistance, she ramped up the chaos. In the months after I managed to stop reacting to her, she pinned me against a wall for the first time, threw things at me, and her habit of keeping me awake late into the night and dragging me out of bed by my feet in the morning became a more and more frequent occurrence.

The delusion that our relationship wasn’t abusive because I gave as good as I got was shattered, along with the misconception that my ability to fight her meant anything about my fortitude or my composure. When I reacted without thinking, I was completely unable to figure out her end game. When she would accuse me of starting fights she’d started, or other things she was clearly doing instead of me, I thought I was going crazy. When she brought up my not inconsiderable character defects, I felt like I deserved it. When she claimed that she only said and did these things because she loved me, and that she was genuinely worried about me, I believed that I might actually be the stupid, incompetent reject she told me I was.

But when I worked on not reacting, I found something amazing. I started by not responding to her first insult, but reacting to her second one, then I made it through to the third, fourth, and so on. Slowly I worked my way up to standing calmly in the middle of her screaming, slapping, shrieking, throwing hurricane, and I saw clearly what was happening. She needed me, not the other way around. Not anymore. I admit, I had needed her. I needed the drama, the co-dependent declarations, even the violence.

It is massively important to me that I recognize my own agency, even through the worst of it, because how else can I stand outside of that context? Once a person admits to having been a victim, we tend to keep them in that box for the rest of their lives, and I’m not okay with that. First of all, it separates “normal” people from us poor victims, and second of all, it paints a picture of both my past and my future that I just don’t subscribe to.

I grew up in a home where, no matter what I did, I ended up getting punched in the head. It was no secret that I was unwanted, and that nothing I could do would change that. So when I had somebody telling me what a worthless piece of shit I was, when I had that affirmation, I was finally home again.

I’d never addressed the childhood abuse. I thought it was good enough to say my grandpa was evil, and that was that. But I never looked at the way I was shaped by his actions. The fact is, I was so hungry for any attention at all that I was ripe for abusive manipulation. All anybody had to tell me was that I was special, and they could have done anything to me. Because she said she loved me, she got to tell me I was stupid, she got to blame me for every negative feeling she ever had, and she got to take her rage and her sadness out on me without consequence.

By staying, I did get more shit than if I would have left when I initially tried. But I also got the gift of being able to look at her from my own eyes, from the collected center of myself and see what was happening. She would do anything she could to keep me off balance. Keeping me awake, keeping me in fear also kept me from realizing what was going on in our house. It gave her the advantage. Because I was always afraid, I was never using my analytical mind. By the time I did leave, I wasn’t reacting out of fear, but out of a sense of rationality I didn’t have only a few months before.

Instead of being just another evil abuser, my mother was a co-conspirator in a plot I no longer wanted to be a part of. It’s true that as the adult, and the breadwinner, she had the advantage, and it’s true that she was responsible for what happened in that house. But I’m still really grateful that I was able to figure out why it was so easy.

I’m not easily rattled or intimidated today. I think that’s because of the work I did while I was still in that house.