The older I get the more I recognize the importance of history. It shapes who we are, teaches us who we need to be and also, uniquely, impacts other people when we choose to share our past and our story. This is mine.

I am a survivor.

Roughly 39-percent of U.S. citizens have experienced some form of abuse or violence at the hands of a partner in their lifetime, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. I am a statistic.

Though I removed myself from the abuse, my journey through the landmine that is the aftermath continues. It impacts aspects of my life, often in small minute ways that most people can’t observe from the outside. Inside, however, any survivor will tell you the effects seem post-apocalyptic. Rebuilding after a trauma is not easy. I found myself on the leather couch of a counselor. I poured my heart out weekly, working through what happened, trying to rationalize it and understand it. I remember the anxiety looming over me like a dark shadow ready to steal my soul. It was suffocating.

I remember balking as my therapist first told me that I was showing signs of PTSD. I wasn’t a soldier, a police officer, an EMS worker — brave individuals who had seen death and destruction or fought for their life or the lives of others. I was simply someone who let my guard down and let someone in, misinterpreting the red flags. How could I have PTSD? My war, so to speak, was different but it still left marks and scars on my being.

Abuse is the systemic dismantling of who you are as a person. Abuse can look like a full-on physical assault — punching, kicking, slapping — but often times it’s more insidious. It’s thinly veiled threats and cruel remarks disguised as sarcasm. It’s degradation, belittlement, an attack on your character. It’s being made to feel like nothing you do is right and who you are is even at fault. “You are wrong, you are crazy, you need help, no one loves you, you are a burden and the world would be better without you.” At least, this is what you’re told and eventually start to believe.

It’s walking on eggshells in an attempt to manage someone else’s anger. It’s shoving and pinching labeled “playful.” It’s name-calling. It’s being told “you’re too sensitive” when you speak up or stand up for yourself. It’s isolation from your friends and family. It’s control — in the form of what you can wear, where you are and who you talk to. It’s financial control — being told what jobs you can take, how money is spent and even being relegated to an allowance. It’s sexual control— being told that someone has total jurisdiction over your own body.

It’s living in fear.

It’s a dizzying cycle. Tension builds. Abuser lashes out. Your emotional being is decimated. Abuser returns with gifts and apologies. You stay. “It will get better, they didn’t mean it, they love me, I shouldn’t have done this or I should have done that…” you tell yourself. “It won’t happen again,” they say. But it does. It always does. The carousel keeps turning and you feel trapped, unable to get off this twisted ride.

Maybe at first, you fight. You stand up. They convince you are the confrontational one. You are angry, immature, irrational, overly emotional and too sensitive. You provoke these fights. Maybe the latter is true but only because watching the tension build and not knowing when you’ll be in the crosshairs is worse. Preparation keeps you alive. So you learn to read them, like a well-worn novel. You can predict when they’re about to spew venom and sometimes you force their hand just to get it over with. Why prolong the inevitable?

Over time, you believe the words. You begin to think you are the problem. Ultimately, you retreat. You withdraw. If you make yourself small, they won’t see you. It’s pure survival, but it’s the erosion of your soul resulting in a person in the mirror that you don’t even recognize. You fill with shame. How did I get here? Then the hate-filled words you’ve heard fill your head and convince you it’s all your fault.

Hopefully one day, that person in the mirror convinces you this is no way to live. You make a decision to jump off that carousel and end the cycle. It’s terrifying. One of the most dangerous times in an abusive relationship is when the survivor leaves. It’s also extraordinarily difficult for the survivor. The abuser, who has invested in the abuse over time, has so much control that the actual act of leaving financially and physically requires planning. Not to mention the emotional turmoil. Trauma bonds people. You feel connected to your abuser. You love them. You don’t want to hurt their feelings or make them upset. It’s a complicated mess of emotions, deep and dark. Finding the light and leaving amidst that darkness is one of the toughest trials.

Like many survivors, though, I found my strength. That’s the thing about survivors — we are not weak. We are strong, full of grit.

To those drowning in the dark waters of abuse, I pass this along:

-You deserve respect and true love — not love tied up with strings, cruel words or degradation.

-Abuse never gets better on its own, it always escalates. You cannot fix this on your own.

-Abuse has nothing to do with you — it’s entirely on the abuser. Don’t get caught in the idea that you are responsible for another person’s actions, feelings or behavior. You are not selfish for wanting to be treated fairly and with respect as a human being.

-Someone else’s past trauma does not give them the right to hurt you. You are not responsible for their past or fixing what is broken within them.

-Most importantly, there are resources and people who — when you feel depleted, exhausted, tired from the battles you fight — are ready and willing to carry you. They will fight for you. They will carry you. They are ready to help.

If you are caught in a dangerous situation, please reach out. There’s no shame in it, only strength and healing. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. They are trained professionals, waiting to help you get more information or find additional resources. If you’re a reader like I am, a book I highly recommend is Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft. It’s a great exploration of anger and abuse.

Above all else, whether you are in this situation or navigating the aftermath know that you are not alone. You are loved. You deserve better. You are strong. You are not weak or a victim — you are a survivor. You are a warrior.

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