My mother wasn’t unlike many other mothers when it came to trying to spare her daughter’s the harm they encountered when they were young. To assist in helping me to avoid abusive men like my father, she imparted many examples of red flags; warning signs to observe in the behavior in men, and explained why they were dangerous and why I should cease interacting with such men immediately when these signs were displayed. I wasn’t unlike many other daughters, I usually listened. Sometimes more intently than others. Sometimes I was horrified, sometimes I was blasè and sometimes I thought I was too smart and too strong willed to ever fall into the traps of an abusive relationship. I wasn’t unlike many young women that felt an air of invincibility. I routinely gave myself, my strength, my maturity and my wits too much credit. I wasn’t aware of how much I didn’t know, and how much it mattered. I knew that abusive men didn’t have a certain “look” but didn’t consider that abuse victims also didn’t have a archetype. And I wasn’t unlike most victims, shocked, embarrassed and in disbelief when I found myself in an abusive relationship. A smart girl like me, yes it happens to even smart fiery girls like me and you. Black girls with smart mouths, and filled with fire aren’t impervious.
The thing about red flags is that while helpful there are some limitations. In theory when you’re listening to the warnings from your elders, you think these red flags will appear like crimson panels waving starkly in front of your face against a blank background. There are no other visual obstructions like “redeeming qualities” in theory, just an emblazoned skull & bones flag of danger that appear in your field of vision in the early aughts and you get the hell out of dodge. However in retrospect, when confronted with red flags as a young woman I think they were more like red flashes that whizzed by in my peripheral, because like most of us I had also been socialized to look at the whole of a man like a mosaic. There are bad pieces and good pieces that make the entirety, and as long as there was some semblance of good, that meant the person is good. I didn’t realize how useless a metric “goodness” was. “Good” people, good men, good women; are always capable of doing heinous things. Then what is the use of goodness if they can commit atrocities and still maintain such a designation?
I was young when I met my abusive now ex-husband. 19 I think, and I was at a place in my life where I decided I was ready for love. My relationship with my family was becoming increasingly volatile and estranged, and as a teen mother I think I was looking to ‘legitimize’ myself with a respectable presentation to wash off the stain of shame that had been projected onto me by people less than pleased by my having a child at 18. I’m not a romantic woman. I think there is deliberation and circumstances that contribute to the decision to fall in love that people avoid discussing to indulge in a whimsical and serendipitous surrender to some cosmic happenstance. I don’t recall any red flags waving at me in the beginning of our courtship but there were definitely some red flashes in my peripheral that I planned to address if they ever resurfaced.
Our monogamous models of marriage lend themselves to a kind of monotheism where your fated spouse becomes ‘the one” and how you first met becomes your creation story. So I guess when I got married. I took all the pieces of the mosaic that made up my husband ; the good pieces, the broken pieces, the red flashes, and fashioned my marriage into a proper altar at which I could worship and devote myself efforts to. By the third or so year however, once isolated from my family and having been exhausted and tossed about by the rigors of life, I looked up with tired eyes and saw that the man I married was made of scarlet. The verbal and physical abuse began, and I finally noticed all the lacerations on my hands from all the broken pieces I used to assemble my place of worship.
The night I left my husband, I broke a cardinal rule my mom imparted to us. ‘Never tell a man they are going to leave, that’s giving them a chance to kill you, leave when it’s best and safest for you’. Salient advice; especially considering we know that leaving a relationship is the most dangerous stage for women. Advice I heeded the first two times I left. But I couldn’t wait for that moment though, that afternoon I watched him berate his Grandmother; the woman who raised him since he was 2, for spilling water on our cheap, ugly, brown microfiber sectional. Ordinarily a spunky woman, her head bowed, her shoulders slumped and she couldn’t even make eye contact with me sitting across from her as he scolded her like a child. I saw myself in her bowed head and broken state and swore I would not let myself or my son watch me be broken into such a condition. A manically persistent and urgent voice inside me told me I had a small window of opportunity of which to leave my marriage and to jump out of that window head first if I had to. I stared at him and told him that I hated him. That I hated him so much my senses heightened when he was around, I could hear how moist his eyes were as he blinked, I could hear his nostrils flare as he inhaled. and the thought of him being allowed to draw breath was a frivolous misallocation of resources God could be directing to a better being. I wasn’t in my right mind and it was as if I had been possessed by that voices urgency.
The rest of the events after that announcement are kind of a blur. My memory of it consists of small edited pieces that I believe my brain has carefully selected so as to protect me and I’m grateful for the lack of detail. I know I had to fight, I know I remember the feeling of hands around my neck, desperate clawing, when my knuckles made connections to their intended targets, the dull pain that spread across my body, gently grabbing my son from bed and lying about playing a game of hide and seek with Daddy so as not to scare him. My bank cards had been cut into confetti and with nothing but $16 in cash I managed to complete what was essentially an escape.
The rest of what I would consider good fortune is circumstantial and not something I would ascribe to my personal strength. A kind stranger who saw me walking in the middle of the night with a small child and asked if they could take me to a train station a few miles over because I reminded him of his daughter, a best friend who answered a midnight tearful call where I could only utter ‘I left and I need to crash’, an auntie who was able to be the next stop and a formerly estranged mother who was willing to be the last stop and not ask too many questions. These are the factors that were essential to my leaving and surviving having left, and I am eternally grateful for them, as a lot of us do not make it to the other side. I am lucky, not wise.
It’s kind of difficult to think about what else you can contribute as a survivor when it comes to domestic violence awareness month, beyond harrowing accounts of abuse and statistics to provide credibility to the calls for urgency. However I didn’t know if I could be useful in that kind of contribution. So what I wanted to do was talk about what it’s like to leave, and offer some sobering realities I encountered and hopefully some encouraging ones too. When you leave; I’d advise you not replicate my exit it was reckless and the probable danger of it still haunts me 8 years later. It’s ok to be scared, it’s ok to be unsure if it’s the right thing to do. After you leave you may find yourself missing the same abuser you loathed. Don’t hate yourself for this. After you leave it’s going to be hard to accept the kind of environment you adapted to, in abusive homes you kind of create your own small worlds with your own norms, and ripping yourself out of that dimension can be jarring. Realizing how immersed you were in its rules and its dysfunction can be heartbreaking. Shameful. Shame can be a devastating anchor, in both staying and leaving. You will need to learn how to detach yourself from it.
You will be tempted to hate the person you were while you inhabited that world but be gentle with her. She was surviving, and got you to the other side. When you leave, you’ll realize it’s not a silver bullet. You are safer yes, but this doesn’t always guarantee happiness, this doesn’t mean the abuser you left was right about you being the real problem. It means you will have to claw your way to a life of peace and grasp at moments of joy on your own terms like everyone else. You will have to rebuild the pieces of yourself that was methodically chipped away by your abuser and it will be exhilarating and sometimes it will be tedious and sometimes it will be excruciating. Therapy will be as essential to your mental health as water is to a plant. Dating… should and when you choose to re-enter such a field is..precarious. You will try to find the balance between having learned the things and boundaries you will no longer compromise on and not knowing if your response is prudence or trauma, but who cares because ultimately your feeling of security is most important. Revealing to men what you’ve endured and knowing when to reveal it is something painful. Their responses range from awkward jokes, indifference, gaslighting and the rare case of empathy. To be fair it’s a difficult thing to respond to but in my experience they are woefully inept at responding. Bearing the unjust scarlet letter of ‘victim’ has a certain weight to it that lots of potential partners struggle to manage.
Ultimately after you leave; there is work, and I’m sorry there is so much work. But there is also peace. However small and infinitesimal there are precious moments of peace and it feels like gold. The way your muscles tensed when hearing the keys of your abuser jiggle to unlock the door announcing the arrival of the dark cloud of energy that came to deflate any sense of relaxation or levity in your home is no longer there. There is no shabby tyrant to appease. It’s your space now. About forgiveness, I can’t say it was a priority for me. I’m no longer gripped by the visceral hatred I had for my ex-husband, the night I sat across from him at the dinner table. I realize that he was a man who always felt small and few things are more dangerous than men who feel small. He desperately needed to perform dominance to compensate, he was cruel as he was scared. And we were two young adults who were bound together by isolation and a reluctance to concede that the objections from our family were right. But I did not wish to grant him the prestigious position as the super villain of my life story, and while I have great disdain for the things he did I have no vested interest in seeing him thrive or fail. I’m too focused on my own recovery.
Sometimes the gravity of what you endured comes crashing down on you like a tidal wave during the day to day business of living. For me it was almost a year after I left while grocery shopping and reached for a package of pork chops, looking to my son for input on what we’d agree on for dinner. Noticing it was just a 2 serving package and looking at my cart to see my son peacefully content and knowing that the decisions we made were of ours alone not subject to the demands of a small man seeking solace in false power. Decisions, even the small ones like what to make for dinner seemed like milestones and I cried and laughed at the absurdity of such a small victory all the while being grateful for it.
So if you’re reading this and you’ve just left an abusive situation. I hope that this proves useful. If you’re reading this and you’re not ready to leave I’m glad you’re still with us and I hope this proves useful in some small way. I suppose that I am continuing the tradition of my mother and the mothers before her and all the other survivors hoping their words reach receptive ears even if we are keenly aware of how it’s not fail safe prevention. That they are words that can be rendered less potent in a world where they exist along circumstances and love. At the very least I hope they can be useful.
It’s ok to be weak because we are all weak, it’s the feats of strength that are abnormal. It’s ok to resent having to be strong because of the circumstances that require you muster up such resilience. In the end there is work and whether yours is the job of staying and surviving or escaping or recovering, it’s work that you should never be ashamed of and it’s work you’re not doing alone.