Note: This piece was written in honor of October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It mentions the topic in detail. Please use your discretion.
Can you be both a survivor and an abuser?
In my family, we say we are passionate people. We call ourselves intense. We don’t discuss the holes that appear in the walls during fights, especially when they are magically patched up the following morning. This part of my childhood is not one I like to publicize. Especially considering how undeniably loved I was and still am by my immediate and extended households. But feeling loved and being safe are not the same thing.
I’ve never liked the word “victim.” I’ve also never liked the word “survivor” for that matter. But I’m both. Victim and survivor. When someone steals your sense of safety, you never think, “Well, I saw this coming.” At least I didn’t. And if you steal theirs, are you also an abuser? Or are you simply surviving? And does it matter what your reasoning is?
We met in college. We dated after graduating. We moved in together. Had a dog and a Costco membership and jobs and watched our Netflix shows and did laundry on Thursdays. I was under the impression that this was what adult relationships entailed.
So, the first time he hit me, I didn’t call it that. The first time I threw something at him, I explained it away as being frustrated in the moment. We did this dance for months. We disrespected each other’s personal space, we lashed out and promised to never do it again. I wasn’t physically stronger, so my punches came in the form of verbal daggers.
Then he broke my arm. And as I sat on the floor, realizing that a trip to the emergency room was in my future, I knew I’d lie. I created this elaborate story regarding my poor vision–which is real—and mistaking the dog for the shag rug in the bathroom—which didn’t exist (the rug, not the dog)—all of which felt believable. So there I was, in the hospital at 2 AM, lying through my teeth.
He took me home. Helped me shower and change. I cried the entire time. That afternoon, I went to therapy and told my counselor exactly what happened. She gave me the number of the domestic violence shelter in town and told me to call right away. I thought that was ludicrous.
There I was, cast in hand, explaining to her how I wasn’t a victim. She asked me what I thought the word meant. She asked me if I felt safe. I knew I was terrified, but I also didn’t leave. I stayed for an additional and excruciatingly long two months. Except now it all seemed less ignorable than before. I had a cast and check-ups and physical therapy—and what did he have?
Now I’m not someone who tends to believe in the “eye for an eye” mentality, but the broken arm did remove us from a level playing field. It let me see that we were never on the same footing. I fought my way out—cue Hamilton playing in my head—when he pinned me down on the floor. I pushed and screamed and kicked because my fight or flight mechanisms were triggered, not because the dishwasher broke, or because I felt frustrated.
My reasoning was guttural and reflexive. His was purposeful and cruel. By the time I actually got out and into an apartment of my own, with a restraining order and zero contact, I was able to take inventory of just how much he’d taken from me—mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.
It’s been over three years since and most days I am OK. I don’t flinch at every spontaneous hand raise or crashing sound, but I do sometimes have moments where the voice in my head explains how it was all my fault. And walking myself out of that lie can be time-consuming.
No one deserves to have their sense of safety taken from them. It took me quite a bit of therapy to recognize just how much blame never belonged to me. I was never perfect or free of mistakes, but no fight or misunderstanding calls for bones to be broken.
I also had to learn just how much comparison was damaging my growth. My lack of black eyes didn’t lessen the impact or validity of my experience. I’m a poet and sometimes our wonderful and miraculous community of writers feels like a seesaw where we’re all fighting to be the one at the top, the one with the most brutal and most gruesome trauma.
But hardship shouldn’t be measured or compared to that of someone else’s.
If any part of my story resonates with you, I am so very sorry. If you identify with the labels of survivor or victim, I see you. It isn’t much of a silver lining, but the magical humans I’ve gotten to connect with because we all got flung onto this very specific merry-go-round of trauma have been beyond special. It’s been a reminder that we are not alone.
And whether you are staring back at the storm you escaped or simply trying to make sense of how you got here in the first place, know that this does not define you. You are a mosaic of every moment you cried and laughed and fought and hoped. This is a piece, a sliver of color, in your otherwise bright and effervescent life.
You’re more than your pain, more than what happened. You are strong enough to heal from the heavy you carry. We encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected].