CW (content warning) Descriptions and depictions of domestic abuse, sexual exploitation
One of the scariest parts of being on a journey of self-actualization is that once you feel as though you have mastered one component of yourself, you are met with another challenge that forces you to rethink and reinvent your life. We are a people who are in a constant cycle of building and destroying. This is how we grow. We realize our truths and shift through new paradigms of being. Sometimes, we do so intentionally. We meet a part of ourselves that we wish to change and every day we do the work to evolve. Other times, we are forced to evolve in a way that we aren’t always ready for. It is out of our control. When we experience abuse, this is a cause for evolution. We are either built or destroyed by it.
Encountering abuse at the hands of another human being (literally and figuratively) is one of the most painful experiences known to the human psyche. One of my counsellor’s taught me that, “Each person’s grass isn’t always green in the same spots or at the same time”. This is to say that although we may share similar experiences, we are all on our own journey. We can appreciate where we are and where we are yet to go, compared to where we used to be, without comparing our journey to anyone else’s or minimizing the things we’ve been through. “Oppression Olympics” is a great term. It teaches us that when we are being oppressed, there is no winner. There is no form of abuse worse than the other when attempting to compare one person’s experience to another. We must own our individual journey. When we put name to our experiences, we release ourselves of our silences. With courage, we put our pain under a microscope and then we choose what we want to do with it.
I thought I had everything under control
For the last six months, I’ve been attending programs geared towards assisting women who have experienced abuse. I take individual counselling and participate in group settings where we share our stories. Through these groups, I’ve been able to access various resources that have helped me begin to understand abuse and the ways that it has played and continues to play out in my life.
Remember I talked about those instances of thinking you’ve mastered something? Well, I thought I’d mastered the ability to spot an abusive person. I thought I had everything under control, that no man could ever have that type of power over me again. It turns out I was wrong. I found myself in yet another abusive relationship, only this time it never escalated to sexual exploitation. This time, it was a different kind of pain that produced the most life altering change that I have ever experienced in my life. This time, it made me a mother. It was also one that triggered old skeletons to resurface; ones that I thought I’d already rebuilt myself from, ones that I thought I mastered. This is me rebuilding again, shifting into a new paradigm.
The resource that resonated with me the most, in participating in these programs, has been the “Power and Control Wheel”. This diagram was developed by Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (DAIP) in Duluth, Minnesota.
For original image, click here.
I was able to take my power back
The first time I saw this diagram, I cried because I felt so empowered. It was then that I knew I wasn’t crazy. Everything I’d felt but couldn’t necessarily prove, with no witnesses, was validated. Even in instances when there were people present, they wouldn’t understand what was happening and so I felt even more crazy. I’d ask myself, “Are they not seeing what I’m seeing? Is he really doing what I think he is? If he is, why? If he isn’t, why do I feel like something is wrong?” Still, I had to be honest with myself in that I had also been abusive. When I was able to gain perspective as to why I had been that way, I was able to take my power back. From this, I am able to choose not to engage with anyone who makes me behave that way because that’s simply not who I want to be.
An abuser uses different types of abuse, each with its own tactics, to exercise control over their victim(s). Often times, multiple forms of abuse are experienced by a victim at any given time. Here are some examples that I’ve experienced throughout my life as the victim and perpetrator of abuse, starting with one of the most socially understood methods:
Types and tactics of abuse:
- Physical: Slapping, punching, choking, pushing, restraining, not allowing me/them to sleep by intentionally disrupting me/them or my/their environment, using weapons or objects to cause physical harm
- Isolation: Controlling who I’m allowed to be friends with, where I go, physically isolating me from my support system, using jealousy to justify actions (i.e. saying things like, “You can’t wear that dress because you’re going to be dancing and showing your pussy in front of a bunch of men”)
- Emotional: Name calling, making me feel like I’m crazy (also known as gaslighting), victim blaming (i.e. telling me I was hit because I did something that made them mad), giving the silent treatment, causing me/them to feel as though they don’t exist
- Intimidation: Using looks and gestures to instill fear, destroying property and personal belongings, threats of violence, ultimatums (i.e. “If you don’t stop crying, I’m going to give you something to cry about”)
- Cultural/racial: Adhering to the “code of silence”, being told that only white people call the cops, being called “white” or being told that’s a “white people thing” when attempting to access resources for the betterment of myself (i.e. going to therapy, having a professional come in to help with my children), being expected to bear the weight of a burden alone, specifically because you are a black woman (i.e. In being abused, I was not allowed to talk about it or was told I was being “extra”), being responsible for more than my fair share of my family’s livelihood
- Using children: Threatening to take custody of my children away from me, my children’s needs being neglected to spite me, being physically abused in front of my children, being told that he wants to see my children as a way to have access to me too
- Financial: Being secretive about finances, withholding money for basic necessities, impose traditional gender roles (i.e. Insisting that money is not my business because I am a woman), not getting to hold or keep my money, making large purchases without consulting the me, not being allowed to have my name on the lease or bills, unreasonable financial expectations while I make way less money (i.e. covering majority of my children’s expenses)
This is not an exhaustive list. There are many, many tactics being carried out by abusers and the impacts they have on the victims are endless. Some examples of how I’ve been impacted by abuse are as follows:
Impact of abuse:
- Low self esteem: Having negative self talk such as, “Who will want me now? If so and so doesn’t love me, that must mean I’m unlovable.”, feeling as though I don’t have anything going for myself even when I do
- Feeling inadequate/hopeless: Thinking that I don’t have the ability to raise my children or that I don’t deserve to be their mother because “I am going to fuck them up”, feeling as though I can never get anything right, not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel
- Lack of confidence in ability to make decisions: If I can be “so smart” and still have such a terrible lapse in judgement, then I must not know what is the right decision for me
- Guilt/shame: Not wanting to discuss abuse or tell anyone out of fear of what people may think, fear of not amounting to the person that others perceive me as
- Physical symptoms: High stress triggers cramps, skin flare ups, flu like symptoms, uncontrollable crying or frequently being on the verge of tears
- Irrational responses to seemingly simple situations: Thinking that the silence of a friend or loved one means they are mad at me, don’t want to talk to me, or are ghosting me (when in reality, they may just be busy or needing some alone time)
- Depression: Not wanting to leave my bed/house for extended periods of time, neglecting household chores, canceling appointments because “I just can’t today”, isolating myself, overeating unhealthy foods, indulging in substance use (i.e. drinking or smoking cigarettes)
- Directing anger towards people who haven’t done anything: Excessively yelling at my children for being children when I am feeling the impacts of abuse mentioned above
Given the magnitude of these examples, the other thing that I had a lot of trouble with for a number of months was the question, “Why me?”. I wondered how someone’s treatment of me could be so abysmal. I’d think that I must have done something wrong. I’d constantly replay scenarios in my head and reread text messages to see what I could have done wrong or better. When I was being called names, I read those words dozens of times, asking myself, “Is this true of me?”. Before accessing resources such as individual counselling and forms of group therapy, I answered that question (“Why me?”) by telling myself that it happened because I allowed it to. This is not true. I tried in many ways to avoid conflict whether it was maintaining boundaries, giving space, talking it out, or dissolving a relationship entirely. I even attended couples therapy for a short period of time. None of my seemingly reasonable solutions worked.
Sometimes the lion becomes the hunter
When all else failed, I began to be abusive. I’d went from this person who would do anything for those she loved to someone who was smashing things, going days without speaking, publicly putting people “on blast”, and being flat out petty. I would do little things to inconvenience him or get a reaction out of him. I felt so out of tune with myself, yet there I was, becoming the type of person I hated. But, why? Through counselling, I’ve gained a new perspective using this popular quote, “You do the best you can with what you have”. When you are constantly being pushed to your limit, you will eventually reach your breaking point. When you are constantly anticipating one tactic of abuse or another, in order to survive, you begin to have a mentality of, “I have to get you before you get me”, or “I know you’re going to get me so let me get you first”. This doesn’t mean you become them. This means that, you are acting on your basic human right to protect yourself and in those moments, you are doing the best you can with what you have. When leaving isn’t an option, sometimes the lion becomes the hunter in order to live to fight another day or at the very least to not go down without a fight.
In addition to the negative, sometimes soul scarring impacts that abuse has had on me, it has also done something wonderful that I may not have had the ability to do otherwise. It has given me an unmistakable intolerance to bullshit. I’m always fighting to meet myself where I am; to give myself credit for the progress that I have made. Although there are familial relationships that I am still trying to harness, romantically I have come a long way. The time between when an energy exchange is initiated to the time I decide that love is no longer being served is becoming shorter each time I engage with someone. I learned that for me, no intention is equal to ill intention. I may not always know what I want but I’m damn near positive of what I don’t want and that comes with experience. I’ve reached that point by being my authentic, loving self and by taking risks on people. Essentially, that’s what we are doing when we allow someone to enter our lives. We are giving them the power to potentially hurt us and hoping that they don’t. Ideally, that exchange will be beautiful. Though it will have its challenges, require forgiveness and compromise, sometimes it will still hurt.
A challenge I am met with now, that landed as #27 of my 27 Affirmations For the Rhinocerous Mama in my previous post, is to accept the beginnings and endings of cycles. I have not yet mastered how to walk away from relationships without having to burn a bridge. Don’t get me wrong, some people we absolutely must love from a distance in order to maintain our sanity. There will be people who, once you establish a boundary with them, cannot handle it so they sabotage the relationship in a way that leaves no room for rekindling but I do believe that people can have the capacity to accept that a relationship no longer works for them, whether platonic, romantic or otherwise.
Being abusive is a choice!
On the other hand, unfortunately, when giving someone that power they completely take advantage of it. They walk into the privilege of being in your life (because that’s what it should be viewed as) with the intention to harm you for their own benefit.
Too often, we justify an abuser’s behaviour by saying things like, “Well, they were abused”, or “They are only abusive when they drink”, “They never had (one of) their parent(s) to teach them any different”, or my favorite one (insert eye roll), “They are mentally ill”. All of these things may very well be factors of what leads up to the aggression but ultimately, that abuser chooses to be abusive. There are many men, and women, who grow up being physically and sexually abused in their households with alcoholic parents, and a mental illness diagnosis who never grow up to perpetrate that type of violence onto another human being. Being abusive is a choice! If we want to dehumanize another person with questions such as, “Why didn’t you just leave?” that makes us a part of the problem. The onus should be on the perpetrator of abuse, not the victim.
There has been one time in my life when I can remember intentionally walking away from a relationship that I knew I couldn’t be what that person needed me to be. It wasn’t a matter of me being abusive towards them but my intuition signaled me over and over that I was not where I should be, if not for them then for me. I took heed to those signals. Although the person I was having to walk away from was hurt and confused, pleading with me to give us a chance, I knew that to do so could end very badly for both of us. I didn’t want to hurt him and I didn’t want him to hurt me, knowing that I shouldn’t have been there to begin with.
That is an example of what I would like to see happen in our respective relationships. For each of us to recognize when we cannot be what the other person needs and to respect ourselves (and them) enough to walk away, particularly when it comes to abuse.
Admittedly, I feel naive to even hold this hope and I understand how unrealistic it may sound because there are some really sick individuals out there who undoubtedly need professional help and/or to be incarcerated. But, for those who are not too far gone, my hope is that we can all become more self aware. Upon realizing that we either have the desire to abuse someone or have gotten to a place where we are causing that person harm, that we simply walk away─ Love that person, love yourself enough to walk away when you cannot give that person what they deserve, especially as it pertains to safety.
Gentle reminders for Mamas Understanding Abuse
For the mother out there who may be experiencing abuse, it is not your fault
Fighting every day to keep yourself and your children safe, directing the abuse towards yourself so that he doesn’t take it out on the kids, you are a warrior
For the mother whose friends and family don’t believe you because they cannot fathom him being who you say he is, I believe you
Or they believe you but they don’t know what to do about it or how to help, you still have the right to be safe
For the mother beating yourself up for choosing the wrong one then feeling guilty because you sound as though you regret your children, you don’t have to apologize for how you feel
Or the mother who does regret her children because, right now, they are the only thing keeping you with him, that doesn’t make you a bad mom
If you believe that you deserve to be abused for whatever reason he ingrained in your brain, you don’t deserve it
For the mother who has been isolated to the point that your other friendships and relationships have dissolved, that doesn’t make you a bad friend
For the mother who has been told that he needs you and is nothing without you (and the kids) or that he will hurt himself if you leave, he is not your responsibility
If you’ve been told over and over that you’re not a “real” woman for not following imposed traditional gender roles, that doesn’t make you any less of a woman
For the mother who is waiting for the right time to leave, know that when you get to the point of, “Now or never”, strength you never knew you had will carry you through
Tips to get help if you are being abused:
- If you are in immediate danger, please call the police
- The National Domestic Violence Helpline: 1-800-799-7233 or https://www.thehotline.org/
- Local women and family shelters: The National Domestic Violence Helpline can assist you in finding a vacancy, shelter staff can help you develop a safety plan if you are ready to leave and an exit strategy in the event that you are not quite ready to leave yet
- Reach out to family and friends: If possible and you feel comfortable, talk to a trusted loved one about your circumstances and see if they can offer you a place to stay while you sort things out
- Apply to priority housing listings: Applications can be found online or picked up at your local housing office. You can have someone pick up an application for you if you are unable to go. Words of advice: If safe to do so when you leave, take a piece of mail with your and your partner’s current mailing address that is dated within the last three months as you will need to provide recent proof that you lived together. This can look like a lease, bill, notice of assessment, etc. It doesn’t have to be one piece with both names but each piece has to show your/their full name and the same address
- Tend to legalities: When/if necessary, you may want to look into hiring a lawyer to help you navigate potential legalities. This may look like a divorce, separation, division of property, custody and access of children, criminal charges, or a restraining order. If you qualify, you can retain a lawyer through Legal Aid
- Collect evidence: Keep any correspondence documenting abuse such as text messages, emails, voicemails, police records, medical records, etc. This will assist you in any court procedures you may attend