By: Amy Thomson
When many people hear the phrase “domestic violence,” they think of physical abuse – specifically things that are visible. Very rarely do they conjure up images of verbal and emotional abuse.
As a result, the damaging effects of verbal and emotional abuse are minimized, because we cannot see the wounds and scarring they cause with the naked eye. They are, therefore, seen as less severe, less destructive and invalid when compared with physical violence. This leads society to be dismissive of their effects and those who have been traumatized with a tendency to minimize their own experiences.
Beth Horan, a survivor and volunteer with Break the Silence against Domestic Violence, experienced severe verbal and emotional abuse in just three and half months.
For much of the time she was being abused, she was subjected to intense verbal and emotional attacks. She would be confronted about not answering calls or replying to his texts quickly enough, accused of cheating on him and forcibly kept awake as he lectured her about her religious beliefs. He constantly belittled and demeaned her, telling her that no one would ever want to marry her and used her insecurities to cause emotional distress.
“I would cry for hours, sobbing and asking myself, ‘What is wrong with you, Beth? Why can’t you get it right?’” she said.
Further complicating the experience of being verbally and emotionally abused, there is a misconception that it must last for long periods of time to cause any lasting damage. While there is some truth to this – the longer we are subjected to trauma, the deeper it becomes rooted – how long we are abused is not the only measurement that needs to be accepted. Whether the verbal and emotional abuse lasts for weeks, months or years, a significant contributor to the damage is the severity of abuse inflicted. The validity of abuse therefore cannot be measured solely in duration or force. What makes it a valid experience is that it happened.
Many survivors of verbal and emotional abuse tend to minimize their stories when hearing those who have been physically abused talk about their experiences. We have a perception that the physical must be worse, because it leaves evidence behind in the form of breaks, bruises, swelling, cuts and other injuries.
The damage left behind by verbal and emotional abuse can be just as bad, if not worse in some cases, than the physical injuries which generally heal. There is danger in the unseen emotional damage as it contributes to many physical health conditions, PTSD, addiction, self-harm and depression.
Horan remembers when she viewed the world differently. In her innocence, she chose to see the best in people regardless of the circumstances and never expected anything bad to happen to her. Like many, she believed that bad things only happened to bad people.
Then she met him. Horan said that initially, he acted nice and played on her emotions by revealing to her that he had been mistreated by previous partners. When he accused her of talking to other men online after the first week of dating, she attributed it not to jealousy but to him wanting to protect himself from being hurt again. Having just recently come out of a bad divorce, Beth knew all too well the feeling of heartbreak, and instead of seeing it as a red flag of what was to come, she felt bad for him.
Horan said she felt like what could be wrong with wanting to protect herself from being hurt? And how could this man, who came to her upset that he couldn’t see his daughter on her birthday and cried in her arms, do anything to hurt her?
Looking back, she now knows that when she met her abuser, she was emotionally compromised from the experiences leading up to and including the end of her marriage. She was lonely, needing to be wanted and to have someone realize her worth. It was this vulnerability that her abuser preyed on and exploited, and he came at her fast and hard.
Her abuser started to attack her for her independence, values and opinions, causing her to question the most basic parts of her character and personality.
Horan started to experience the damage of emotional abuse just a couple of months into the relationship. In addition to having her self-confidence destroyed and feeling that she was somehow at fault for what she was enduring, she began suffering from nightmares and bouts of insomnia. She was unable to recognize she was being abused. By the third month, she was losing her appetite, and her ability to function normally was impossible. Soon after, the abuse escalated. She was physically attacked, and it was at that point she ended the relationship.
As she struggled to understand the damage around her, she soon learned that a close friend was murdered by an estranged boyfriend and left behind three children and two pets. Because her friend died in a way that she thought she was going to die, she also battled with survivor’s guilt and anger that no one knew about. In despair and unable to cope, Horan reached a point where she considered taking her own life. It was in that distress that she came across Kristen Paruginog’s story on the BTS website and decided to reach out and share her own story.
Taking that first step to break her silence was an important part of her healing process. It cannot erase the trauma she has endured, but making that connection with someone who allowed her to speak without fear of criticism or judgment is what helped her move forward. BTS connected her to other survivors who shared similar circumstances to hers, and that support has proved instrumental in overcoming the transition from victim to survivor.
Horan still struggles with side effects from the emotional abuse she endured. She still lives in the same house where she was attacked by her abuser. Nightmares still haunt her, insomnia steals her rest and she now experiences frequent migraines and cluster headaches. Recently she was diagnosed with PTSD with intermittent flashbacks. She still has to battle his voice in her head. Even with all this, she is hopeful.
“I do realize [it wasn’t my fault]; it took some time and a lot of sleepless nights, but I know my worth,” she said. “I’m not worthless. Not even close.”
In fact, because of the support and encouragement she received from BTS, she has been able to make a lot of positive changes and set goals for her life. She enrolled in college. She shared her story on FaceBook and received more than a dozen replies from her friends thanking her and sharing their stories with her. Horan also shares the story of her friend who lost her life to domestic violence and acknowledges that she might still be alive today if she had reached out and shared with someone about the abuse she was enduring.
“I have made it my obligated mission, as I like to call it, to keep spreading awareness and educate [others] about domestic violence,” she said.
With continued encouragement and inspiration from the survivors that she refers to as family, Horan is committing to a lifetime of outreach education and awareness on domestic violence. She would like to use her experiences as a survivor to do interviews with national TV personalities such as Oprah, to have our voices heard in Washington by the President and engage in outreach on a national level.
Most important to her, however, is to continue to advocate for those affected by domestic violence so they can have the opportunity to break their silence and live free of violence.
For those of you who may be experiencing verbal and emotional abuse, please reach out to someone you trust and tell them what is happening to you. Regardless of whether or not you are being physically attacked, it is still abuse.
“It’s not your fault. You’re worthy of living life to the fullest,” she said. “I believe in you, and I promise I will be here every single step of the way.”