Written By: Amy Thomson, Survivor and BTSADV Volunteer
Six years ago, after hours of listening to my abuser scream and yell at me in the middle of the night, our neighbors called the police. I have always known that they didn’t do so out of any concern for my safety, but rather because they wanted to sleep. Still, this was the first time in the entire four years that I was being abused that anyone even bothered to intervene. Whether or not it was out of annoyance means nothing to me. The fact that someone around me – out of all the years and neighbors that heard every time I was assaulted – actually acted on what they heard instead of gossiping about “that girl next door” being abused is testimony that it is possible to intervene. If someone would just pick up the phone.
I wish I could say that saved me, but it didn’t. When the two officers arrived, I was taking a shower that my abuser had forced me into. He came stomping into the bathroom and summoned me to the door by telling me to “hurry the fuck up.” Wearing only a robe and a towel on my hair, I was dragged through the apartment to the living room with his hand gripped around my wrist and then positioned at the door. Before re-opening it, he only had to look at me fleetingly for me to know what he meant – don’t you dare fuck up. Or else.
He opened the door, wedged himself in between me and the door, and planted his hand on the deadbolt. The officers remained in the hallway about three or four feet away from the door. I have never understood why they didn’t ask to come in. I can’t think for the life of me why they couldn’t see my abuser’s positioning for what it was: a threat to keep me silent. I watched with a storm twisting in my stomach; I knew I was an inconvenience to them, and they came merely out of obligation. They asked from the hallway if everything was okay or if I had been hurt.
For a split-second, I thought about telling them everything. I ran through the scenario in my head and abandoned the possibility once I reached the part where I could see him slamming the door shut and throwing the deadbolt on lock before coming after me. Realistically, I could have been killed before they were able to get into the apartment. So, I complied with my abuser’s glares and told them I was fine. Before they left, all they did was tell us to keep it down.
As they turned to leave and the door closed, I knew that the assault that had been going on for three or four hours by that point was far from over. It didn’t matter that he was the one that was yelling so much and caused the police to be called. It didn’t matter that the neighbors were the ones who did it. It didn’t even matter that I didn’t tell them the truth when they came. All that mattered was the fact that they were there. And, just like everything else he didn’t like, it was always my fault. And my transgressions – always manufactured in his mind – never went unpunished.
Six years ago, he slammed the sole of his shoe across my face and became further enraged when I grabbed it away from him and threw it back at him in defiance. I was backed against the back wall in the bedroom with my arms and hands up in front of my face to deflect his fists. In anger, he stood over me as I slid to the floor with my back against the wall, and he began hitting me in the head repeatedly with a closed fist.
He growled at me to put my arms down. I refused, and in response, he threatened to break my arms if I didn’t put them down. I didn’t comply. When his fist started to hurt, he backed away into the kitchen, leaving me curled up on the floor with my arms covering my head. He came back into the bedroom with a sealed can of food he pulled from the cupboard and kicked me when I tried to push him away. With my back against the wall again, he hit my head the first time with the can.
He was incensed that I refused to drop my arms and hit my head with the can two more times. He grabbed my wrist and hit me again. It didn’t matter how far he would have gone; there was no way I was going to drop my arms down and open myself up to an onslaught of fury. At that point, he ripped my arms away from my head and pinned them to the wall behind me. Each time he hit me, white flashes started flashing across my field of vision; my head pounded as it volleyed between the impacts of the can and the wall. Eventually, he backed away and dropped the can on the floor. He had hit me so many times that he dented the can in half.
As I stood up, he pulled out a pocket knife and held it to my throat. Without thinking, I swatted his arm away, and the knife clattered across the bathroom floor. For the next several hours, I would manage to get one thing away from him, only to have him pull another makeshift weapon out of his hiding places. Hammers. Pipes. Knives. A 2×4 that he had hidden on his side of the closet. When he couldn’t get to those, he would improvise. There was no safe place in the apartment because he had planted things everywhere, including going so far as to cut small holes in the mattress seams so he could hide knives there.
Six years ago, he slammed my head into the kitchen wall and held a knife to my throat. In the short breaks of silence that morning, I had somehow managed to get ready for work and sneak my debit card out of his wallet when he was working himself back up to another attack. Wearing the same androgynous clothing he always made me wear – I wasn’t even allowed jewelry or makeup, so as to hide the fact that I am a woman – I was sandwiched in a corner, backed against the stove and wall, with him standing in front of me wielding a steak knife and threatening to cut me apart.
It wasn’t the first time he had threatened that. Several years before that, I awoke blinded by the bedroom ceiling light to him straddling me and jerking the covers away from me. He wildly picked up my arms and legs and checked my neck as he screamed my name at me. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was checking for blood and told me that he had a dream that something had chased him around the apartment and then he had cut me up into pieces. After that, one of his favorite threats – other than telling me how he could kill my father – was to say, “I’ll cut you up into pieces and leave you in the basement for your mother to find,” or “I’ll leave pieces of your body in the woods and let the animals eat you.”
For over four years, I was desperate to remain silent about the abuse I was enduring. I didn’t tell anyone the first time he threw me against the bathroom wall and strangled me. I didn’t tell anyone about the time he drove me out to a wooded area in the country and threw me down in the road. No one knows that my last memory from that night is a freeze-frame of my hands up in front of my face in the darkness with a tire iron coming down over my head. I didn’t tell anyone about him stealing my money, the sexual abuse, the sleep deprivation, the butcher knife incident, the time he used my body to destroy the bedroom and dangled me with nylons around my neck, or all the times he dragged me across the floor by my hair, stuffed me in a corner, and repeatedly stuck my legs with the metal bar. And that was just the beginning of the physical violence I lived through.
But there were things I endured both with and because of him that are harder for me to talk about. Where the silence around the physical abuse kept me safer from his retaliation – at least initially – I buried other things in the shadows as a way to hide from the shame I felt. I didn’t talk about how he would hold me down and force-examine me after he’d been out because he was trying to catch me being with someone else. I didn’t talk about the suicide attempt where he took the keys and the phones and left me in the apartment. I didn’t talk about him not allowing me to have any money to buy feminine hygiene products or how, when he’d shut me up in the bedroom for hours and hours on end, I would have to urinate in a cup and transfer it to a jug with bleach water – because he would hurt me if I tried to come downstairs to use the bathroom. I didn’t tell anyone that we lived in a car or used food pantries.
Although I lived each day of my life with him in fear of being killed, shame was the bigger motivation behind my silence. I learned fairly quickly that the silence that sometimes kept him at bay was also the same silence that contributed to the escalation of violence. But that fear of people finding out what was going on behind closed doors was crushing. After all, I was supposed to be smart. I should have seen it coming. I should have known better… right?
When I left, I did hear that commentary from several people – some of them were so-called friends and family.
“How could someone so smart be so stupid?”
“I don’t know how you didn’t see that coming. Even I would have.”
And for the longest time, I thought they were right. It took a while for me to figure out that I wasn’t the one who was the problem. Coming out the other side of that process was slow and arduous, and there were days I wanted to fade away and disappear in the darkness. Getting out from under the weight of shame that I carried for so long was the only thing that freed me from the silence.
Six years ago, I sat at my desk trying to work as though my life wasn’t imploding around me. My abuser called me non-stop. He threatened me to tell my supervisor there was an emergency and to have one of my co-workers bring me home. “I’m not done with you yet.” When I asked what he was going to do when I got there, he paused for a moment and then said, “You’ll find out when you get here.” In that tone. The one that triggers desperation, because although an outsider wouldn’t pick up on it, the intended message is that you’re going to suffer.
Six years ago, I sat in my supervisor’s office staring at the floor desperate to tell her what had been going on, but I couldn’t talk. I was ashamed. I was scared. And even though I knew he wasn’t there with me, the level of control he had over me was so oppressive, I could have sworn he was standing right behind me just waiting with a clenched fist so he could punish me for opening my mouth. I thought about going home, but I knew if I did go back that day, I probably wouldn’t have gotten out of that apartment alive.
Without looking up at her, without saying a word, I slowly pushed my sleeve up and extended my forearm to her. When she asked me if I was being abused, all I heard in my head was “I dare you to tell, bitch. Do it and see what happens.” I couldn’t talk at first, but I forced myself to nod. Once I did start talking, I let everything out. I have never been more afraid, ashamed, or vulnerable in my life. And at one point, I never thought I would recover.
So often, people romanticize strength and courage without really knowing what it means. Strength isn’t brute physical strength or refusing to ask others for help or not feeling emotion or always winning the war. Courage isn’t best displayed on the field or in education or careers or dreaming. Truth strength and courage manifest in the tears that no one else sees. They show in emotional turmoil and battling depression. Strength and courage are there with us whether we carry our burdens silently or break down. Whether we fight our way through a panic attack, have a good day, or the worst day of our lives. They carry us when we think we can no longer walk, and they let us retreat when we need moments of silence and solitude. True courage and strength are found in our humanity. In feeling. In falling apart. In progress and setbacks. It’s in saying no and standing up for ourselves or others.
The hardest thing for me to realize was that opening myself up and baring my soul – my fear, my shame, my humiliation, suffering, and torment – to another human being wasn’t a weakness. It wasn’t about being broken, and my vulnerability wasn’t something that I needed to hide. Six years ago, I felt weak and ugly and worthless. But the truth is – even though that was the worst day of my life – it was still the best day ever. Because I dared to reach out from the darkness and ask someone to help me back into the light.
Sometimes, showing true strength and courage is tearing your soul open and throwing all the ugliness out into the world. Sometimes, it’s sobbing and begging for help. Sometimes it’s silent pleading. But it’s all real. Tangible. Healing. It doesn’t feel like it when it’s happening, because we are conditioned to think strength or courage is only beautiful. But it can be raw, traumatic, and scary. And you know something? That’s okay.
On my sixth anniversary, I hope that you will embrace your humanity and your vulnerability and see the value not just of your life, but your heart and the courage and strength that has carried you this far. You are a warrior. You are strong. You are amazing. Each of you has inspired another survivor, whether you know it or not. I know, because every day, you all inspire me to be the best I can be and to not give up when I get tired.
Continue sharing your stories. Because as Brené Brown once said: “If we share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
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