Let’s just breeze past the fact that the first (or even the tenth) question anyone gets after leaving abuse shouldn’t be ‘why didn’t you leave sooner?’ because, for now, it’s what we hear over and over and over.
It’s the mantra when any story even similar to what we’ve lived hits the news.
It’s not asked when a woman is killed after leaving. It’s not asked when her children are murdered to hurt her after she’s left the abuser.
(Also, no one says, at either of these times: wow – now we see why it’s scary to leave. )
Why didn’t you leave sooner? is asked right up until the reason smacks us all in the face.
Let’s forget that it’s not the right question at all.
Let’s forget that if you don’t understand how it could happen to any of us, then there are better ways to learn than to question a survivor, who is likely still shell-shocked and confused and doesn’t have anything even close to the right words to begin to answer that question because she’s busy trying to feel safe and whole and find a way to make a new self. That she’s just done something almost impossibly hard and doesn’t need to stop to wonder how she could have done it sooner.
Let’s forget that she(he) doesn’t owe you an explanation.
It still gets asked. So so many times.
It’s the hardest question to answer.
Even when we ask ourselves.
And we do ask ourselves. A lot. Especially right after we get out. But also a whole lot in those last months before we leave (when we wish so hard that we were already on the other side of the whole leaving thing).
I cry at cult documentaries now.
Listening to cult survivors recount their stories dissolves me. Ever since I got out and got the clarity I now have about what I was actually in while I thought I was valiantly and desperately fighting to save my family.
When cult survivors talk about going along with whatever madness we can all see as complete madness from the outside, my chest constricts and my breathing goes a little shallow and water wells up in my eyes.
I sometimes have to pause and get tissue and sob before I can press play again.
But still I watch.
What’s that saying? It’s like a train wreck and you can’t look away?
I can’t look away.
It tells me something about myself. About other smart people who did dumb things. Other people who stayed. Even if it isn’t all about love and children.
An abusive relationship is a cult of one.
Or, I guess, two. The leader and the ‘follower’.
The techniques are all the same. The traps and the physiology that traps us – all the same.
In the before times (before x), I used to watch (or read) true crime or cult stories and feel really confident that I would see the madness coming from a mile away. From a thousand miles away.
That I would at least roll my eyes and smirk before smartly walking away when someone asked something ridiculously wrong of me.
I was wrong.
Maybe because I was so sure, but who knows now. I can’t unthread new me from what’s happened to me in order to go back and see if being less smug about it might have saved me from x’s bullshit.
I’ve spent more than two years now trying to decipher how it is you can know and not know what you are in even when the pain becomes unbearable.
How it can take years after you end it, to recognize that you were in abuse.
Time that, to outsiders, proves it wasn’t really abuse after all since how could you not know and why would it take so long to figure it out?
I’ve written thousands and thousands of words so far trying to figure out how to get at the feelings you have in the midst of it all – the paralysis, the confusion, the pain and yet the lying to yourself about the cause of it so that you can keep on getting out of bed and living in those lies that sting and burn but also are more comfortable than the truth.
I watched Bad Vegan last weekend – which, despite having a ridiculous name, is a fascinating look into someone getting roped into the madness and then continuing to move in it even as she is calling it bullshit to the ring leader. She says, to him, that it’s bullshit and yet she still does what he tells her to do for a long time after that.
The details are epic and so far beyond what most people even have to lose, but the core elements are the same: promise the world and make someone feel extraordinarily special, then slowly undermine and break them down until they are so grateful for even the smallest bits of love and affection that they stay with you even though they know it’s costing them everything. Make it so they don’t even see you’re digging a grave around them until they’re already standing in it and can’t even make sense of how they got there. Bury them so deep in the hole that they can’t imagine how to get out and so they just make a bed there and, at least for a while, decide to make a home in that misery. Cover them up gently with a sweet kiss goodnight so they can still let themselves believe that it is, after all, love. Be sure to add that in sporadically and they will stay a really long time, especially to avoid the shame and embarrassment and the reality.
I watched the last episode of Bad Vegan with my whole body tight. That old chest constriction. The shallow breathing. I even started to turn my head away at certain points. While my eyes stayed turned to the screen.
My viscera remembers and tries to recoil.
In that last episode, you see a woman so dismantled that she is like the abuser’s shadow.
She’s all clavicle and long face and exhaustion. Just trailing after him into more and more trouble.
You want to say to the TV: Leave him! Bail! Now!
I know that most people watching will fault her for just going with him and playing along. After you hear her own recordings calling him on his BS and him becoming more and more aggressive in return. As it was hurting so many other people.
Some of us, though, can imagine very clearly how immobilized she feels.
How ashamed. Embarrassed.
Tired. Bone-tired, literally.
So tired your bones actually ache.
Her own mind forcing her to look away and stop the pain of facing the truth.
Unable to decide on any move and so you do what you are told to keep from having to decide.
Because deciding hurts. Literally. Physically.
Even just thinking about trying to decide is a piercing pain in your brain that feels impossible to get past.
Cognitive dissonance is the term for when you have two competing realities and you have to reconcile those two opposing truths – the pain that comes from that, the very human tendency to go with the least painful one. But those two words sound clean and scientific and like something wrong with a car. Something that just requires a calibration or a wrench turn to fix.
I watched my child, when I was far enough out to understand what I had been in and far enough out to know what she was dealing with on visitations, literally freeze up and nearly explode from cognitive dissonance created by an abuser’s lies.
I can look back on the last ten years of my life and see, as though I am perched above the re-livened memory of myself, the moments at which the pain became too much and so I turned, just slightly, toward the truth I wanted to believe. The one x was repeating – the one where he loved me and we could be what he always said we were – soul mates (when he wasn’t saying that I was a crazy bitch who couldn’t ever be happy and he didn’t deserve my bullshit).
I can pinpoint so many moments where I brushed up against the pain of our reality and I allowed the fake version of us to win in my own mind.
It was unbearable to think of what seeing the full truth would mean for my child (& his other child). What it would mean about me and what I could not leave.
About how I could be fooled. About how I could be controlled.
I don’t know how to explain what it felt like to know that what I was enduring was horrible and full of lies and not likely to change and so my chest felt like it was in a vice and my arms felt leaden at my sides and my feet felt like things I couldn’t force to move without someone picking them up one by one and moving them step by step for me in a direction away from him.
How to explain what it felt like to both know and not-know.
I don’t know how to say this to you except to say that it is true.
Which isn’t enough. I know.
Have you ever sat on a city bus and someone gets on who is visibly agitated – perhaps moving in a way that shows you they aren’t stable – muttering under their breath and you can’t hear all the words but you can hear it enough to know there’s some anger in those words? And then they sit next to you. So you pull yourself a little tighter in the seat so you don’t infringe on their space and maybe you pull your bag on your lap to hold it tightly and you stare forward instead of looking out the window like you were doing intermittently before?
You sit there like that and you don’t say you are afraid. There aren’t any other open seats, anyway, not on this bus.
You just sit. Aware of every move you are making. Aware of every move they are making. The muttering there but you’re only half focusing on it. You don’t want to tune it out. That might be dangerous. But you also can’t just listen to it or you will have to admit that you feel scared, unsafe. You will have to admit the tension you can feel building in your body is from fear and discomfort.
So it’s there – the danger, the anger, the volatility of in-any-moment – but you are just on a bus going where you need to go and nothing could end up happening, this could just be someone’s grandma or uncle or brother who has a tic and isn’t really angry so how could you just make a big deal and cause a scene on a bus when they haven’t really done anything to hurt you.
In that moment in your seat on that bus, there’s a looking away that happens that is also an antenna-up, panic-sensors-at-the-ready kind of non-focus.
(Imagine the exhaustion of sitting on this bus in this state for years. Imagine the energy it takes.)
You just sit.
Where is there to go anyway?
If you pull the cord and exit, maybe that person will follow you.
And then you’re alone and on the street.
And you’ve made it clear you were afraid in the first place.
Which feels weak and maybe even overdramatic.
I mean, who just bolts off a bus because someone who might be unstable is on it?
If you sit there, you can pretend all is ok. Because really, in that moment, it is, right?
Can you call work and say: I’m late because some random person scared me on the bus?
Will anyone on that bus think what you did was normal if you stand up and tell that person to leave you alone?
So you sit. You continue to go where that bus is going.
We live on that bus from the minute we know something is wrong until the moment we leave.
We stay, partly, because we are immobilized.
At the end, I sometimes had to lift my legs out of bed in the morning to get ready for work. How could I find the energy and the will to fight for freedom? To protect my child once x got truly angry at me, for daring to cut off control?
I had to use my arms to get my legs out of bed to face the day, by the end. It took all I had lots of days, at that point, to just, literally, get my feet on the ground to walk into the kitchen to start the day.
We also stay because we believe that if we get up and leave, it will be like standing up on that bus and calling that person next to us a threat.
That the danger, then, will become even more real.
That you will all look at us in a way that hurts. Literally. Physically.
That you will see us as what we have been told we are: unstable, weak, crazy.
Some of you do give us that look. Or have.
There are still people I used to know who don’t believe x is anything other than a loving person who maybe did some bad things but jesus is she over the top if she thinks he’s an abuser.
We stay on the bus.
We hope it will get us where we’re going.
We hope nothing bad will happen, at least on that one ride.
That’s as far as we can plan right then.
We think we’re safer sitting still and watching where we look and what we say than standing up and walking off that bus (and statistics show that this is a good instinct, one founded in facts, one that can save our actual life).
Plus, we are tired. Broken down.
We don’t think we can make the long walk to where we’re going.
Definitely not without help.
We know we can’t answer the questions.
We can’t weather the doubt. The disbelief. The accusations that we’re liars.
We’ve been spending years silencing our own doubts and fears and questioning our own judgment.
We’ve judged ourselves and taken the blame for far more than our share.
We are too tired to answer our own questions anymore.
We can’t possibly be responsible for yours.