‘I called my parents at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday, crying, ‘Mom, I have a horrible feeling about my marriage…’: A brave victim describes how she was trapped in an abusive relationship for 13 years without recognizing it.

This article includes descriptions of domestic abuse that may be upsetting to some readers.

“I called my parents at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday night, crying, ‘Mom, I have a really horrible feeling about my relationship…’

My parents arrived with their pick-up truck on Friday, at my request, and assisted me in fleeing to their house, where I am still living three years later. After 13 years of domestic violence, it’s taken three years to rebuild, heal, and strengthen.

The simple part was packing things that day. I didn’t feel anything other than determination; I was finally making the right choice for me. Back to that Tuesday, the scariest night was. My then-husband had gone to bed, and I was sitting on the couch, afraid that my gut instinct was correct — I had been in an abusive relationship for the previous 13 years without realising it. My abuser and the cause of so many tortured years of intense anxiety was the man who was my first boyfriend, my first love, and who I thought was my best friend.

My home, which was supposed to be a safe haven, no longer felt safe. Strange things began to happen. Because I was replacing my shoe rack, it was resting against a wall near the bedroom. I heard a huge crash near the front door while sitting on the couch that night. My shoe rack was strewn over the floor in bits. My ex denied even touching it when I questioned what had happened. My jewellery box had been emptied all over the bed the day before. And then he started smashing cupboard doors and beating the walls. ‘You’re going to die here,’ a voice in my thoughts said repeatedly.

I was frightened. I was unable to move and sat for hours while the image of my entire adulthood came crashing down around me. The abrupt change of perspective was so jarring that the walls of my apartment rippled in front of my eyes like a wave, as if I were experiencing it for the first time.

I began to ask questions such as, “Why don’t I have credit cards in my name?”

‘Why does he have 5 bottles of top-shelf gin in his liquor cabinet, while I get nervous buying the cheapest ciders at the liquor store?’

‘When I make my own salary, why do I feel the need to ask permission to buy something?’

‘Why do I feel better when I’m alone yet panicked when he comes home from work?’

‘How come I’ve always been accused of being unloving and uncaring, but he seemed so cold tonight when I told him he was worrying me?’

‘When he leaves the house, why doesn’t he lock the front door and leave it open a crack, even if I’m sleeping?’ I’d begged him a thousand times to lock the door because I had a reoccurring nightmare about a man breaking into my flat and attacking me…

Courtesy of Sarah Tomlinson

That night, I asked myself questions for hours, and the answers hit me like a blow in the stomach each time. To make me feel safe, a friend would shut the door. A friend would not lie about destroying my shoe rack. A friend might be afraid that they are scaring me. Each question took away another layer of the fog that had enveloped me for the previous 13 years. The only person I wanted to talk to when the shock had worn off was my mother, so I called her at 1 a.m.

My parents came over the next day while he was at work. I had never told anyone about how it felt to live with my ex – my muscles began to spasm reflexively and I had difficulties breathing. It resulted in a full-fledged panic episode.

How could I have been unaware that I was in an abusive relationship? Because it was not physically abusive, it was not visible. Previously, abuse was carried out through exerting emotional, mental, and financial control. The first signs of physical aggression appeared in the final week, when he began slamming his fists against the walls and destroying my possessions. He began to lose control over himself as he began to lose control over me. I promised myself two weeks ago that instead of internalising everything and reacting with worry, I would start responding to him sensibly.

When I described all of my long-term abuse symptoms, I was taken aback. I felt useless, like if I’d never be able to do anything right. I expressed my regret for everything. If there was a pause, I simply muttered, “I’m sorry,” as if my presence was bothering people.

My personality, which had previously been non-addictive, became progressively addictive and needy. I needed emotional support and validation all of the time. I was addicted not only to party drugs and drink, but also to anything that provided me a temporary high, such as dieting, exercise, social networking, and shopping.

I would have emotional breakdowns over the tiniest of details. My anxiety attacks sometimes persist for days at a time. I screamed, cried, threw stuff, and struck myself at my worst. In my thoughts, I heard voices telling me how pitiful and useless I was. I found it difficult to keep suicidal thoughts at bay during periods of extreme insomnia, where I would sleep for less than an hour per night.

I was growing estranged from my family, seeing them for family dinners less and less. I’m no longer going on family vacations to their summer cabin with them.

Courtesy of Sarah Tomlinson

All of a sudden, I became physically ill. Colds, unsettled stomachs, UTIs, and throat infections plagued me to the point that my tonsils were nearly removed.

Domestic violence is defined as abuse that destroys a person’s ability to function, even if the abuse isn’t physical. How could I not notice something was amiss with all these symptoms? One explanation is abuse cycles, as well as the fact that it is not always terrible. It develops into its own cycle of addiction and reliance, complete with extreme lows, soaring highs, and reward systems. Emotional and mental abuse develops over time as a result of persistent gaslighting. My difficulties were constantly coming from somewhere else. The most of the time, I was made to believe that I was the issue. My family, my teaching career, university pressure, and my history of being tormented in school when I was young were all blamed.

I was a complete and total failure as a human being. Because to mental illness, I had to leave my full-time teaching job after only three years at the age of 26. Because the relationship began when I was nineteen, I had no recollection of not being that way. We met in college and moved in together a year later. Everyone complimented me on how fortunate I was to be with such a capable young man. He was a talented athlete with a bright future ahead of him.

Courtesy of Sarah Tomlinson

When we moved in together, the emotional control began. For example, when I went to acquire birth control, we had planned on getting an IUD, but I returned home with birth control pills. That day, while I was napping, my ex got into a bad mood and became so enraged about my transgression that he stormed out of the house and wandered aimlessly through the neighbourhood for hours. The lesson was clear: I wrecked his day by making my own judgments, even concerning my body. A young sympathetic woman who has recently moved in with her first lover does not consider this logically. I felt awful for upsetting him, apologised, and tried to make amends. But more than that, I recalled everyone complimenting me on how fortunate I was to have such a wonderful lover.

At the age of 21, we bought an apartment, married at the age of 24, and settled into what seemed like a typical existence. My ex, however, intended to expand our relationship by the time I was 25. Because I’m monogamous and don’t want to be touched by another man, I replied no. This was first taken into consideration, but his desire was for group sex, which he got a year later. When brainwashing is taking place, it does not feel like brainwashing. I just recall the lengthy discussions in which my ‘no’ gradually turned into a ‘yes.’

Courtesy of Sarah Tomlinson
Courtesy of Sarah Tomlinson

We began going to swinger’s parties, which finally evolved into full polyamory. Years later, poly acted more like a cult, with its own set of rules, police, and demands for adherence. When you’re in a cult, it also doesn’t feel like a cult. I was brainwashed into assuming a controlled persona and living in an other cult-like existence. This intense way of life had a lot of negative consequences.

Before I left, I wish I had known the extent of the psychological damage. Only my parents and one friend seemed to believe me when I told them I had been abused. In everyday life, I was befuddled, traumatised, and absolutely dysfunctional. My car was found to be mechanically unsound and in need of repair. My work clothes had not been purchased in years, and they were torn at the seams. I used to be able to operate a bank account, but I couldn’t figure out why simple activities were so tough. My communication skills had worsened. I was also paranoid since I never got over the feeling of being in danger while living with my ex. I also wish I had had some sort of strategy before leaving. Or if I had been more conscious of the dangers of my addictions. I had $400, my clothing, my cat, and my car when I left. After I’d paid for auto repairs and new work attire, he’d turned off my credit cards. Our bank account had been depleted as well.

I was sick, afraid, and sad, and I was becoming increasingly enraged. I couldn’t sit with myself because the emotional pain and emptiness were unbearable. To cope, I resorted to both illegal and legal substances. I went into a psychosis and lost touch with reality over the course of four months. Because psychosis comprises periods of clarity and altered reality, some horrific things happened during this time – some of which I made up, and others which my brain twisted. I went on a camping road trip to feel safe. I suffered a spinal cord injury and lost my ability to walk during this trip.

For a month, I was admitted to a rehabilitation ward as a psych patient and began learning to walk again. Because psych patients with addictions are treated differently, my experience in the hospital was equally terrible. The drugs were the centre of attention, not the trauma that led to their use. When I returned home from the hospital, I began re-building my body, soul, and identity from the ground up using art, stoicism, and spirituality.

I was rescued by art. When I ended my relationship, it was still there. It had been discovered in the hospital. It was still there after I went on bedrest. I was able to process and mend things that I couldn’t put into words using paint and pencil crayons.

Courtesy of Sarah Tomlinson

In September 2017, five months before I divorced, art entered my life. Art, out of all the things that helped to weaken the control, was the most effective. Because it felt amazing, it rocked my universe. It wasn’t the kind of ephemeral high that drugs or a workout could provide; instead, it offered me a sense of long-term fulfilment and power. Art opened a channel to my spirit that had been blocked by years of gaslighting. For the first time in years, I was able to communicate with my inner self, and every time I drew, I was able to generate new ideas and insights. It gave me a voice once more, and this time it was not going to be muted. My inner voice was so loud when I was drawing that I named my piece Girl with Many Secrets by the third sketch.

Courtesy of Sarah Tomlinson
Courtesy of Sarah Tomlinson
Courtesy of Sarah Tomlinson

Anything that made me feel good about myself and was not controlled by my ex, on the other hand, became a threat and was gradually and insidiously dismantled. I had to flee my home in order to save both myself and my art.

When I left that fateful Friday in January 2018, I had to leave a shelf unit behind that had all of my original drawings that I had created. It was those drawings that made me feel afraid that day. Is he going to damage them as he did my shoe rack? As I walked away, I glanced at them and thought to myself, ‘I’ll just manufacture more.’ My original drawings, thankfully, arrived safely at my parents a week later.

I consider myself fortunate to have survived and recovered from such a dark place. We don’t hear about serious incidents like this very often since women often succumb to addiction or illness, fall into a bad relationship, end up on the streets, or die. I wouldn’t be here speaking my tale if it weren’t for my parents’ unwavering love, support, and activism.

Courtesy of Sarah Tomlinson

My desire is that more individuals concentrate on healing after trauma and abuse, and that healing becomes the new normal following relationships, rather than casual dating and hook-up culture. It’s critical to repair emotional wounds so that we don’t unintentionally perpetuate abusive behaviour or attract people who would exploit them. Abuse can be prevented by healing and spreading awareness.

Psychological abuse can be difficult to spot. I would not recommend informing someone who you feel is in an emotionally abusive relationship immediately away. The victim has most certainly been brainwashed and instructed to defend and justify their abuser. Any person or threat to the relationship will be rejected by both the victim and the abuser. Genuine time and discussion are the most valuable gifts you can give a potential victim. To make them feel as if they are deserving of attention simply for being themselves. Giving them motivational literature to read or inviting them to participate in various creative activities may also be beneficial, as empowerment can help prevent abuse. This may provide enough conflicting viewpoints for a victim to begin clearing the fog in an abusive relationship on their own.

After 13 years of domestic violence, which included losing my job, fleeing my home, losing my friends, and temporarily losing my ability to walk, it took three years for me to recover. Finally, I am glad for the lessons I learned about abusive behaviour, my new strength and resiliency, and the healing of my family’s bond. Mostly, I’m grateful for a second opportunity at life, which has brought me true joy and tranquilly.

My own experience with domestic violence shaped who I am and inspired my Girl with Many Secrets artwork’s uplifting and healing goal. Anything that moulds us into who we are can be transformed into a positive. I’m enthusiastic about sharing my storey and art with others to show them that it’s possible to not just survive, but thrive after abuse.”

Courtesy of Sarah Tomlinson

Give someone who is struggling hope. SHARE this storey with your family and friends on Facebook to let them know there is a network of people who can help.

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