Five steps to leaving an abusive relationship
It has taken me years to speak up and speak out in the hope that others might find strength to voice their own stories.
For much of my life, shame rendered me silent. In the eight years I lived with an abusive man, I had no idea I was a “victim of domestic violence”. I had never heard of “Domestic Violence Awareness Month”. I believed that telling my story would bring dishonour and disgrace to myself and my family. I had convinced myself the abuse was my fault; therefore, I was sure everyone around me would blame me, too.
It has taken me years to speak up, speak out and write about my experiences in the hope that other people suffering in silence and shame might be inspired or find the strength to give voice to their own stories.
Statistics are important in understanding the degree of the problem, but statistics do not change lives. Hearing the story of how someone escaped an abusive relationship can change a life. Sometimes we simply need to see how someone else was successful. Sometimes that story is enough to motivate a person to take the first difficult step to safety.
1. Forget the pros and cons list
I had many friends during my years with my abuser, Scott*, who suggested the P and C list. I cannot tell you how many journals I filled with those lists. How many walks in the woods or arroyos I took to find a quiet spot to rest, to remember, to recalibrate. To do whatever I had to in order to make my list of love heavier and more numerous than my column of doubts and deceits. I never found the proper balance, because love and disappointment can’t be equated. They can’t be weighed on a scale like apples or gold. Emotion is not a mathematical theorem.
Before Scott and I moved to New Mexico, we lived in Sunapee, New Hampshire, across a dirt road from a lake. We barely spoke to each other that winter. I waitressed as often as I could just to get out of the house. I woke up early in the mornings leaving Scott asleep in bed. My pockets filled with fruit and dog treats, I would take our dog Crystal out for long walks in the woods and on the frozen lake. I had a broken pencil, a penknife and a miniature red composition notebook that I kept zipped in an inside pocket of my winter jacket.
When we got really cold, but were not ready to go back home, I would lead Crystal into one of the unlocked, unheated cabins across from our house. We would lay together on a bed that faced a big window overlooking Lake Sunapee. I spent hours staring at the white horizon, hugging Crystal close, and writing my worries and hopes in my tiny notebook. I believed my answers would come if I continued to trust in the words. Every now and then I looked back over previous entries. I left no mark of happy memories. The blue lines were filled with complaints, injustices, fears and dreams of freedom.
One day I returned from a lunch shift at the restaurant and Scott threw the tiny notebook at me. “What the hell is this?!?” he screamed. My stomach fell to the floor. My secrets flew around the room like a genie you cannot get back into a bottle. “If you have something to say, tell it to my face,” he yelled, his fist waving in the air. But I knew better. And I learned that day not to write anything down. No pros and cons lists, no complaints and no dreams of a future without him. Anything I had to say, I wrote on the inside of my skin with invisible ink.
2. Be aware of signs
Some people say the universe will stop sending signs if you continually ignore them, so I looked for signs everywhere I went. I used animal cards every day for guidance. I asked for answers from my Tarot deck, the runes, and the I Ching. I tried to determine the significance when a huge turkey flew into my windshield or when a deer bone showed up on the train tracks. Dead deer: Was that me if I did not leave Scott? I felt so alone most of the time I lived with Scott, so I looked to nature and divination tools for answers and direction.
When Scott and I began talking about moving to New Mexico, I searched for signs everywhere. We hiked once with friends on the back side of Mount Sunapee near Newbury. I was bringing up the rear because I wanted to be alone. I had asked the universe to present me with an omen of some sort regarding our intended move west. I was feeling desperate on our way down the mountain. I decided to walk away from the group and stood in a copse of trees. I closed my eyes and said a prayer. When I opened my eyes and looked down, a gold feather shone in the leaves between my feet. I walked back to the rocky outcrop where my friends stood. A golden eagle flew from behind us, circled over us, then headed southwest. I knew I had to move. I did not know what would happen there. Could we start over? Would I end up alone? The uncertainty scared me, but I knew that whatever the outcome, the universe was signalling me to go.
After we had lived in New Mexico and the initial allure of being in a new place wore off, it was clear that Scott was not going to keep the promises he made. He continued to gamble large amounts of money and refused to look for work. Every month I became more discouraged. Tensions mounted, his fists flew more often. I started looking for signs again to help me through my confusion. Could I continue on as we were? Would Scott ever become the man I believed he could be? One day I visited my favourite Santa Fe bookstore alone. I walked into the self-help section and was drawn to a book called The Skeptical Feminist. I held the book in my hands and asked for guidance. I opened to a page that said: “If a man hits you once, leave. You can count on it happening again.” I closed the book and walked to the car. Of all the books in that store, all the sentences in that book that I could have chosen, it was clear to me I was being offered assistance. I had my answer. Scott had been violent with me for several years. That was not going to stop. The next step would have to be up to me.
3. Keep a poem in your pocket
The last few months with Scott, before I knew for sure I was going to leave him, were nearly unbearable. I could not look at him. I worked seven days a week so I could escape his roller coaster of apathy, anger and aggression. I would have paid my bosses to let me work. When I was at home, I either listened to music or read a book. One day I was looking through my poetry collection for some words of solace. I came upon a poem by Rilke from his Sonnets to Orpheus. The piece begins: “Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were/ behind you, like the winter that has just gone by./ For among those winters there is one so endlessly winter/ that only by wintering through it will your heart survive.” After I read those words, I covered myself in quilts and sobbed. I didn’t know how I would leave. I didn’t know when I would leave. But I knew this poem held the advice I needed to hear. I knew it was only a matter of time before I walked out the front door forever. This poem was teaching me how I would survive.
I took the book of poetry with me everywhere I went. A butterfly bookmark my mother had given me marked the page. I turned to it when I was driving, when I took Crystal on a walk, and before I entered the house after work each day. I reread the passage while I was between customers at work, when my heart would ache from knowing what was to come. Whenever I was on the verge of breaking out in sobs, I would go to the book, open to the page and read the poem to myself. I repeated the opening phrase like a mantra over and over: Be ahead of all parting … Be ahead of all parting. The poem taught me to be at my best no matter what the circumstances. A line from the second stanza said: “Be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.” I made every effort to be kind to customers even though a part of me was extremely irritated to have to be waiting on so many people, when all I wanted was someone to take care of me.
At this point, I did everything I could to not prompt or engage in a fight. I agreed with everything. If Scott was angry I had not brought food home for him after a shift, I would simply say, “I’m sorry” and go to bed. If he yelled because I had not made much in tips, I would offer to pick up another shift and keep walking. The poem taught me to stop arguing, to move through my days peacefully. Fighting was not going to make or break the relationship. It was just going to make me miserable. Looking for my way out is what I needed to do. Reminding myself to act as Rilke’s poem suggested helped me stay centred as I figured out my next move.
4. Trust the body, not the mind
I remember the exact moment when I knew for sure I absolutely had to leave Scott. Every cell in my body rose up, vibrated intensely, and told me to pay attention, the time was now. It was 3am on a Saturday morning. With Scott’s “permission”, I had been out to a club with a girlfriend. I had warned him I probably would not be home until 2:30am. He told me it was not a problem. However, when I arrived home five minutes late, at 2:35am, he flipped. We began arguing. He called me names and eventually I told him to leave me alone and I walked out of the room. He came after me, pushing me to the ground, pulling my hair and kicking me. I knew I had not done anything wrong. In fact, in that moment as I tried to protect my body from his boots, I knew I had never done anything to cause him to hit me.
Anger fuelled me as I stood up and yelled back. He retreated to the doorway, backlit by the kitchen light, looking more like a menacing shadow than a living human being. I walked towards him taking big steps. I was shouting about how unfair he had been to me all these years. He advanced until he was standing in full light. He lifted his right hand and flicked his fingers twice in a “c’mon” gesture. I instantly froze in place. My cells shook as my body screamed: “He will kill you if you let him”. I realised he had been waiting for this moment for a very long time. He was dying to have a justifiable reason to attack me for good. My body was on full alert like it had never been before. This is what it must feel like when you face death head-on, I thought. Though every inch of me was quivering, I turned and walked away. “I’m going to bed,” I said.
Somehow that saved me. That enabled me to gather the courage to leave. I did not leave that night; I was too petrified. I did not want to provoke Scott any further and I was not comfortable knocking on a friend’s door at that hour. Scott locked me out of the bedroom, so I grabbed all the winter coats from the closet and covered myself as I slept on the living room floor. I was too stunned to cry. I could see that the abuse had never been my fault. There was no way I could remain in the relationship. With recognition came a flood of betrayal. He had convinced me for years that I caused him to become violent, yet he knew all along he was at fault. He conned me into believing him. My body wanted to fight back but I knew the only safe way was to create an escape plan.
I have seen over the years that many women leave and return to their abuser a number of times before they are finally able to exit their relationships completely. I did not want to be the person who kept going back, because I was afraid the resulting punishment would be overwhelming. The process of leaving a difficult relationship is different for everybody. Some people need to test it, to give the leaving process a trial run and see how that feels, see if it changes anything. In my case, I knew I had to wait until I was absolutely sure I would never want to go back. I wanted a “once and for all” clean break.
5. Pick a day; on that day, go
There is no right or wrong way to leave an abusive relationship. There is just the matter of answering how and when. About one week after the night I finally knew I had to leave Scott, I was home between my lunch and dinner shifts when my best friend Jesse called from her house in Georgia. Scott was outside playing with Crystal. I shut the bedroom door for privacy anyway. When Jesse asked how I was, for the first time I told her the truth. And that was key: I told her Scott had hit me. Jesse was furious. In the course of the conversation, I admitted it was not the first time. To my shock and surprise, she did not ask, “What did you do to make him hit you?” or “Why do you provoke him all the time?” or “Why can’t you just keep your mouth shut more often?” I had spent years thinking all my friends would understand why Scott hit me, that they would blame me for not being “compliant” enough. But Jesse did not accuse me of anything. She already knew there was no good reason to begin with.
“So what are you going to do?” she asked. “You know how this works. He probably won’t hit you again for a while, right? Are you just going to stay there and wait until he hits you again?”
“I have no idea how to leave,” I whispered. And that was a fact. No one teaches us this part. Just then the bedroom door swung open. “Who are you talking to?” Scott asked accusingly. I told him it was Jesse and he walked away but left the door open.
“This is what you’re going to do,” Jesse said. “When we get off the phone, you’re going to get your calendar and you’re going to pick a day. It can’t be too soon because you need time to make arrangements for a new living space. But it can’t be so long that he gets violent again. Can you find a place in a week or two?” “Yes,” I whispered, scared out of my mind. “Ok, go to the calendar as soon as we say goodbye. Pick a day in your mind. Don’t circle it. Don’t give anything away. But hold it in your mind. And on that day, go.”
I hung up the phone and walked to the kitchen, passing Scott as he was watching TV. It was late February. I turned the calendar to March. I gave myself two weeks. I circled March 10 in bright red crayon in my mind, and on that day, I left.
Waiting those two weeks was both difficult and helpful. Every time I looked at Crystal, my heart broke. I knew I could not take her. Even though she and I were best friends, Scott would never allow it. I barely had the energy to move out myself. I knew I would be causing pain to both of them. But during the two weeks, I was able to make the necessary arrangements to find a new living space. I told my one female friend in New Mexico and I told my bosses at work. I had full understanding and support from these friends. However, I learned the hard way that you must be very careful with whom you share such news.
The restaurant bosses and I were buddies with three men who owned and ran a deli restaurant in town. Often we would visit each other’s restaurants after work or we would trade food. Three nights before my scheduled departure from Scott, my bosses and I stopped into our friends’ deli. We were having fun drinking and eating and talking about a camping trip one of them had made in the Sangre de Cristo mountains outside town earlier that month. When the story ended, one of my bosses said, “Joyce has news.” I looked at him and shook my head no. Because he was sincerely happy for me, he ignored me and proceeded to tell the restaurant friends that I was leaving my abusive boyfriend in a few days. The room went instantly silent. The three restaurant owners stared at me, sternly. Then the leader stood up and pointed at me, shouting, “What the hell is wrong with you? You don’t plan it. Only a b**** does that. You wait until the heat of an argument. Oh my god, I can’t believe this.”
He continued ranting, walking around the room. I was mentally gone. I had stopped hearing what he was saying. In fact, I was up on the ceiling looking down at everybody. Dissociating during panicked situations was a habit I had developed as a child. When I was too afraid or shocked by circumstances, my consciousness flew above my body and hovered, watching the scene below as if it was happening to someone else. I saw Dave, my boss, stand up and gesture wildly with his hands. He was trying to explain my situation; I could tell he was defending me. But the other restaurant owners were clearing our plates and shaking their heads. I walked out of the restaurant in a daze, my bosses trailing behind me. I was back in my body when I felt the cold wind of early March on my face. I started crying. “They’re right,” I said. “I am a b****. I’m a coward.” Dave and Paul repeated that I was doing what I had to, that planning an escape was the only safe way for me to leave that relationship unharmed. But I carried the name-calling inside my head even after I left Scott.
I never regretted the plan I made to leave. Jesse’s instructions to me were a gift, the way out. And as a result, I did not go back. I made arrangements to visit Crystal and to retrieve some belongings. But I was out for good. I did not fall into any more of Scott’s traps. In fact, March 10 has become a day of celebration for me; it is my own personal Independence Day.
*Name was changed to protect the privacy of the abuser’s family.