How do you Know Abuse?
On being oblivious to it
Riding in the car with my best friend about a year after I exited my first marriage, my world comes undone without warning.
As the nature of what never felt right finally appears fully formed in my mind, I gasp. It’ll take me another ten years to find the words that describe a reality I was ill-equipped to understand at the time.
And every April, I go through the same thing. As the first of the month marks another year since my divorce, I must ask myself the one question I haven’t been able to answer yet.
Sooner or later, anyone who gets close to me asks it, too.
“How could you not know it was abuse?”
That someone could be as routinely subjected to what I was and not be aware it was abuse for the duration is as unfathomable to my closest friends as it is to me.
Although 21 years have passed since the decree absolute that ended that disastrous union, I’m still processing it. Ours was a short-lived entanglement that only lasted three years. But that was long enough for trauma to take root and forever alter how I’d approach future relationships.
For many years, I viewed myself as a sexual smorgasbord, a buffet of flesh from which fellow humans could feast and satiate their every desire.
In the bedroom, my sense of self had a tendency to evaporate as I mentally detached from my body.
While a partner’s willingness to submit can be sexy and enjoyable within the context of a mutually respectful relationship, mine was a habit acquired under duress.
Rather than a conscious choice, it was the coping mechanism I defaulted to most of the time I was in bed with someone. Some men loved it because it meant they could be fully in control, which wasn’t always a negative experience. Thoughtful lovers regularly checked I was comfortable and having fun.
But not everyone was as solicitous about my wellbeing.
Even when I was aware that the line between consent and abuse was becoming blurred, my defense mechanism didn’t always kick in. I let one man rape me because I didn’t want to hurt him. He was older and I feared I wouldn’t be able to control myself if I started hitting him so I relented instead.
Not knowing how to protect yourself, or knowing how and choosing not to is one of the consequences of abuse.
Deep down, you’ve internalized the belief it’s not worth it, you’re not worth it.
Failure to protect myself started manifesting at a very young age. I was a clumsy child with a poor sense of balance who fell all the time. During a period of several years, I often came home from school with bruises on my chin and forehead. I even sustained a cut on my lower lip that required stitches once. While normal kids knew to put their hands out to break their fall, I did not.
Adults kept showing me what to do yet I remained unable to summon the reflex although there was nothing developmentally wrong with me. On the contrary, I was a curious, bright, and intellectually engaged child albeit one who stood at a remove and observed rather than joined in.
I also grew up in a violent home.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, domestic abuse was my normal.
There again, it took me years to become fully aware of quite how non-standard my upbringing had been. I owe this epiphany to one of my college professors in whom I confided about my floundering marriage and some of the horrors that resulted from it. I partly had to as my unusual situation called for alternative academic arrangements. This professor was as compassionate as he was helpful, and unfailingly supportive to the very end. To say that I owe him my degree is no understatement.
He was the one who referred me to counseling services at university so a psychologist could hold my hand and provide pointers on how to cope. The parlous state of my marriage soon led to the unpacking of my childhood and I stopped going as it was too much at once. Instead, I set it all aside and kept forging ahead.
Detachment is one way of dealing with abuse.
It is also a lifelong coping skill in my case. Unfortunately, I compartmentalized so much and for so long that it eventually all caught up with me and led to a complete collapse that lasted five years. Major depressive disorder was bad enough but the absence of therapy and support made it much, much worse.
Unlike in the EU where I come from, health is a commodity in America. If you can’t afford it, you stay sick.
And yet, I’m not the kind of woman you’d describe as a shrinking violet.
I’m blunt, 5'7'’, able-bodied, know how to project my voice and have no hesitation in deploying salty language whenever necessary. These days, all the aforementioned make up part of my armor. I’m never not on my guard, I read situations and assess potential danger very quickly despite my tranquil and approachable demeanor.
Then again, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly how to identify the signs of abuse. While I have some vague notions that have served me well over the years, I’m still not completely clear on boundaries. I do not get close to anyone easily, but once I do backtracking becomes nigh on impossible.
This explains why I haven’t been able to sever ties with the parent who used to beat me up. What’s more, I still can’t help nurturing the hope of a future harmonious relationship between us even though there is a loving mother figure in my life. I have the most wonderful stepmom in the world. Although she didn’t raise me, we’re so close we can communicate without using words.
For anyone who has ever suffered abuse, reclaiming a sense of self and building it up is a lifelong journey fraught with obstacles.
Every new relationship, whatever its nature, has the potential to reactivate trauma and deciding to trust another human often feels like self-sacrifice. It’s always more intense than a mere tacit agreement between two people who pledge to be decent and kind toward each other.
Some blind spots remain, and with them the kind of vulnerability few of us are ever able to shake off no matter how hard we try.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.