I didn’t realize I was in a relationship with a serially abusive individual until I was afraid for my safety in our home — Survivor story Em Seikkanen
This year (2021) is the ten-year anniversary of my coming out of the closet as queer when I was in university.This was a really difficult formative time in life, as I come from a traditional Catholic family who have been percolating in the political misinformation of the American Rust Belt since the local steel plants closed in the 1980s. Like many women of my ethnicity, I matured early, and this attracted the attention of men much older than me starting at the age of 13. This was confusing and upsetting, as I was still very much a child and had been sheltered from a lot of the implicit violence when I was younger.
Even though my coming out was a bit of a shock for my family, where misogynistic violence is an open secret, I was first able to find safety and refuge in my queer sexuality. I was sure of myself for the first time, despite an emotionally chaotic upbringing. With greater perspective and time to heal, I find strength in this experience because how it alienated me from my family further and opened my eyes to family members who would gaslight or scapegoat me for being open and refusing to be silent about uncomfortable truths or my “politics,” (which was code for my sexuality).
My security and self-assurance in my queer identity was quickly eroded in my first relationship as an out queer person, “Spenser” (they/them), a slam poet who had developed a following for themself in our local LGBTQ community in Western New York. I met them two years after I came out, just as that painful rift with my family was starting to be more numb. At the time, I was a full time graduate student, also doing the marketing and comms for an LGBTQ wellness program at the Univeristy at Buffalo. Spenser swept me off my feet with their pretty words and false promises. They wanted to move way too fast, and it would have been helpful to save the money on the rent, so we moved in too quickly together, something that tends to spell disaster more often than not.
I didn’t realize I was in a relationship with a serially abusive individual until I was afraid for my safety in our home. As my sexuality had alienated me from my family because of their faith and politics, this was a singularly isolating experience, and I was left with no self-esteem, no choice but to rebuild myself on my own… with a chosen family, overcoming trauma as I went. Incidentally, it was this experience that prepared me for my first two years in Finland, since violence tends to compound until you deal with its sources and heal yourself.
But at the time this was happening in my life, I beat myself up for being so stupid. For ignoring the red flags. For letting myself be open to love. I let my relatives and some false friends perpetuate this violence too, until I finally had enough and ultimately took the advice of relatives who sought to silence my voice regarding sexual violence in our family by making me feel small and helpless while telling me “if you don’t like it, leave…”
I left. I moved abroad, left graduate school and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime all at once. I am lucky to be pretty solitary with an independent streak, as being an international can be isolating regardless of circumstance (especially if you end up at the tail end of another toxic relationship in a country where locals who speak your language well are called talented, but the fluent foreigner you tirelessly strive to be will always be considered a “vieraskielinen,” or literally “stranger tongue.”)
When I arrived here, I was still bogged down by the emotional quagmire of my abusive relationship, and unfortunately many of these patterns were repeated in the one that brought me here. It’s never easy to be on the receiving end of an emotionally abusive partner, especially when they’re very charismatic and have a large following of fans. Even now, there are still nights I have nightmares of these previous relationships, and I am never able to relax among the heavier drinking that can often happen in Finnish summer parties.
I think some things that would be helpful to remember is that violence happens in many relationships, and no matter the gender of the partner(s), emotional abuse is a gateway to physical abuse… and too often, later abuse. Angry words lead to hands banged on walls or desks, to fearing for your physical safety, to sobbing as you pick your partner up from work and drive home to be berated the whole ride for being a few minutes late after getting stuck in rush hour traffic.
Hiding these daily commonplace experiences becomes a daily habit, one that drains you and prevents you from overcoming the pain, from moving on and healing and being well. And the people who perpetuate such violence are likely to repeat it in future relationships too, just as it’s easy to get caught in a cycle where relationships are scary and commitment can feel like a promise to grin and bear it with a kiss and a smile… no matter what comes at you.
Leaving never felt like an option. Breaking up with Spenser and moving out of the house that was leased in my name was the hardest thing I ever had to do, and it was a huge financial setback as well as a personal tragedy. It’s so hard to break out of that in a system that is designed to let you slip through the cracks, to fall down and stay broken. Even so, I was later able to connect with another of their partners a couple years after the fact, and sharing our experiences led to healing for both of us.
My biggest hope is to live in a world where no one experiences intimate partner violence, ever. So far, that seems like a fantasy, a pipe dream. And that is an incredibly sad fact to wake up to every day. It can feel hopelessly overwhelming. It’s a difficult thing to talk about, but getting all of that out instead of bottling it inside is an incredibly cathartic experience, and one that should be accessible to all survivors.
Writer: Em Seikkanen
Listen Em’s podcast here.
Em has a women’s studies degree and she has presented at the (US) National Women’s Studies Association on rape culture and masculinity. She has also studied male identities as a driver of authoritarianism in US politics. These things she has really been passionate about personally and politically for well over a decade.
Em has been subject to violence in her relationship, and she has been sexually assaulted by men. Gender based violence is way too common and too many victims are being silenced.