***Trigger Warning: Domestic Violence, Verbal Abuse, Homelessness***
I was bullied relentlessly as a kid. To cope, my mind created things. Strange and marvelous things. I turned to reading and, eventually, writing as an outlet. My personality grew and grew until I was this goofy, gangly little thing full of stories and ideas that miraculously attracted people to me. I had friends who liked my unique voice and bubbly nature.
But I wasn't confident. Not really. The cute and colorful shell I'd erected around myself protected the vulnerable, scared girl inside. Because of my insecurity and the nagging feeling that I never truly belonged anywhere, I was prime pickings for grooming. The man I married conditioned me early on to believe that my sparkling personality needed to be dimmed. Needed to be quieter, less assertive. Needed to play a small, supportive role. "You're not acting right," he'd say. "You're being annoying." As a young woman who grew up without a father in her life, my psyche was no match for someone who had grown up in a prestigious, two-parent household and whose potential seemed to far outweigh my own. In her book, Becoming, Michelle Obama said, "If you don't get out there and define yourself, you'll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others." By the time I recognized the abuse, I was six months pregnant with my second child, completely dependent on my husband, and had been isolated from nearly all of my friends and family. I wanted to leave, but I believed I would not be able to survive on my own. Domestic violence isn't just choking and kicking and being made to feel small. It's being told your role is to stay at home, to let him handle the finances, to not question why your name isn't on credit cards and accounts and titles. It's being given an allowance and having to check-in when you need to spend more than fifty dollars at a time. It's fearing for your life but not being able to leave because where will you go? How will you get there? Where will you stay? What will you eat? Who will hire someone with gaps in her employment?
In August of 2018, I left my husband of fourteen years with our two children, four suitcases, and more baggage than any commercial plane's cargo hold could carry.
For three years, I was in survival mode: betrayed by people I thought I could trust, wanting to die, migrating from job to job, state to state...lost in the blinding darkness of loneliness and hopelessness. Living a reactionary existence until I got the help that I needed, learned to stop reacting and make conscious choices, and finally regained control of my life.
I found a support network, meaningful work, and, very slowly, confidence. That support network was my literal lifeline. Had it not been for that small army, I would have driven myself to death three years ago. Growing that network is crucial to any survivor's story and it can be very overwhelming knowing just how to do that. Start with your most trusted inner circle. Abusers are skilled at minimizing this circle to the point of obliteration, but if you have even one friend or family member you trust, start there.
Be candid about what has been going on and don't leave anything out! It's one of the most difficult things you will ever do, to be so vulnerable and open, but it is critical that your person/people are equipped with information so that they know how to support you. This doesn't mean you have to give sordid detail, but it does mean you need to be honest. People who love you are automatically invested in your well being and, even if they do not personally have the answers, they will sleuth for you until they can connect you to someone who does!
Whether or not you are a person of faith, reach out to local churches and nonprofit organizations. So many of them have outreach programs for survivors, single mothers, and other people in need. The local program where I lived fed my children and I for weeks and helped to foot the cost of an extended stay hotel for nearly two months when my children and I would have otherwise been homeless.
Reach out to the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). You do not need to be a person of faith to be eligible for help. They may be able to find emergency shelter and other social services for you as you work to get back on your feet. This is especially effective if you have children because women with children are prioritized in this organization. Other resources they provide are help with employment, food, childcare, etc.
Do not be afraid to reach out to strangers! I know it's scary and it's hard and some people will unwittingly or wittingly judge you, but while those cuts will hurt, you've suffered major blows while fighting for your life so you will survive those too. You will. For me, those strangers were my kids' teachers, teacher's aides, and school counselors. No, they weren't perfect strangers, but I learned to lean on them from day one because I had to tell my story to keep my children and I safe. They needed to know the circumstances so that my location would not be shared and so it was in their records exactly who was allowed to pick up my children from school. You will discover that the people tasked with keeping your children safe during school hours will be some of your fiercest advocates! Mine snuck food and toiletries into my kids' backpacks, directed me to food and clothing drives, bought me groceries, filled my gas tank, helped get counseling for my children, prayed with me in the mornings during drop off, listened to me when I needed it, etc.
I'm listing all of these things because I know that someone needs to see it all written out. I didn't get that and I had no idea who to turn to after trusting people I thought would help and being asked, "Why didn't you just leave?" Or, when I would answer, "How could I without any money?" being asked, "Well, why didn't you stay until you saved up?"
That is the kind of mindless judgment you will hear. The kind of harmful victim-blaming that can debilitate and that you must ignore so that you keep on fighting.
If you have access to the internet and are on social media, this can be a powerful tool. It is the most risky one because you may have family and friends in common with your abuser who will sound the alarm if you are not careful. Remove them from your lists, adjust your privacy settings so that only friends can see and respond to your posts, even go so far as to customize who cannot see what you post. I turned to Facebook out of sheer panic about a year after I fled when my children and I were homeless. It was frightening, humiliating, and felt like my lowest point, but people rallied to help in any way they could. It was with their messages of encouragement that empowered me, and it was with their donations that I was able to relocate my children and I to another state where I'd accepted a job.
Apply for emergency benefits: food stamps, cash assistance, WIC if you are pregnant or have a baby, and healthcare. Many states will require you to apply for child support for some of these programs, so make it very clear that you are a survivor and that your location cannot be shared with your abuser. My case workers made sure to create safe words on my accounts so that, if my abuser called or had someone else call pretending to be me (spouses will of course know your birthday and social security number), that extra security measure would protect my information.
I know that this is a lot, but hopefully it will help someone!
Some days I still struggle with self-esteem issues, but the more I do, the more I learn I'm capable of, and the more confident I become. Three years ago, I was so busy fighting to survive one day at a time that I never imagined I could own my own home. Today as I write this, it's the morning of closing day on my new home, and I feel so blessed.
I'm finding myself, as cliché as it may sound. Redefining myself. Getting my voice back.
My voice hadn't been stolen. I'd been tricked into handing it over. Giving it away. But I got it back. That is what I want my story to say: that despite years of silence, I got my voice back. It's stronger, richer, more vibrant than ever. I know who I am and Whose I am, and I will never forget it again.