“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished; that will be the beginning.”
– Louis L’Amour
TW: this post contains discussion of abuse in relationships
Leaving an abusive relationship is like relearning how to breathe.
People talk about learning how to trust again. I’m still working on that one. They talk about remembering how to sleep through the night, how to stop jumping at shadows. For me, it was relearning how to breathe.
Being with him felt something like the emotional equivalent of being trapped underground, where the air is dirty and the roof is made of rocks that will come tumbling down on your head if you make one wrong move. Like having a crushing weight pressing down on your chest, which is slowly suffocating you but which you think will kill you if you remove it.
Leaving was like emerging into the sunlight but not knowing how to breathe air that is clean and safe.
The truth is that, for many survivors, the point of leaving is the beginning and not the end.
And not just because the point where we leave is statistically the most dangerous.
My ex didn’t come after me physically after I left him. Violence was never his way. Psychological manipulation was his game. He was clever enough to be the master of the mindfuck, and I was naive enough to let him far enough into my brain that he’d rearranged my psychic furniture before I knew what was happening.
So no, I never feared he would kill me. But he kept playing his head games with me, finding ways to make sure I never felt safe. He emailed me out of the blue for the most spurious reasons, throwing unfounded accusations of infidelity and betrayal. He demanded money. Then he bullied his way into access to my home. He, or one of his friends (I’m still not sure which) kept tabs on me via a sockpuppet account on Fetlife, tracking who I was dating and which events I was going to. On one occasion, my current partner and I caught him driving past us multiple times while we were out in a way that made me feel like I was being watched.
Is there any wonder I didn’t feel like I could breathe freely until I saw definitive proof that he’d moved to a different city hundreds of miles away?
It was difficult for me to claim the label of abuse and apply it to that relationship, because he didn’t hit me. I wondered if I was being whiny, if – as he said – the only reason I felt like my mind was being systematically broken was because I was crazy. Even once I left, I asked myself if what I’d experienced was really that bad or if I’d deserved it because I pissed him off.
So no, leaving isn’t the end.
It’s the beginning of a journey of healing that can take months, years, whole lifetimes. I will never be the person I was before him. My life can be divided neatly into three parts: before, during, after.
Leaving is the first step on a long, long, long road of learning how to be you again, free from your abuser’s influence. It’s the first tentative grasping at the straws of, “maybe I’m not crazy. Maybe it all really happened exactly as I experienced it. And maybe, just maybe, that wasn’t okay.”
Leaving is the first gulp of clean air into lungs that have forgotten what that felt like. It’s feeling your chest expand as that crushing weight gradually lessens and then lifts.
It’s relearning how to breathe.
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