I’m afraid of black men. Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about domestic violence. Really, this has nothing to do with black men. Except it does, for me.
I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is triggered when I see a black man on the sidewalk or riding a bike. This is because I have experienced domestic abuse at the hands of a former boyfriend who happens to be black. I hate this. I absolutely hate that black men are the trigger. Why? Because I love black men. I love everyone. I am terrified that my fear, which has nothing at all to do with black men, might show itself and make a lovely black man think that I, a white woman, hate him. Just because black men trigger a physiological response from memories being pinned to a bed, against a wall, and restrained in a bathroom by my former black boyfriend does not mean I hate black men. It just means that seeing a black man in a public space causes a fight or flight response in me: several moments of intense fear manifested by heavy breathing, a rapid heartbeat, and blurred mental acuity. The times that these triggers have actually been accurate – when the black man on the sidewalk has been my ex – my panic actually lasts for many hours while my brain replays the encounter along with memories of the abuse, leaving my body tense and my brain a mess.
This is a difficult conversation to have with myself, in front of you, the reader. I’m choosing to be vulnerable with you in the most difficult way. I’m doing it because I hope it will change the way you look at survivors. I hope it will help you get a friend out of a dangerous relationship or support one who has managed to escape one. I hope it will help you escape if you’re in an unsafe relationship.
Victims of domestic violence do not ever need to justify or explain why they stayed with an abusive partner. Ever. We have enough guilt associated with falling into the relationship in the first place. I know that my story will resonate with many who are survivors of domestic violence and with those who are still victims. It’s never ok for someone to beat us up, yell at us, undermine us, make us feel guilty, or in any other way hold a place of power over us to control our actions or weaken our ability to be ourselves.
Loving relationships don’t look like that. Healthy, loving relationships build you up, they don’t break you down.
I’ve always known this. I grew up in an environment that did have elements of abuse, usually verbal. I knew this was wrong. I also knew it was not ok to ever feel marginalized in a relationship. I studied sociology in college; I know the statistics and the red flags. I knew there are resources to help people and I knew to get out of the relationship at the first sign of abuse. That didn’t keep me from entering a relationship and staying when it became abusive and unsafe. And it didn’t stop me from staying in it far longer than I should have. This is a common occurrence for many people who find themselves with partners who abuse them, whether it is verbal or physical in nature, or both. Society does not often help; there is evidence all around us that people as well as institutions blame victims (because “It’s your fault you didn’t leave”), rather than embrace us with love, safety, and empowerment.
The chemistry of our brains can change in abusive environments. Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist, explains it very well in these two essays: Emotional Memory Management: Positive Control Over Your Memory and Love and Stockholm Syndrome: the Mystery of Loving an Abuser. Being in an abusive relationship can be compared to fighting drug addiction. We know our situation is not good, but because it is our reality we don’t know another way to feel and we don’t know what a relationship would look like if it were healthy. And because we are living it we often fall into the trap of telling ourselves our reality really isn’t as bad as it could appear if someone walked into the room while a fight was happening. Most of us are very much aware that we are in a bad situation (much like people facing addictions) but we don’t know how to get out. It’s scary. Really scary. We become passive, realizing – and truly believing – it isn’t worth it to keep thinking we could be worth more than what and who we are in our current situation. There are textbook words and definitions for all these feelings but I’m giving it to you in laywoman’s terms, as a survivor.
A lot of work is put into our facade to make the world believe nothing is wrong. This is preferred over the embarrassment and fear of coming out to friends and family who may not believe us, or conversely, may overreact and ‘go after’ our abuser, which can put us in greater danger and cause us more emotional trauma. A lot of work goes into convincing others, and ourselves, that everything is golden. When I finally left my partner, 95% of my friends and acquaintances did not know anything was ever wrong.
We remind ourselves of the positive and happier aspects of our relationship and discount the pain. We allow ourselves to magnify the feeling of the good times which often overrules any thoughts of leaving. Many of us believe, on the surface anyway, that our attacker really means it when s/he apologizes. We believe that it won’t happen again. We want to believe it, so we do. And we take it on ourselves to tread lightly around issues that may trigger or anger our partner. We think, if we just remove the thing that causes him/her to get angry then everything will be fine. We’ll be happy. I can make us happy. Even if this means sacrificing our own comfort, desires, or happiness. We put everything aside for the sake of the relationship, rewarding ourselves for the times that we diffuse a situation, even if it means we miss out on a movie night with friends, have to cancel a shopping trip with our mother, or call in sick to work. We take pride in maintaining our relationship at the risk of costing us friendships, family members, a job, or worse.
Abuse breaks us down. We begin to believe that this relationship is what we deserve. We accept that it is easier to stay with the person than leave. We think of the possibility that things could be worse if we leave because our abuser could follow us and do worse things than if we stay. And we’re often blind to the reality that things actually dramatically and instantly improve the moment we leave – we can’t know this until we actually are able to free ourselves from the grip of the relationship.
And then there’s my added situation which was the fact that towards the end of the relationship (I thought), I was diagnosed with a chronic, serious health condition following a marathon of health issues that left me feeling like I was unable to live alone. I needed the help of a partner and, even though not perfect, the support he provided when things were good. As a person who was just diagnosed with a chronic illness, I was scared. I felt stuck – I needed someone by my side. And I believed that because my market value just went down as a newly diagnosed sickbody that it would be difficult to find anyone else who would want to love me.
Yet, even if I hadn’t been diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis I would have continued to feel I needed to be in the relationship. The reason is because in abusive relationships there is a perception of need, both by the abuser and the person being abused. The couple becomes dependent on each other for unhappiness and sickeningly this is perceived as happiness. This is something you can only truly understand if you’ve been through it and gotten out of it.
I am a survivor. When I said it was over I meant it. I was clear when I said I would give him one more chance after the first time he punched the wall next to my head, after he used his body to block me from leaving the bathroom, after he followed me to work and tried to scare me by jumping in front of moving traffic because I ignored him. Thank God I had my wits about me when the most severe abuse – the inexcusable abuse (any abuse is inexcusable) – happened the second time (his last chance) and I was strong enough to say, “It’s over,” even while he was still using his body to pin me to the bed and I was afraid of what he might do after I said those two words. Thank God I made it to the door after I called the police (I still think angels were with me just because of the fact that I somehow had my phone in my hand the whole time), when he was holding my arm to keep me from getting outside. Thank God I had friends who were awake in the middle of the night for me to stay on the air mattress in their living room. Not everyone makes it out alive.
But it wasn’t over. This is where I share what I’m embarrassed by. I don’t really want to share this, but I have to in order for you to understand how truly difficult it is to leave a relationship that has ensnared you and made you dependent on the other person in an unhealthy way. I kept seeing him. Against my better judgment, I even had sex with him after I left him. I let him visit me in the apartment I moved into when I left him. I still trusted the man because that’s what happens in abusive relationships. There is a cycle of abuse followed by a lull. I understand now that I would have continued to allow the abuse had someone not intervened, even though the intervention was an accident. I’m fortunate and thankful I had support in the form of friends and family and people from church. Not everyone is so lucky. Many people find themselves completely cut off from their support networks. I didn’t let it get that far.
I’m in a much better place now. I’m one of the lucky ones. Help others learn more about domestic violence by sharing my story, if it has helped you. And if you are in an abusive relationship, it’s time to leave. Now. Don’t wait until tomorrow.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has trained staff 24/7 to help you locate resources to find safety: call them at 1-800-799-SAFE FREE (7233) – all calls are confidential and anonymous. If it is unsafe to call, online chat is available from 7am-2am Central Standard Time.
Crisis Text Line is another option if calling or chatting online is unsafe: Text “GO” to 741-741 for 24/7, confidential, free support.
*I am not a trained professional. I am speaking from my own experience.