Disclaimer: This story contains details of domestic violence that may be triggering to some.
Story by Sarah Tomlinson
“It was a Tuesday night when I phoned my parents at 1 a.m. whimpering, ‘Mom, I have a really bad feeling about my relationship…’
That Friday, at my request, my parents pulled up with their pick-up truck and helped me flee to their house, where I currently live 4 years later. It’s taken these four years to rebuild, heal, and strengthen after 13 years of domestic violence and coercive control.
Packing up that day was the easy part. I did not feel much except determination; I was finally making a good decision for myself. The scariest night was back to that Tuesday. My then husband had gone to bed and I was sitting on the couch, terrified my gut feeling was true – I had been in an abusive relationship for 13 years without knowing it. The man who was my first boyfriend, my first love and who I thought was my best friend – was my abuser and the reason for so many torturous years with extreme anxiety.
My home, which was supposed to be my safe place, was not feeling safe anymore. Weird things started happening. My shoe rack was leaning against a wall near the bedroom because I was replacing it. While I was sitting on the couch that night, I heard a loud crash near the front door. My shoe rack was in pieces on the floor. When I asked what happened, my ex denied even touching it. The previous day, my jewelry box had been emptied all over the bed. And he started hitting the walls and slamming cupboard doors. A voice in my head started playing on repeat, ‘You’re going to die here.’
I was petrified. I couldn’t move and I sat there for hours as the image of my entire adulthood came crashing down. The sudden shift in perspective was so startling, the walls of my apartment rippled like a wave in front of my eyes, like I was seeing it for the first time.
I started asking questions like, ‘Why don’t I have credit cards in my name?’
‘Why does he have 5 bottles of top brand Gin in the liquor cabinet, and I get anxious at the liquor store for buying the cheapest ciders?’
‘Why do I feel I have to ask permission to buy something when I earn my own salary?’
‘Why do I feel better alone, but panicked when he starts coming home from work?’
‘Why have I been accused of being non-loving and non-empathetic our entire relationship, but he looked so cold tonight when I told him he was scaring me?’
‘Why doesn’t he lock the front door and leave it a crack open when he leaves the house, even if I’m sleeping?’ I’d asked him to lock the door a thousand times because of my recurring nightmare of a man breaking into the apartment and attacking me…
I asked myself questions for hours that night, each time the answer hit me like a punch in the stomach. A friend would lock the door so I would feel safe. A friend wouldn’t destroy my shoe rack and lie about it. A friend would be concerned they are frightening me. Each question peeled off another layer of fog I had been living in for 13 years. After the shock finally wore off, the only person I wanted to talk to was my mom, so I called her at 1 a.m.
The next day, my parents came over while he was at work. I had never told anyone about what living with my ex was really like – my muscles started to uncontrollably clench and I had trouble breathing. It caused a full body panic attack.
How could I not know I was in an abusive marriage? It was not obvious because it was not physically abusive. Before this, abuse was done through emotional, mental, and financial control. The first obvious physical violence happened in the last week – when he started hitting the walls and destroying my belongings. He was losing control over me, so he started to lose control over himself. Two weeks before this, I made a vow to start responding to him rationally, instead of internalizing everything and reacting with anxiety.
I was shocked when I listed out all my symptoms from long-term abuse. I felt worthless, like I could never do anything right. I apologized for everything. If there was silence, I just said, ‘I’m sorry,’ as if I thought my mere presence was upsetting others.
My once non-addictive personality became increasingly addictive and needy. I required constant emotional support and validation. I was not only addicted to party drugs and alcohol, but to anything that gave me a feeling of surface pleasure including dieting, exercise, social media, and shopping.
I had emotional breakdowns over the smallest things. Sometimes my anxiety attacks would last for days. At my worst, I screamed, cried, threw objects and hit myself. I heard voices in my head, telling me how pathetic and useless I was. With extreme periods of insomnia – where I sometimes would sleep less than an hour a night – I found it a struggle to keep suicidal thoughts at bay.
I was becoming estranged from my family – seeing them less and less for family dinners. No longer joining them on family vacation to their summer cabin.
I was physically sick all the time. Regular colds, upset stomachs, UTI’s and throat infections to the point where I almost got my tonsils removed.
Even if the abuse isn’t physical, it is domestic violence because it destroys the ability for a person to function. With all these symptoms, how could I not know something was wrong? Well, one reason is abuse cycles and the sheer fact that it is not bad all the time. It becomes its own cycle of addiction and dependency, with extreme lows, high highs, and systems of rewards. Emotional and mental abuse also builds slowly, over many years with consistent gaslighting. The source of my problems was always elsewhere. Most of the time I was made to believe I was the problem. The finger was often pointed at my family, my teaching career, university pressure, and my history of being bullied in school when I was young.
I was a complete disaster of a human being. I had to quit my full-time teaching career at 26 after only three years because of mental illness. I had no memory of not being that way because the relationship started when I was nineteen. We met in university and moved in one year later. Everyone told me how lucky I was to be with such a solid young man. He was an athlete, intelligent and had great career aspirations.
The emotional control started when we moved in together. Like when I went to get birth control; we decided beforehand to get an IUD, but I came home with birth control pills. While I napped that day, my ex fell into a dark mood and became so upset for my deviance he left the house and walked the neighborhood aimlessly for hours. The lesson was clear: making my own decisions, even ones about my body, ruined his day. A young empathetic woman who just moved in with her first boyfriend doesn’t think logically about this. I felt bad for making him upset, apologized, and tried to make it up to him. But more than that, I remembered everyone saying how lucky I was to have such a great boyfriend.
We bought an apartment at 21, married at 24 and settled into what felt like a normal life. But by the time I was 25, my ex wanted to open our relationship. I said no because I’m monogamous and did not want to be touched by another man. This was listened to at first, but his desire was to have group sex, so a year later, that’s exactly what happened. Brainwashing doesn’t feel like brainwashing when it’s happening. I just remember the long talks where my ‘no’ slowly became a ‘yes.’
We started attending swinger’s parties, which eventually became full polyamory. Years later, poly operated more like a cult with rules, policing and conformity. Cult mentality also doesn’t feel like a cult when you’re in it. I was brainwashed into living an alternate cult-like reality, with a controlled identity. This extreme lifestyle had an extreme fallout.
I wish I had known the extent of psychological damage before I left. I had never spoken about being abused, so only my parents and one friend seemed to believe me. I was confused, traumatized, and completely dysfunctional in normal life. My car was deemed mechanically unsafe and needed repairs. I had not bought work clothes in years and they were ripping at the seams. I once knew how to work a bank account, but couldn’t understand why regular tasks seemed so difficult. My ability to communicate had deteriorated. I was also paranoid, as the feeling of danger from living with my ex never went away. I also wish I created a bit of a plan before I left. Or had been more aware of how damaging my addictions were. I left with $400, my clothes, my cat, and my car. He’d cut off my credit cards after I’d paid for car repairs and new work clothes. Our bank account was also drained.
I was sick, scared, grieving and started to feel overwhelmingly angry. I couldn’t sit with myself; the emotional pain and hollowness was excruciating. I ended up turning to both illegal and legal substances to cope. Over the course of 4 months I fell into a psychosis and lost touch with reality. Since psychosis involves periods of clarity and altered reality, during this time some terrible things happened – some things I made up, and some my brain distorted. To feel safe, I left home on a camping road trip. It was on this trip where I had a spinal cord injury and lost the ability to walk.
I was admitted to a rehabilitation ward as a psych patient for a month and started to learn to walk again. My time at the hospital was also traumatic, as psych patients with addictions are treated differently. The drugs were the focus, not the trauma behind the use. The real healing started when I got home from the hospital, where I started re-building my body, soul, and identity from scratch with art, stoicism, and spirituality.
Art saved me. It was there when I left my relationship. It was there in the hospital. And it was there when I was on bedrest afterwards. With paint and pencil crayons, I was able to process and heal things I could never formulate into words.
Art showed up in my life in September 2017, five months before I left my marriage. Of all the things that helped undermine the control, art helped the most. It rocked my world because it felt good. However, it was not the kind of transient feeling drugs or a workout gave – it created lasting fulfillment and empowerment. Art created a channel to my soul – one I lost through years of gaslighting. I was talking to my inner self for the first time in years and had new thoughts and perspectives every time I drew. It gave me a voice again and it was not going to be silenced this time. When I was drawing, my inner voice was so strong that by my third sketch I called my artwork Girl with Many Secrets.
However, anything that made me feel good about myself, that was not under the control of my ex, became a threat and would slowly and insidiously be undermined. I left my home to save both me and my art.
I remember having to leave a shelving unit behind that held all my original drawings I started when I left that fateful Friday in January 2018. If I felt scared at all that day, it was for those drawings. Would he destroy them like he destroyed my shoe rack? I looked at them, and whispered to myself as I left, ‘I’ll just make more.’ Thankfully, my original drawings arrived safely at my parents a week later.
I consider myself lucky to come back and heal from such a dark place. We do not often hear serious cases like this because women stay in addiction or psychosis, get into a worse relationship, end up on the streets, or end up dead. If it wasn’t for my parents’ unconditional love, support, and advocacy, I probably wouldn’t be here telling this story.
My wish is more people work on healing after trauma and abuse – that healing replaces casual dating and hook-up culture as the new normal after relationships. It’s important to heal emotional wounds so we do not accidentally perpetuate abusive behavior on others or attract others who would take advantage of them. With healing and spreading awareness, abuse prevention is possible.
Coercive control can be hard to recognize. If you suspect someone may be in an psychologically abusive relationship, I would not recommend telling them right away. The victim has likely been trained and brainwashed to protect and make excuses for their abuser. Both the victim and abuser will reject any person or threat on the relationship. The biggest gift you can give a possible victim is genuine time and conversation. To give them a feeling like they are worthy of attention just for being who they are. Giving them inspiring books to read or inviting them to different creative activities could also help, as empowerment can prevent abuse. This may provide enough contradictory perspectives for a victim to start lifting some of the fog in an abusive dynamic themselves first.
It’s taken 4 years to recover after 13 years of domestic violence, which included loss of income, leaving my home, losing my friends, and temporarily losing the ability to walk. In the end, I feel grateful for the lessons I learned about abusive behavior, for my new strength and resiliency and for repairing the relationship with my family. Mostly, I am grateful for a second chance at life that is now filled with real joy and peacefulness.
My experience with domestic violence created who I am and formed my empowering and healing mission for my Girl with Many Secrets artwork. Anything that shapes us can be turned into a positive. I am passionate about sharing my story and art to inspire others that it’s possible after abuse not just to survive, but to thrive.”