Gifts My Abuser Gave Me

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Do not rejoice against me, O my enemy, for though I fall, I will rise again! When I sit in darkness, the Lord himself will be my Light. Micah 6:8

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. Genesis 50:20

For me, empowerment looks like refusing to let injustice define me or have the final word in my story. While of course there’s no way to look upon abuse and call it good, I’ve found that unexpected blessings can come from suffering. I both affirm that the abuse I suffered was cruel, grievous, and evil, and honor the ways I chose to thrive and grow, much like a stubborn flower pushing up through concrete. When I say these are gifts my abuser gave me, I mean that these are the ways I chose to overcome despite adversity.

Mental Strength:  Besides cultivating an intentionally intimidating physical presence, my abuser lashed out in unexpected and terrifying ways. Although I refused to cower under attack, my mind swam with panic and fear and I often felt powerless. On top of that, he projected his shame onto me, acting disgusted and angry that I was afraid of him. It was during one such instance that I said, “Don’t dump water on my head and punish me for being wet!” This was a turning point for me; I had responded to his gaslighting with clarity instead of confusion. The inner confidence and mental stability I fought for over the years has stayed with me to this day.

Empathy: Deep grief and suffering become more bearable when someone is able to be in it with you. Because I endured profound distress, I can look into the eyes of someone who’s suffering and say, “Me, too. I get it.” Every time I offer comfort to someone who is hurting, I find redemption and meaning for the agony I endured. Empathy is a costly and precious gift, one I now have in abundance.

Situational & Relational Awareness: The emotional climate of our home depended on me being able to perceive my assailant’s mood and possible outcomes of that mood, just by glancing his way. Because he was unpredictable, I became hyper-aware and adept at reading people. I now understand people on a deeper level than before, and can respond to them appropriately, which leads to more authentic engagement and connections. It’s also kind of fun to look at someone and have a good idea of what they’re thinking.

Differentiation: Early in our relationship, I idolized my abuser. I saw only what I wanted to see in him, and I wanted him to be my everything. Yet I was drinking from a poisonous well, and my soul became sick as he withheld affection to maintain a sense of power over me. His coldness and contempt were deeply painful to live with, and I responded by finding ways to give myself the love and validation I needed, knowing that it wouldn’t come from him. I cultivated authentic friendships and sought out support from safe people, which brought me great healing.

A Stellar Education: I am curious and inquisitive by nature, so I read and learned everything abuse-related that I could find in an effort to understand my situation better. As I armed myself with truth, I was able to stand against the lies being hurled at me. Now, I help arm other victims. This knowledge has proven to be powerful, and I’m glad I had a reason to seek it out.

Loyal Friends: If you’re looking to clear a room, start talking about your family’s struggle with domestic violence and watch everyone back away slowly. Because of his choice to be abusive, I have several awkward, uncomfortable, and downright terrifying chapters in my life’s story. On top of that, my abuser’s intimidating and off-putting presence created an invisible barrier between us and others that, once they sensed it, few people dared to cross.  I still grieve the loss of many relationships that withered or never had a chance to take root over the years. Oh, but the precious few that did–it’s as if my whole life I’ve been panning for gold. I’ve had many relationships slip through my fingers, but I am rich because of the priceless gems in my life today.

Self-Care: My abuser often accused me of being demanding, selfish, and impossible to please. I reacted by working very hard to not be any of these things; becoming easy-going and invisible. I ignored my own needs, to the point of forgetting that I even had needs. I began to wilt. When I became aware of what was happening, I began to understand that I must meet my own needs first, so that I could my family’s needs. I accepted my limitations and began to pursue health and wholeness without guilt or shame.

Intimate Faith: The beauty and power of God’s love is never more evident to me than in the most desperate of times. Some truths are difficult to put into words, but this I know: He is faithful. Growing up, I always believed that God was good and that He loved me, but these nice ideas became a reality when I looked up through my tears and saw Jesus standing in the fire next to me. As I poured out my misery to God and cried out for help, I came to know the fellowship of a suffering Savior. In the times when I felt I could trust no one, I knew I could trust God, for when I hit rock bottom, the Rock of Ages was steadfast. My greatest comfort was knowing that no matter how powerful or intimidating my abuser seemed, God was my greatest advocate and protector. Knowing this gave me the courage to step into my God-given power and take action to protect myself and my children.

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How to Really Love Someone Who Is Experiencing Abuse

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Considering that 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, chances are that you have a friend or family member who’s in an abusive relationship right now. When your loved one shares that she is experiencing abuse, or you observe it firsthand, your first instinct may be to urge her to leave, but it isn’t as simple as that. Leaving an abusive relationship is a process that can take months or even years. For the victim, leaving puts her at an even greater risk of physical danger and even death. Only she can know if and when it’s safe to get out.

Here’s how you can provide help and support to your loved one that won’t place her in harm’s way as she navigates this complex situation:

Believe her. Abusers have very high standards for who they’ll allow into their lives. They want someone trustworthy who won’t lie to them, someone with a good and kind heart who will think the best of them, and someone patient and self-sacrificing enough to endure their mistreatment. A victim will often be confused and exhausted because of the emotional and mental abuse she’s suffered. Remember that these characteristics are symptoms of abuse, and should be treated as evidence that she’s telling the truth.

Don’t attempt to fix or rescue her. Though she is in an awful situation, know that she is strong and capable. She’s had no choice but to be; she wouldn’t have survived thus far otherwise. What she truly needs is someone to affirm her ability to advocate for herself and to walk alongside her as she emerges from the fog of denial. Rather than opine about what you think she should do, ask her what she thinks she should do. Only give suggestions if she asks for your input. Remember that she is bearing a heavier load than you can probably imagine; therefore, refuse to become impatient with her perceived level of progress. For every visible change you see, there is much more going on under the surface.

Don’t try to be her voice; instead, encourage her to resurrect her own. As advocates, we often focus on being “a voice for the voiceless” and we forget that God has actually given us each our own unique voice. Part of abuse is the silencing of one’s voice. Whether by intimidation or contempt, a woman has her voice forcibly silenced or she learns to bury it herself. Encourage her to speak up by being curious about her thoughts and feelings, and listening with interest and acceptance. Speak words of honor and validate her feelings, even if you don’t fully understand or agree with her perspective.

Foster a holistic and well-rounded relationship. Do not let the abuse or the abuser become the main focus of your friendship. He’s already stolen so much from her, don’t let him have you, too. Abusers take up most of the room in their relationships; thus your friend has learned to make herself small and live centered around him. Make space in your friendship for her personality and humanity to come alive. Your friend is a person to know, not a project to fix. A healthy friendship has layers. Ask her what music she’s been listening to or send funny memes back and forth. Keep a sense of sincere and light-hearted play, so she knows she has a place she can go to rest and be seen.

Refuse to be intimidated by her abuser, but follow her lead. Any abuser worth his salt is going to try to alienate your friend from people who care about her and who empower her. He’s not going to want to share her. Don’t let him bully you into giving up on your friend, but have grace with her, understanding that she may not be able to hang out as much or at the same times your other friends can. The safest times for her to reach out and connect might be while he is at work, or late at night after he has gone to sleep. Let her dictate the timing, and do your best to be a steady and faithful presence in her life. You can’t imagine what a priceless gift that is.

Speak truth over her in love. Call out her heart and remind her of her worth and strength. Tell her what you admire and respect about her. She has probably killed or buried parts of her identity in order to become “safe” for him, or from him. She needs to be reminded that those parts of her still exist and are valuable. You can be a voice of truth in her life to combat the lies she is hearing.

Model and practice healthy communication, differentiation, and self-care. Abuse teaches a woman that her needs and desires do not matter. She may find it difficult to even acknowledge that she has needs, or to discern what those needs are. You can help her find her way back to wholeness by modeling self-love. Speak your feelings and needs clearly and without guilt or shame, without placing demands on her. Over time, as you choose into healthy habits, you can become a beacon that shows her the way back to health. It’s important not to preach or lecture; simply living in truth is enough. She will notice the difference and be empowered by your life-giving practices.

Invest in her. Time, resources, and love: these are all well-spent on a survivor of abuse. Survivors are some of the sharpest, most resourceful, individuals you will encounter. Again, they have no choice but to be. Navigating life with an abuser requires delicacy and precision. This means that the longer she has been abused, the more new skills your friend has acquired; skills that will serve her well once she is free and healed. After being told she is unworthy in so many ways by her abuser, look for ways to remind her of the truth: she is worth investing in. Anything from a coffee shop gift card to financial assistance as she prepares to leave affirms her value in a powerful way. Be assured of this: she will prevail. God always hears the cries of the oppressed, and when she is ready, He will save her. It is your privilege and honor to be part of that process.

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Why I Stayed

When we hear stories of coercive control, it’s the question on everyone’s mind: Why does she stay? The answer is as layered and complex as the woman herself, yet very simple: at the end of the day, she feels she has no choice. Her specific reasons may vary, but at the core of things, it all comes down to a disordered wielding of her own power. She feels powerless and afraid to leave him, yet she also believes she is strong enough to endure the trauma. Here I’ll share some of my story and reasons why I stayed.

My bottom line was this: I was determined to save my marriage. I truly believed that if I was faithful, kind, patient, and respectful enough, I could carry us through. I stubbornly took on full responsibility for our survival as I gritted my teeth, put my head down, and shouldered my way through coldness, contempt, anger, and violence. I was strong, I was brave, and I was going to see this thing through.

I believed in miracles. I believed that impossible things could and would happen for us. I believed that we would become a beautiful picture of redemption, that he and I would undo all of the wrongs together. We were going to blaze a new trail of blessing and goodness for others to follow. It was a beautiful dream; a gorgeous trap that became my idol and blinded me to reality. I told myself this fantasy world existed somewhere in our future. It’s where I would go to hide when things turned ugly in the right-now.

My hope for healing led me to minimize the damage that was being done to me and our children.  I truly believed I was doing the best that I could for them–that by fighting for my marriage, I was providing them with a secure foundation for life. When I did try to leave him, we ended up living in a homeless shelter, which was so traumatic itself that it made going home to an angry and controlling man sound like paradise. He was the sole wage-earner, and our kids were little. How could I even keep them fed without him? I wasn’t sure that I could.

It seemed wiser to focus on helping him; drawing out the goodness in him with love, kindness, gentleness; smoothing over pain with forgiveness. I believed that love would not fail me. I believed that I could respect and honor him into being a respectful, honorable man. I embraced the role of godly, long-suffering wife with zeal, placing myself as a buffer between him and the children. I filled up journals with prayers and petitions on our behalf. I was hyper-vigilant to maintain the “peace” in the house. I managed his mood and needs while insulating the kids from his dark side as much as possible. We stayed busy at parks, the library, play dates. I prayed for God to soften his heart.

Maybe the most maddening, confusing part of it all was how wonderful he could be sometimes. Like the Saturdays when he woke up late and the kids would pile on top of him and they would all giggle and snuggle and everything felt safe and perfect and exactly the way it was supposed to be. I, of course, would suppress my exhaustion and frustration that he’d slept in until noon while I had been up all night with the baby. I was happy to overlook little things like that in exchange for these moments, because we felt safe and connected, and that was a miracle. I drank it in like a magical elixir for the disease that was plaguing our family.

The scraps he threw my way became an indulgent feast; I savored every morsel of goodness. Those tiny beams of light breaking through the dark provided just enough warmth to keep me going. I told myself that we were making progress, healing was happening. Yes, this was going to be our new normal, and the kids would see God’s work in our family and it would shape them in such a good way. I told myself that there was hope.

Looking back, I see how even those mornings were all about him, about making him feel special and loved and wanted. We couldn’t stay in that happy bubble for long, because he didn’t reciprocate their enthusiasm. As soon as the kids sat on him the wrong way or got too loud or started to irk him with their silliness, he’d send them out. That was always the first crack in our perfect moment, and from there the whole facade would crumble.

I didn’t believe him when he told me he didn’t love me anymore. This information did not fit into my vision and dream for our family, therefore I refused to accept it. I was unwilling to waver from my pursuit of a whole, healthy, together-forever family. What I slowly came to realize was that while I was fighting so hard for that dream, I was sabotaging it. Because the whole time I was grasping and clawing for ground in this fight for our family, he was poisoning our souls with his anger, violence, and selfish indifference. I was too busy playing house to see that we were wilting. The light and life was being drained out of me and my children and I was singing redemption songs to them at night after they had been dragged to bed by their hair.

My hugs and kisses and prayers couldn’t un-abuse them. My light and love couldn’t heal the sickness in our home.

I began to believe we were trapped between love and violence. I might have stayed forever if it weren’t for our children. Kids will be kids, and they didn’t fully understand the risks of upsetting him. By being normal children, they revealed his ugliness in ways that even my placating denial couldn’t rationalize. It was his stubborn and unpredictable violence toward them that finally cut through the fog of delusion and energized me to start preparing for our escape, which came about in a way I never expected.

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Confusion and Control

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One of the threads that weaves consistently through the tangled web of abuse is confusion. Abuse is rooted in control, and one of the quickest ways to take away someone’s power is to confuse her, so abusers are often deliberately mysterious and difficult to read. They seem to be made up of a strange jumble of incongruous traits: funny and depressed, warm and cold, loving and contemptuous, passionate yet passive, hardworking in public and lazy at home.

I never knew for sure who my husband actually was, what he really wanted, or what would make him happy–if such a thing were actually possible. There were times when I thought I understood him, and yet every time I acted on the signals he seemed to be sending, following the clues I’d collected along the way, the landscape would suddenly shift. I’d find myself alone and bewildered with the wind knocked out of me; disoriented and wondering where I went wrong.

At first, I found him fascinating. He was a puzzle I would cleverly piece together, the riddle I would delight in solving. Over time, though, my confidence and wonder dissipated. I learned to carefully and delicately navigate our interactions, striving for connection and love. I yearned for closeness, yet he kept me at arm’s length. When I expressed my dissatisfaction with the distance between us, he simply sneered with derision, saying how unloving I was, how obtuse and self-centered; after all these years, how could I not understand my own husband? With this, I sank into a swirl of despair and turmoil. I knew I loved him, and I knew I was not stupid. There was another explanation: I wasn’t crazy; he was making me crazy.

My sense of confusion and futility in our relationship didn’t spring from a deficiency or lack of ability on my part; rather, it was a dynamic he intentionally created to maintain control over me. The more off-balance I felt, the less power I had in the relationship. The less I trusted my own voice, the more his could take over. It’s truly a marvel of twisted genius how well he convinced me to give up my power while simultaneously placing all of the responsibility for our connection onto me.

It was only when I learned to quiet myself and surrender my turmoil and confusion to God that I finally began to have peace and clarity. I came to find security and connection with my Father, and that was enough. I grieved the lost desires of my heart and begged God to heal my marriage, but I didn’t need Him to do that for me to be okay. As God’s love filled the cracks of my weary heart, I slowly became empowered and confident again.

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What It’s Like

Life with an abuser is a like a waltz on a balance beam across a roaring waterfall. Exciting, exhilarating, and dangerous. Hovering precariously above the roar of devastation, we danced along with smiles plastered to our faces (or were they grimaces?). Look at us, the beautiful family, isn’t this all so great?

He was someone who could fill a room with warmth and calm or cause it to pulse with his rage. You never knew which person you would encounter on any given day, or when you might get swept away in the current of his anger.

His rage was sudden and all-consuming. The warm, steady presence he sometimes exuded would vanish without a trace, like a puff of smoke swept away by a furious gale. In its place came fierce hatred and violent contempt. He was never out of control; rather, it was with cold precision and hot aggression that he spewed venomous curses designed to break me. Whether I calmly faced him nose to nose or cowered and cried for him to stop, it made no difference. He stopped when he wanted to.

There was never a more distinct silence than what came after a blow-up. After the tears (mine), rage (his), and terror (our children’s), a thick, anxious quiet would settle over the house. The kids and I turned into mice tip-toeing about, pretending amongst ourselves that everything was normal. We just did everything a little bit quieter. He became a stone: cold and hard; inaccessible. There was a feeling of fear mixed with relief; rather than waiting for the other shoe to drop, we were now picking up the pieces and cleaning up the mess it had made on its way down.

In that sense it was the punishment that brought us peace, at least for a little while.

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A Letter of Forgiveness

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When we have been deeply marked by trauma and violence, forgiveness is a crucial step in our healing journey. What I have found is that I have a much easier time forgiving my abuser than forgiving myself. Below is my letter of forgiveness and self-compassion. Through the process of both acknowledging my regrets and failures and offering myself grace and forgiveness, I have come to a place of deeper understanding and empathy for myself and others.

Dear Me,

Oh, my heart. You have carried the weight of your regret for far too long. I see how you punish yourself, how you hold at arm’s length the joy our Father desires to lavish upon you.

You are afraid to let down your guard. You are afraid to enjoy freedom, lest you should find yourself shackled again.

I hear the voices that judge and condemn you: “You are selfish. You gave up. You are lazy. You took the easy way out. You’re exaggerating. You’re so stupid. No one believes you, everyone thinks you’re a horrible person.”

I hear your anguished cries: “I’m a horrible mother. I should have left sooner! I should have been smarter, I was so blind, so stupid, so foolish thinking I understood him, thinking it was going to be OK. I am weak. I didn’t protect my children well enough, I don’t deserve them now. I can never make up for the pain they have suffered because of my fear. They will never understand the impossible choices I was forced to make.”

My heart, you were strong. You loved in the face of hatred. You chose to be kind in response to contempt and disregard. You chose to believe the best about him, even when he hurt you over and over.

You believed you were fighting for your kids’ future security and stability. You wanted only good things for them. You poured yourself out into your children and your husband day after day. You gave even when you had nothing left.

I see all that you did, and it was beautiful. God saw every tear, He heard every desperate prayer, and He does not condemn you.

Your children are strong and resilient, and God is healing them. It’s okay to mourn what they have lost. You are showing them how to hold joy and sorrow at the same time. You are doing a good job.

Dear one, I know everything you have done: good and bad; wise and foolish, and I do not condemn you. I forgive you for being too scared to leave again. I forgive you for having another talk with him when you should have been talking with the authorities. I forgive you for your blindness, your denial, and your dependence on him. I silence those voices of accusation. No longer will you listen to cruel sneers.

Beloved, you are free. Hold your head high, for you are a warrior.

Love,
Me

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A Poem for Survivors

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Dear Survivor,

You are safe now.
You are free, and you can

Be

All the parts you tucked away, buried
hidden from the drip of cynicism

And the explosions of rage

Those sudden bursts of venom that stole your shine
The antidote was your courage and your refusal to cower
You glow, my darling.

You hid away the tender pieces of your heart
Waiting
Hoping for rescue
struggling quietly, unseen

Call these things forth
into the light

You are safe now,
out you come

Speak.

Your voice is a beacon
A powerful force to push away darkness

You are brave
and
You are free

It is safe to flourish now

Your love and your tears are growing
a harvest
of strength
of truth
of delight and dancing and deliverance

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