woman wearing sweater on shore

When They Ask Me Why I Stayed, This Is What I’ll Say

It has been a little over 15 months since it occurred to me that I needed to escape.

That staying with a controlling and psychologically abusive person was harming my kids more in the long run than the effects of leaving and starting a whole new life would.

That maybe, just maybe, if I had the strength to endure this treatment for so many years, I could find the strength to leave.

And so I left… or at least started the gruelling process of leaving.

Over a year later, the most common question I’ve been asked is “Why did you stay?”

For those of you that have never been in a relationship like this one, I thought I would try to answer that burning question.

Many assume it is simply the idea of breaking up a family that keeps us in the cycle of abuse. But I am here to say no, that is not what made me stay.

We stay because we have been controlled and manipulated to believe that we have no other viable options. There are often elements of financial control among a lot of other seemingly simple reasons that keep us in it. But they are not simple at all.

I can only speak on my own behalf here, but I suspect that others will be able to relate on some level: Self-worth. Fear. The belief deep down, from years of damage, that we are not worthy of anything better. That we are not strong enough on our own to provide for ourselves and our kids. Our identity has been slowly taken away, piece by piece, until we no longer know who we are, what we want, and most importantly, what we are capable of.

It began for me as small bits of mind control that left me dependent and uncertain. It got so deeply ingrained in my subconscious mind that I was not good enough or strong enough. These small acts that I endured on a daily basis reaffirmed, in my damaged and vulnerable mind, exactly what my abuser wanted me to feel—doubtful, scared, and unworthy. But because each of these small bits of exposure are just that—small, at first especially—it became the norm for me. I forgot how to challenge my own thoughts. I forgot how my own beautiful intuition worked. I stopped recognizing the supposed “red flags” people warned me about—I was made to feel those were endearing ways that my abuser used to show his love. My value slowly changed and became based on pleasing my abuser as opposed to rocking the boat. My own gut feeling was slowly reprogrammed to accept that this was love and totally normal.

Each incident, each cycle that often ended with a “honeymoon” phase of attention, affection, and a brief break from the actual abuse, told me that I must be crazy to feel this was wrong. That he loved me. Look at all he is doing to show me his love.

This is all part of the game of control. The words of affirmation that came in those moments were used to fuck up my instincts. To make me convince myself that I must be wrong. That there was no way that this could be bad when he clearly loved me soooo much. Wrong.

Bit by bit, the small bits became bigger bits. Looking back now from a safe and happy place, I can see that. But in those years and years that I endured this, when I thought I was becoming stronger, I was actually becoming more and more used to this abuse. It became so normal and routine that it no longer even felt concerning. It was just how love worked. In fact, if it was slightly muted, because he was distracted by something like a new job or business. It felt weird and uncomfortable for me, so then I would try harder to please and conform and seek the abuse and control that was slowly killing me on the inside, because it was how I thought love was meant to be shown.

It became my love language. Insane right? How could that be? Well, friends, that is how it works—manipulation and control slowly eat away at your soul until it no longer is your own soul at all.

In a strange twist of events, it finally occurred to me. One day when my young child was verbally abusive and disrespectful, and I thought to myself “How dare you treat another human, especially your mom, this way. Where do you get off thinking this is okay?”

Somewhere inside of me, the “fight or flight” mode that humans are wired with (but abuse victims are rewired to deactivate) was switched back on. How on Earth could I have been so stupid to not see what had been happening all these years until this very moment? And what the actual fuck do I do about it now that I have children, absolutely no financial control, and no self-esteem or self worth?

I am the lucky one. The one that is surrounded by caring and loving friends and family. The one that finally found the strength to realize that the “how” and “when” didn’t matter anymore. Only the “why” mattered now. Why I had to get the fuck out is the “why” that I mean.

Some of us are not so lucky. Some of us may never have an “aha moment” that triggers that fight or flight mode back into action. The programming that is done day after day, year after year, is so damn hard to break through. Some of us are not surrounded by loving and caring friends and family that we know will help us pick up the pieces of our broken lives and put them back together. Some of us are not so lucky, and that type of abuse turns into physical violence, and we feel even more trapped and damaged and afraid. ALL of us need to remember that we never can tell what goes on behind closed doors. That one simple and kind gesture might be enough to show the unlucky one the real, kind, caring love that they deserve and be the switch flipper they need to reactivate fight or flight mode.

To this day, I am struggling with uncovering more and more ways that this abuser scarred me. I am easily triggered. It is hard for me to know what real and healthy love and relationships feel like. It has been HARD AS FUCK to remember the fierce, confident, self-assured, smart, in-control-of-her-own-thoughts, independent, and brave woman that used to live in this body.

So thank you to those that put up with my pushing them away year after year, and thank you to those that never gave up on that woman that was hiding away inside that scared and abused mind, and thank you to those that have pushed me to see my potential, and thank you to those that have shown me what true healthy love should feel like and look like, and thank you to those that remind me that I am worth it, and thank you to those that do not give up on me and my kids because they know we deserve to be surrounded by loving and caring and supportive people, and thank you to those that kick my ass on days that I forget all of this took so much fucking strength that getting through the rest of life should be a breeze in comparison.

I will tell you that it takes more courage and strength to leave and to find that woman again than it did to endure that abuse year after year. I will also tell you that if any tiny part of this feels like your life, you are fucking worth it, and if I can do it, you can too.