I had always been a healthy girl. I never struggled with any major illness, and the only time I was in a hospital outside of childbirth was to accompany my parents when my little brother needed stitches or had an asthma attack. I rarely took medication because I rarely needed it, and the only knowledge I had about remedies other than baby aspirin and Mercurochrome was from reading the expired boxes of Alka-Seltzer in my dad’s medicine cabinet.
But that was then, before I turned thirty and fell hard and fast in love with a man who would later be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It wouldn’t be until 16 years later that I would escape, and with only a shred of my spirit intact due to the emotional injuries I suffered silently from, injuries that weren’t visible like bruises or broken bones and therefore left me nothing to show in demonstration of my pain. Even today these wounds remind me of their presence if only in muscle memory, remaining as deep scars on my soul that trigger flashbacks and a physical response without warning. These “aftershocks” are a shared characteristic of abuse survivors, as is Complex PTSD, which I was diagnosed with two years after I escaped.
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My physical pain began slowly, methodically, and in such direct contrast to my healthy lifestyle that I was oblivious to its power. I lacked the awareness to recognize the trouble when it began in the early years of my marriage, so when it worsened as time passed and my mind was incapable of accepting the truth about my situation, my body rebelled and acted out the only way it knew how: it broke.
No one else knew how I suffered, not that I could even understand it and therefore blamed my problems on outside forces (a bad mussel, my weak stomach, childbirth, the gods didn’t like me). At the time, I was unable to make the connection between what was wrong with my body and the mental stress I endured when I suddenly found myself living in the eye of a hurricane (aka: an emotionally abusive relationship), the calm and quiet only an illusion before the next gust of wind would hit.
Projection, gaslighting, hoovering, shaming, normalizing, silent treatments… My mind struggled to keep up, which then forced my body to maintain a “fight or flight” state of being. And while this method may have worked for cavemen, being in this constant mode of hyper-vigilance, one that had begun to interrupt my sleep as well, soon took a devastating toll.
The mirror in my bathroom held not the only reflection of a woman who was broken, but a woman who had been pushed to a place where reality was skewed and feeling crazy was the norm. When I used to stare deep into the pools of my eyes looking for signs of life, I didn’t correlate the ever-present unrest growing within my heart and soul with the need to always know where a bathroom was. I completely separated the two, which was easy since he — the man I loved beyond measure — always assured me that my physical problems were due to my weak stomach, which wasn’t strong like his. Of course, I couldn’t argue. My entire body felt weak, though I didn’t share that piece of information with him. Nor did I wake him up anymore in the middle of the night as I lay on the floor by the toilet for hours, drifting in and out of sleep, since I couldn’t bear to hear “See, I told you” one more time.
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Soon I came to a point where dealing with the physical discomfort became a daily ritual. I never left the house without a bottle of water and a week’s worth of Pepto Bismol, often popping ten to twelve pills in a single day. I kept a bottle in my purse, in my nightstand, and in my car because I never knew when and where it would hit. I became nauseated easily, and on more days than not would have to find a quiet space where I could put my head in between my knees and breathe my way through it. With a stomach that seemed hell bent on imploding in a ball of acid, this affected anything connected to it, which led me to suffer the consequences of never having a healthy bowel movement, including pain so agonizing that sometimes I didn’t leave the house at all because I couldn’t walk.
I had two major panic attacks that sent me to the ER — one in an ambulance, which later caused even more grief when the bill came and I had to endure his criticism for my lack of financial responsibility. For the second attack I drove myself to the hospital and told him please don’t come since I wanted to talk to the doctor alone. But he was there when I arrived, and stayed through all the tests, and spoke for me when the doctor came in to tell me all my vitals were good and there wasn’t anything wrong with me. So it’s all in her head? he asked the doc. They spoke over me as if I weren’t even there. Well I don’t see anything that would cause alarm, the doctor said. Afterward I prepared for another lecture, deciding that the next time I’d rather risk death than share how I was feeling with him.
Since I had no knowledge about panic/anxiety attacks and I thought only crazy women had those, I then concluded: I was crazy. It must have been all in my head, even on those occasions when I would have sworn I was having a heart attack: the sharp pain would rocket through my shoulders, my toes would go numb and my hands tingled, I would become dizzy and was sure I’d throw up. And even though I had been trained and certified as a holistic health counselor, even though I didn’t have any kind of heart disease in my family history, even though I exercised daily and watched what I ate, in that moment I was sure the news headline the next day would read “Healthy 42-Year-Old Woman Dead of Massive Heart Attack.”
Doctor after doctor, hospital after hospital, assured me I was okay and that nothing was wrong. How can that be? I asked my gynecologist, my family doctor, a friend who was a doctor, the ER doctors. Something is wrong with me! Without answers, however, I had no one to blame but myself. So I exercised more, I took up yoga, and I researched healthy eating and food for healing as if I were writing a Master’s thesis, all the while popping Pepto like it was candy on a daily basis.
But then it only got worse.
And nobody knew. They saw the dark circles under my eyes, they saw I was pale and gaunt, they wondered where I had disappeared to since I stayed home more and more, out of the public eye. But how was anyone to know my suffering when I couldn’t figure it out myself? The man I loved brushed it off with labels of “emotional hole”, “needy”, or “high maintenance,” which was how I had begun to label myself. And yet I couldn’t escape this feeling of such a larger pain I was enduring, one that grew in me like a cancer and that I was sure would kill me if I didn’t treat it…if only I knew what it was.
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Day after day my soul was eroding in trying to keep standing in the presence of someone who I thought loved me and yet continued to create pain, with each little action another knife picking at an already open wound: like when he gave me the silent treatment and ignored me for days, or when he approached me with charm that turned to cruelty when I didn’t give him what he wanted, when I caught him in another lie or found him flirting with another woman, when he used what I had told him in private against me, when he threw me under another bus with our friends or people we knew, when he made himself the hero and me the bad guy with our own children, when he stood over me while I lay in a heap of tears on the floor and used that very moment to verbally kick me while I was down, and then when he knew I couldn’t take anymore and would suddenly shift into a sweet and caring man who loved me so much he could kill me and how could I not see how lucky I was?
I used to wish that with every word that left his mouth, or every time he walked around me as though I weren’t a human being but a piece of furniture, he would hit me instead so that I could look in the mirror and prove See! There’s a bruise! There’s a black eye! in order to validate my suffering. Lacking any signs of physical abuse, however, I was left with no other choice than to beg.
First, I begged him: Please leave me. I don’t have the strength to go. Please, please leave. This didn’t work, so then I turned my begging toward the universe, usually around the time that I was hiding in my bedroom closet again so the kids wouldn’t hear me cry. Please send me a sign. I’ll take anything, throw a big one, hurl it at me I don’t care. I’m begging for help!
One week after a round of particularly desperate begging to the ceiling of my closet, I received my sign, along with the necessary crashing down on everything I had known to be true. The full details didn’t emerge for months after, but by that time I had enough information to compel me to make a change, as if the universe knew I would need a serious kick in the ass if I were going to find the strength to leave him.
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Throughout all the revelations and my own detective work, when all the lies and crimes and women and teenage girls (they were of legal age he said in his defense, as if that somehow made a difference) were out for me to clearly see, I felt as though a switch turned from on to off within me. Suddenly my focus became myself instead of him. I hadn’t stopped loving him, but the trauma forced me to stop caring about him more than myself. My body went immediately into survival mode, which left little room for anything else but finding shelter for my wounded heart, forcing myself into a physical hibernation so that my systems, my organs, and my soul could finally heal.
Being in an emotionally abusive relationship feels like being sucker punched, then looking around for the one you love to help you get up but discovering he was the one who made you hit the ground in the first place. It’s a relationship of surprises, of trick doors and funhouse mirrors, in a circus that you don’t remember buying a ticket to but then waking up inside of one day and realizing the one you love is the Ringmaster.
Today I have left that circus far behind. My body was slower to come around than my mind if only because there were remnants of the emotional abuse that had yet to be purged physically. But thanks to meditation, finding the right doctors (yes they actually exist — the kind that don’t keep telling you Nothing’s wrong!), learning and implementing visual healing, forgiving myself and releasing the blame that I had carried for so long, changing the narrative of my life from “I’m crazy and it’s my fault” to “He was abusive and I didn’t deserve it,” I am finally on a road of recovery instead of a path of destruction.
Today I see the depths of suffering I had succumbed to when I used to wish to be hit instead of bearing the invisible pain. Though my bruises were within, they have healed now as bruises tend to do. Though my open wounds were visible only to me, they have scarred over and have lost almost all of their tenderness, even if I am still reminded of their presence whenever a memory is triggered. Most importantly, it is my stomach that has backed off its incessant attacks so that I am no longer held hostage by medications and making sure I always had a place to hide when the pain hit.
I am still not in a place where I can boast about my health like I could before the abuse. But the bigger part of this picture is that I’m getting there, and that my healing is dependent on continuing this lesson of forgiveness for myself. I forgive myself for making the mistakes I did, for staying too long, for putting up with too much, since now I know the truth about emotional abuse.
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And the truth is that I didn’t deserve to be lied to, manipulated, cheated on, ignored, demeaned, disrespected, any more than I deserved to be hit or given that black eye I used to wish for. Today I see there is no difference between the two; abuse is abuse no matter what form it takes or where the bruises are left.
I’ve also learned that where once I felt shame and guilt for possessing these wounds, now I am filled with love for myself since they are a reminder of the beauty in me that survived. And I owe it to my body, after all the pain it’s endured, to remind myself of that beauty every time I look in the mirror and immediately recognize the woman who stares back at me. She is wise. She is strong.
And she is healing.
This essay originally appeared on Medium.com. It was written by Suzanna Quintana, a writer, survivor, advocate, and feminist. Follow her on Twitter.
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