The day I disclosed the abuse to my supervisor at work, it had already manifested as a critical issue that needed to be addressed. She and I were alone in that office as I sat in silence staring at the floor, too ashamed and too frightened to force the words from my mouth. He was nothing more than a phantom, but his presence hovered menacingly just behind my right shoulder. As I counted the colors in the carpet, I heard his voice hissing at me, threatening me not to tell. Surely, he knew I was there at that moment getting ready to spill his secret out before the very people he assured me would respond to my allegations with mockery. I was already guilty of committing a transgression before the truth ever escaped my lips.
I jumped and instinctively tried to hide myself from view when the phone shattered the silence between us. He had called my direct line at work incessantly that morning, hurling increasingly more sinister threats at me with each phone call. Physically I was still seated in the chair, head dutifully aimed at the floor in an attempt to become invisible. In my mind I was sitting at the desk panicking as I tried to fabricate excuses as to why I could not come home early at his command. My heart raced. My chest tightened, and my stomach churned. Why was she so calm when the walls were closing in? Did she not know I was in danger? Thoughts jumped in my brain like flipping channels. He knew I was there steeling myself to reveal things I had no business saying. I needed to run, but I was unable to move.
As my mind churned, I was overwhelmed with desperation. I could not make my mouth release the words I wanted to say so I sheepishly turned my head away from her, gathered the sleeve of my shirt in trembling fingers, extended my arm and flung the bruised forearm at her in silence. There was nothing behind me but to this day I swear that I felt him slam his fist into the back of my head as a warning that I had gone too far.
That night, as my parents took me to the store to buy toiletries, underwear, and a few other things (because I had fled my apartment leaving everything behind), his ringtone shrieked through the aisles as it hunted me down and pounced. I screamed and ran around the corner and hid, cowering like a child trying to stare down a monster in the closet. People stared in my direction and mumbled things about the crazy woman under their breath. When I realized they had seen my reaction and were talking about me, I scurried away, crying from humiliation.
For the entire weekend, I paced the bedroom floor at night while my family slept downstairs unaware of my distress. Each very creak prompted expectation of him breaking through the locked door to attack me and punish my sins against him. When the branches swayed under the light outside my window, I could swear he was standing there in the shadows watching me. I only slept for short periods of time in the living room when someone was in the room with me and often jolted awake by his ghostly hands reaching out to strangle me in my dreams.
Triggers befell me in rapid succession. I was given pasta with red sauce filled with chunks of cooked onions and peppers, and I became agitated and scolded the person, accusing them of trying to slip something in my food as my ex had. I would smell yellow mustard and be immediately overcome by severe nausea and feel compelled to run to hide from the punishment I expected to follow. My father came up behind me and touched my shoulder after he tried calling to me across the store but had not heard. Before I knew it, I closed my fist but thankfully turned to look first before my arm lifted too far. If you use knives to cook with me in your presence, I will go behind you and make sure they are all accounted for. Years of being repeatedly ambushed from behind have left their mark on me.
The nightmares are monsters all their own. Since childhood, I have been plagued with episodes of sleep paralysis coupled with waking dreams. I wake up to only being able to open my eyes, completely unable to move any other part of my body, often to dreams following me out of sleep. I also have complete awareness of physical sensation in dreams, and any emotional or physical stimuli follow me out as I awaken. This is traumatic enough on its own, but now that it is coupled with nightmares about my ex, I find myself physically and emotionally re-living so many of the horrible things he did to me.
The worst nightmares aren’t even the ones where I am beaten. I’m far more apprehensive about sleeping, because I know usually the dreams involve me being pursued by him relentlessly. As the anxiety grows in my dream, I often awaken in the middle of full-blown panic attacks. Desperation overwhelms me when I wake to paralysis, and I have to battle my brain, subdue her, and somehow bring her back to reality and work through the panic attack even though my brain is still bombarding me with images of him hovering and lurking over me. In my worst attacks, I literally perceive the threat of death and have to fight to keep my brain in the present. I hallucinate, have trouble breathing, can be stricken with chest pain, and have been so distressed that I have gotten sick.
The past three years have unfolded before me in this way: violent nightmares, panic attacks being triggered as I passed places I was repeatedly brutalized, ran into to people he knew, wore things I had been forbidden to wear, heard certain songs, and had run-ins with him. People don’t tend to associate PTSD with domestic violence. Many insist that it’s something that affects those in the service who’ve survived the trauma of war. But in reality, we as victims of domestic violence lived our own war that waged in the place where we should have found peace, comfort, and security: our homes. We are manipulated, stalked, and tormented by the one person who should act in our protection, and in the aftermath of leaving when our brains struggle to make sense of and account for the abuses we endured is where were the true cost of damage manifests.
I’ve survived the first of my two wars. I endured, survived, and escaped the brutality of my ex. Many say I should just be thankful for that and move on, that I should get over it. What most don’t know, however, is that leaving that violence behind is just the beginning. The harder, more unforgiving war is the one I find myself battling now: post-abuse trauma and its profound impact on my psyche. Turns out, re-wiring the trauma seared into us by duress in abuse isn’t so easy. So leave me to fight my battle. I’ll get over it when I good and ready to.
Amy lives in Central New York and is a survivor of an abusive relationship that lasted over 4 years. She works in accounts payable in a finance office for an international company and recently returned to school to complete her International Business degree. The most important work of her life has been reaching out and connecting with other survivors of trauma and those who bravely battle a wide range of mental illness every day, providing support and guidance to victims and survivors of domestic violence, and working to end the shame and stigma surrounding PTSD and abuse.