I never appreciated what a gift it is to feel safe – safe at home, safe in relationships, safe expressing my thoughts and feelings, safe in the world around me – until it was stripped from me. I’d certainly felt unsafe before (there are more than a few dark alleys at midnight I ultimately chose to avoid over the years) but lack of safety was always a fleeting experience, directly related to something outside of myself. Something easily removed or avoided, quickly returning to the overall certainty that I was okay.
My abusive relationship dismantled that notion brick by brick, until ultimately I didn’t feel safe anywhere, with anyone. It’s why I think you’ll discover abuse victims are just about the loneliest people in the world.
Randall sowed seeds of mistrust toward family and friends so masterfully I felt completely isolated and without allies, but at the same time by the end of our relationship I didn’t feel safe with him either. I didn’t feel safe verbally expressing myself, because any time I did it eventually got twisted around and used against me. Any boundary I’d try and set always ended up broken on purpose, so I learned voicing things I disliked only made the situation worse. And I increasingly felt unsafe physically as he grew more physically aggressive – some even labeled violent – towards others.
By the end he’d threatened to harm or kill me more than once; sometimes telling me how he’d do it with bone chilling detail, sometimes screaming it at me with a cracking voice, other times speaking in calm tones normally used in casual conversations over breakfast.
I could no longer tell sarcasm from serious threats, which left me jumpy and desperate to keep the peace any way I could (including telling more and more elaborate lies to keep him happy). He of course shamed me viciously for those lies once he discovered them, but my therapist reassures me it’s extremely normal in that position; insisting I forgive myself. (I still struggle with shame over those lies – they were completely against my nature – but that’s what abuse does to a person: the human instinct for self preservation bending you into someone else to survive.)
It took a long time for me to identify what I was feeling as “afraid” or “unsafe”; after all, Randall was the love of my life…the one I was devoted to…the one I had stuck with through infidelities and lies and legal troubles and knock down, drag out fights and all manner of other things that in hindsight should have sent me running for the nearest exit long before I did. He would never hurt me, I thought; not intentionally……except in the end he started doing just that, and the final illusion I was still clinging to shattered.
Ultimately it was two threats in particular that have ended up sticking with me to this day:
- The promise that through a connection he had, he could find my current address no matter where I moved to, along with the current addresses of everyone I cared about and loved. One time he followed that up with the promise that instead of killing me, he’d instead kill everyone I loved because he knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if that happened. (This was if I left him.)
- The vow that if I ended the relationship, he would send several reckless individuals who were loyal to him and had nothing to lose to break down the door of my parent’s condo, shoot all three of us, and steal everything of value.
Those two threats imprinted deep in my mind, and even now my heart starts to race thinking about them. The first night after ending the relationship was hell. I didn’t sleep a single second; every noise sending me ten feet in the air. I locked my bedroom door and even barricaded it with heavy objects…but still I didn’t feel safe. I was genuinely terrified, in a way I’d never been before. Scared at night…scared during the day…scared any time the doorbell rang…scared when strange numbers called my phone…even scared when Randall himself reached out to me via email and accused me of being ridiculous for “fabricating crazy death threat stories”, because it was so surreal.
And in the midst of the terror I was also deeply ashamed, knowing by feeling fear he was still wielding power over me.
Even now I feel residual embarrassment when fear bubbles up; assuming if he ever reads this or hears about it, he’ll undoubtedly laugh at my expense and talk about what a “dumb b*tch” I am for being so melodramatic.
So why talk about it? Why even go there?
Because by talking the fear actually becomes more manageable, not less. Trapped in my mind the fears press up against my skull and feel larger than life…but out of my mind in the open where others can look at them, they appear much smaller. And secondarily, I want others feeling the same things as they recover from abuse to know they’re not alone. That it’s a normal part of things: both the fear and the embarrassment.
I still don’t always sleep through the night; bolting awake with a racing heart if I hear strange noises at 2am, picturing someone bursting into my room or into the room of my parents before I can get help. But some things have started to pass – I’m no longer afraid to leave the condo for errands during the day – so I know eventually this will too.
As I’ve learned with therapy, it’s all part of PTSD responses that can’t be controlled, only managed. A response to triggers, which I discuss in more detail here. Nothing to be ashamed of.
Even so, I find myself in mourning for who I used to be; missing the days when I could walk down a street blissfully unaware of what might jump out and grab me.
I’d not appreciated how easy and free life was before the abuse and the subsequent fear, but now I do. I long for the night when I can sleep deeply and peacefully in my own bed again without feeling an instinctive need to have one eye and ear turned toward the door. Sometimes I doubt I’ll ever get there again, and such thoughts leave me feeling depressed. But other times I get a glimpse of the other side of this process I’m moving through, and I feel encouraged and hopeful that eventually ‘safe’ will become ‘normal’ again.
A few weeks ago I went and stayed with my best friend and met her two little sons, and the night I spent there I was completely at peace. Maybe it’s because I knew he wouldn’t know where to find me even if he wanted to; but it was a beautiful feeling…one I’ll never take for granted again.
I think ultimately for survivors there has to be an acceptance that things will never be like they were before the abuse; there are scars etched permanently onto my heart and my soul at this point. No getting rid of them.
Or to use another metaphor, I am a sheep who has seen the wolves in the surrounding forest…and now I can never again blissfully munch on my grass. But even so, scars can fade with time, and while the sheep perhaps can’t forget about the wolves and return to blissful ignorance…it can still ultimately find safe places where it can return to feeling safe again in other parts of the herd.
So that is my goal.
And as one final thought, my therapist and those in my support networks have helped me realize something profound: while it’s true that Randall did many things to me, and said many things about me, and hurt me deeply on all levels of my heart, my mind, and my soul, ultimately the one thing he never thought I’d do was leave…but that’s precisely what I did. So rather than feeling like the fear is one more way he’s winning, I’m starting to see it as a victory instead. I’m afraid because I left. Because I defied him. And I tell you what: I’d much rather be where I am – lurching at ghosts in the night as I’m also moving in the direction of real freedom from it all – than back in that relationship and spiraling further downward as I was slowly unmade, thread by thread.
Meghann Andreassen is a businesswoman, author, and personal success coach who contributes to this and other blogs on a regular basis. To learn more or to work with her personally, contact her through her website for a free consultation.
**Names and other personal identifying information of some individuals referenced throughout this blog have been changed to protect their identities