A Survivor’s Guide To Surviving Surviving
CONTENT WARNING: ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP, DOMESTIC ABUSE, EATING DISORDER, RAPE, SEXUAL HARASSMENT, TRAUMA
One night last year as I was lying in bed with my now ex-girlfriend, she said to me:
You know, I honestly believe that I am the only person strong enough to love you. No one else could love you as much as I do.
I was new to love, so I initially took this as a compliment - a truism. For a split second in the dark I wrinkled my nose and whispered wait a minute...in my own head, but that uncertainty passed. Yes, I was incredibly damaged and traumatized. It would take a rare and brave individual to love a woman like me. I loved her for saying that. Call it lavender-colored glasses, but I didn’t see that statement for what it truly meant - that I was too crazy for other people to care about me.
I spent over a year in that relationship, and those moments increased in their frequency and severity. When I said no to her, she didn’t listen. The cute “no babe, don’t go, please stay the night” moments turned into “you told me you were staying and now you’re changing your mind? Why would you do that? That’s unfair to me.”
More often than I’d like to admit, I said no to being touched, or to sex, and that “no” went unheard too. One night as we were riding our bikes back from dinner, she made loud comments about my butt as we rode by families sitting out on their porches. Uncomfortable, but not wanting to ruin the evening, I told her to “stop sexually harassing me” in a joking tone. She sternly replied that she was my girlfriend, and so was allowed to make comments about my body. One morning she started a fight after I got up to go to the bathroom without telling her. I knew then that I my thoughts and fears were not figments of my imagination - this was real, and I had to get out.
A dear friend once described leaving abusive relationships as trying to break your wrist to free your hands. That was my first real, heavy breakup, and every day I felt like my chest would cave in with each breath. In the months after our break-up I have been engaging in that delicate game of hopscotch around the city, trying to avoid seeing her or interacting with our lost mutual “friends.” Online, we had crafted such a blissful and mutually supportive vision of our relationship that I was sure I could never tell anyone how afraid I was, how seeing her face sent me into a panic. I hadn’t felt that trapped since a couple of years earlier when I was raped by someone I had considered a close friend.
Some days it feels like I am spending the space between traumatic events recovering from the previous, like there is no room in my life for joy or light. Sometimes it feels like surviving is a show: look at me! Look at how okay I am, everything is so good! I am so fine, look! But I am learning that portraying a false version of my recovery is a disservice to the people I speak to on a daily basis, and most importantly, to myself.
So here, I present what I’ve learned – what I am learning.
A Survivor’s Guide to Surviving Surviving.
1.Block, Rinse, Repeat
When God blessed us with the block feature on our devices, she knew what she was doing. I block unabashedly, with abandon, and often without warning. Blocking is protection. Sometimes before any resolution can occur we need a little space from the person on the other end. I blocked my rapist because I didn’t want him to contact me, but also because I had grown almost obsessed with checking to see whether his life had fallen apart. I say this without shame, because I know it’s more common than most of us can admit. When confronted about this behavior we can be met with interrogation: “If he really raped you, why would you want to see what he was doing?” It’s not an easy explanation. Speaking for myself, I wanted to see if he was suffering. It felt egregious and unfair that my life had fallen into disrepair when he was still free to walk around unscathed. I blocked my ex because I knew she wouldn’t let me go. She would pop up on a backup account, and I’d block that one. I blocked, unfriended, and unfollowed some of her closest friends because I needed to sever all ties to those that could report back to her.
In the age of debate it’s not uncommon to engage in terse discussion with people that hold opposing viewpoints. Yes, dialogue is good, coming to the table is good, but sometimes in order to attain that level of discussion we must force a distance first. How you distribute and appropriate your time is your choice; engaging with those that do not serve your mission won’t heal you.
2. Put Your Truth Into Words
Writing, above all else, is where I find the most strength. When I am writing I find it easier to be honest with myself. The first time that I ever addressed the years of abuse I had endured at the hands of people I loved was in poetry. I hadn’t found the strength to say it aloud, yet putting it on a piece of paper made it real. I had confessed. Some people tend to think that if they are not poets or novelists they have no business writing, and that is not the case. Writing is everyone’s business, whether that’s keeping a journal or putting together an essay for publication.
On the morning of my 25th birthday, I sat alone in a hip Brooklyn tea shop, trying to avoid eye contact with the server. I had thought of this trip as a saving grace for my relationship, having written just the day before that I was willing to overlook the hurt, forgive her, and continue working on us. It wasn’t until that day that I was hit with the realization that I was no longer in love with the woman I had run away with. I pulled out my notebook to write:
love for you filters
out of my heart
and so I try to make
my arms a levy.
I forced myself to admit that, while things were irreparable, I was still holding on. That I was staying even though I should leave, because I believed her when she said no one else would love me.
Admitting the truth out loud is important too. The first time I broke down in front of my therapist was huge. She simply asked me how I was doing, and as I opened my mouth to say “good”, a swell of gasps and tears came forth instead. When I told my good friend whom I knew had been through something similar, being met with words of love and support from her was instrumental to my getting out of that relationship safely. I share my story now and it feels like I get a little piece of myself back. The act of writing or speaking the unspeakable makes it a tangible thing that you can mold, flex, shift, and deal with.
3. Food and Other Forms of Love
Sometimes I get into the kitchen and pretend I’m on an episode of Chopped. Sometimes I pretend I’m Nigella Lawson, making sensual meals for one in a revealing slip. I’m an addict, and I often joke that I’ll become addicted to anything that makes me feel good. For more than 6 years I was addicted to shrinking myself, allotting 200 calories for a day. The punishment for going over was pulling the number down the next day. Today I cook and eat because I need to enact some tenderness to counter the years of neglect. I still know how many calories are in a cup of broccoli (cooked or raw), but I can keep peanut butter in my kitchen today.
Often I’ll go an entire day on toast and a sip of water, or I’ll eat a whole meal in 10 minutes. Making a meal from start to finish is like dancing; it is a labor of love to wash the dirt and insects from vegetables, to chiffonade fresh herbs, to stir a sauce; adding and tasting, adding and tasting, until it is ready. When I cook for myself my body hears, “I am still here and I am loved.”
I write for a living. Most of my days I spend hunkered over my laptop and writing/typing until my fingers cramp up. One of the greatest things I’ve learned from my therapist is how trauma has manifested itself in my body. My shoulders constantly curl in as if I’m protecting myself from an onslaught of blows. My hands will flinch and tighten when I feel threatened. On hard nights, I clench my jaw so tightly that I can barely open it in the morning. I acknowledge these manifestations and breathe through them, then move. More often than not, moving becomes a frantic cleaning session, or dancing in the confines of my bedroom. In the springtime, I’ll pull out my bike and try to master some hills.
At some point I realized that a trend developing in my trauma experiences was that many of my abusers considered my body to be their property. They couldn’t distinguish themselves from my self, and so were driven by a desire to possess or to harm. Movement is one of the purest forms of expressive freedom. What greater way to say this is me, this is mine than swaying my hips in the direction they want to go, pushing myself off the floor, using the expansive muscle of my thighs to propel me forward?
5. Have an Emergency Call List
A planner by nature, I think it’s important to have a list of folks to call when you are in crisis. This list can include friends, partners, mental health professionals, sponsors, religious leaders; whomever you feel most comfortable reaching out to when you need help. That might mean you saw your abuser in public, or maybe you made a mistake at work that you’re obsessing over. This communication doesn’t have to be a phone call fraught with tears and emotion. I developed a system with a friend where we text each other a pre-selected emoji to let the other know we are or were in a crisis moment. If direct action needs to be taken, we can follow through, but if we just needed a little acknowledgement, a few words of encouragement will suffice.
Life is constantly handing us unpredictable moments that we have to adapt to on the fly. A call list is one way to keep yourself supported and ready. My call list ironically consist of people my ex had cut me off from throughout our relationship. The people who weren’t queer enough, whose politics weren’t radical enough, the ones that were a threat to her because they meant so much to me.
6. Set Your Boundaries, Then Respect Them
I had written my ex a letter to break up with her. She herself admitted she had a tendency to talk over me when I was trying to make a point. I figured writing down exactly what I wanted to say and spewing it all out as fast as possible was the best course of action. At this point in the relationship, just being in her presence made me tremble and vomit. When it happened, she told me to consider how my physiological reaction made her feel bad.
There were tears, on both sides. I cried as I read the line declaring that I didn’t feel safe with her anymore. After a moment of sitting silently with her tears, she lashed out and claimed she hadn’t done anything wrong at all; citing that she had never raised her voice to me, called me out of my name, or hit me. I had written that I was afraid of her, and she pointed out that because of our size difference (I’m fat) and the fact that I had recently been taking self-defense lessons to help with PTSD, it was her that should be afraid of me. I left that day determined to get space from her, but when she would text to talk I found myself answering because I didn’t want to be rude.
Despite the warnings of my friends, I met with her a few days later to discuss in greater detail some boundaries we would like to set for each other. I set mine (no more liking or commenting on my posts, no buying me gifts, respecting me when I ask for space, no touching or physical affection). Within moments she had violated most of those, refusing to leave my apartment until I gave her a hug.
Our physical relationship was always so strong. I’m just gonna miss holding you.
I had reached around her to open the door, and she stood in the frame with her arms crossed until I succumbed.
The first boundary she set was that I was not allowed to use the word “abuse” when talking about our relationship.
That morning, I had been resolute in my aim to advocate for myself and it took less than an hour for me to crumble. She used a one-two punch of deflecting blame and crying to make me feel as though I was in the wrong, and that breaking up with her was so cruel that I should reconsider it.
When we set boundaries for ourselves, it is such a disservice to bend or break them out of fear of being seen as “bitchy” or uncompromising. A huge part of the trauma of that break-up experience was having someone in my home that wouldn’t leave, feeling trapped and unsafe in the place I had built to be a sanctuary just for me. Boundaries exist as the frontline against harm that is done to us on personal, societal, political levels. Even if that means we come off as cold or unfeeling; to say no is just as powerful of a declaration of being as saying yes.
Hindsight is 20/20
For weeks after my breakup, I was bombarded with memories of our relationship that should have set off alarms in my brain at the time, but didn’t. I saw so many signs that things were wrong and couldn’t believe I had gone so long not recognizing them. One of the big ones that kept coming back to me was a Facebook ad that kept popping up for months before the split. It was about how social media can be used as a manipulation tool in abusive relationships; when abusers make their victims say nice things about them online in order to craft an idyllic view to outsiders. Every time I saw it, I grew annoyed.
What does this have to do with me? I thought. That’s not me, it’s not my life, we are different. As the abusive tactics become more intense and frequent, my exes demands for such posts increased. I had failed to show my gratitude for the “sacrifices” she had made to love someone like me. Looking back, I wanted to scream at myself for not taking my life back from her. I hated myself for being so malleable and foolish.
As most of us know, abusers are very good at concealing their tactics from both observers and their victims. They feed destruction to you piecemeal, and you don’t even know you’ve been poisoned until you’re doubled over with stomach pains. I berated myself for not being smart enough to see who she really was, for letting love blind me to the intentions of the person who was sleeping right next to me most nights.
When we think this way, we are only contributing to the cycle of victim blaming for things that aren’t our fault; thinking that not recognizing the abuse is just as unforgivable as the harm itself. Victimizing ourselves once again with this accusatory language has no benefit whatsoever. Sometimes it gets rebranded as “tough love” but it’s not the kind of love we need when our nerves are already so exposed. The honest truth is that no one can tell for sure what an abuser looks like from the outside. There are gaps between incidents that are usually filled with bliss: physical intimacy, gift giving, declarations of love and trust. Those gaps start to become narrower and tighter as time goes on, and when we realize we are ready to get out, it feels like we’re restrained from both sides.
I think the lesbian community is still not having honest conversations about abuse that occurs between partners. I know that I wasn’t. I know that a lot of the things my ex said and did were ignored because she is a white woman who subscribes to radical politics. As a black woman, I knew my word held significantly less weight than hers. The few friends that I told apologized and said they didn’t know, or weren’t paying attention. Strangely enough, it was the people who I wasn’t so close to that said illuminating things:
You broke up? Oh good, she’s got a bad temper…
Yeah, I saw the way she looked at you when you talked to other women!
Lesbian communities, even in bigger cities, are small. I’ve found that people are afraid to know someone who has done bad things. They are afraid of what that says about them.
I write this because I know it will help me deal with what happened, and with an overwhelming hope that it will help someone else. Of course I knew women could be abusive, but I didn’t know it could happen to me. Of course I had survived “worse,” but there were moments where I thought I wouldn’t survive this. I am still trying every day.
Dani Janae is a poet living and writing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She earned her BA in Creative Writing from Allegheny College and returned home to Pittsburgh after graduating. Her poetry deals with the physical and emotional legacy of trauma, and the intersecting history of her identity as a black, lesbian, woman through themes of the grotesque, incantations, and folklore. Her work has been published by Public Source, Palette Poetry, and Slush Pile Magazine. When she is not writing she enjoys having intimate conversations with the things that puzzle and delight her, admiring spiders, watching horror movies, and hunting for figs. Find her on her website.