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Regaining independence in the wake of abuse.
By Hannah Toutge
I didn’t get out of bed for four days. I’d been through breakups before, but none had been as soul-wrecking as this one. I had planned to follow him to the U of M for college. In the space it took for him to say “We need to talk,” all the dreams I’d had for my future vanished.
I poured my broken heart out onto the pages of a tattered notebook, repeatedly wounding the paper with the tip of a forceful, angry pen. When I was through writing about the heartbreak, I started to write about the future. I started to set goals, and enlisted God’s help in achieving them. One particularly lonely night, I sent a short prayer skywards.
“Help me find myself in losing him.”
I think God got the message, because the next day, life lurched into motion again. I snapped out of my cloud of misery and decided that I had to DO something. An hour later, I found myself registering for five college visits (one of them to Bethel). Over the next couple of days, my inbox was flooded with college emails, encouraging me to register for campus visits. It was like that darned universe was giving me a hard push from behind and whispering, “be free.”
It was good and distracting, for a while.
In the excitement of college searches and planning for my future, I realized that there was still something wrong.
Escaping abuse that I hadn’t even been aware was happening was like how your legs feel after jumping on a trampoline for a long time, and then walking on solid ground again. Hannah Toutge
Some time after the breakup, I decided that I was stable enough to dip my toe back into the dating waters again, and I met a guy. We were “a couple” for about three weeks, then I broke it off. Something hadn’t felt right. It took another month for me to realize what had been wrong.
I came to the realization that my brain had been re-wired by my last relationship to expect control and dominance from my significant other. So when this guy was kind and considerate, it felt unusual. Because I’d spent two years in a relationship being submissive and in denial about the way I was being abused, this new relationship felt unbalanced. My old “balance” had been him tipping the scale in his direction, and me having to readjust my footing in order to operate under the tension.
Escaping abuse that I hadn’t even been aware was happening was like how your legs feel after jumping on a trampoline for a long time, and then walking on solid ground again. Wobbly, jelly-like. A little uncertain, because the ground might give away at any moment.
There’s a significant piece of your independence and self-confidence to be regained when you spent two years being controlled and manipulated; but in the smallest of ways, so you don’t realize until it’s too late. There were many times when he would request that I didn’t talk to a certain person, only because he’d had an issue getting along with them in the past. Or he would tell me not to wear a certain item of clothing, or not to style my hair a certain way because it made me “ugly.” When getting ready for school every morning, I found myself questioning the mirror, “Would he approve of this outfit?” I began looking forward to weekends when I wouldn’t have to see him, unless he insisted on a date.
The recovery process from the trauma that this emotional abuse had on my independence and self-confidence has been a long and arduous one.
As exciting and joyful as my path to self-discovery has been thus far, I am needing to embark on a different quest. Now that I’ve made some headway on discovering who I am as a person, I must begin to discover what it means to be with another person, while still maintaining who I am as an individual. I have to rewire my brain to expect better. I have to set the bar higher, because I deserve better. I need my future partner to be aware of this history, and for him to support and reinforce these ideas with me. And I have to keep telling myself and hearing that I deserve better, so that “the way it’s actually supposed to be” is just “the way it is.”
Emerging from the darkness of that relationship, I didn’t know who I was. But after all that soul-searching, I have a better, clearer picture of me; one that I finally like on my own, without needing validation from anyone else. I am able to look back on the submissive, feeble-voiced me that stuck it out through the worst of the abuse, and compare that version of me to me today. And in remembering that scared, quiet voice – which has now grown into a confident, strong one – I get to remember with great pride and joy the sadness and self-doubt I have overcome, and the joy and hope that I hold today.
Bob Goff once said, “If we only do what we’re familiar with, we might miss what we’re made for.” Maybe that breakup was supposed to happen. I’m not a huge believer in “fate,” but maybe that day was a fork in the road, and if I had stayed in the relationship, I would have been turning off onto the wrong side of the fork. Because now I’m on my own, and I’m learning how to make myself my top priority. I’m asking myself the tough questions. “Who do you want to be?” “What do you want to do?” “What is most important to you?” And maybe in the process of attending to myself first and answering those questions, I’ll find what I’m made for.
Since that breakup, life has been repeatedly reminding me that it’s completely up to us what we see, make, and take out of it. I need to remember to always choose joy and to look for the beauty and the good, even on the darkest of days. And I need to remember that I can bring joy and happiness and light to other people, even in the smallest of ways. Let us never forget how contagious kindness is. Let us never forget to be ourselves, and to explore while we have the chance. Let us never forget to live this life to the fullest and make it our own, because it’s the only one we’ve got.