From surviving to thriving: Life after intimate partner violence

Originally published February 16, 2012 in PQ Monthly.

Tattoo by Giannina Rose. Photo by Erin Rook, PQ Monthly.
By Erin Rook

Trigger warning: The following article contains accounts of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.

The lived experience of intimate partner violence is so marked by the daily struggle to survive that it seems an understatement to call those who make it out alive “survivors.” Even those who meet death at the hands of their partners are surviving until the day they die. In emerging victorious from that battle, they cease to be mere survivors and begin, rather, to thrive. These are the stories three queer survivors who are doing just that.

Katie

It’s only been two years since Katie, 26, left her abuser for the elusive “light at the end of the tunnel,” but she is already basking in its radiance. The lesbian law student is excelling in her classes while holding down two campus leadership positions and three jobs. She is in a happy, healthy relationship and looking forward to what the future holds.

As she marks the anniversary of her freedom from emotional and sexual violence, Katie says she feels compelled to speak out about her experience.

“I feel this strong desire not to be silent about it lately,” she says, even though it’s still both embarrassing and terrifying to talk about the abuse.

What started out as “normal shitty girlfriend stuff,” Katie explains, progressed in a matter of months to oppressive emotional abuse. Her girlfriend had a long list of rules for Katie to follow, all designed to control her. Don’t cut your hair. Don’t lose weight. Dress femme. Call when you wake up. Text before bed.

“She had this way of making it seem like there was something wrong with me and I believed her,” Katie explains. “I was trying to disprove her by not breaking up with her.”

She also held out hope that she could change her girlfriend. After all, she had good qualities too, and was well-respected by the larger community. Then, in addition to the daily emotional abuse, her girlfriend started raping her.

“We’d be having sex and I would not want it anymore and she would continue,” Katie explains. “It was rape but it wasn’t the standard idea of it. It happened a lot, and it hurt a lot.”

Katie attempted to end the relationship many times over the two years, but her abuser had too much power over her. So when Katie’s girlfriend broke up with her for a month, she took advantage of the breathing room and secretly applied to law schools far from home.

“I just had this little bit of defiance in me,” Katie says. “I had faith that I could not be so miserable at some point. But I didn’t feel strong enough to break up and still be in same city.”

The relationship continued long-distance six months into Katie’s studies before she found the strength to end it for good. The positive reinforcement she was getting from school fed her growing defiance and reminded her that life could be better.

It took time, but it did get better. Therapy and giving a name to her experiences helped.

“Around August I started feeling better. Not just better, but stronger than I ever had and started believing that I’m not an idiot, that I’m not ugly,” Katie recalls. “[Identifying the abuse] helped me stop believing the lies so much. Not just the lies she told, but the ones I developed.”

Erika

It’s been half a life since Erika Stanley, 35, escaped from emotional, physical, and sexual violence she faced at the hands of her boyfriend. But despite the passage of time and its attendant healing, talking about her experiences reveals a vulnerability belied by the confidence with which she takes the stage as a performance artist.

In retrospect, Erika realizes she was out of her depth when she moved in with her much older drug dealer at age 18. Still, the relationship offered her an exploration of BDSM and queer sex that she can’t throw out with the proverbial bathwater, contaminated though it was.

“He wasn’t exclusively a top, but his controlling stuff started to leak outside of safe consensual space into beating and a lot of controlling [behaviors], then rape before I left,” she explains. They were only together for six to eight months, but “it didn’t take long to blow up.”

Eventually, her abuser ended the relationship and kicked her out of his apartment. Erika believes he saw where things were going and got scared.

“After the really bad beating where he broke my nose and the rape, he knew he was losing control,” she recalls. “I think he knew it was getting really bad.”

She eventually found healing through the spiritual support of a women’s circle, counseling, and friends and family.

“For all the healing I did around it and support I got for physical violence, the hardest part to come to terms with was the rape,” Erika recalls. “If you say yes for months is it really rape when you say no? The answer is yes. … I was sodomized. I was raped.”

Also challenging was convincing herself, after all that degradation, that she was worthy of being loved, respected, heard, and seen.

“Understanding that we are all worthy, that’s the key,” Erika says. “That’s my word. That’s scarier than thinking about having my head knocked into a radiator or the horrible stuff I didn’t need to see to learn this lesson. I’m still learning that lesson.”

Harrison

Harrison, a 30-something artist, has come along way from the isolation and fear that marked his first few years in Portland. And yet, though his real name is well known in the local queer community, he still cannot safely reveal it when discussing the abuse he suffered when he arrived here six years ago. Unlike Katie and Erika, he still shares a city with his abuser.

The violence began shortly after he moved to town and fell hard and fast for another artist. Drawn by an intensity that mirrored the twisted conflation of love and violence familiar from his childhood, Harrison was quickly seduced.

But it wasn’t long before the butterflies faded and a dark, jealous edge emerged, marked by controlling behaviors, insults, and threats. Soon, his abuser’s behaviors fell into a predictable two-week cycle. The first week was “glorious,” while the second lead up to a “horrific breakdown” that Harrison would make himself crazy trying to prevent.

“Throughout all of this, there was a pervasive belittling of me, of my skills and my talents. He would routinely make me feel ugly and worthless,” Harrison says. “I believed [him]. This became my self narrative.”

After about a year, Harrison broke free from the cycle of abuse, but it took time for him to emerge from the self-destructive spin-out that followed.

“I felt like a broken object.” Harrison says. “I fell into a deep depression and lost my job. I lost it.”

After a period of risky and reckless behavior, Harrison finally sought help in therapy. Though he thought of himself as “this normal guy who went through something bad,” his therapist quickly identified the relationship as abusive and his symptoms as indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Harrison says he’s learned a lot in the five years since it ended.

“I want to believe that these things happen for an important reason to make me better, Harrison says. “I do think that I’ve been able to take this experience and make it into something that has genuinely improved my life, my relationships, and the lives of people around me.”

If you are in immediate danger, call 911. If you need help dealing with an abusive relationship, call Bradley Angle’s 24-hour crisis line at 503-281-2442.

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