Reclaiming Agency: Life After Intimate Partner Violence

Image by:  Jane Fox

Image by: Jane Fox

“I understand it now,” my best friend slurred, slightly intoxicated on the couch. “I understand why Rihanna stayed with Chris Brown. When he’s mean, it’s debilitating. But when he’s sweet, it’s the most beautiful feeling in the world. And you wade through the bad moments with hopes of the good ones.”

She was in a mood. He wasn’t going to like this. I fearfully checked my phone, he would be here any minute now. “Outside,” the text read. I didn’t know then that when I let him in, it would be the last time. Or that when he slammed the door wordlessly behind him, it would be the last whiff of his scent that would linger in my apartment.

That was the last message I’d ever receive before deleting his phone number, naively hoping it would efface all the damage he had done.

But as Laverne Cox said in a talk to the Berkeley community in November 2015, “My mom had taken me out of therapy, but the damage was already done.” He was my therapy and no matter how many times I wash my skin, no matter how many deep breaths I take, no matter how many times I convince myself that even nightmares end, I can’t help but feel his ghost suppressing me.

I can’t shake him from my memory. Nor can I forget the destruction he left in his wake. I remember the first time he called me beautiful. I remember when he told me I had gorgeous eyes. I remember when he held me in his arms and assured me he would keep me safe after I had opened myself up to him in a way I had never done before. But the sweet nothings he whispered in my ear as we fell asleep together aren’t what keep me awake at night; it’s the first time he became aggressive when he was drunk. It’s the first time he called me fat. It’s the first time he shouted that I was a fucking bitch.

This type of abuse is so subtle and unconsciously impairing that it took a breakdown in the middle of the North Reading Room on a rainy morning to realize that his aggression, his “I’m only doing what’s best for you” attitude, and his degrading “jokes” weren’t endearing. They weren’t cute, they weren’t hilarious, they weren’t playful. They were demeaning. They were dehumanizing. They were degrading. They were emotionally and verbally abusive. He was emotionally abusive.

Emotional abuse affects one in five women in sexual or romantic relationships, according to The National Domestic Violence Hotline.

This accounts for one of five types of abuse that 43% of dating females in college experience. The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines abuse as a “repetitive pattern of behaviors to maintain power and control over an intimate partner. These are behaviors that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a partner from doing what they wish or force them to behave in ways they do not want.”

When asked why people stay in these power-struggle situations, it is difficult to explain the psychology of believing that aggression can somehow mirror an act of love. Unfortunately for many, it’s not love that traps them in the grips of their abusers; it’s fear and intimidation.

Often the inception of the relationship is like any other. The abuser seems perfect. It isn’t until much later—and much deeper—into the relationship that attributes of intimate partner violence manifest. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, signs of emotional abuse include, but are not limited to: insulting or criticizing a partner, isolating a partner from his/her friends and family, acting jealous, controlling with who and where a partner spends their time, humiliating a partner, cheating to prove they’re wanted by others more than their partner, telling a partner how lucky they are to be in a relationship with the abuser, and controlling a partner’s appearance.

When I finally admitted that he exhibited most, if not all, of these attributes I sobbed on the phone to my father for hours as I confessed to him that my boyfriend had become my abuser. He didn’t seem like the type of guy who could hurt me like this, I remember uttering through forced breaths.

“Nobody ever seems like the type of person who could hurt others. When you see this kind of story on the news, nobody ever says ‘I knew it was coming,’ they say things like ‘he seemed like such a nice guy, everybody loved him.’ But Katie, be grateful you left now,” His voice choked up, silence filled my speaker. “Because I’m afraid that if you stay with him, he will do more than emotionally hurt you. I’m afraid he will physically injure you or one day he will kill you.”

At first this seemed like an over-exaggeration. My dad is protective, ergo the name Papa Bear, but my friends agreed. My friend who prescribed the drunken wisdom also shared that a boy she was with had emotionally abused her until one day it wasn’t enough and he hit her. A sinking feeling slowly drowned me as she looked me in the eyes and told me I needed to break up with him because she was afraid he would hit me too. That is was only a matter of time. That the emotional abuse is never enough.

And for many, it’s not. According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, emotional abuse is often combined with other forms of abuse, including physical violence.

This intervention sparked the realization that all those hours in high school health classes and mandatory abuse prevention programs in college prioritized certain phenomenons and disregarded an entire space in the continuum of abuse, assault, and addiction. While I can recite to you the long-term effects of snorting too much cocaine, I cannot identify the signs or symptoms of domestic violence. If you ask me about the repercussions of unprotected sex, I could quote Mean Girls; but if you asked me how to help create a healthy and safe intervention for someone suffering from intimate partner violence, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Like sexual violence and other forms of abuse, emotional abuse doesn’t alleviate itself so easily. You can change out of your hospital gown and back into your trashed party clothes. You can always eat more of that edible, but never less. But the internal damage of psychological violence can’t be eviscerated with aspirin and a text that reads, “Last night never happened, OK?”

By marginalizing intimate partner violence, we silence the gravity of it.

Emotional abuse through control affects 31% of college women, while 22% experience verbal abuse, according to a study done by Fifth & Pacific Companies, Inc. Even worse, 58% of college students reported not knowing how to help a friend remove themselves from an abusive situation, 38% of students reported not knowing how to get help for themselves, and 57% of students say that they cannot identify the signs of emotionally abusive relationships. As a university, we perpetuate these statistics as we neglect teaching proper and necessary methods for leaving, helping, or coping with the effects of emotional abuse. According to the same study, 40% of college women and 52% of college men don’t believe that psychologically abusive relationships pose a problem on their campus. But that ideology stems from a place of ignorance, naivety, and privilege. If one cannot see the symptoms, then clearly it does not exist, right?

The proof may not lie on my skin, but that doesn’t mean that my heart isn’t full of scars. That my head isn’t full of fear. That my muscles aren’t full of tension. That my body isn’t damaged in ways I can never fully express to you.

Which, post-leaving, led me to the question: now what? Through loving him, I forgot how to love myself. When he left, my self-worth, self-confidence, and self-esteem walked right out the door with him. He controlled so many aspects of my life that I couldn’t remember what it felt like to decide for myself. He stole my identity and, worst of all, my agency.

Unfortunately, there are no how-to books, study guides, borrowed lecture notes, or Buzzfeed listicles that define how to reclaim your agency once your abuser strips it away. I wish I could prescribe you all the answers, I wish I could write this as a personal testimony of success like Marie Osmond and her NutriSystem diet. But the truth is I’m still healing. There are days when I falter and regress back into the boxes that he labeled and forced me into. There are days when I stand taller and more confident than I did before I met him. There are days when I am both, and there are days when I'm still numb. And I'm sure others out there who have survived intimate partner violence have felt the same.

But maybe not. It took leaving Berkeley for a month--the longest I have been away from the locus of my pain--to realize that I am not qualified to tell you how to cope with intimate partner violence and its aftermath. Healing is exclusive and individualistic in the best sense of the word. Everyone heals differently, and these differences are a crucial part of reclaiming your agency. Your healing process is your own, and no one can control it except for you. Maybe that means loving yourself before you can begin to let go. Maybe it means returning to normalcy as best as you can: eating what you like to eat, drinking what you like to drink, wearing what you like to wear. Maybe it’s hanging out with people that your ex refused you to see. Maybe it means saying “fuck it.” There are a lot of maybe’s when it comes to recovery.

For me, recovery meant overcoming fear. The fear of disappointing him. The fear of his anger. The fear of never being enough. The fear of letting go. The fear of moving on. The fear of the past. The fear of the future. At the time, my joys became entangled with so many of my fears that I couldn’t feel happy without simultaneously feeling scared. I was constantly worried about accommodating my outside stimuli that I neglected my internal ones. But part of healing was remembering that I come first.

He despised when I wore flannel. He told me that it made me look ugly, that he was doing me a favor by telling me to stop wearing some of my favorite shirts. Now, every time I open my closet and run my fingertips over the clothes he hated, I get nervous. He always made a comment when I wore that one, I think to myself. Sometimes I can’t wear what I love because it’s tinged with reminders of him. But reclaiming my agency means taking back what was mine. And to rise above that fear, I wear my flannels even if it makes me uncomfortable, and I strut down Sproul Plaza like it was a catwalk built solely for me.

These acts of defiance were the ones that made him angry. When he saw his control on me slipping between his fingers, he gripped tighter until I suffocated under his dictatorship. This behavior stems from a place of hate and insecurity, but it’s not our duty as a boyfriend or a girlfriend to accept the physical or verbal manifestations of someone else’s self-loathing. Relationships should foster love, not hate. Mutual respect, not control. Growth, not fear. “No one deserves to be controlled or belittled by someone who claims to love them. We shouldn’t be afraid to leave someone who only wants to tear us down instead of build us up,” one student shared about her experience with an abusive partner.

But now, this opposition to his opinions empowers me. As his hate fostered my fear, my love nurtures my growth. Because as my favorite contemporary poet, Nayyirah Waheed, wrote: “if no one has ever told you, your freedom is more important than their anger.”

Reclaiming agency is about more than healing. It’s about more than recovery. It’s about freedom and liberation. It’s about escaping the box of abuse we are trapped in, and nailing it shut like a coffin behind us. Our agency should never be sacrificed in order to lift someone up. To let them feel their anger. To fuel their rage or their hate or their anguish. If I can tell you one thing I’ve learned from recovery; and if one thing sticks with you from this article, I hope it’s this: reclaiming agency is empowering yourself to live freely, to be your own person, to embrace liberation like a newborn child. It is yours alone. You were born with its power. You manifested it in its own special way.  And no one can take that away from you.

OpinionKatie Berlin