Everyone, I’m sure, has heard the term “Stranger Danger” at some point. It’s an epithet generally ascribed to someone who looks just shady enough to cause feelings of uneasiness. In that regard, lots of parents teach their children this phrase as a reminder to never allow themselves to be lured away by adults they don’t know. It’s a good descriptor and it’s easy for children to remember. Sometimes, even adults are reminded to be wary around other adults with whom they aren’t personally familiar. We can all see the necessity of this stance around folks we don’t know. Lots of God-awful things have happened to children (and adults) at the hands of complete strangers; a healthy degree of trepidation is a good thing in these situations.
However, unfortunately, sometimes the danger doesn’t come from a stranger. Sometimes, terrible things are done to people by someone they know intimately. It’s this intimacy and familiarity that allows offenders to get close enough to harm others. One of the sad truths is that quite often a spouse or significant other can be the person doling out the danger. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family, this type of domestic violence occurs in almost 20% of all marriages and intimate partnerships. Very typically, this physical violence is often accompanied by some form of psychological or emotional abuse. It’s a shitty state of affairs when the person you love becomes a source of torment but obviously it happens – A LOT.
How do you remove yourself from domestic violence?
Being the target of these types of abuse clearly exacts a huge toll on the victims. How, then, does someone begin to remove themselves from this violence? It’s not as cut and dry as you might expect. Physical assault is terrible enough but I would argue from personal experience that the mental and emotional fallout from being in an abusive relationship is just as devastating. In this article, let’s discuss those forms of psychological abuse – while also recognizing the terrible physical violations – and find a path to move away from it. No one deserves to be beaten or terrorized even ONCE much less over and over at the hands of someone we should be able to trust with our safety and well-being. I can only meaningfully speak to domestic violence from my own personal experience and it’s from that regretfully full treasure trove of familiarity that I can draw examples for discussion.
The story of my experience with domestic violence
When I first joined the Army (back when the Earth was still cooling off), I was a well-adjusted, confident and emotionally intelligent person. I was shy – but personable – and I was excited to begin a journey in the military. There was one part of myself, though, with which I hadn’t fully come to terms and that was my sexuality. Being hyper-masculine, though, was often rewarded in the military as one may imagine. That type of environment made me a little more reserved when discussions of sex and relationships came up in conversations with other guys in my unit. This was also during the period of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Additionally, it left me feeling a little isolated and floundering (or awash…depending on how you looked at it) in a sea of straight men. (I mean, mama…it wasn’t ALL bad. If you’re a gay guy who was never in the military just imagine what it was like to be “forced” to shower with about ten other men – most of whom were in excellent physical condition. Now, I’m not some pervy gawker but I also wasn’t blind. Definitely wasn’t mad at it, I’ll tell you that!)
It didn’t take long, however, for my military experience to become truly terrible. My first assault happened within the first month of arriving at Fort Bragg, NC which was my permanent duty post. I was invited to watch a football game with two guys with whom I worked. Eager to make new friends in a new place, I heartily accepted. Their barracks room, after all, was literally two doors down. I remember showing up, plopping down on the couch between them and started watching the game. (OK, for some levity let’s acknowledge the fact that I had absolutely ZERO understanding of football at the time.) I also remember being offered a beer. Up to that point, I’d only drank one time before and that was in high school. I drank the beer and then my next memory was waking up in the stairwell with my pants pulled down around my ankles. It was painfully (literally) obvious that I’d been assaulted. Here’s the thing, though. I was incredibly ashamed of having been victimized as a man by other men and, thus, never reported it to my superiors. This type of reluctance is very prevalent in abusive relationships because victims tend to internalize responsibility for the assault.
I was so traumatized that very soon thereafter my brain decided that the experience was so overwhelming that I went into survival mode and buried the event so deeply within my consciousness that I completely forgot it ever happened. Somehow, I was able to continue functioning at a high level for the duration of my time in the Army. It’s amazing what our brains are capable of doing in response to victimization. Of course, the bandaid my brain put over the assault wound was only a temporary fix and I would have to deal with it much later in life. The assaults, however, didn’t stop just there. Regrettably, it was just starting.
My roommate in the barracks was someone I got along with wonderfully at first. He was friendly and funny and I initially thought I’d made a really great friend. Didn’t hurt, either, that he was very easy on the eyes. We got along so well that I started inviting him home with me on weekends. I grew up in a little town only a couple of hours from base. He was from Arizona and I thought he’d enjoy getting off base as much as I did. I introduced him to my friends and my family and everyone enjoyed his company. Somewhere along the line, he secretly let my best friend at the time know that he was romantically interested in me. Sparing the sultry details, we began a relationship that I was absolutely overjoyed about. I’d never been in a relationship and he began it by being attentive and kind. I thought that I’d hit the romantic jackpot. What are the odds that of all the men I could have been roomed with in the battalion, somehow I’d managed to get Sam?
Let’s pause here for some more levity. What I had first imagined to be blind luck over time became a topic of hypothetical scrutiny. As time went on, it occurred to me that there must have been some question during the military inception that low-key let the examiners know who was gay and who wasn’t it. Why? Because it eventually dawned on me through observation that EVERY GUY on my end of the barracks was gay. I swear I will always believe that. How else could there randomly be a gaggle of gays all bunched together like we were? Well played, Uncle Sam. Well played. I digress.
Our honeymoon romance wasn’t to last, unfortunately. It soon became apparent that Sam was not the wonderful guy I thought him to be. Looking back, he was very uncomfortable with his sexuality and subsequently he took out his frustrations on me. It began with gaslighting arguments. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to end things then and there but I overlooked the red flags just long enough for him to really sink his claws into my emotions. Since I had no relationship experience and because I wanted things to work out with him so much, I figured I had landed the relationship I deserved. I know that’s a hard thing to understand. This is often due to the way that domestic violence eats away at the person’s confidence – especially if feelings of intense love happen before the abuse. It didn’t take long, though, for the emotional abuse to be accompanied with lots of physical abuse.
Now, imagine my predicament. I was a fully grown man being physically assaulted – very often – by another man and I never raised a finger to protect myself. Instead, I internalized misplaced responsibility and did everything I could possibly think of to quell his temper. I bought him replacements for all the things that he’d destroyed during his tirades. I walked on eggshells around him. I had sex with him because he wanted it even when I didn’t really want to. I compromised what was important to me in order to salvage the relationship. I was a wreck; It was full-on Stockholm syndrome. These feelings and actions are actually quite common in abusive relationships. Doesn’t make it any easier to swallow, though.
What saved me and helped get me away from him was a good friend. She knew about the relationship and had put two and two together about the abuse. She was my refuge when things got bad. One night, it had gotten particularly bad and he’d hit me in the face. I went downstairs while he was in the latrine and basically hid in her room. When she saw my face, she’d obviously had enough. I distinctly remember her grabbing a rather large Bowie-style knife, pulling me along with her back upstairs and knocking on our door. When he opened it, she put that knife to his throat and threatened to kill him if he ever laid another hand on me. Now, I am NOT condoning that type of resolution but in my case it worked. As is the case, abusers are often cowards and he definitely shit his pants. She hauled me to Chicago for a four day weekend and when I got back I requested my own room and because of my higher rank it was granted. My ties with that son of a bitch were finally severed.
The extensive effects of domestic violence
Healing from the abuse, however, had just started. It messed me up in ways that wouldn’t be fully realized until years later. I have PTSD from the experience to this day. I drank and drugged myself for almost two decades. All of that internalized shame, guilt and emotional scarring took their toll. I eventually got my vices under control with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. I also found the courage to tell my doctors at the VA about the abuse and I’m getting the help – both psychological and in terms of compensation – from the VA that I need and frankly deserve. I’m in a much better place now but it took hard work to move towards healing.
Where to get help if you’re in an abusive relationship
So what resources are available to help folks who are in or were in an abusive relationship? Well, there are shelters for battered women AND men. When you enter a shelter, your location is kept absolutely confidential. It’s a place to begin getting your life back. Contact information for these facilities are readily available online. There are also services and counseling to be had by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. You can also text 88788 from your phone for help. These numbers respond 24/7. You can contact the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence online. Additionally, all states in the US have Social Services programs that deal specifically with domestic violence. If you suspect domestic violence is happening to someone else you can also report it anonymously by contacting law enforcement. In this case, you have to suspend your hesitancy to intervene and do it anyway. Someone’s life is literally at stake.
I learned eventually that my worth was greater than any abuse I may have suffered. I had to overcome my fears of leaving an abusive relationship – albeit with the help of one badass female Army friend. It doesn’t matter, ultimately, how you come to leave the hands of your abuser. Those assholes will use every tactic they can muster to keep you under their control – because a need to control is at the heart of every abuser. They will try to manipulate you. They will threaten you. They will get desperate when they realize their control over you is slipping away and lash out in myriad ways. Be brave. Be strong. If you can’t be strong by yourself, trust a true friend or a family member you trust to bolster you. Remember, YOU are not the problem. You didn’t cause the abuse. You deserve normalcy and peace and people want to help you. Make the first step towards freedom and watch the grasp of your abuser begin to fall away.