Five ways to move on from an abusive relationship
Looking back, specific actions helped me embrace a new life and freedom after leaving my abuser.
Leaving my abuser was definitely one of the most difficult experiences of my life. Like many abusers, my ex-partner was also funny, charming and adventurous. I learned through the process that ending the relationship and moving out was one step, but having to face a new and unfamiliar world on my own was also frightening. I struggled with depression, self-doubt and self-loathing in the months after I left. The reverberations of my eight years with Scott* have affected me forever. Looking back, I can see I survived the rocky road of transition by taking specific actions that helped me accept and eventually embrace the new life and freedom available to me.
1. Make yourself eat
Once I left Scott, I found myself living in a new world. It felt so unfamiliar that I wanted to go back. The morning after I left Scott, I woke up at my friend Marliss’s house alone. My heart turned to concrete when I thought of Scott and our dog Crystal waking up without me in the house we used to share. I hated myself. I picked up the phone and dialled a few numbers, then hung up.
Wait a minute, I said out loud. I have only been gone 12 hours. I made coffee. While it was brewing, I sat outside in the sun. After a while, the calm and quiet brought a sense of freedom. I knew I would have to fight certain urges to return. I knew I had to make a new set of rules for myself. I had not been eating regularly for quite some time, surviving on coffee, beer, and a candy bar now and then. I had lost 30 pounds (about 13kg) between January and March before I left Scott.
A month after I left Scott, he moved back to New Hampshire. He left with Crystal; having to leave her was the most difficult step in ending the relationship. I said goodbye to Scott and Crystal and watched them drive away. I followed them for many miles on I-40 before flicking my lights and flying off the exit at Santa Rosa. I drove home to my new living situation, a three-bedroom house that Scott and I had rented two years earlier, but now I was sharing the house with my bosses from the restaurant where I worked, Dave and Paul. I walked in the door trying not to look as though I had been crying. They popped open a Coors Light for me and we talked about the future. They were compassionate and kind, and reminded me of all that was still possible in my life, though I was 33 and now alone. They offered me dinner but I watched as they ate. For the next month, all I could ingest was coffee, beer and a couple of bites of potato salad at work. A few times each week I might have a piece of grilled bread with honey. And I wondered why I stopped menstruating.
I went to the local health food store to ask the clerk in the vitamins section for advice because I did not have a doctor or insurance at the time. She thought I might have early menopause, but I was not experiencing night sweats or hot flashes. She consulted a book she kept in her office. “What have you been eating lately?” she asked. I gave her my feeble list of coffee, beer and chocolate. She laughed out loud. “That’s exactly what this book says you should avoid. Your diet is the problem.”
The waist of my white jeans had fallen to my lower hips. As soon as I put on my black skirt, it fell straight to the floor, my hips unable to hold it. Most days I wore my faded blue jeans and a white T-shirt with a tiny embroidered pink rose at the neck. And boots. I always wore my black boots, even in the summer. The boots anchored me; they made me feel as though the wind would not pick me up and carry me away like the tumbleweeds along the highway. Every day I woke up, drove to work, tried to eat a little bit, then went home and watched movies with Paul. Every day I tried to make myself eat a little more: a bite of chicken or brisket at the end of a shift. I tried to create a new normal for myself that included some happiness. I would visit my favourite stores in Santa Fe and drive to Ghost Ranch to hike alone on the trails Georgia O’Keeffe once followed. And then one day, without even thinking about it, I went to the kitchen and made oatmeal. Standing at the back windows of the house, staring out onto Santa Clara reservation and Black Mesa, I spooned warm clumps of goo into my mouth. The gluey oats coated my insides like a thick skin. And, like my boots, held me solid to the earth.
2. You are not required to respond
The first phone call I received from Scott after he moved back east was to inform me that he and Crystal had made it back to his mother’s house in New Hampshire. The phone lines carried his yelling and complaining as he blamed me for everything that had gone wrong. The truck had lost its transmission on I-81 in the hills of Pennsylvania. I stopped listening at that point because all I could envision was Crystal and the hair on her back standing straight up, her eyes lowering, trying like I had for so many years to make herself invisible, to become as small as she could so he would not notice her until his rage passed. I am sure Scott’s throat was raw from screaming as he attempted to manoeuvre his truck up the steep hills near Hazelton and then Port Jervis in New York State. After Scott promised me that Crystal was doing fine, I hung up the phone. I was laughing with relief. I knew I had made the right decision. I was no longer the brunt of his anger or the punching bag for his threats and fists. I no longer had to watch over my shoulder or monitor the tone of every word I said.
We agreed to stay in touch, so I sent him a short note a week after our phone call. He replied with a letter stating that he had no interest in the weather in New Mexico. But I did not have anything else I wanted to write to him about. He asked for details: who was I dating, what was I doing, when was I moving back east. Just reading his letter I found myself recoiling. His words felt like cobra strikes. My solution was to not write back. Ever. I closed the post office box I had shared with him and did not leave a forwarding address.
That summer I flew back east to visit family. While I was there, I called Scott at his mother’s house. I wanted to see Crystal, to see with my own eyes that she was doing well. I asked my brother to drive me to New Hampshire and stay with me while I visited Crystal and Scott for an afternoon. We all drove to get sandwiches for a picnic. Scott was on his best behaviour, and it was easy, after several months without him, to see how forced and phoney his actions were. But Crystal looked beautiful and it was clear she was happy. Her black fur was shiny and she jumped all over me with excitement. While I watched as Scott tried to win me back, I felt a strength inside me. I knew I could handle him. I knew he could never hurt me again. And I knew this would be the last time I ever saw him and Crystal. To continue to visit her would cause too much confusion. She had adjusted well to her new life. I could live with that.
3. Go for long rides with the radio on
I was accosted, asphyxiated, by cobwebs of Scott’s gambling debts, of fights, of his knuckles, of tiptoeing in the morning, of rising in the dark our first winter in New Mexico to drive to a bookkeeping job I hated. All the shame and blame and dread I had carried while I was with Scott started to wrap around me after he was gone. Memories were as heavy as drapes. The walls around me crept closer; the ceilings descended. I could not stay in the house for one more minute.
Whenever I was not working, I drove all over northern New Mexico. I went up the steep hill to the Evergreen Restaurant and Hyde Park; up to the Jemez Mountains where I hiked, sat in hot springs and gazed over the Caldera Valley. I drove the High Road to Taos to walk on ski trails and to sample margaritas in the many restaurants of Taos Plaza. I drove the Enchanted Circle from Questa to Eagle Nest, basking in the topographical changes from high desert to mountain peaks.
If I was not driving, I would spend time with friends at different clubs in Santa Fe. Marliss and I frequented Rodeo Nites to dance and drink beer or we would go to Legends to shoot pool. We were good at it and everyone thought we were sisters: two tall blondes in cowboy boots and short skirts. Driving, singing, hiking, dancing all made me happy, made me forget missing Crystal and the fun parts of life with Scott. As long as I did not stop to think or feel too much, I was fine. But in my hours off, alone, I struggled. Sitting with the pain was not easy. Even though my new life was certainly an improvement, the transition from what was familiar to what was available hit me hard. I did not yet like who I was. I still saw myself as the cowardly woman who purposely broke the hearts of her boyfriend and dog. I was not sure I would ever be able to forgive myself for causing that kind of pain.
So, I would go out, into the car, into the world with music blaring until I forgot the past and could focus for a bit on the new life I hoped to create. My best driving buddy was Tom Petty. I played my new CD with my new favourite song on repeat: Learning to Fly. I felt he had written the song just for me. “I’ve started out for God knows where, I guess I’ll know when I get there … I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings. Coming down is the hardest thing.” That is exactly what I tried to avoid: coming down. The act of moving, of driving of watching the world recede in my rearview mirror helped me find possibility again. Driving into the mountains and the deserts, into the national forests and the magic orange cliffs of Abiquiu, I was able to recognise the thrill of the diversity of the land and eventually the diversity in myself. I was more than the wooden figure that Scott had carved me into. Mile by mile I trusted that the stone-hard parts of me would soften into clay, into a substance I could use to rediscover and reshape myself.
4. See a therapist
I decided to contact a therapist a couple of weeks after I left Scott. I kept having non-stop fantasies of receiving news that he had died, painlessly and quickly. In my daydreams Scott was dead and I could grieve him and go on. When the therapist asked why I had come to see her, I explained this. She responded by saying, “Oh, that’s a common response when people end relationships.” I stared at her for a second then said, “Good. That’s a relief.” I stood up to leave. I am done here, I thought. But she chuckled and asked me to sit back down. Because I was convinced I did not need her help now, I humoured her. I decided to be honest when she asked me what my relationship with Scott had been like.
I told her about the physical abuse, about how long it took to leave, about how I missed Crystal. I could not look her in the eye. She noticed this. She asked why I thought I had not been able to leave earlier. Offhandedly I joked, “Oh, I don’t know. Childhood abuse, dead brother.” Then I looked her square in the eye. We both knew in that moment that I was right where I needed to be. In the presence of someone who would not judge me. Someone who could help me gather the scattered pieces. The therapist made me see in that first meeting that my relationship with Scott was a symptom of a larger, lifelong issue. And that if I did not start working on the abusive uncle, the grief, the dead brother and the violent ex-boyfriend, I was never going to move forward into healthier relationships. Everything I did would be lateral.
She wanted to teach me to value myself. She taught me to speak up for myself. I always felt a little taller after each session. I had been raised to deal with problems on my own. So part of me, the part I wanted to change, was ashamed I had sought assistance from a therapist. However, I found myself telling people, anyway. It felt good not to be holding onto so many secrets.
I worked with this therapist for two years. The pieces of my life began to fit. I focused on the past, on the childhood abuse and my brother’s death. Scott receded to the background. It would be another year or two before I dove deep into the eight years I had spent with him. But my healing began right there in her office that first time we met. It was a turning point, a new direction. Like driving endlessly, it gave me hope. Working with a therapist was the real beginning of moving on. The beginning of new love: self-love.
5. If you cannot ‘be’ it, dream it
I was in college when I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Like everyone else, I showed up with toast and toilet paper. But after the movie, what I walked away with, at the age of 19, was a line from one of the songs: “Don’t dream it; be it.” I cannot think of more potent words for a college student on the cusp of graduation.
But after I left Scott, I was not ready to “be” anybody. I had long forgotten who I was or what my goals were. I knew I wanted to be a writer once, but that desire had burrowed underground and then evaporated during the Scott years. So I had to dream my future first. I had to be patient with myself until the fears and inhibitions diminished. I had lived in a shell of myself for so many years with Scott. Over time I had had to shrink my personality because the “real” me, was too much for him. He enjoyed my excitableness and optimism, but not every day, just now and then when he was in the mood. So I learned to stay quiet, keep my thoughts to myself, basically to revert to my teenage behaviour, that shy quiet girl who avoided interaction as much as possible. As a result, most of my previous friendships dropped away. In my new life without Scott, it took time to feel natural having new friends. It took time before I realised I was free to be the true me. I had to go back to writing in my journal to find myself.
One day I was in Taos and decided to drive to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge north of town. I parked my car and walked to the middle of the bridge. Looking over the edge, at the thin ribbon of river and the solid peaks of the canyon, I imagined my body floating down and down, landing on the rocks. It would be a peaceful end to the misery I was feeling. I remember as I stood there, the wind at my back, hair blowing in my face, that I had had a similar notion the first winter Scott and I lived in New Mexico. I was on my way to work as a bookkeeper in Santa Fe. It was early morning and still dark. I was extremely depressed because of the monotony of my job and the fact that my hours each day were so long that I did not see daylight. My office had no windows; my whole workday was balancing numbers. Scott made no effort to find a job and we were barely making ends meet on my $5 per hour. That particular morning, I did not want to face the darkness of my daily life any more. On the hills north of Santa Fe, I revved my engine and steered my truck toward a canyon at the side of the road. I slammed on the brake to stop myself from flying over the edge. I did not want to die, I realised. I just wanted my life to be different. I looked at the shifting knob that Crystal had chewed when she was a puppy. I imagined her back home, warm in bed. I did not want to disappear out of her life. If nothing else, she needed me. That realisation was enough to get me back on the highway and into work.
As I stood above the Rio Grande Gorge, I acknowledged that I did not have a dog in my life to save me. If I wanted to live, if I wanted to create a different life, I was going to have to save myself. I was going to have to decide that I, just me, was worth the effort. I walked back to my car and pulled out my journal. I wrote for two hours. During that time a silenced voice arose. I thought that part of me was gone, but who I really was deep inside never died. She was forced to hide to survive. I did not have to use tiny notebooks and hide them in zipped pockets any more. I began writing in my journal every day. Before I knew it, I was not chronicling bad memories or injustices; now I was imagining a future where I travelled and met new friends; where I wrote novels and children’s books; where I dated nice guys and fell in love again. I thought the optimistic part of myself was gone forever, but writing helped bring my dreams back to the surface, back to where I could work on becoming them.
It took time for me to become comfortable with my new sense of self and my newly resurrected dreams. A couple of months after Scott left, I planned a trip to see a friend in Boulder. I drove all the backroads from Santa Fe to Denver. Through the twisted horseshoe turns in Southern Colorado, I glowed with a feeling of complete freedom. No fears plagued me. I was not worried about disappointing anybody. I had no concerns about doing or saying something wrong and being punished for it.
I stopped my car at a pullout and looked over the vast canyons and valleys below. I had not smiled this wide or felt this happy and hopeful since the drive with Scott to New Mexico three years earlier. My life had changed in many unexpected ways. The world lay at my feet. My dreams were lined up in a row on a path before me. Every new step I took led me closer to what I always wanted. I was prepared for the challenges, prepared to meet my future. I remembered the Rilke poem that had sustained me during the darkest of times with Scott. “Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were behind you.” The parting was behind me now. I had wintered through the difficulty and my heart had survived. I twirled in a circle until I felt dizzy. I raised my arms to the sky. I saw a girl holding a pen in the clouds above me as I listened to the scrub jays and magpies that squawked in the trees all around.
*Name was changed to protect the privacy of the abuser’s family.