Survivor Stories, Guest Post. Final Girl, Part 1.

I’m a fan of social justice activist, the Appalachian Graffiti Artist, Final Girl. Final Girl uses graffiti, a traditionally transgressive method of communication, as a way of exposing issues of gender-related violence. I was honored when she agreed to write a three part series on emotional abuse. Please stay tuned for follow-up posts on the effects of gaslighting/lying, as well as how to reclaim a sense of self after emotional abuse.


Invisible Bruises
Part I: The Words

I took a picture of the bruises. 
They were strangely lovely.  Gray thumbprint on the inside of my wrist where he had wrenched it; ivy creep of hemorrhaging up my leg where he had kicked it; and a broken bone in my hand from where I had tried to punch him, when I finally fought back. 
That was the only time he physically assaulted me—but there were other kinds of assaults.  I have many bruises from him—but you will never see them. 
There were the times he insulted my body (too skinny), my sex drive (too high), my family, my job, my clothes, my stuttering.  There were the names he called me: bitch, douchebag, asshole, freak.
He was angry in the mornings.  He was angry at night.  He was angry because he hadn’t eaten, or had had too much or not enough coffee or sugar, or he had too much work to do, or he was annoyed by his friends or his phone, or he was tired; he was really, really tired.  And he was angry, angry at me about all these things.  Biting, sarcastic, and derogatory toward me.
I’m not sure why he directed his anger at me.  Mostly, I think, I was there.  I was there and I didn’t fight back, at least not at first.  I was there, and I think by my very presence I was a target.
And I can’t tell you why I stayed with him, because sometimes?  I still want to go back.
I know I felt needed.  I felt special; this man who hated everyone loved me.  At least, he said he loved me.  And I believed what he said.  I felt I was too sensitive, because he told me I was.  He told me I had no sense of humor.  He told me he was just kidding at the end of yet another tirade when he shoved me into a chair.  Just a joke, a joke, can’t you take a joke?
And I told myself, sure.  I told myself, hang in there.  I told myself, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.
But it wasn’t fine.
The worst part about emotional abuse is that, like the punch that will change the shape of my hand, morphing it, deforming it; the bone will never mend straight—I will never be the same.  My sense of self is altered after being with him. 
Because I believed him. 
After months of being yelled at, I begin to feel there was something wrong with me, many things.  I was too skinny.  I was judgmental.  I did want too much sex.  The sex I wanted was wrong.  I was wrong.
Emotional abuse is confusing.  It’s slippery, shifting.  It’s difficult to pin down exactly what it is.  Toward the end, I called him names too (especially asshole) and I did strike him back—or tried to. But the systematic, daily onslaught of insults, ridicule, and degradation he subjected me to is equivalent to brainwashing.
He wore me down.  He wore me down. 
After awhile, I couldn’t leave him, because who would want a freak like me?  A skinny, ugly, stupid bitch like me?
He diminished me.  He made me hide my light, and I hid my pain too.  Maybe I was quieter.  Maybe you saw less of me at parties.  Maybe you noticed my eyelids were swollen.  That was all that was visible on the outside.  On the inside, I was starting to rot, to collapse under the weight of his words. 
The splint is off my finger now, though my leg is still gray and I wince if anyone brushes it.  You will never see my other bruises, not with your eyes.  These bruises are slower to fade, the ones on the inside.  I see these invisible bruises. I feel them, and I feel, more and more each day, how wrong he was to inflict them upon me.
I’m a painter.  And while it is hard for me to make art from the experience of emotional abuse at the hands of this man, as it is hard for me to make sense of it, I took a picture of my bruises. 
I did it for myself, to swear to myself: No love, no companion is worth this.  No man (or woman) is worth me feeling worthless.  No one EVER has the right to diminish me.
I took the pictures to remind myself: Never again.  And as a promise to myself: There is love without pain.  I will find it, I tell myself; I will get stronger and stronger every day.  And then I go out to make beauty in this one.

Final Girl is an Appalachian street artist.  Her essays have been published in Hillbilly Speaks and Bending Genre, and her art appears in many secret spaces.  You can see more examples of her work at https://www.facebook.com/Finalgirlartand http://finalgirlgraf.tumblr.com

On Secrets

My ex-husband is a liar. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. When we married, I didn’t know him very well. He had many secrets that he had kept from me, and they trickled out over the years. Some of them I didn’t even find out until after we divorced. I’ll probably never really know the full truth about everything. When I first found out some of the secrets, I was understandably hurt. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“Because I knew you would leave me,” he said.

I was genuinely confused. “Why would you want to marry someone who would have left you?” I asked.

He never answered that question, but I think it was about control. If he could control the information that I had access to, then he could control me. And abuse, above all, is about control.

When I left my husband, he had a different story for everyone he spoke to about why we had split up. If he was talking to a man who was sympathetic to the “women are crazy” excuse, then his story was that I was crazy. If he was talking to someone who didn’t know me very well, then his story was that I abused him. If he was talking to someone who knew about the abuse but stayed in contact with him anyway, then he just didn’t say anything.

Last summer, he met up with some friends of his who had also become friends of mine over the years. After he saw them, he sent me an email telling me that he had told our friends how much we loved each other, and how much we had tried to make things work, but just couldn’t. These friends were, he said, all very sad for us and very supportive. At first, when I read that email, I felt touched, then it hit me that his story was completely untrue. We divorced because he was abusive. There were, of course, other reasons also, but the dominant one was because he hit me. He hit me frequently and violently. His email was self-serving, I realized. He wanted me to remain complicit in his lies, just as I had remained complicit for so many years.

Because I had been complicit. I had helped him. I had helped him abuse me.

I am not a comfortable liar. I am more known for being uncomfortably honest. But when my husband was abusing me, I was forced to lie. I lied to protect myself, but I mostly lied to protect him.

He didn’t abuse me frequently throughout our marriage. In the early years, there were some isolated incidents that I was able to excuse as outliers. His abuse didn’t become frequent until after we had moved across the country. I was isolated by then, which is part of the pattern. I had no family or friends nearby. I think that some people think that all abusers start abusing the minute the relationship starts, but it’s not always that way. Sometimes it’s a slow buildup. Sometimes the abuser waits until the bonds feel too strong to break.

I don’t remember the first time I had to lie to someone about the bruises, but a couple of times are rendered in my memory vividly. My friend Rebecca came over, and I had forgotten about the bruise on my arm. I had forgotten to wear long sleeves. She asked what had happened in horror. He was there–my husband–looking at me, waiting to see what I would say. I panicked. I told her that I had done it in my sleep, that I didn’t even remember it. I told her that I thought I was anemic. She couldn’t imagine how I could have possibly not remembered that happening because the bruise was so large, but she trusted me, and she trusted him, so she accepted my story.

Another time, we were babysitting our nephews while his brother and my sister-in-law went to a football game. He had attacked me the night before. It was very, very hot in our house, but I wore long sleeves in order to cover up the bruises on my arms (the visible bruises were usually on my arms because I raised my arms as a defensive measure.) As we spoke to my in-laws, I was sweating inside of my shirt. I wanted to push my sleeves up so badly, but I couldn’t. We had a friendly conversation. There was lots of laughing, but I was dying inside. I wanted to scream “This isn’t real. What you are seeing is not my life.”

The last time I remember lying, I had lunch with two friends, including the same friend who had asked about the large bruise on my arm. I had worn long sleeves to the lunch, but I couldn’t hide the fact that my hand was bruised and swollen. I told them I had shut it in the door. I felt that I was lying poorly. I felt that they would surely see through the lie, but they accepted it.

The truth was trapped in my throat. I wanted those words to fall out of my mouth like rocks. I wanted to let go of that pain. I wanted to say Help Me, but I didn’t.

After he was arrested, I told all of my best friends. I partly told them as an insurance policy. I knew that, if they knew, they would never let me go back to him, and I didn’t trust myself yet. I didn’t trust myself not to give him another chance.

I tell my son that no one can ever ask him to lie about anything. I tell him that he can always tell me the truth. I hope that he always does. I hope that he always trusts me enough to tell me the truth.

A friend today sent me a message on Facebook telling me that she appreciates my blog. “It takes a lot to stand up and tell your story,” she said. “People will scrutinize and judge. But, even more people will connect to something you write.”

I hope this is true. I am very aware that some people will judge me for my honesty. I am also aware that some people will react with disbelief. But secrets are shame. Secrets are wrong. When I became complicit in my husband’s secrets, I became complicit in my own abuse. I am no longer keeping his secrets. I don’t owe that to him, but I owe myself the truth.