On Learning to Love My Body After Abuse

The photo on the top was taken the day that Caleb threw the bowl at my foot. The photo on the bottom was taken three weeks later, just before my foot started to look like a sunset, as the doctor had told me it would. For many days, I stuffed my swollen foot into a shoe. I stuffed my swollen foot into a shoe because I could feel no pain. I felt nothing.

I remember the day I stopped stuffing my foot into a shoe. I met my friend Sarah for lunch. I told her what had been happening. I don’t remember what I told her. I vaguely remember the look in her eyes, but I don’t remember the words that came out of my mouth.

What I remember is this: we ate an appetizer of spinach rounds. I ate almost all of them. I hadn’t been able to eat anything since I had left Caleb. I was starving, and I put one of those spinach rounds in my mouth, and it melted. I was so relieved that I could eat. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember what I ate.

I do remember some of what Sarah said. She said, “You can apply to PhD programs now.” I remember that I needed someone to tell me what to do, so I applied to PhD programs. I did no research. I applied to the only four I knew of. I was accepted to the program that Caleb had always said he had dreamed of attending, and I still feel shame about this. I still worry that his family and friends think I did that out of spite, as though I had control over it.

As though I had control over anything.

I also remember that, after lunch–as an afterthought–I showed Sarah my foot, and her eyes widened. She insisted that I go to the Urgent Care, so I did, and at the Urgent Care, I had x-rays and embarrassment.

I feel like that could be the name of a Lifetime movie about domestic abuse: “X-Rays and Embarrassment.”

The doctor gave me a boot to wear for four weeks, and once that boot went on my foot, the pain started. I was so confused. “It didn’t hurt earlier. It hurts now,” I said. “Why does it hurt now?”

She looked at me with compassion and said, “I think you were numb before.”

I didn’t love my body before I married Caleb. I already had a complicated, often unfriendly, relationship with my body, but I was in a good place when I met Caleb. I had been seeing a counselor and nutritionist. I had worked on my feelings of shame. I carried around bags of nuts. I jogged, and skied, and backpacked. I looked and felt the best I ever had.

Every summer, my father and I went backpacking. I was never thin, but I was strong. My body could do strong things. I could climb mountains.

When I had my baby, the labor was difficult. My mother kept saying, “You can do this. Remember when you and your father climbed into the Bob Marshall Wilderness? You were so strong. You were even stronger than your father thought you could be. Use that strength now.” And I tried, but I lost consciousness. Caleb was holding my hand, and I said, “I feel funny.” I heard my own voice, as if from a distance, and I saw Caleb’s worried face fading. I heard a high-pitched alarm. Then black.

Suddenly, I was awake again. The doctor injected me with Ephedra, and for the rest of my eighteen-hour labor, my heart rate was 170+ from the prescription speed. It was as though I was running a marathon in addition to delivering my child, but I did it. I chose not to have a c-section when the doctor offered. I wanted to stick it out. And the baby was okay. And I was okay. Still, as they wheeled me out of the hospital at the end of my stay–my healthy baby in my arms–I couldn’t stop weeping. I had no control over my tears. They were quiet. No sobs. Just, silent streaky tears. I think a part of me knew. A part of me knew what was coming.

We never see the red flags until they’re too late, do we? A chair thrown at the wall was just that. Until it was a chair thrown at me. A broken laptop was just a broken laptop. Until it was a laptop broken over my back.

I get it. I was stupid. Who would stay with a man who broke a laptop over her back? I was so, so stupid. But it was slow. The build-up was so agonizingly slow. In the meantime, he knew all the right things to say. Abusers, by their very necessity, know just what people want to hear.

He knew what I wanted to hear. He made me feel so good when I wasn’t feeling bad. And when I was feeling bad, he assured me that it was my own fault. And because I am who I am, or because I became who I am when I was with him, I believed it.

Caleb has started bringing his girlfriend to our child hand-offs. She sits in the passenger seat and glowers at me. She looks at me with complete disgust. The first time she did that really rattled me. I had put a handful of peanuts in my mouth just before I saw her. I didn’t know what to do, so I waved. I waved. Why did I wave? I have no idea. I guess I was trying to be polite, but in my entire life, no one has ever looked at me like that.

She thinks I’m the monster, I realized.

He knows what people want to hear. He is a genius at figuring out what people want to hear.

A month after I left Caleb, I went home for Christmas. A friend came to visit me from Montana. She wanted to hike up to some local hot springs. I had to admit to her that my foot wasn’t up to the task. It hurt too much. I was ashamed. I felt as though he still had ownership of my body. I hated my body.

I hated my body because it couldn’t protect me. I hated my body because it wasn’t soft enough to absorb the blows. I hated my body because it wasn’t hard enough to deflect them. I hated my body because it wasn’t strong enough to fight back and win. I hated my body because my emotional distress manifested itself as very real physical ailments–weight gain, high blood pressure, sleep issues, other issues.

This, of course, is overly simplistic, but leaving Caleb was the cure. Almost exactly a month after I left Caleb, I had my first normal blood pressure reading in years. I started jogging as a way of relieving the pain, and I discovered again what my body could do. I stopped obsessing about food and started just eating what made me feel good. I discovered that the food that makes me feel good is mostly healthy. I stopped waking up shaking from fear in the morning. I stopped quivering when I heard loud noises. I have forgotten what the pain in my foot felt like. I have forgotten how it felt when he broke that laptop over my back. I am growing my hair out again because I know that no one will ever pull chunks of it out again.

Here’s the surprise: In some ways, I think I love my body more now than I did before I met Caleb.

My time with Caleb taught me what my body could endure. It taught me what my body could overcome. It taught me that my body could prevail. It taught me that, no matter what Caleb or anyone else does to me, my body is mine. It will always be only mine.

And this year, when my friend from Montana came to visit, we hiked to those hot springs because, no matter how much Caleb may have stripped from me, I can still climb mountains.