The Mighty Logo

Why ‘Freedom’ Isn’t What It Seems After Fleeing Domestic Violence

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Today marks six years since I fled a brutal relationship. Six years since I spent my first homeless night sleeping in the back seat of my car in a Walmart parking lot. Six years since one life ended and another began.

In the first few months after I disclosed my escape, there was a recurring theme to the comments I received. They were generally some version of, “You must be so glad to be free.” I always nodded my head and said “Yes,” simply because it was expected and it required too much energy to correct such a glaring misconception.

I was too tired from the daily nightmares of fighting off being stabbed to death. Too tired from the hypervigilance and panic attacks that haunted my waking hours because I saw him everywhere I looked. You see, I was waiting for him to keep his promise to kill me if I ever left. I was too tired from attempting to fit into “normal” society after more than two decades of controlling every word, glance and interaction.

I also said yes because it was just a little bit true. I was glad to be out of the abuse. I was ecstatic to not have to worry if a simple phrase would result in more broken teeth. I was ecstatic to sleep in safety rather than being told each day I was lucky he “hadn’t decided to kill me” in my sleep. I was ecstatic to be able to begin to wear pretty clothes and eat food without asking permission for no better reason than I wanted to try it. I was truly glad to no longer be living in violence. But, I was far from free.

Six years later, I find that freedom is a relative thing.

I often see posts on the internet from domestic violence survivors about #LiberationDay or #Freedomiversary. If that is truly the case for those people, I’m glad for them. For me, I had no “Liberation Day” moment and many of us don’t. Yes, on November 8, 2014, I regained control of my life, my body and my decisions. But, I lost things too.

The day I fled my abuser, I lost the only life I understood. I lost the sense of family I had built with my ex’s mother and sisters. I lost almost every friend I had. I lost my two cherished dogs because he gave them away so I couldn’t have them. I lost every single thing I possessed because I fled with the clothes on my back and $13 dollars in the bank and he literally burnt everything I left behind. I also lost the one person who shared every major event I experienced over 23 years and because I was isolated and only allowed to be with him, he’s the only one that has those memories too.

So, every day of the last six years has found me at some space on the continuum between joy and gut-wrenching grief as I navigated the journey of healing a lifetime of trauma and healing the damage two decades of physical and mental abuse had wrought on me.

It’s only been in the relative peace of the last two years — it took a protective order and facing my abuser in court to get him to stop harassing me online years after I fled him — that I’ve begun to find the space to truly heal. I’m proud of the life I’ve built and the woman I am now. I love my new husband and the life we have together, but I carry the two decades of trauma inside me at the DNA-level. The woman I am today could not exist without those experiences. We are both symbiotic and synergistic.

For me, “Liberation Day” does not exist. Every year, I am reminded that what I have today came at a great cost. One that I still pay in many ways for the areas of my life that are not yet healed and may never be. The next time you’re about to tell someone “you must be so glad to be free,” don’t. They may not be. Instead, just say, “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Photo by Basil James on Unsplash

Originally published: November 9, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home