Ashley’s Story: A Q&A with a Survivor

Interview by Tina O’Reilly

Ashley lives in Colorado and got involved with Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence when she met the BTSADV founder Kristen Faith last year. When she isn’t working or volunteering in her community, she makes the most of her Colorado life hiking with her dog and spending time with friends.

Where there signs you either didn’t realize were signs or ignored because you were in love?

They say hindsight is 20/20 but I’m still realizing red flags years later. I come from a “broken family” but honestly my parent’s divorce opened my eyes to the abuse my mother endured but kept silent [about]. I was sheltered [from] most of it so I grew up thinking it could never happen to me. The reality is [that] it can happen to anyone no matter how attractive, successful, or financially stable you are. You can miss the signs because you think its passion or how much they love you. Somehow it’s never their fault for the way an abuser treats you; it is that they drank too much or they just feel insecure. It becomes a pattern and a cop out.

How long did you stay with your abuser?

The standard cycle of tension, incident, reconciliation, and calm feels more like a rollercoaster of highs and lows, but it’s all based in control. I’ve been in a few relationships [of] various lengths, but the longest was two years. I got so burned out constantly shrinking myself to avoid conflict. I was actually told “You never told me you couldn’t handle me screaming at you,” as if drunken verbal abuse was excusable but would never escalate. When he found out I was attending Al-Anon meetings to learn how to cope, he was mad because he still refused to acknowledge his addition except to justify the way he treated me.

How did you finally break free?

One guy showed up at my house drunk one afternoon and threatened to burn me out of my home. I moved and blocked him from social media but I just didn’t have the energy to get a restraining order.

It’s always difficult emotionally, socially, financially to walk away, especially when you’ve built a life together. I’ve dated my fair share of guys [who] struggled with addiction and domestic violence themselves so when things escalate they see it as normal. Breaking free is never easy but when it happens, it’s like you can breathe again.

Did you still live in fear after leaving your abuser?

Yes and no, but the statistics are baffling! I highly recommend Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit because it highlights the power structures and layers within society that allow for abuse. She explains that we never frame this as a civil rights or human rights issue but that rape and violence against women around the world is pervasive across race, class, religion, and nationality. The more you read about domestic violence and engage with groups like BTSADV, you find strength through learning and helping others.

Were your family supportive? Did they see the signs?

I love my sister dearly but when I broke up with a boyfriend…[who] had sexually assaulted me…she told me she was disappointed that he wasn’t at breakfast and that I’d made a mistake walking away from the relationship. She didn’t know the extent of the abuse, but honestly that felt worse than the abuse. I felt ashamed and alone.

I never saw myself as a survivor or a victim because I kept it a secret. My last breakup went very differently because my family…knew what I’d been through and why I needed out. They were incredibly supportive but I still struggled to sleep, eat, or take care of myself.

What would you tell others in an abusive relationship?

Always trust your instincts. If you need a plan before you leave, that’s okay. Take your time. I’m bless[ed] that I don’t have children to worry about but know that if you do they are learning what is acceptable.

Know who to trust. Plenty of folks will claim to know what’s best for you. I had a neighbor try to show up at my office to convince me to take my ex back and I later heard her tell my abuser that, while she knew what I’d been through in the past, I was wrong. Friends and family can enable the abuser and create a really toxic environment. It is not incumbent upon the survivor to explain why they left. If someone does open up, treat them with compassion and encourage them to rebuild their lives in healthy ways.

Go easy on yourself. We all fall into these patterns for different reasons and it’s often a series of mitigating circumstances that lead to a perfect storm. I would say to everyone in this world that the signs of emotional, physical, sexual, and financial abuse may not be visible to you. Abusers create conditions for dependence and vulnerabilities to facilitate their control. I started to believe I deserved the way I was treated and self-isolated. Everyone grapples with it differently.

How are healing? Are you journaling, counseling, support groups, or any other ways?

All of it. Every abusive relationship I have been in has always had elements of alcohol or drug addiction that I’ve learned I didn’t cause, I can’t control, and I certainly can’t cure it. I’ve learned that abusers take someone’s secret and make them yours. There is such beauty in the work of Kristen Faith and her partner going to schools, universities, and military bases to talk about what healthy relationships look like. To witness the depth of tenderness, affirmation, and reciprocity in their relationship has been such a blessing.

Someone can break you without laying a hand on you. Everyone should feel safe and loved in their own home. I will always volunteer and donate to this great cause because BTSADV has become a support network for me when I needed it most.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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