What I wish I knew before I left
By: Amy Thomson
Right now, someone who is being abused has reached their breaking point. They want to leave. It’s quite possible that they’ve tried to break free before, but they just know they need to get out before they get broken anymore. Or worse than they already are.
Maybe right now that person is you.
Let me say before I go any further that I don’t have to personally know you to hurt for you. I was once where you find yourself now, and I felt like I had nowhere to go. I felt like the weight of the world was bearing down on me and suffocating me to the point that I’d disappear and no one would even know that I was gone. Perhaps the worst part was that I blamed myself for what was happening to me, and I thought no one would believe if I tried to tell them I was being abused.
If I could, I would reach in and pull you (and your children and/or pets) out to safety, but it’s ultimately you who must make the final choice to leave. Many of us leave during an emergency or with little or no safety and recovery plan in place. We do not always know what steps to take or what questions to ask when we leave.
Leaving will be one of the hardest choices you will ever make, but it will also be the most important choice you will ever make.
There are several things you need to know to make this transition as complete and safe as possible.
Above all else, you need to know that it is not your fault, and no matter how hard you try to love them or adapt your behavior, you cannot make your abuser stop hurting you. You are not alone, and there are people out here who will believe you, support you and help you. You deserve to be safe and loved.
You are valuable.
You have purpose.
You have courage beyond measure.
Before You Leave
It is important that you do not alert your abuser to your intention to leave. Even if they have never been physically violent with you before, you do not know how they will react. Abusers do not like to lose the control they have, and being told that you are planning to leave increases your risk. They should not suspect your plans.
If possible, you should document the abuse that is occurring. This can include pictures of injuries, recordings, texts, voicemails or emails that include verbal and emotional abuse, damaged items and clothing. These should be kept outside of your home with someone you trust.
When there are opportunities, gather important items into a bag you can take with you on a moment’s notice. Many of us do not have safe hiding places in the home with the abuser, so it will be safer for you to keep some of the following items in a bag with someone you trust.
- Extra set of car and house keys
- Medications, immunization records
- Checkbook, credit cards (if you can get them safely) or cash
- Documents like driver’s license, insurance cards, passport, social security card, birth certificate (and those of your children if you have kids) and any other legal documents you may have that will help prove identity, relationship to the abuser and financial resources
- A list of important contact numbers (friends, family, medical, school and local DV organizations)
- Change of clothes and basic toiletries
The list of items may make sense to you now, but when you’re in a high stress situation (like getting ready to leave), it will be easy to forget. A way to help prevent this is to contact a domestic violence organization to have a customized safety plan done (You can also create a safety plan to help minimize risk while still with your abuser). The safety plan will not only provide checklists of important items you need to bring with you, it will also help you come up with plans of action for helping your children know what to do in an emergency, places you can go, who you need to call and who needs to be notified in case you are hurt.
After You Leave
You should be aware that any electronics and email and social media accounts you have can be used by your abuser to track you. It is important that you get a new cell phone, have your laptop cleaned if you manage to bring it, in addition to changing all passwords and PINs so the abuser cannot access any of your accounts.
Whether you have the abuser charged is your choice, but think through the consequences carefully. Not doing so can reduce your options later if you attempt to apply for financial assistance through a crime victims office in your state. It will also affect the type of protective order you can get and the duration of time you can be protected by the order.
When I left, because of personal circumstances I did not have my ex arrested. In my state, this automatically meant I was only eligible for a one year order through family court. Once it expired, it could not be renewed or extended. I was pretty much told that I had to wait for him to come after me before I could petition for a new order. Make sure to ask your advocate about the differences between a family court order and a criminal order. Had I known this, I would have taken the risk and had my ex arrested.
Another note, because not all orders automatically include provisions for “no third-party contact,” you will need to request the judge to add this stipulation in addition to confidentiality of all your contact information. If you do not, when the order is served, your address will be printed on the abuser’s copy. Once you receive the order, you should make copies: one for the glovebox, your bag, work, congregation, your child(ren)’s school, doctors – everywhere you normally would be. It should always be accessible as sometimes the court electronic system is not up-to-date.
Taking Care of You
On a more personal note, with so many “technical” things to remember, it’s imperative that you do not neglect your emotional health and self-care. The previous information is important to help protect your physical safety, but you will need to face and work through the trauma that you have been subjected to. It is common to feel anger, grief, sadness, confusion, shame and a sense of failure after leaving an abusive relationship. There are ways to get help so you do not become suffocated by those feelings.
You should, as soon as possible after leaving, connect with a counselor who specializes in domestic violence and trauma as well as locate any survivor support groups that may be in your area. Trained counselors will be able to help you and your child(ren) understand the dynamics behind what happened. In addition, they will be able to help you work through the trauma, provide coping and self-care tools to help you navigate the hurt and help you develop and repair family relationships that may have been cut off during abuse.
You are strong, but emotional trauma is not something you can work through on your own or just forget about as though it never happened. When we neglect to confront and work through the trauma, it will manifest in other ways. It is common for survivors of abuse to develop post traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, depression, migraines, anxiety and other health conditions resulting from the abuse. Also, if we do not take care of our emotional health, the trauma can seep in and erode relationships with our family and friends.
It can be uncomfortable baring our vulnerability to another person after being abused, but a professional, caring therapist will help you work through that so you can develop trust, find your balance and begin your journey to healing.
For those of you reading this who may be thinking about leaving an abusive relationship, you deserve to be treated with respect and genuinely loved. No matter what you’ve been told by your abuser, you are strong, courageous, and bold. You have an amazing heart, and there is life beyond the hurt. If you are ready, you can reach out. Someone will be there to take your hand.