I usually try to polish my raw emotions in these posts. Post eloquent words. Piece stories and analogies together to sound sweeter and easier to digest for the reader. Allowing someone to peer into my past life, into my inner most thoughts, but carefully dissected and only through a filter. Through asking myself, what makes this more palatable? How can I illustrate my experience without making my readers uncomfortable? Tonight, we won’t be doing any of that. Life is hard. Life is messy. Life can just fucking suck sometimes. And that is what ebbs and flows. The grit of our lives, the shame, the guilt, those raw experiences are what web us together as humans. They’re what create a foundation of deep relationships and understanding. And they need to be shared without fear of someone being offended or made to feel uncomfortable.
[Tonight, will come with a trigger warning. A warning for those who have dealt specifically with sexual assault and rape, with gaslighting and manipulation and with domestic abuse as a general term. Tonight, we’re going to talk about the trauma head on, and the recovery process. There will be flashbacks and flash forward moments to the present day. No names are used in this or precise locations to keep anonymity.]
I walked into my dorm room after my Women’s Studies lecture and collapsed on the floor. My body tried holding me up, but it couldn’t. I sobbed harder than I have ever sobbed before. I cried out to God – to anyone who would listen. To this day, I am amazed my dormmates didn’t report me. And honestly, I was hoping they would. It was a literal cry for help. After a good hour of tears and stifled sobs, my heart started having stabbing pain in it. Pain I had never felt before. It felt like a piece of it was literally ripping apart. In that moment, I finally understood what people meant when they said you can die from a broken heart. I drug my lifeless body into my bed. I stared. It was light outside when I started, and it was dark when I came back to. I have never been so close to taking my own life. I started packing my things, looking around, and getting ready to admit myself to the psych ward at Michigan. It was around 10pm at this point. I was terrified of the stigma. I was terrified of the blemish on my record. After all, I needed a security clearance when this was all said and done. Ultimately, I put my purse down and sat back down in my bed. I stared at the wall and went to sleep. I look back on that night, sad that my former self was more worried about the stigma associated with what the government would think of her, rather than getting life support. This night, I knew that nothing could repair my marriage. Nothing could fix another human being who was so incredibly broken at their core. Nothing could erase the pain I knew was coming. No amount of rationalizing or therapy could prepare me for having to face headfirst the trauma I experienced in my marriage. The pieces of our relationship that weren’t shown through our highlight reels of social media. The pieces of our life that I covered up and smiled over. The reason I was usually quiet when our friends would come over. The reason I hated when my husband would drink. The reason I was the codependent buzz kill.
The filth that overtakes your entire body when you find out your partner has cheated, is something indescribable. After the first affair, I took 6 showers in a row. No amount of scrubbing or washing could take off the feeling my body had. The visions I kept seeing of her naked body. The visions of what was said – not only sexually but about me. When asked by the married sailor why he hadn’t divorced me yet, he cold heartedly replied, “I’m only with her to pay off my student loans.” “Don’t worry, it will happen.” I found this affair right after we moved to our duty station in Washington. This was one of the first times that shame was given a plot to grow. Shame that my partner cheated. Shame of how I would tell my parents that my partner didn’t want me enough to stay faithful. Shame that my marriage would be over after 2 measly years. Shame that everyone who warned us about getting married young would be vindicated. Shame, shame, shame.
This was also the first time I ever felt fear in my relationship. After he admitted to everything I found – and only after showing the insurmountable evidence against him – I tried to find refuge in the downstairs bathroom of our town house. He broke the door in to get to me. The desperation in both his voice and actions was terrifying. I never understood what domestic violence could feel like until I was put in a situation of fight or flight. I should have reported, I should have packed my suitcase and left, I should have moved on. But I didn’t. And coming to terms with the fact that I chose not to, is hard. I chose to allow someone to treat me in this way. I chose it. I covered up the dirt under the rug and moved on. I fell for his alligator tears. This was the beginning of my new assumed title, “the fixer.” This was the beginning of years of testing the waters; seeing how much I could take before I truly broke. No one warned me the beginning is the easiest, even though you break the hardest.
That night we had one of our closest friends come over from across the Puget Sound. She had to take a ferry and drive over 2 hours to see us, and I still felt like the bad person having him ask her to go home. I wanted so badly to smile through it and not let on that anything was wrong, but life doesn’t work that way. I told him the only way I would stay is if we could talk to a Chaplain that evening. In the navy there are not really ‘counselors’ available to Sailors in the traditional sense as they are to civilians. We go to Chaplains – the ship’s religious workers – and hope for non-biased advice. We met this particular one at the Chapel on Bangor. He seemed a bit annoyed but willing to help. After taking us both into a conference room separately, he brought us back together. He made sure to give us ‘advice’ which generally consisted of needing to build trust again. One thing he said will always stick with me, “you need to have boundaries, but you can’t treat him like a slave” – referring, of course, to me making sure I’m not too hard on what I require him to do to build back the trust. The person who was cheated on, lied to, and had their vows broken, was supposed to not ask too much of her spouse. Assuming this was because he had traditionalist views, the woman was supposed to submit to the man and his needs. Not go too far in anything, not be too much of a troublemaker, not exist in such a way that was inconvenient for her partner to have to conform to. After that he told us we should sleep naked together so that the chemicals in our skin would form a deeper bond (WHAT). If anyone is wondering why issues are allowed to fester in the military community, why few report domestic violence or sexual assault – look no further. There is never a just resolution. You are not believed, given the benefit of the doubt or supported more than the abuser. You are expected to come second to the service member in every single aspect of your life even when trauma exists. I’m here to tell you: this. is. not. okay.
This brings a larger issue at hand: spouses in the military community and the bias placed against us before we even say ‘I do.’ Some will call me a dependa, some will roll their eyes, some will quit reading. There is a saying in the navy, ‘if the military wanted you to have a wife, they would’ve issued it to you with your seabag.’ You only need to google images and type in ‘dependa’ to see the stigma associated with the military spouse. We are expected to never use the joint income, never go to the commissary and God forbid purchase food on the first of the month. We are expected to never watch too much TV or eat a certain kind of food at the expense of our weight – because we are all overweight slobs if we do. We’re expected to maintain our bodies, but we can’t get in too good of shape because if we do we’re obviously only doing it to cheat on our spouse while they’re at sea (watch that innocently left out broom on the door step or misplaced laundry detergent in the window). We are expected to have jobs, but not be too successful to where we can’t be a good mom for the kids. We’re expected to take care of the home, but not as a stay at home mom. We’re expected to keep the home fires burning while they’re deployed, but if you dare tell your sailor the truth of an issue going on at home, you’re unpatriotic and a distraction to the mission (anyone else given the 3-day rule by the CO?). We are expected to report sexual assault and domestic violence, as there is reading material and tear off numbers available in every public bathroom on base, but we are career ruiners if we do. Do you see where I’m going with this? As a spouse you are purely a civilian, but you are a civilian with an exceptional standard to live up to while living an exceptionally unordinary life. This is what needs to be recognized and fixed at a deeply systemic place before pushing us off on fleet and family services, expecting that to be enough. *Deep breath, channels my inner Jack Nicholson and chants gooooosfraba* End rant.
A few years later, I uncovered more affairs. And more. And more. I do not know the true number to this day, as I personally found out about eight on my own. Experts generally say with narcissistic personalities, the number is at least three times what you know about. The beautifully twisted way the mind of a narcissist works is to devalue you in the process of their own self inflation. Each and every person he had an affair with, was the exact opposite of me. I pride myself in pursuing a strong career. In providing for my family. In setting goals and achieving them. In reaching new heights and trying to pull others up along with me. He specifically chose females who exemplified and amplified my own physical insecurities. As if the weight of an affair wasn’t enough pain to experience, the knife was poisoned with the acknowledgement of picking painfully thin brunettes; so the visuals would not only cut me because of another woman being touched, but that he was touching a woman that I could never be. To leave me with such a sense of worthlessness physically, that I would always stay. Because who would want me, right? Who would want someone whose partner wouldn’t even touch her. This is grade A manipulation, and grade A bullshit, ladies. The trauma bond we’re put under over years of abuse lies to us. It says we’re not worthy. It gives us evidence like being seemingly unlovable to the person we love the most. This has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their own broken souls. You might be wondering what would make someone stay through this sort of devaluation? That honeymoon stage gets you every. single. time. And with each affair, it gets more intense. I can only compare it to needing a bigger high every time you use. You need it. You crave it. It’s the only thing to keep you hanging on.
I remember pulling up to my home for the first time in April of 2018. My neighbors watching from their yard while I toured with my realtor, Shianna. She had handpicked this house for me and was elated to show me around. I was in shock when I walked through the door. The entire time I kept telling myself there is no WAY we are going to outbid someone else on this. Absolutely no way. It was our dream home. And the master bedroom was my sanctuary. I had moved ahead to Florida to make a home for us and this was finally it. I painstakingly sifted through the giant stack of paperwork for not only me, but signing for my partner as his POA. I couldn’t wait to get the keys in my hand. I lovingly worked my way through the home, putting my touches on it. Spending hours in HomeGoods and my favorite little boutique called Cottage by the Sea, picking out things that would fit perfectly. Specific pieces that had meaning to us, to the places we’ve lived and the life we were building together. I even finally had the exact bed I wanted. You know – the ones that move up and down that you spend way too much money on? – that one. My partner came home for the first time and I could not wait to show him around his new house. The place we would make a family, the place we would finally be able to put down roots. He loved it. After suffering from a miscarriage the week prior, this was a welcomed distraction.
Immediately after he arrive to our house, it was time for our vacation. That transfer time between duty stations is the sweetest spot outside homecoming. It’s a time to just be. Just exist in time with your spouse. Enjoy the little moments free from worry and unsolicited calls from the ship. We used this time to see family and travel down the entire East Coast. We took professional photos for our 7th wedding anniversary with the same photographer we had gotten married with – the same one who did my senior portraits ten years prior. We had incredible experiences at places like Niagara Falls, New York and Boston. We had just left the North End in Boston and arrived back at our hotel, the Constitution. While eating our cannoli in bed (don’t judge), he started complaining about UTI symptoms. Having had one before I knew how uncomfortable they were and started searching where we could go. I found a military care facility which he declined saying he didn’t want to ruin our trip by going there. We went to the closest CVS in the morning and got some pain relief for him. Interestingly enough, it didn’t work. I kept telling him we should just go to a medicenter and get it taken care of since we still had days of travel ahead. He refused saying he needed to go to a military facility.
After getting home and being at his station where two medical facilities were, he went to a Walgreens. Oh, the hypocrisy. The manipulation factor in receiving care alone – how he was crafting an excuse to avoid this ending up on his military health record – shows how gaslighting exists at every level of a relationship. He came home and told me that there were two possibilities of what it could be. Me thinking the worst possible scenario was something terrible – webMD would definitely tell me he was dying here. He said it was either a UTI or an STI. When I tell you the betrayal and anger that flushed over me. I spent the night googling every single possible STI there was that matched his symptoms. It turned out to be chlamydia. If you don’t know anything about this, like I didn’t, it’s something you can only get through sexual contact. Something that presents exactly like an UTI and something that you will give to any sexual partners you may have. It’s luckily cured with two pills but the shame surrounding your partner giving it to you is indescribable. I went to the furthest medicenter I could find in our town. Having to ask for an STI test while showing your military ID is a level of embarrassment you can’t imagine. The look those women gave me is etched in my memory. Having to tell the doctor you’re recovering from a miscarriage but need an STI test, was an experience that I can only explain as a deep, deep violation of my body. A violation of not only trust, but my own bodily autonomy.
I remember him coming into the office and standing in the doorway with his alligator tears. Those alligator tears came out every single time he cheated. They were their own brand of manipulation. He knew this time was different. He knew he had earned the title of not just adulterer, but an adulterer who gave his spouse an STI while she was recovering from a miscarriage. That he cheated on his pregnant spouse. A new level of low for him. And he knew it from my response. I truly do not believe he understands or has the capacity to understand true empathy. He can mirror it, but when the cue isn’t presented, it is absent entirely. This was the first time I chose to ignore him. I comically told him he ‘needed Jesus because he’s the only one who can help you now.’ I immediately took back consent. I immediately built a wall around myself to protect myself. How could I plan an exit? How could I make sure I legally and ethically split our assets. How could he still make a house payment without my income? A to-do list of how to protect myself became the distraction of the moment.
After speaking with our marriage counselor, I committed to a year of therapy. A year of him showing up to me and our marriage. A year of trying to build trust – of him getting help for his obvious sexual addiction and building up his own self worth to know he was worthy of love. I had been in therapy for anxiety and had been doing my own shadow work every single week, so I knew the value behind these sessions. I had a plan. I knew if we stuck to the plan, we would have an outcome. I live my life around plans. Plan A, B and all the rest. Call it control, I call it survival.
We went out to a bar at the beach for a date night one Friday. It was a rare occasion when I would drink, as I was usually the DD and okay with that. This night I wanted to drink a little bit and have some fun. After a few rounds, we went to this little place that the locals go to, where they make the most amazing and delicious beignets. Some people have taco bell, I had puffy donuts as my drunk food. I only really remember this because I sent an embarrassing video to one of my friends yelling about how good they were.
I remember being in bed after that and going in and out. I remember my assaulter being on top of me and having sex with me. I remember how heavy my arms felt and knowing I didn’t want this. I was not in a state where I could push him off or form a coherent sentence. But he kept going. Knowing I revoked consent. Knowing I was inebriated. Knowing if I was sober and conscious, I would absolutely not be okay with this. Knowing I was vulnerable but going in for the kill anyways. That was his MO. I asked him why he did that in the morning, he just looked at me and said “I don’t know.”
The deep roots that take place in a trauma bond situation are beyond words. Even if I had recognized this moment for what it was, for what was to come, for the precedent it set, I don’t even think I would’ve been ready to leave in that moment. I still saw the good in him. I saw the face he gave to family, to friends. I saw the goodness in his heart. After all I’ve experienced since being out of that marriage, I know now this was just a façade. The person I thought I loved was a made-up character in my mind.
Flash forward a few months and a similar experience happened again. After I left, it took me over 9 months to be able to sleep without anything behind me. To be able to face the wall and have nothing protecting me. I thought I should be able to just move on. I should be able to put mind over matter and go the fuck to sleep. Curiously enough, trauma doesn’t work that way. It’s not something that is logical. It puts you exactly back into the time you were first experiencing it and makes it come to life again. Every time I fell asleep, I would have flash backs to waking up to being raped. Waking up to someone violating me and betraying me in the deepest sense of the words. When you specifically take consent away from someone, when you try to piece together what little bit of autonomy you have left over your own body and someone deliberately violates that, then lies about it – there are no words that can express what that does to you.
The irony of having a security system and still being unable to keep yourself safe is a sad reality for trauma survivors. Having all the tools that society tells you will keep you safe. That nothing will hurt you if you follow steps 1-3. The loss of your own sense of safety after trauma is one of the hardest things to cope with and one of the longest lasting impacts. I still suffer from obsessive compulsive tendencies surrounding personal security. It goes back to barricading my bedroom door after the rape, so I knew no one could come into my room. So that I knew, when I was my most vulnerable, I did everything I could to be safe. I remember when I took the IKEA tv stand we had in our bedroom and pulled it until it was in front of the bedroom door. Hoping the weight of shoddy plywood and a big tv would stop something. What it would stop, I didn’t know. This wasn’t the logical brain working here, it was a pure survival mechanism. It felt like a biological instinct kicking in preparing for the worst scenario. I would sleep with my phone right next to me and my dog snuggled directly next to my bed.
After that night, my bedroom was no longer a sanctuary. It felt like a prison. When you lose complete trust in a person your mind does strange things. It goes to the deepest depths of your fears and brings them to life. It creates nightmares that mimic your waking experiences. The despair, the terror, the insecurity you feel. It all comes to life at night and takes a hold of your day when you wake up. The recovery from trauma is sometimes even harder than the trauma itself. It forces you to relive those experiences. It forces you to scrutinize the tiniest details to make sense and provide order to your thoughts. And it forces you to actively override your learned survival traits. So, if you’re reading this and you’re going through the depths of hurt right now, know that it does get better. You can live an amazing, impactful and passion filled life. You can be free of your hurt and the hurt of another’s broken parts. If I could have seen a snapshot of where I am now when I was contemplating leaving, it would have changed my life. Please, take a page from my book, learn from my lesson and do what is right for you. Speak your truth. Speak your truth through the gaslighting. Speak your truth to what you experienced. It is the best way I found to truly validate to yourself what you went through. And from there, healing begins. There are so many of us out here who can share in your pain, and so many wonderful, safe counselors who can help you. I’m not a therapist, I’m not a professional, I can only speak from my own experience and my own view point. Please reach out for help, there are so many people who love and support you, and want to see your pain turned into power.
If you need resources, here are some wonderful organizations who can help you now or in the future.
thehotline.org, womenshealth.gov, liveyourdream.org, ncadv.org. safehorizon.org ❤