It took me five years to finally escape from my abusive relationship. And this one word did it.
Five years. That's how long it took for me to wake up.
Five years of being a b*tch. Of being an idiot. Of being too embarrassingly fat or ugly to be seen with in public. Of getting in trouble from chewing my food the wrong way. Of tripping in the hallway and being ridiculed because, after all, "Who does that?"
Five years of marriage and it was always my fault.
I was never enough. There was always something I needed to do better. There was always something I need to be more of in order to be enough — or maybe enough to make my husband stop abusing me.
I sat alone and cried for two hours straight on our first married Christmas. He sat downstairs, ignoring me. I was too boring for him so he wasn't going to let me ruin his holiday.
I cried and cried and cried and cried. How did I get here, into this abusive relationship? How could I have let this happen? How could I have been so dumb?
After one year of marriage, I had a mental breakdown. Panic attacks every twenty to thirty minutes for 48 hours straight.
I could sleep, if only my heartbeat would quiet down, but the constant thud thud thud thud in my ears boomed and my chest shook with every beat as I lay awake thinking to myself, "This is it. I'm dying."
I was terrified. His home was my prison. He didn't speak to me for three days because I needed to be punished for going crazy.
I thought he was my rescuer. My fixer. My savior. And he left me all alone. I was too afraid to tell anyone else about my anxiety, about my marriage.
No one would rescue me so I needed to rescue myself.
Six months of anxiety. That's how long it took me to realize that his words didn't define me. That my self-esteem didn't rely on what anyone said about me — what they liked or didn't like, what they wanted or didn't want, what I was and what I never would be.
Growing up in a conservative Christian home, divorce was next to murder. Admitting to having marital struggles in the first year was common but it's not something you talk about while you're in the midst of it.
People can't handle that. They can only handle stories of redemption packaged with pretty bows. Not stories in the midst of the shit storm.
"It's not grounds for divorce. It's grounds for separation. If he had an affair, that would be a different story," my counselor told me.
How could this not be grounds for divorce? How could a constant barrage of control and manipulation, verbal abuse, and emotional abuse not justify divorce? How could I be stuck for the rest of my life?
I just wanted out but I was determined to make it work. I was determined to someday have a healthy home and if I couldn't leave him, then I would make him change. It would be a miracle and I was set on seeing it to completion.
But the years went on and he drifted further and further and further away. He acknowledged the abuse and said he'd get better, over and over and over again. So I held out for him.
He'd be nice to be for a week and then he'd relapse. As time went on, the "nice" times became more and more brief. Kinds words for twenty minutes. If I didn't seem grateful enough or repay him sexually, then the barrage would begin again.
Against all reason, I stayed.
I saw happy couples and resisted the urge to punch them. I ran into men in the grocery store who treated me better than my own husband and a little voice inside of me whispered, "You could do better. You really could be loved."
I hushed the voice, put my head down, and I moved on. This was my lot. This was my cross to bear. This was the thorn in my side. This was punishment for my own foolishness. And I harbored it all as silently as I could, pressing through the pain, shaking off the insult and plastering on smiles through tear-filled eyes.
At four and a half years, my best friend pulled me aside. "You have to get out," she said. How did she even know? Was it that obvious?
In that moment, I didn't even feel shame at his actions being exposed. I felt a tiny glimmer of hope. I reached for that glimmer and ran, but he snatched it away.
"I promise I'll change. For real this time. You can't leave. Just give me one more chance."
So I did. And one more chance turned into six more months of chances, of abuse and of lies.
Two weeks after our fifth wedding anniversary, I sat on the phone with my best friend and she told me it was time. I knew it. I knew it was. I knew I had to take the leap, put myself on the line, and get out.
With tears streaming down my face, I knew that this was my ticket to freedom. I just never knew the amount of bravery it would take to get there.
And so, with bags in hand. I took the first step. It was the most terrifying and courageous step I have taken in my entire life, but it gave me the strength to take the next step.
And this time, when he said, "Give me one more chance. I promise," I looked back on those five years. Abuse. Lies. Shame. Five years of his prison.
And that's when I looked him in the eye, mustering all the guts within me said the one word that flung open my cage and changed the course of my life: No.