Survival mode changes the way you think. Domestic violence creates survival thinking.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Raising awareness about a serious issue that grows in the darkness behind closed doors is lifesaving. The first part of awareness might be understanding the mind and behavior of a victim. It isn't what you think it is.
I will never forget the day. It was a the kind of bright Autumn day that only happens in story books. My neighbor and I were enjoying a glass of wine on her deck when she spilled it. “Lisa, there’s something I want to talk to you about.”
My son had taken a road trip to see a football game with another neighbor the previous weekend. On that trip he told them the man we were living with was abusive to me. Diane had been nominated by the collective neighbor group to talk to me. I didn’t even take a breath before angrily denying it. Either the neighbors had misinterpreted what they’d heard and embellished to spread gossip or my son had lied flat out because he didn’t like my boyfriend.
I faked rage. On the inside I was dying from shame. I wasn’t that kind of woman, or at least I didn’t want to believe I was. At the time I was actually on the board of the local domestic violence agency working hard on fundraising to build a shelter. From the outside everything looked just fine. However, on the inside, and to people close to me, it was obvious looks were deceiving.
I’ve done some things in my life I’m not proud of. But one of the things I’m most ashamed of was going home that day and telling my 16 year old son never to talk to anyone about our business again. I forbid him from spending time with anyone in our neighborhood. I shamed him for speaking up.
Within a couple of weeks of meeting Scott I knew I was in a dangerous situation. Frankly, I was afraid someone would end up dead, however, my original concern was that Scott was suicidal. I can’t tell you why I continued to relationship when the early warning signs were more like hurricane warnings. I can tell you why I stayed in as time progressed though. I was afraid I wouldn’t get out alive.
Scott was volatile. He was unpredictable. He was by all measures mentally unstable. That may have been part of the original draw. I thought he needed me. I thought I was the opposite of everything that was wrong with him. I thought I could help. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line everything I believed about myself changed.
Scott never once hit me. He was violent in many other ways. But he somehow magically knew that in my mind it wasn’t domestic violence if I wasn’t being struck. Violence wasn’t his biggest weapon anyway. It was fear and control. He threatened to kill both myself and my son. He threatened to destroy my friends. He threatened suicide countless times and I wished almost daily he would make good on that threat.
Scott had a mantra he repeated so many times I began to just believe it. “No one will ever help you.” I had evidence to support that fact. On three separate occasions law enforcement agencies were involved and did nothing. The first time I managed to escape my house during a fight and get to my car. He however, got to the car before I could pull away. I drove to the local police station sobbing and he sat in the passenger seat while went in to report him. They ascertained the “fight” had started at my home outside the city limits so it was out of their jurisdiction. They told me to contact the sheriff’s department. When I went back to the car alone, he laughed.
The second time he was caught dragging me across a parking lot at a casino by my hair. Security called police. When I left that scene I believed he was being arrested. He wasn’t. Two hours later he showed up at home.
The third time my son called because Scott wouldn’t let me leave my bedroom. When the Deputies arrived he met them in the driveway to talk man to man. Before they left they found his handgun in a drawer and left it there while they were looking for his car keys. They tossed him his keys and told him to take a drive and cool off. They left the gun.
This was my life for 767 days. During that time I denied there was a problem every time I was confronted. Looking back it seems obvious I was lying to my friends, family, neighbors, and myself. However, when I was in it, it wasn’t that clear.
It wasn’t just denial and shame. I wasn’t in victim mentality. I was in survival mode and survival mode is a very different animal. Survival instinct creates a physiological state that isn’t intended to last 767 days. It’s intended to be temporary, short bouts of fight, flight, or freeze. I’d come to the conclusion I’d die leaving so I had to make staying work at any cost. Truth of the matter is many women do die trying to leave.
The reason I am sharing this story is this. If you know someone who you think is at risk in a domestic violence situation, or if you are someone who is, it’s important to understand how domestic violence affects the victim. Being in high alert survival mode for an extended period of time affects the way a person thinks. Your ability to reason and be rational breaks down. Logic fails.You spend all your waking hours trying to avoid the next outburst or episode. You become exhausted. You become numb. You become a shell.
You can’t expect a person who is a victim of domestic abuse to act how might be considered normal by someone else. A victim of ongoing violence isn’t in a normal situation. They can’t be expected to behave, react, or feel the way other people do. Their brains won’t allow them to. Women do not stay in violent relationships because they are victims. They stay because they are in survival and you can’t understand that unless you’ve experienced it.
There are no easy answers. There’s no one way out. That said, people do survive, heal, and thrive. Where is there is fear and confusion there is also a lot of hope and possibility. That possibility begins with understanding.
The last time I saw Scott he was holding me and my son at gunpoint. In the end a judge granted me a five year restraining order. At five years and two weeks he called my place of business. He wanted my address so he could send me money he said he thought he owed me. He told me he couldn’t move on without my forgiveness.
I told him that I’d forgiven him long ago, but that if he ever came near me again I’d have him arrested, or kill him and I meant every word of it. I haven’t spoken to him since.
Lisa Hayes is a Relationship Coach and Author of How to Escape from Relationship Hell and the Passion Plan. She is also co-founder of Good Vibe Coaching Academy, specializing in LOA Coach training. To get Lisa's FREE Audio, "How to Talk to a Man" Click here.