Blades of sharp, wet grass nettled between my bare toes as I stood dumbfounded, supporting my right arm at the elbow, trembling with fear on the mottled, unkempt lawn. The tissue-thin, cotton t-shirt I wore did nothing to protect me from the frigid mist saturating the night air. Trembling turned to convulsive shaking as the pain set in and my mind unravelled.
10pm, the first coherent thought I could pluck out of the shrapnel left behind by a shattered peace.
Move, said a tiny, distant voice.
No, answered my limbs.
You have to get out of the cold, said the tiny voice.
Can’t move, said my limbs.
Builders no longer routinely installed doors as heavy as the one in front of me. There was no weak crack made by cheaper hollow doors. No, this door had to be sealed tight when closed, and then pressed tight again while locking. But he had done it. He’d closed the door so hard that it made that sick, angry sound, followed by the unmistakeable clicking of an old deadbolt.
My keys, another coherent thought. After a minute, the unravelling slowed. Get your keys. Only five steps to the door. The door was still locked and my keys were inside.
Cold and terror had turned my legs into marbled pillars, mottled red and heavy.
The neighbors, another fragment that made some sense. They won’t call the police. Priorities had realigned as I stood frozen in the front yard. Terror had mushroomed and with every blast of blood through my temples, anger mushroomed with it. I seethed. All of the fragments began to coalesce into a single, purposeful thought.
You will not survive this if you stay.
I had watched an intelligent, educated man decompensate before my eyes. I witnessed the physical manifestation of a complete loss of emotional control usually attributed to children under five. I found myself barreling down the mineshaft, dragged along behind the speeding rail car of his rage and I was entirely powerless to stop it.
All I had said was, “I’d rather not go out tonight, if that’s alright.” A perfectly reasonable thing to say.
Within ten minutes, he’d grown so angry that he’d gripped the back of my neck and thrown me out of the front door of our house. I landed with a sickening thud on the concrete stoop, all my weight falling directly onto my right elbow and wrenching my right shoulder. There was no sound, but something came apart. Many somethings came apart.
Go to the neighbors, adrenaline had started to motivate my muscles and they began to move, slowly. My head began to clear and the plan to leave fell neatly into place.
Time passed, but no amount of time would stop the shaking. That would require distance. I knew I had to go back and keep things quiet until I could leave. Wait until he falls asleep, I thought. And he did.
Find your damn keys! I had enough time. It took only minutes to gather a blanket, my pets and some pants. I got in my car and made my way to an apartment I’d secretly been keeping for months. I didn’t care that I’d be sleeping on the hard wood floor. I only cared that I was safe. The following morning, I would begin the healing process, both physically and emotionally.
Pain has a way of telescoping our emotions. Each and every time I aggravate or re-injure my shoulder, I become someone else until the pain subsides. I become altered. I can feel myself grappling with it. I am transported back to that cold night and as my shoulder heals again, I crawl back from that helpless moment.
Each time, I am reminded that one night, a long time ago in a fit of rage, a man who claimed to love me tried very hard to hurt me. It had happened before but I had decided that it was not going to happen again. Over the years, I mastered compartmentalizing my feelings. My success at surviving an abusive relationship has had everything to do with remembering that I did not create him and it was not my sickness.
There are many reasons why I was able to leave and eventually move forward. Any counselor can tell you what makes it possible to thrive after that kind of experience. But they should also tell you that not all scars are visible, and how you choose to use yours will define your existence for the rest of your life. They will be part of your new normal; they will occasionally force your altered states.
My altered state is short-tempered, impatient and surly. I abhor that state, so I seek immediate and effective remedies for the pain. I cannot help that for a few moments, when the pain is the worst, I remember that young woman again, seething and helpless. But I draw great satisfaction knowing that I’ll never be her again.