Why I Stayed
By Roxy Burkhart
As a survivor of domestic and sexual violence, I am always struggling with one central idea. This idea can seem so simple to those who are not experiencing abuse, and yet so complicated to those who are.
Why did I stay?
If you have read my previous blog post, "The Blurred Line of Abuse", the signs seem so clear as to why my relationship was an abusive one. However, during my relationship, those signs weren’t so obvious to me.
So, let’s talk about what happened and why I stayed. The first thing that comes to mind is fear. Fear that everything he said he would do to me, would come true. Fear, that the constant barrage of threats and intimidation would become a reality. This especially came into play when I started saying or doing things that made him think I was going to leave him. He always said, “If you leave me, I will kill myself.” He often threatened suicide and every time he did, it caused the most paralyzing and intense fear I had ever experienced in my life. He would say things like, “If you leave me, I will not be able to live anymore.” Or “You do not understand, I cannot live without you, it is not possible, I will not make it.” Although some of these phrases weren’t direct threats against his life, I knew what he meant. In his direct approaches, he would send me pictures of his gun, his knife or a bottle of pills with a text that read, “This is going to be your fault, you will have killed me.” These threats are what kept me with him for so long. I was fully convinced that if I left him, he would end up killing himself and that responsibility would land on me. When you care for someone and love someone hearing them say these words can be terrifying. Also, what resources could I turn to? I didn’t know what to do or how to get help for something like that. What person would feel okay leaving their relationship if that was the possible outcome? I sure didn’t, so I stayed. I stayed for years.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a great resource if you or someone you know if in need of help.
Another reason I stayed was his sexual abuse. Yes, I am going to go there. The manipulation and control he used when it came to sex made me even more petrified to leave. Strangulation during his assaults were very common. Restricting access to birth control methods was normal in our relationship. Sending pictures and videos was something he forced me to do. When I say forced, that came in a wide range of tactics like manipulation, blackmail and threats of violence. He would then use them as a threat when he was nervous I’d leave. The mere thought of that content being shared with others sent me into complete panic. The sexual abuse I endured from him only seemed to add another shackle that prevented me from leaving.
I also stayed for another important reason and it is important to recognize. I stayed because I didn’t realize that what I was experiencing was abuse. Yes, I knew it was wrong and it was scary, but I didn’t know it was abuse. I just thought that he was a passionate person. I didn’t fall in love with a man who abused me right away. I fell in love with a man who showed up unexpectedly with flowers, a man who told me he refused to look at any other woman in the room because I was the most beautiful one there and the only one he had eyes for. I fell in love with a man who swept me off my feet, but ended up throwing me right to the ground. I didn’t see his control tactics for what they were. I saw him as a protective man. He justified his behaviors by shifting the blame onto me. This is also known as gas lighting. For example, he would become enraged and throw things, he would scream, fight, and grab me if I even looked or interacted with another man, because he had me convinced that if I made eye contact with another man, it meant that I did not love him as much as he loved me. He believed that it meant I would cheat on him. Because of that, I kept my eyes down and didn’t talk to people. He convinced me that when he showed up at my work, it meant he was being supportive. When he followed me from one place to the next, he convinced me that he was making sure I was protected and arrived safely. If I mentioned that I didn’t want him to show up, he thought I was hiding something; he thought I didn’t love him or appreciate his efforts. Abusers will often minimize their behaviors and make the victim feel as if they are to blame. My abuser was good at this. He used abusive tactics, then blamed me for them. Since the blurred line of what is and what isn’t abuse can be very complicated, I stayed. I stayed, because he made me believe that our arguments, fights, and the fact that he was upset was all my fault. He convinced me that I was the one who needed to change. He made me feel like I needed to be a better girlfriend. Not the other way around.
Years later, after I left that relationship, I was blessed to pursue the career of Victim Advocate at Canyon Creek Services. Here, I was able to help and support survivors of domestic and sexual violence. I will never forget when I came across something called the Lethality Assessment Protocol or (LAP) during one of my first trainings. This tool is used by law enforcement and advocates to assess a person’s lethality in the relationship they are in. The LAP is used across the nation and has helped to save the lives of countless survivors. From a survivor’s perspective, the LAP was my wake-up call. The series of 11 questions in the LAP asks questions like, “Has he ever threatened you with a weapon?” “Has he ever tried to choke you?” and “Has he ever threatened to kill you? Essentially, the more questions that are answered yes, the more lethal the situation is. I will never forget how I felt the first time I read the assessment. I remember reading over the questions and being able to answer yes to 10 out of 11 of them. The only reason I couldn’t answer yes to all of them, was because one of the questions applied only to parents, which I was not. A lump in my throat grew instantly and I felt like I couldn’t speak a single word no matter how hard I tried. It was like a shock-wave. Here is this tool I am now supposed to use to gauge a survivors lethality and to help them create a safety plan around their situation and I realize that I am one of those who could have seriously benefited from this assessment. As I read the questions, I realized that it was a list of things that my abuser would do almost on a daily basis. I remember the moment I realized that my relationship with him was abusive. I realized that I was lucky to have made it out alive.
I share this with you, because that was my moment, but it was only my moment because I was receiving an educational training on what abuse was. If I hadn’t received that formal training, I may have never made it to that conclusion. This was the moment that things connected for me and I realized the situation I had been in was a very bad one. This happened YEARS after I left.
So, if you have a friend or family member in an abusive relationship, don’t ask them, “Why don’t you just leave?” I guarantee that they are experiencing a world of things that prevent them from doing so. Imagine if children were involved or financial limitations? Or maybe they don’t even recognize that their relationship is, in fact, abusive. Supporting survivors in their choices, experiences, and journey is so important. In my previous post, I mentioned that one major factor that helped me leave safely was my support network. My close friends who didn’t judge or criticize me, who I will forever have the deepest gratitude for, are part of the reason I am here today. Those friends never said to me, why don’t you just leave? Instead, they said I am concerned for your safety, I am scared for you, and how can I help? Be that friend or that support for someone who needs it. Say things like, “I am here for you,” “That sounds really scary,” “There is help available,“ and “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
If I can end on one note, it would be that through my experience with abuse, I wish I had known more. I wish I would have been educated as a child and a teen on what healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationships look like. I wish someone would have talked to me about consent and boundaries. I’m not saying that if I would have had that knowledge, I would’ve been completely protected from his violence, but I think I would have had a better chance at advocating for myself and recognizing the signs way sooner. My job today as the Awareness and Prevention Director of Canyon Creek Services is to educate people about domestic and sexual violence. I get to talk to the youth in our community about healthy relationships and it is so rewarding. Our youth are bright, smart, and powerful humans with so much to say. I am often times blown away with how compassionate they are. We need to continue to provide them with the tools they need to navigate the darkness and violence in our world.
So, talk with them about consent, boundaries and healthy relationships. If you see an abusive behavior in a movie you’re watching, hit pause and have a conversation. I guarantee your child will thank you later.