Vodka Yonic features a rotating cast of women and nonbinary writers from around the world sharing stories that are alternately humorous, sobering, intellectual, erotic, religious or painfully personal. You never know what you’ll find in this column, but we hope this potent mix of stories encourages conversation.
I’d love to say my relationship wasn’t always abusive, but there were red flags from the beginning. You know the story: Girl meets boy in a Nashville bar and falls for his potential. When she’s lost in the hinterlands of the honeymoon phase, he drops his mask. In hindsight, I want to shake her and scream: If it feels wrong, that’s because it is.
Fast-forward more than a decade to the night I left him. For more than six terrifying hours, his behavior grew so erratic that I eventually tried to block my bedroom door with a dresser. The night ended with me, shoeless in the front yard, sweating through my pajamas as a police officer asked if my partner had hit me. Flashing lights illuminated the tears on my cheeks as I tried to find a way to distill nearly 13 years of emotional abuse to an all-male group of officers. “No, but he’s abusive in so many other ways.”
“What do you want us to do about that, ma’am?” the officer asked. The others waited for answers I didn’t have. “Maybe you should leave,” he said. When the officers looked at me, wild-eyed and shaking with adrenaline, and then at my abuser — or at least at the affable, composed image he presented — I wondered if I looked like the problem. That perception was my second-biggest fear. The first was that he’d snap and kill me.
At one point I thought no one could’ve predicted this outcome. Now I’m not so sure. A mutual friend recently alleged that my ex abused the woman he dated before me. “We all thought he’d changed when he met you,” the friend said. Then it hit me: If the abuse didn’t start with me, it might not end with me either. But what am I supposed to do about that? Would the next woman believe me if I warned her? It’s hard to imagine why someone wouldn’t run from a man determined to set your world on fire. Most people don’t realize that by the time everyone else smells smoke, you’ve already watched the most important parts of yourself burn.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t sound the alarm, the answer is simple. I stayed because it really was that bad. No matter how privileged my circumstances — I had access to money, support and a trauma therapist — I couldn’t leave without risking everything, including my life. He designed it that way. Less than one year into our relationship — which was emotionally, financially and at times physically abusive — my life had shrunk to a point where it no longer felt like my own.
By the time my partner and I were married, his love had become a shock collar, and his rules were the electric fence. I learned to make myself small to fit into the tiniest of enclosures — one filled with fear, shame and, as we celebrated double-digit anniversaries, debilitating complex PTSD. While you’re busy building a life with an abuser, he’s working behind the scenes to ensure that you can’t survive without him. Even if I had the energy to devise an escape plan, I couldn’t drive away in my car (which was in his name). I couldn’t access our savings (also in his name). I couldn’t withdraw a cent from our joint checking without him noticing. By the time I was quarantining with my abuser, I was desperate to escape.
But he promised he’d get better. He logged hours in therapy and fed me just enough remorse to get me to stay. It wasn’t enough to sustain me, but it could be if I learned to need less. We agreed that was my fatal flaw: I expected too much from him. Once I realized how far I’d sunk to suit him, it seemed impossible to dig my way out. When the abuse escalated (as it does) — when he exploited my insecurities, humiliated me, choked the dog, picked at my deepest wounds and insisted I forget his transgressions because it wasn’t fair to keep punishing him — he showed me glimpses of the “good guy” I fell for over PBR tallboys. For a girl who learned early on that love is something that’s earned if you can make yourself easy, a person like that can feel like home. When I questioned that dynamic, safety was hard to find. I put several states between us, but it only takes a Wi-Fi connection to intimidate someone, especially if he’s maintained a spreadsheet of your usernames and passwords.
All of this lives in my blood like an invisible illness. How can we hold abusers accountable? Even if you believe women — even if you believe me — whatever are you going to do about that? Would you unfollow him in real life? Would that be enough to hold him accountable? Laws addressing the coercive control abusers use to entrap partners have been proposed from California to the U.K., but even if I got my day in court, the system wasn’t designed for me. When I lamented the lack of accountability for emotional abusers, my attorney said getting out alive sometimes has to be enough. It isn’t. Almost a year post-divorce, I still cannot fall asleep with an unlocked bedroom door. If my ex taught me anything, it’s that even when you leave, your world only feels as safe as your abuser wants it to be.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, you can call Nashville’s Sexual Assault Center (615-259-9055), the 24-Hour Crisis & Support Line (1-866-811-7473) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233).