From fear to contentment

I woodenly scanned the words on the page. When I told the counselor that I felt numb after recently leaving a brutal abuser, she gave me a handout listing an array of possible feelings. The only familiar word was fear; fear at the abuser finding and killing me or my family. Her handout reassured me, at least I’m not her only numb client.

Six years later, I look at that same handout and recognize the full range of emotions and subtle variations I now experience, including my favorite: contentment.

Wikipedia describes contentment as satisfaction drawn from being at ease in one’s situation, body, and mind.

While in an abusive relationship, I sometimes glimpsed happiness, but never drew satisfaction from my situation. Dread for the other shoe to drop followed each happy moment. I was resigned to my situation – so utterly sleep-deprived, addled, and dissociated, that alternatives seemed impossible.

A deteriorating situation pierced my fog, particularly when the abuser’s death threats escalated and when on the day of my mother’s funeral, he demanded that I stop grieving and reapply myself to my duties. As they say, something snapped, and I fled in the middle of the night with a garbage sack of clothes. That’s how I ended up in a counselor’s office studying a list of feelings.

While trapped in abuse, I felt I had no choice to leave. Now, I think of it differently, that I had a choice, but believed the consequences of leaving were unsurvivable. Leaving might mean going into hiding and possibly never again seeing the people and places I loved; or disclosing that I (a supposed feminist) had tolerated brutal abuse for decades; or admitting that friends and family were right about the abuser; or recognizing that I could not save another person; or feeling responsible if the abuser followed through on his threats of suicide.

I accepted that I couldn’t control the consequences when I left for the fifth and final time. To my surprise, the world didn’t end. So, I proved that I had a choice in the situation after all. My eventual recovery from victimhood depended on me embracing the concept of free will. If I had a choice in leaving the abuser, I also have a choice to avoid future abuse. I don’t want to think of myself as an innocent star approaching the giant, powerful black hole of an abuser. The concept of self-determination empowers me.

If someone were to now tell me that I am a victim, I would instinctively turn around, curious as to whom they were speaking.

I am not impervious to abuse, but I don’t think anyone is. From what I’ve learned about military escape and evasion training and the human psyche, I believe that anyone will break if subjected to enough abuse over time. To protect myself from abuse, I remain alert to people who control others through abuse and maintain my distance. I recognize my advantages as an American with clearly defined individual liberties, which I’m prepared to assert. My choices to avoid abusers have consequences, but I happily own them.

Contentment doesn’t come from fulfilling what we want, but realizing how much we already have. When regrets about yesterday and fears for tomorrow fade, the ease of the present emerges. I had the power of choice when trapped in abuse; I just didn’t know it. Now that I realize what I already have, my contentment is deep.

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