Why Women Don’t Leave

If I knew  what leaving meant, I probably would have stayed.

I was naive, and I’m glad.  I’m glad that I left and that I’ve been forced to fight, but nobody should have to fight this hard to be believed.

As I walked into the court house yesterday, over three years after leaving, my first step was to check with the information desk to find out what court room my matter was being heard in.   I checked the list and realized that we were scheduled in a small motions room, rather than a full sized court room.

Why does that matter?  Why does the size of the court room matter so much that I’m writing a blog post about it?

I rode the elevator, arrived at the correct floor and met my lawyer.  My anxiety grew and grew as I thought about the room.  I could feel panic starting, my body was tensing, all the preparations I’d done for the day were quickly flying out the window.

I opened the door of the courtroom just a crack and peered inside.

It was as I’d feared.  A small motions room, a large conference table filled the room, with the judge’s dias at one end and a small witness box to the side.  The whole room was not much bigger than an average sized dining room.   A conference table, with 3 chairs along each side, spoke of mediation, settlement, concord, agreement and discussion.

All I could think about was this:

This is the reason why women don’t leave.  Women don’t leave because they don’t want to spend two days, trapped in a tiny court room, sitting face to face with their abuser, unable to speak or move, except on the judge’s schedule.

What could be more triggering for a survivor of violence?  Not only do I have to sit in the room with him, I have to sit in an assigned chair (no choice), I have to sit quietly (I can’t speak),  I can’t stand, move or stretch to ground myself and I have to listen to various people speak about traumatic experiences in my life as if I was not there.   If I react emotionally in any way, he will see me and he will have power over me.  If I cry, he will have power over me.  If I get angry, he will have power over me.   It’s a situation of power and control and lack of options and I have no choice but to stay in it.

Luckily today I have support person with me, otherwise I feel like I wouldn’t even be able to sit in that room.  Every part of me screams NO!  I don’t want to go in there.  I want to rebel!  I want to fight! I want to yell at everyone that this system is unfair, unjust, unhealthy and re-traumatizing.

But that isn’t an option.  Instead, I sit in the room.  I clench my hands together as tightly as I can underneath the table.  My whole body is shaking, as it does as I’m trying desperately to process trauma that is overwhelming me.  I try to tremble in a way that is not noticeable, or could be interpreted as shivering from the cold.  I try to breathe.  I write notes and doodle continuously.    I try to tune out and disassociate enough to be able to stay sitting in the room, but not so much that it’s obvious, or that I can’t stay focused.   I listen to what is being said, but I try to detach myself emotionally from it.  I try to put myself into a frame of mind where I’m observing someone else’s life.  But it doesn’t really work.

As the day wears on, the oxygen in the room starts to disappear.  I feel like I can’t breathe.  I have a harder time sitting still.  My leg starts to shake,.  my body trembles again, almost imperceptibly.   I try to fidget just a little, but in a way that doesn’t come across as anxious.   I start to feel panicky, like I need to run out of the room.  All my muscles start to hurt from holding them tense, from shaking, from sitting still, from being unnatural and on edge for hours at a time.   The time that goes too slowly.  I feel like I’m in a place where I will never escape back to reality.    I’m stuck in court world, no windows, no escape, it’s own set of rules and rituals.  I’m a stranger in a strange land.

And right across the table from me.   Emotionally nonreactive, as if this whole ordeal is uneventful and ordinary, sits my abuser.  Calm and collected and emotionally blunted.   And I feel a sense of confusion.   Who is this stranger?

How did we get here?   It’s a blur of months and years.  It’s a blur of “just get through this next few months.”  It’s a blur of “just keep going for the kids.”  It’s a blur of coping and surviving.

This is why women don’t leave.

Because the process of leaving doesn’t end the day she walks out the door.

Survivors need compassion when they can’t leave because it’s too hard.

They need help to leave because it’s too hard to do alone.

And they need help, patience, compassion and validation long after they leave.  Because the process of leaving can be as traumatic as the relationship itself.   Because it’s too hard to do alone.

Seeing things.


It’s been a difficult week for so many of us, including women and gender non-conforming survivors of sexual violence.  I’m struggling with my PTSD symptoms.

Marian was the only one I could ever talk to about some of my more intense PTSD symptoms.  She was the only person I’ve ever met who I really felt completely understood what I was going through.  I never felt “crazy” when I talked to her.  I could call her, say what happened and every time she would know exactly what I was talking about because she’d experienced it too.

I’ve learned with symptoms of mental illness that there are some things that are more acceptable to talk about, and some things which are more highly stigmatized.  There are some symptoms which almost nobody ever talks about, for fear of being judged or experiencing discrimination or persecution.

In 2016, almost everyone knows someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety or who has issues related to food.  These are things we talk about.

People very rarely talk about suicidal thoughts, self harm, paranoia, delusions and seeing and hearing things that aren’t real.

It’s almost like there is a divide between the mental illness that society accepts and the mental illness that is forced to exist in the closet.

When PTSD is really acting up for me, I see things that aren’t there.

I’ve rarely told anyone about this because I know that most people won’t understand.  Marian understood.  I felt so accepted, like there was at least one other person in the world who experienced seeing things as a symptom of PTSD.

This week, there have been three separate occasions where I’ve “seen” my ex in public places.  It’s so hard to explain how this feels.   The first person was in the food court at the mall.  He had a coat, scarf and haircut similar to my ex, and even though I looked at him and my intellectual mind recognized it wasn’t him, I kept looking back over and over, convinced it was somehow him.  My heart was racing and I felt panicky.   It isn’t just the feeling of mistaking someone else for him.  I actually SEE him, in someone else.  Someone else is replaced by him for that moment and I’m afraid.

This happened again today when I was buying my coffee.  The person didn’t even look like my ex, but he became him for a moment.   My intellectual mind tries to reassure me that what I’m seeing isn’t real, but it feels real.  It happens with cars that look like his too.  Sometimes, I have to check and check again, sure that the car is his, even though intellectually I know it is not.

I’ve had this experience before, in the past, in the years leading up to me leaving my ex.  I would see X sometimes, when I was triggered.  I remember talking to Marian about it.

It’s an unsettling feeling.  Sometimes when I’m very stressed and have been sleeping poorly, I also see tricks of the light which aren’t there.   These experiences are all more illusions than actual hallucinations, but they are still disturbing and they signal to me that my brain is over-stressed, overtired and in need of relief.  My doctor assures me that none of these are psychotic symptoms, but they are symptoms of PTSD.

These experiences of “seeing things” are different that what happens during flashbacks.  They seem to happen just out of the blue when my brain is stressed.

During flashbacks, it also happens that my brain sees something from the past rather than what is in the present.  The person I’m with, “becomes” my abuser, I can’t trust what I’m seeing, my brain is mixing the past and the present into a mash up of confusion.

Nobody really talks about these things.  As a survivor it can be very isolating and it can make me afraid to speak out about the symptoms.  Sometimes I don’t know what is more terrifying: feeling crazy or worrying that people will perceive me as crazy.   I know, intellectually, somewhere deep inside, that I’m not actually crazy.  My brain is coping with trauma and it is doing what it needs to do to survive.  Sometimes this coping mimics, looks like, and produces symptoms of mental illness.  But often the symptoms are my brain letting me know that I need to reduce my stress.  If I don’t listen to the early warning signals, my brain escalates to more dramatic signals like suicidal thoughts and seeing things.

Learning to listen to my own inner voice is part of the healing journey.

Essentially,  I think society needs to talk about these stigmatized symptoms of PTSD and mental illness.  I think we need to break down the misconceptions and the misinformation and realize that for the most part, folks are just doing the best they can to cope.   When you are living it, all mental illness is terrifying.  It’s just a matter of degrees.  Sometimes the fear of stigma is what keeps people silent and stops them from reaching out for help.   Talking openly and without judgment heals.

I sometimes see things, but if Marian could understand, maybe you can to.

Everything in my life was preparing me for this.


January 5, 2016

A night I will never forget.

One symptom of obsessive compulsive disorders is strange intrusive thoughts that are worrying or scary, but not particularly realistic or likely to happen.  I have quite a number of these strange thoughts, which I rarely share with others.  I worry that people will think I’m crazy or bizarre, and I feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit them.   One of my OCD recurring thoughts involves a terrible fear that while I’m driving someone will step out in front of my car, or push someone in front of my car, or a car around me.  Essentially, that I will unintentionally kill someone with my car or witness someone being hit by a car and dying.

I think of it whenever I drive and I’m often quite vigilant, keeping an eye on pedestrians and looking carefully at people on curbs, bicycles and around blind corners.  Generally this level of hyper vigilance is unpleasant, stressful and unnecessary.  I get startled easily when I drive, especially when my PTSD is triggered. I’m very alert, and in reality,  I’m a very safe driver.

That night, my OCD saved a life.

I was supposed to be at a work meeting, but instead I was driving down a busy road in the city where I live.  It was dark, rush hour, and I was heading to a meeting with my lawyer.  I was driving over a bridge which crosses over a railway track when I saw the thing my OCD brain had been looking for for years.

There was a young woman standing on the edge of the railing.  Clinging onto it, in a shaky, desperate way.  A young woman about to jump to potential death.  A young suicidal woman.

I slammed on the brakes, ignoring the traffic, jumped out of the car into the cold winter night and walked very slowly towards the young woman.

My internal dialogue went something like this:

If this woman jumps to her death you are going to witness it.  You are going to be traumatized and you are going to be impacted by witnessing her death.  This is going to be awful.   But you have to try to help her, you can’t do nothing.  You have all the skills you need to help her.  You have the training, you have the work experience, you have the life experience, you are the only one here and this is the only chance she has.  You have to try. You can do this.”

All that happened in the split second it took for me to walk closer enough to speak to her.

She was crying, shaking, trembling and balanced just barely on the railing.  Sometimes holding on, sometimes standing up and trying to let go. I spoke to her gently.  I told her I wasn’t going to call the police.  I told her I was a support worker and that I just wanted to talk to her.  I asked her to step down off the railing just for a moment to talk to me.  I reassured her that I wasn’t going to call anyone or do anything, just talk to her.  I told her my name, I told her where I worked.

She got down from the railing and back onto the railing a few times.  I kept talking to her gently and reassuring her.   Eventually I was standing quite close to her.  I told her that I’d felt suicidal before, that I was sorry she felt SO bad that she wanted to hurt herself, I reminded her that I just wanted to talk to her.   I have no idea how much time went by, but I think it was only a matter of minutes.

Finally she got down and turned towards me.

“I’m cold” she said.

And I knew I’d made the connection.  The immediate danger was over.   We both breathed.  I asked her if she would come with me into my car so we could talk and I could drive her off the bridge.    We walked to the car and as I got into the drivers seat the world reappeared.  I was suddenly aware that my car was blocking a lane of traffic, cars were honking and passing and drivers were annoyed.  I had tuned it out completely and was only aware of the young woman.

I also became aware that literally not one of those cars had stopped, offered to help or called for help.  I felt the desperation of that poor woman, knowing that nobody in the world cared about her.

We sat in the car for a second, shivering and I could see her panic again.

“I’m not supposed to get into the car with strangers”

Luckily, I had my business card and a pamphlet from my workplace in the front seat.  I reassured her that I was just trying to help her and I just wanted to drive her off the bridge so we could talk.  She agreed and we drove down to a gas station which was just a moment away.

We talked for a little while.  I told her a little bit about myself, the work I do helping abused women.  I asked her if what was making her so upset that day had anything to do with that and she nodded.  I asked her if she’d felt that way before and she said yes.  I asked her if there was anywhere I could take her, a friend’s house, the hospital and she said  maybe just to the mall nearby where she could catch the bus.

I could tell the immediacy of the crisis had passed for her.  She seemed exhausted.

I drove her to the parking lot of the mall and we talked a little more.  I invited her to call my organization for help anytime in the future.  I thanked her for trusting me and for coming down from the bridge.  Before she got out of the car she told me:

“If you had been a man, I would have jumped.  If you had called the police I would have jumped”

She thanked me for saving her. I asked her if she would tell me her name.   She said she wasn’t in the habit of getting into the car with people she doesn’t know.  I told her under the circumstances I thought it was the lesser of two evils.  We both laughed for a moment, she hugged me, told me her first name, and then she was gone.

The second the door of the car shut I burst into tears.  My whole body was shaking.  The reaction of shock hit me once she left, and all the fear, tension and emotion of the past 45 minutes washed over me.

But I wasn’t just crying for that young woman.  I knew that I couldn’t control what might happen to her after she left my car.  I knew I’d done my best and that my best had been enough.

I was crying for Darlene, for Irene, for Lexi…and for my dearest Marian.

Why was I there, at that moment, on a bridge with this complete stranger?  But I didn’t get to say goodbye to so many of the friends I loved?

I felt an amazing sense of love and wonder at having saved a life, amazement at the randomness that I was there at that exact time, and that it was me and not someone else.  It didn’t seem random at all.  It seemed like everything that had happened to me in my life had lead me to that exact moment.  Trained me and given me the exact skills I needed to talk that woman off the ledge.   It felt like a moment of spirituality, connection and higher power.

But my sense of wonder in saving that young woman, didn’t erase the sorrow that I wasn’t there to save my friends.  Or even to say goodbye.  They are gone now, but I hope that woman from the bridge is still okay.