Recovering From Intimate Partner Violence
By Dawn Nickel, SHE RECOVERS Founder | SHE RECOVERS® Foundation
Recovering out loud – in detail – about my past relative to intimate partner violence is new to me. But I am also realizing how important it is to me. And so here I am, hoping that some of what I write is helpful to someone else. I’ll keep writing about it. ~ Dawn Nickel, PhD
My name is Dawn Nickel. I am in recovery from substance use disorder, trauma, mental health issues (almost always anxiety but peppered with depression), and intimate partner violence. I haven’t really shared a lot about the latter because I’ve always thought I had good reasons for being quiet. It was a long time ago (the mid-1980s). My ex-husband (my abuser) is still in our daughters’ lives and I hesitate to remind them of who he was and what he did to me. I was his only target, he was never, ever abusive to either of the girls.
Lately, I’ve been feeling like it’s time I started recovering out loud about this part of my life, especially after watching the Netflix series, Maid.
So here we go.
He was the younger brother of a friend of mine, kind of cute and a little bit charming. He liked cocaine as much as I did, and because his primary occupation at the time was dealing the addictive white powder, we seemed rather perfectly matched. I was a solo mom with a three-year-old daughter and had been trying to moderate my drug and alcohol consumption since before her birth. I had experienced intermittent success with the latter. In retrospect, the main attraction to this man was that he was very kind to my sweet little girl, whose own father was not in her life. She adored him right off the bat, and I loved watching their relationship bloom. He was gentle, patient, and kind with my daughter, always.
When the abuse started after we had been together for about six months, I couldn’t reconcile the two sides of him.
I know now that mental abuse and violence towards inanimate objects are often precursors to physical violence. In our relationship, the first signs of trouble were when he would exhibit wordless, seething anger towards me but never explain what he was angry about. That was a total mind-bender. One evening, we were out at a bar and both of us had quite a bit to drink. Towards the end of the evening, he started giving me glaring, deadly looks and when I asked him what was wrong he refused to tell me. Shortly after he disappeared without a word and about an hour later, I left and went home on my own. When I arrived at our house, he was passed out in bed but the wall in the living room had a hole through it at about eye level and another at foot level, and a wicker trunk that I had treasured for years was kicked to shreds. I remember being paralyzed with fear and confusion but all I could do in the moment was grab a blanket and fall asleep on the couch.
When I asked him what happened the next morning, he told me that he had no idea and acted similarly upset at the damage in our living room. He explained that he knew he had drunk too much and taken a cab home, paid the babysitter and went straight to bed. His explanation was that we must have had a break-in and he expressed relief that neither he or my daughter had been harmed. The unfathomable part of domestic violence is that I believed him. The alternative – that he would have been so out of control – was too frightening for me to comprehend. Life went on for a few more months.
I want to say that drugs and alcohol were always in his system when he raged. When sober, he could be moody and sullen but he only really lost control of himself when he was drinking and the worst he ever got was when he was doing cocaine.
Cocaine is violence-inducing.
The first time he was physically violent towards me was when he thought I was flirting with an old friend at a wedding. I wasn’t. When he started acting out at the wedding, first with the looks and then a few comments, I told him to go home and straighten out. Pregnant with my second daughter, I was stone-cold sober, and I wasn’t in the mood for his nonsense. He left. When I arrived home, sober and nervous, he was sitting at the kitchen table doing lines of coke. I checked on my daughter and went to bed but he decided that I needed to admit that I had been coming on to our friend at the wedding. With every denial of mine, his anger escalated but he knew better than to yell and wake the three-year-old, for some reason. I got out of bed to get away from him and he followed me into the kitchen.
The only place I could go to get away from him was the basement and as I opened the downstairs’ door he shoved me. Miraculously, I didn’t fall too hard because I managed to grab onto the handrail. I can still remember thinking that I couldn’t fall because I was five months pregnant. I also remember being stunned that he had tried to hurl me down the stairs.
That was the time that I learned about the honeymoon period that follows most early intimate partner violence episodes.
Following this episode, he was extremely remorseful. He promised to stop drinking and doing cocaine, and never accuse me, yell at me or shove me again. As with most victims of intimate partner violence, I believed him because I really, really wanted to believe him. As with most honeymoon periods, he couldn’t do enough for me to make up for his bad behavior. Life settled and some months later we welcomed a second, beautiful daughter. We got married when she was three weeks old. He hadn’t done cocaine since the stairs incident but started dealing and using it again just in time for our wedding. Still, life was calm for the most part. Until it wasn’t.
When the baby was about six months old we had to move, and it was a really stressful time. I could not tell you what precipitated the next bout of violence, but predictably – it was worse than the previous. My only recollection was that he had been on a cocaine bender and was once again raging against me. I remember being tripped and thrown to the floor, and then trying to shield my head from his kicks while my four-year old watched and our sweet baby cried from her infant seat. He stopped after just a few minutes and fled the house. My arms and hands had shielded my head relatively well, but a few blows had landed and I did end up with a wicked headache.
And still, I didn’t leave.
The next and last time I was physically assaulted by my husband was when my baby was 18 months old. By then, I had stopped living in fear and was emboldened by the year that had passed without a violent episode. Again, details are fuzzy about what led up to the assault but we were exchanging words and viewpoints about something that we disagreed upon and I was sitting on our living room couch, holding the baby and noticing that he was ramping up with anger. For some reason, I didn’t stop challenging him and he flew across the room toward me and punched me in the forehead so hard that my head ricocheted off the wall behind me.
That time I left. For a month.
Several months later, our marriage in tatters and his cocaine addiction fully blown, he threatened to hit me. As in, he said the words “you better get out because I feel like I’m going to hit you again.” I took my two daughters and went to the local women’s shelter. It was there that an insightful counselor, after taking down my history said to me, “You have to leave. And as long as you keep using substances, you will lack the strength and follow through to leave.”
By this time I had a new resolve. I wanted to leave. I wanted to protect my kids from the insanity that I was living. I couldn’t keep up with the cycle anymore.
Rinse and repeat.
I couldn’t be the mother I needed to be in that marriage and at my deepest level, I knew that I and my daughters deserved more.
It took me several more months and my husband having a psychotic break from cocaine misuse, but I did finally do what I needed to do to leave. I went to residential treatment for my own substance use disorder and before I left treatment I called my husband and said that unless he stopped using all substances and got treatment for his rage, that I was coming home to get the girls and leaving for good. He said he didn’t need help. I kept my word and left him. For good.
I have not drank alcohol or done cocaine since I left that treatment program in August 1987. However, I did smoke a lot of pot for the first two years of my recovery. I have done a lot of therapy around the abuse and I feel healed from it for the most part. In my early recovery I wrote a list of what I wanted in a relationship and a list of what I would not accept in a relationship. No rage, no name-calling, not a hint of physical aggression. I would have put “no gaslighting” on the list if that term was around at the time.
I’m fortunate. When I was ready for another relationship, I found someone who meets all of my relationship criteria. It doesn’t hurt that he is also in long-term recovery. I’m grateful and I’ll probably write about him another time because he is all the things I needed in a relationship that I never knew I needed.
Recovering out loud – in detail – about my past relative to intimate partner violence is new to me. But I am also realizing how important it is to me. And so here I am, hoping that some of what I write is helpful to someone else. I’ll keep writing about it. There is a lot of stigma attached to this sort of violence and I want to help smash that stigma.
If you are experiencing intimate partner violence there are people and organizations ready to support and guide you. We find the following resources helpful in taking the first step:
In the US: https://www.thehotline.org/
We do recover. From the trauma of intimate partner violence.
It’s not easy, but it’s possible.