June 14th, 2020

Words by Syd Shaw · Artwork by Courtney Knight

The healing comes in small steps, in simply sitting and feeling that I have a room of my own


Mostly when people write about the trauma of gender violence, it's described as one awful, exceptional event or relationship, as though you suddenly fell into the water, but what if you’re swimming through it your whole life? 

Rebecca Solnit, "Recollections of My Non-Existence" 


I have a shelter now, though that wasn’t always the case. I spent most of last year the way many of us are spending our lives now: trapped in an apartment in a constant state of fear. For me, the threat came from inside the house. I walked on eggshells around him from day one, cooking and cleaning and doing everything I could to make the one-bedroom apartment feel like my own. It hadn’t begun that way, of course: In the beginning he was kind and charming, overly confident that it would all work out. I had just graduated from college, and when he suggested moving in together, it seemed like the perfect antidote to my lack of direction, a sort of storybook romance. It was seamless for the first few weeks, but once our families had met and the lease was signed, once our lives were too entwined for either one of us to escape, he changed. I thought at first that he was morphing into a different person, though I realize now that the charm was a cover; his true self was cruel, more horror than romance. I left him and returned, then left and returned again. 


When he was away on an errand, I would sit in my same little corner, waiting for his return with bile rising in my stomach. If the dog barked, he screamed at me. If the house wasn’t spotless, he called me worthless. When I went out with friends, he called the police to report me missing, determined to know where I was at all times. When I was with him in public, I never took my eyes off him, had to respectfully wait for his permission to speak, because to speak to a stranger equated to cheating on him. It didn’t matter whether it was a waitress, an acquaintance, or a passenger on the train: He kept me within a bubble where he could mediate every interaction I had with the outside world. Every time this barrier was removed, he saw it as a threat. It was a mark of how worn down I was that I never questioned this. I hated the person I had become, the person I had let him turn me into. I worried that this was my true self and became trapped in the idea that we deserved each other, if only to spare the rest of the world our evil. Now I see the ways he manipulated me, and realize how he set me up to blame myself. 


Virginia Woolf understood the inherent threat in a lack of space, the fear that women experienced while writing furtively in drawing rooms, constantly looking over their shoulders to make sure the coast was clear. In her essay, “A Room of One’s Own”, she argues that without their own space, women were not free to create. The inhibitions of the material world weighed on their right to self-expression. Her focus was not on domestic violence, but the everyday demands of the household which left little time for anything else, and a lack of privacy, which constrained women’s creativity. In abusive situations, the pressure is increased. “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out,” Woolf writes, “and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.” Indeed, it’s a circle of hell familiar to many, but one that can’t be fully explained if you haven’t been there. Woolf’s “locking in”, in this case, is a metaphor for the adherence to gender roles, but her words resonate even in a different context. Back then, I still wrote, though none of it was good. I kept scattered diary entries, deleted paragraphs he might disapprove of, hid bits and pieces of poetry in journals and along the bottom of mundane documents, hiding my most intimate thoughts in folders labelled “cover letters” and “winter college essays.” When I read these over now, I see that a painful desperation permeates every word. The one coherent metaphor is that of a selkie, “who burned her own pelt to remain on the land.” I blamed myself for staying, and pushed friends and family further away. 


I thought I had no right to survive that winter. We had adopted a dog that fall, a brown-and-white spotted mutt named Jace. For two weeks, my ex bragged about what an excellent dog trainer he was. Two weeks later, when Jace was still barking and not yet potty-trained, my ex demanded that I give the dog up, so I did. With Jace gone the days began to blend into each other. I was depressed without knowing what depression was, so when he called me crazy I believed him. Again and again, he threw bottles at me and I swept up the glass and blamed myself. 


By then, I had stopped going outside because it simply wasn’t worth the fight. I had gained weight, something he talked about mercilessly, and spent most of my time in front of the television. When he left for work I was able to breathe more easily. I broke out in hives nearly all the time, and apologized for everything from talking too loudly to not having dinner on the table immediately after returning home from a full day at my job. Eventually, I missed work because of him so many times that they fired me. 


“I am going to throw myself onto the third rail,” I told the cats one morning, and they stared back unblinkingly as only cats can. I wrapped myself in warm clothes, wanting my last walk to the station to be comfortable. Allie, the kitten, sat in the window. I remember turning back for him, taking my coat off with deliberation. “If he finds me gone he will probably give my cat away,” I thought. So I stayed.


A month later, I left him for good and took the cats with me. This time, I had a foolproof plan, a friend’s place to stay at, a plane ticket to get us all out of Chicago for good. I packed everything I owned into a storage unit during the few hours he was at work. I still dream about that morning sometimes, the way I threw everything into cardboard boxes and watched the clock. I left behind the things that belonged to both of us equally because I feared his anger. My getaway ride was five minutes late and I stood in the hall, eating a breakfast of dollar ramen and looking at the time, half expecting him to come home early, my phone already buzzing with his anger at unanswered texts from that morning. I hid at a friends’ house while he and his family took turns calling me, cajoling at first and then threatening. Two days later, I got on a plane to California and vowed never to be trapped again; the next time I settled down, I would have a space that was truly my own.  


I didn't expect anything to come easily after my escape, but the second the veil lifted the pain in my shoulders went away and I started listening to my own music again. Writing came easily, too, and then going on walks, and visiting friends without feeling guilty. It was a recovery, a bringing back of limbs long atrophied, a renewal of confidence, friendship, and connection. Leaving was like waking up from a long nightmare. A year has slipped by and even now the memories are hazy. I don’t recall most of my day-to-day life with him, but I remember the tension and sometimes find myself still lingering in the past during those soft moments between wakefulness and sleep, failing to remember that the danger isn’t real anymore. 


Even now, I sometimes don't think I am supposed to be alive. And the silence of the world, the repetition of the days, seems to confirm it. This year is my life inside-out; sometimes it feels as if the ugliness that built up inside our old apartment has seeped out into the rest of the world. I am no longer the only one who feels trapped. For some, this confinement is actively dangerous; sheltering in place can only be done when the shelter is there. Law enforcement officials across the country have reported an increase in domestic abuse calls since the start of quarantine and domestic violence shelters are struggling to accommodate victims without inadvertently allowing the virus to spread. A WHO report specifically notes that “violence against women tends to increase during every type of emergency, including epidemics.” On Longreads, a story-sharing site, one woman writes: “One might think this is a personal story, a tiny domestic tale of a woman and her weak and violent husband, but once you’ve been pushed down this manhole, you meet the others." And it’s true: There are hundreds of these stories all over the internet, occupying the liminal space between personal and universal. All echo the sentiments of being trapped, but by forces within the home as opposed to without. 


In my new life, I am so happy it feels selfish. I take our new dog for walks in the morning and we are quiet and peaceful, with the feeling of being very small and very alive. We walk through the canyon near my home while listening to the frogs and peacocks. California feels like all the warm summers I dreamt of last year. Even as I feel safe for the first time in months, I worry for my family and friends every day. I wear my face mask while walking. I think, bitterly, that I was lucky to experience domestic violence and COVID-19 in that sequence; I cannot imagine the lives of those who are dealing with both right now. 


The healing comes in small steps, in simply sitting and feeling that I have a room of my own, in not jumping a mile when someone leans over my shoulder. Sometimes I catch myself crying when my current boyfriend is kind to me: every word of praise or reassuring touch is something which many expect, but it is an act of kindness, an expression of love, that I will never again take for granted. Some days the pain of the world seems so omnipresent, so natural, that it's easy to slip into thinking I deserve to suffer too. But there is no such thing as deserving something, I think sometimes. Or, better yet, if there is, then we all deserve to have peace. With the light coming through the kitchen windows in soft golden lines, the frogs croaking in the creek over the chorus of the birds. With the splendour of sunrise walks and the comfort of soft clothes and warm coffee, I find that every morning it gets easier to feel grateful for being alive.

Syd Shaw is a writer and poet from Los Angeles. Her passions include witchcraft, 80s pop music, and long distance running. You can follow them on Instagram or Twitter @sidlantro

Courtney Knight studied illustration in Boston, MA and now lives in Portland, OR. She is interested in comedy, short poems,  word play, and exploring intimacy