Hi, my name is Tara Victoria. This is a story about a chapter of my life that broke me wide open in some of the most painful ways, allowing me to rebuild a stronger version of myself.

I think about the night I could’ve lost my life a lot. I’ve played that moment over in my head a hundred times. It’s easy to think about the ‘what-if’s’ and to imagine all the different scenarios that could have happened instead of the one that did. The hardest part to accept is that it all could have ended that night by someone else’s hands, someone that I thought I could trust. That’s the part I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully process, regardless of how much therapy, time, or conversations pass by. I know I won’t think about it as often as I have, but I wonder if it will always be there in the back of my head. If 20 years from now out of nowhere, on a sleepless night, it’ll play like an old movie clip and I’ll still question: what if?

It is one of the hardest things to admit that you’re in an abusive relationship. Not only because it’s a hard pill to swallow that another human being could be capable of those things, but because the minute you name your reality, you have to make decisions on what to do next. What seems so simple–questioning whether to stay or leave–can be one of the hardest, scariest, and most traumatic decisions to make. Sometimes, you’re literally risking your life.

In the summer of 2016, I packed up my life and moved to Altanta, Georgia with a man I thought I was in love with and a life I thought I desperately wanted…or was convinced I wanted. But instead of the life I thought I’d be living, it was the most controlling, abusive, and unsafe environment. The situation became one where we worked and lived together, so everything from our finances to my appearance were controlled by him. Everything (and I mean everything) was controlled by him. My work, my dream of being a Designer, quickly became a nightmare. It was used against me and I felt like a prisoner. My insecurities were through the roof, I hated myself, I questioned my reality on a daily basis, but the severity of the ups and downs had me lost in a daze. I quickly became a shell of the woman I am, doing anything I possibly could to survive and to try to keep the peace. I had no idea what gaslighting or trauma bonding were, and was only lightly familiar with forms of emotional abuse from my childhood. I couldn’t see what was happening in front of me. I was completely isolated, away from family and friends, in a city where I didn’t know many people, and every phone call or text message were at risk of being overheard or read. I denied, made excuses for him, and honestly, didn’t want to believe this was my reality. I am also someone who has struggled with severe anxiety since I was very young, so second guessing myself already came so easily. It’s almost second nature with anxiety, then throw psychological abuse into the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. 

In the past, I had told myself that “if any man ever laid a hand on me, I was gone.” And then it happened. Psychological abuse can take you so far down, it can blind you to reality so badly that you truly believe someone else physically abusing you was your fault. And so it was my fault, every single time. The last time it happened shook me to my core because, had it gone any differently, I might not have survived. I remember trying to sleep for weeks after with it repaying in my head every time I closed my eyes. It was my subconscious trying to wake me up and to bring myself back to safety. I couldn’t understand how or why or what made me so bad, so unlovable. I didn’t understand why I made him so angry. I just wanted to be good, feel happiness, and be loved. But I was always set up to fail, I could never do the “right” thing. 

I wavered so much before I made any decision to leave, even after things got physical. I had a friend back in Canada who knew tiny pieces of what was going on, but I kept so much from them. I was so far gone, I could barely explain what was happening, but they picked up on things and gently tried to nudge me back to reality. I remember the day they told me they thought I was being gaslit. I had no idea what that meant. So I did a little research, but then things got “good” again(what I know now to be the cycle of trauma bonding). I’d push the thought of it away, convincing myself: “there’s no way he’s doing that to me.” Then things would get bad again and I would read on, stealing as many moments away from him as I could. I’d read after he’d fallen asleep or I’d pretend I needed to use the washroom, just to sit on the bathtub reading my phone. I was so afraid to admit the truth. I doubted myself, I doubted my reality every single day. I felt like I was losing my mind and I knew I needed a neutral third party to confirm what I, deep down, already knew was true. Enter the amazing and incredible therapist that found me and played a massive role in saving my life. 

Initial visits with therapists are typically download sessions, but I felt a sense of urgency in every minute I had with her because I didn’t know how many times I’d be allowed back. I spoke for a little bit about what was going on, but I still kept the physical abuse to myself. I was too afraid to admit it. I remember telling her that I felt like I was losing my mind, that I felt like reality was so far away and I didn’t know what the truth was. I didn’t know what to do, how to unfreeze the fear, or how I could ever get anything right. She looked me right in the eyes and said “that’s because you’ve been being gaslit for two years.” That was all I needed. It sunk in: my new reality. All of the distortions became a little bit clearer. But then I knew I had to make a decision. 

The next few weeks were a living nightmare, even more so than the last two years had been. I was constantly afraid, paranoid beyond belief, and at the same time I felt a level of pain I didn’t know you could feel. I was supposed to build a life with this person, how could this be happening? I knew the answers would come, but my priority was getting to safety. Because my family lived in a different country and I had no where to go in Atlanta that was safe from him, my amazing Mother came to my rescue. My Mom flew in and her, my friend, and I packed up what we could and got my dogs ready to go. My Mom and I flew out the next morning. 

I left the life I had spent two years building with six suitcases, my dogs, and more lessons than I ever thought I’d learn. But the learning had only just begun. 

I have spent the last two years untangling my life to rebuild it. Rebuilding has looked like attending a domestic violence group, therapy, EMDR, energy work, being diagnosed with PTSD from the trauma, grieving, and healing. This chapter of my life holds a lot of pain and trauma, but in those things, I’ve found purpose and unimaginable joy. It’s been my greatest teacher. I’ve learned that the healing process is not linear and it also has no timeline. Often times I think about how this has broken me open in the hardest, but best ways. I can look back knowing how far I’ve come and continue to go every single day. 

If I could sum up the most important things my story with abuse has taught me, it would be strength and resilience. I’ve heard it said that you’re at your strongest at the start of an abusive relationship, then it slowly depletes from there until you’re at your weakest when you leave. Maybe that belief is why people think victims stay (to which I’d counter that they’ve never heard of trauma bonding). I believe it’s the opposite. You’re at your weakest at the start, then all the tiny cuts, all the hurt and pain, build scar tissue–much like weightlifting–until you’re strong enough to name your truth and leave. You’re at your strongest at the end when you choose yourself and leave because that, in my opinion, takes the most strength to do.

Out of my pain and through the process of healing, I’ve been able to reconnect with my purpose: creating art. I’ve been able to connect with people on a new level of empathy and understanding. I’ve seen the positive impact of sharing my story with others. I knew that I wanted to create something out of this, but I wasn’t sure what. I wanted to help others right away as soon as I got home, but I was quickly reminded that you can’t pour from an empty cup. I needed to heal and take care of myself first. My friend, Nicole Meline, said it best to me, exactly as I needed to hear it: “teach from your scars, not from your wounds.” So maybe they’re all not scars yet, but I’m in a place where I can look back on this time in a very different light than before when it was so raw. One where it’s not all about my anger and hurt, and more about my growth, lessons, and healing. Out of those things, I’m working on launching You are the Wolf–an apparel brand that will serve as a reminder of the strength we all have inside of us. Apparel that acts as conversation starters to spark connection and community around healing, trauma, abuse, struggles, mental health, growth, and a reminder that you are not alone. 

So whatever you’re struggling with, whatever you’ve been through, whatever mistakes you’ve made, know that healing is possible, pain is temporary, and that you’re not alone in this weird life. We’re all just trying to figure out as we go. Be proud of your scars, but do not let your pain define you. You are more than your pain. Remember that you’re stronger than you think. You deserve to be loved and most importantly: to feel safe. Your story matters, your experiences matter, your feelings matter, and you matter. Never forget that.

“I believe your tragedies, your losses, your sorrows, your hurt happen for you not to you. And I bless the thing that broke you down and cracked you open because the world needs you open.” – Rebecca Campbell

With so much love and gratitude,

Tara Victoria

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