Sarafina Bianco is an abuse survivor turned author and advocate. The House on Sunset, her memoir, was released in October. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and three dogs. She’s a featured writer at The Good Men Project and The Flounce. Follow her on her blog at SarafinaBianco.com and on Twitter @FinaBianco, where she hosts #domesticviolencechat every Monday evening at 9pm EST.
He still haunts me, five years after I drove home clutching shattered pieces of myself. Grasping the steering wheel as though letting go would suck me back into him, away from the truth.
He tried to kill me.
After I pulled myself out of the basement and packed all I could before he returned, I drove to my abandoned house, away from my abuser and the life we had together.
I flashed to moments of happiness. His smile as he pulled me against his body for breathless kisses. The way the sun reflected against his five o’clock shadow when he turned from me to laugh. His daughter’s hands tugging me away from her dad when she thought he had stolen enough of my time.
Then, just as she’d guide me toward her bedroom to color another princess, he’d pull me back by my belt loop. “I love you, gorgeous.”
The honking next to me shook me back. I pulled the car from the center of Highway 61, swerving in and out of lanes and memories. I knew fantasizing about the good wouldn’t bring it back. Neither would turning around.
But I didn’t know it would take me five years to recover. Five years for my PTSD symptoms, the loud panic, to quiet and let me breathe.
The truth about abuse is the hurt doesn’t leave when you do. The aftermath is haunting, leaving even more emptiness. The reminders echo and throb behind your eyes.
When I realized I couldn’t heal without help, I turned to words. That’s when my blog was born: a tiny place online to bleed out the wounds of my past.
And then therapy.
“Tell me where you want to be in six months,” my therapist said on our first visit.
I laughed until I was panting. What she said wasn’t funny, but I couldn’t decide between strawberry or grape jelly on my English muffin. How could I possibly answer her?
“Alive,” I said. “I just want to be alive again.”
My therapist always gave me a crooked smile and tilted her head, but she wasn’t condescending; she was curious. She wanted me to tell her whatever I felt, so my answer, though not good enough for me, was exactly what she sought.
“I think we can handle that,” she said, placing her hands on an unopened notebook atop her skinny thighs.
It’s been three years since we had that conversation. I wore a V-neck tank top and frayed jean shorts that day. I didn’t fix my hair because I wanted my outward appearance to match what was happening inside. And even though I couldn’t answer her question to my satisfaction, I knew my life depended on showing up to see her once a week.
The nightmare ended, but memories creep in. His hands reach past the fourth wall and wake me in sweaty sheets. Sometimes I dream he moves into the house across the street from us. The one with the yellow shutters that glow when the sun sets. I see him there, my abuser, painting them black while he stares across the street at me, hoping I’ll come over. The paint drips onto the red brick while he’s begging me to reengage like he did so many times before. My husband, the first man to stick around and help me through my symptoms, sits up when I do.
“He isn’t here, Fina. You’ve got this. And I have you.”
His warmth soothed, instead of burned like the heat of my dreams; A safe earthquake. In the early stages of our relationship, I laid awake next to him as he yawned and chattered in his sleep. I needed to see him at his most vulnerable before I could give him mine. Therapy helped me weaken my fears. I’m not scared of the obscure anymore. My husband isn’t really another monster. Eventually, I began trusting him with the broken places. I forgot about the corners where the debris hadn’t been cleaned.
Now I’m able to settle back into him instead of the anxiety. He holds me, unapologetic and kind, but only when I need it. Most of the time, I can survive on my own.
I haven’t stopped talking about what happened to me in the house on Sunset, but it’s not because I haven’t healed. It’s because other women like me need to know they’re not alone.
The ghosts of my past will never completely cross over. That’s a reality I have to live with as a survivor of domestic violence. In loving my abuser with my whole heart, I left part of it behind. He took from me the belief that abusers aren’t real. And then, after I realized scary people do exist, I had to relearn there is more good in this world than devastation. Somewhere in the middle, I found myself standing in the chaos, sweeping up the mess of sadness and rebuilding.
That’s when I learned about survivor strength. How those of us who fell pick ourselves up because we don’t have a choice. But then we reach out to others, our hands trembling from exhaustion, and lift each other from the hell we’ve seen. We step into other people’s darkness to see their shutters being painted, and we turn them away from it, back toward the sun.
Sharing terrifying places frees your soul from the darkness. Life isn’t pretty, but ugliness makes the good reverberate longer. When you leave, trauma ends. You start to heal, maybe even feel, for the first time.
Only then can we know we’re alive.
Photo credit: “One More Day Ends” by Navaneeth KN is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.