What Domestic Violence Taught Me About the Importance of Self Care
Early September of 2018 on a Friday night, upon my return home from the yoga studio where I teach, my husband and partner of 15 years, father of my child, love of my life, my best friend in the whole world- was arrested for assaulting me in our home.
Our marriage prior to this had been unraveling, a skein of yarn rolling across the room, the fibers slipping through my grasping fingers, the threads unspooling too fast for me to catch. The hurts we had gathered between us over the recent years had become an insurmountable mountain, it’s peak far past our eyesight in the clouds. Neither of us was equipped to scale it, tunnel through it, or excavate below it to reach one another.
When I arrived home that night, he had been drinking. He wasn’t a big drinker and never had been, so I knew how low his tolerance was. I also knew alcohol didn’t mix well with the medications he was on. I felt the rock in my stomach - the rock that appeared whenever I knew things were about to get bad between us. Words were exchanged. I told him he shouldn’t be drinking. I asked him to leave for the night, to go somewhere else and sober up. I placed a few of his belongings on the back porch, telling him he needed to leave. His anger grew and that rock in my stomach grew heavier, tremors started to pass through my body uncontrollably.
On my way back into the house from the porch, he met me at the door and grabbed me. The basement steps were an ominous dark and steep drop to my right. He stood directly in front of me, blocked my entrance to the kitchen with his arm across my chest. Then he took off his glasses, placed them on the kitchen table, and stepped in my face, nose to nose. I could smell the beer on his breath. I could see his fists trembling at his sides. I looked down at those basement steps and I knew. I just knew. This was how my story ended. It was so crystal clear in my mind. This was how I ended, looking up at him from the bottom of those steps, my body broken, visions of my son flashing through my brain in those final moments of neurons firing.
You hear about these moments in other peoples’ stories. These pivotal moments in one’s life. Maybe you think for a moment, how awful, or would I have chosen the same? But you don’t linger on it too long, because these things, these moments, don’t happen to you. But this moment was mine. And I made a choice; a choice different from all the ones I had made before in many, many years of abuse and pain. I decided my story wouldn’t end that way. I decided my son needed me. I stepped away from my husband, onto the back porch, with my phone in my hand, and I called 911.
The police station was half a mile down the road from our house and the police arrived within moments. My husband was handcuffed and taken to jail while I sat on the front porch shaking uncontrollably, sobbing, trying to bargain with the very kind police officers to not take him to jail, couldn’t we just separate for the night until things calmed down? My heart couldn’t bear the thought of him locked away. I loved him more than I loved myself, and it wasn’t helping my family.
They took him to jail. The cops weren’t having my moment of weakness, they had been called to my house too many times prior by my husband, after incidents of him assaulting me - a common tactic used by abusive men, I later learned. The police never believed him, and they always left my home after issuing me yet another yellow slip of paper stating my rights as a victim of domestic violence, with sadness and resignation in their eyes.
They had seen hundreds of women like me, women unable to make that most difficult choice - to have the man they loved taken away in handcuffs. He was ordered to stay away from me and the house upon his release from jail, where he spent one night. What followed in the next two months is a blur. Legal meetings with a District Attorney. Court dates. Charges. Subpoenas. Words that had never had a place in my life before, terms I had to google to understand. And through all of that, the grief. The pain that brought me to my knees countless times. I remember one particular day, I taught two yoga classes back to back. I smiled for my students, I said all the right words of spirituality and encouragement and hope. And after the last student left, I closed the door, fell to the floor and could not move for thirty minutes straight, literally stricken down by the anguish I felt in every cell in my body.
When you have a small child, you don’t have the luxury of falling to pieces. You have to get off the floor. You have to get out of bed. You have to be functional and not only functional, able to help your child with his pain and grief. You have no choice but to be strong, get up, get dressed, wash your face, wash away the dirt along with your pain, so you can toast a frozen waffle, send him to school with the strongest smile you can manage, a kiss, a hug. You have to get off your knees and work because you and your son need money to eat and a place to live.
I carried on, some moments worse than others, sometimes not allowing myself to feel too deeply. Instead, I focused on the task right in front of me, the phone calls that needed to be made, the lunches to be packed, the laundry to be handled, the yoga classes written, practiced and taught. I reached out for help. I contacted a local nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence. I reached out to my Dad, the only relative I had in the entire state. I leaned on my friends; I accepted their help and even their charity at moments, even when it was agonizing to do so. I worked, I cried, I carried on, somehow. I held on to my son for dear life. I wrapped him in my arms and smelled his hair and I prayed.
Anne Lamott, writer, activist, teacher, enlightened soul, superhero (at least by my definition of superhero) has this to say about self-care: “Radical self-care is quantum and radiates from within you and is a huge gift to the world.”
Self-care has become a term that is trendy, it’s thrown around daily. As a yoga teacher and participating member of the “wellness” community, I talk about it and hear about it every single day. Never an hour goes by without a mention of self-care making its way across my Instagram feed. But this quote from Ms. Lamott resonates with me, to my very bones, after what I have survived. Without taking responsibility for my self-care, my son, who was nine years old at the time and should never have to face such hardship at his age, would have been adrift at sea, with no anchor and no safe shores. How selfish it would of have been for me to succumb, to stay on my knees and wait for the world to right it’s self again. Self-care wasn’t selfish, it was essential. Quantum.
Ok, so self-care is important. But what does it actually mean? For me, in those weeks and months, it meant writing a list of daily tasks and taping it to my vanity mirror. What amazing and life-altering things were on my list? Things like brushing my teeth. Taking my meds and vitamins. Showering. Putting clothes on. Eating. Sitting with my son every day and checking in with him. When we are in survival mode and crisis darkens our every step, self-care may become the most bare-bones of tasks. Things that any normal person under normal circumstances does without thinking, without a list to remind them. But I needed that list. That list helped get me through. I didn’t manage every single thing every day. But I did ok. I survived, and I pulled my son through with me, enveloping him in every ounce of love and security that I could find.
Self-care doesn’t have to be this survival-based. Obviously, mine were extenuating circumstances. Self-care can be bubble baths and chocolate, an hour alone with a book and a glass of wine, a hike through the woods, a perfume you treat yourself with. But I would challenge you to look deeper. These things, while having value, are like using a book as a doorstop. When not in times of crisis and grief, self-care is still essential, still quantum, and it can and should run deep. It’s finding what nourishes your soul and making time for it- and not a little time, not fifteen minutes here or there. How about a whole day spent on this activity that nourishes you? Better yet, a whole weekend? Dare I say, a week?
Yes, I know, we are all so very busy. But what if you chose to not be busy with laundry/ work/outings/weddings/ the gym /grocery shopping...What if you chose to prioritize the things that bring you nourishment, that feed your soul and sustain you? Then, when the ground drops out right from under your feet - which, sweet souls, it inevitably will one day, you will have your own permanent groundwork in place to hold you up. And that groundwork holding YOU up, will enable you to hold up the people around you that depend on you. Your own practice of self-care has far-reaching tendrils that allows you to care for those you love.
So what does deep self-care look like? That depends on you. I believe it begins with self-observation. Sitting with yourself, daily, without distraction. Learning about yourself. What would you do if time /money/circumstances played no role? Start by identifying these things and then break them down into smaller pieces. Perhaps you’d live on a mountain and paint for a living. So get thyself to a dollar store, buy some supplies, and start painting. See what happens. Observe how you feel. Perhaps you love to sing- so sing. Download a karaoke app. Go to your local karaoke bar. Does it make you feel replenished, vital, alive? Perhaps you have to experiment to find what speaks loudest to your innermost heart. Take the time and do the work.
Now go even deeper. Look around you, listen, look, taste, and feel. Tune in to your room, your house, your town, the people in your life, your job, the way you eat, the way you move. How do all these things impact you? What is present in your life that doesn’t nourish you? What needs to be excised? What needs to be added? This is deep soul work and calls for hard decisions, and some losses will be necessary. Self-care is work. If it was easy, everyone would be walking around feeling nourished, content, energized. You have to do the hard stuff. Perhaps the hardest work of all- being still with yourself long enough to learn what you truly need.
This is the work I needed. This deeper self-care. I was forced into it, I had to look at my life, and look hard. I had to practice all the things I was constantly teaching others. Self-observation. I had to ask myself the hard questions. Was I happy? Obviously the abusive marriage was NOT a source of happiness in my life. I had to face that. I loved my husband, I always will. But even the happier times in between the incidents of abuse and fighting weren’t enough anymore to sustain the relationship. How can you practice true self-care when you are only living in between the moments of pain? You simply can’t.
I learned to meditate. Yes, I am a yoga teacher, but I relied on meditation through movement, through the practice of yoga. I never truly learned to sit in stillness and calm my mind, clear my mind. I taught myself how, through books and even iPhone apps, and then I taught my son. This was a tremendous gift of self-care to myself. The ability to calm myself down, to self soothe, was something I had been lacking and is a tremendous tool to have.
I learned to really rely on my friends, and that this is also a form of self-care. Somehow I was lucky enough to be surrounded by some truly beautiful souls who held me, cried with me, and stood by my side. I called the hotline at the nonprofit sometimes multiple times a day, sometimes crying so hard it took me a full five minutes to get my words out while the patient soul on the other end (thank heaven for you) waited with kindness and compassion. Learning how to really lean on other people and take the support offered was crucial to my self-care.
Most importantly. Perhaps most obviously. The most monumental bit of self-care - I had to learn to love myself. Prior to making that 911 call, if someone asked me if I loved myself, I would have said yes. But I didn’t, not truly. Someone that loves herself would not allow herself to be in near-constant emotional pain, sometimes physical pain, because of another person. Sometimes, when I doubt myself, I frame it this way: “If my friend was in this much pain, this woman I love dearly, would I stand for it? Would I not do everything in my power to help her, to ease her pain, to make it stop?”
I loved my husband more than I loved myself. I protected him to my own detriment, to my own pain, for years. This is the real root of self-care - loving yourself. Loving yourself enough to put your needs first sometimes. Loving yourself enough to PROTECT yourself from those who cause you harm, even if it’s family, a friend, a spouse. This has been my biggest lesson. And I plead with you- wherever you currently find yourself, in your life. And I hope it’s a good place, and a place free of crisis- give yourself this most epic and important gift of self-care- love yourself. Thoroughly, completely, flaws and all. Know your worth.
Not too many of us are walking around feeling energetic and fulfilled. It’s not something you can bring others, but you can do the work for yourself and be the example, a beacon of light and strength for those around you. This radical self-care is contagious and can spread, those tendrils reaching further and further, touching more souls, helping to heal people who are hurting. May your foundation, one that you build entirely on your own terms, be so strong that you can help the ones who need you the most, at the most critical of times. Be so nourished that others become nourished by your presence. Learn to love yourself, so that others know how to love you. Perhaps, if my husband and I had known to do this for ourselves; to practice radical self-care- that mountain between us would not have grown so high. Perhaps that harrowing Friday night and all the pain to follow could have been avoided. Sit with yourself, learn, observe. Dig deep and do the hard work. But keep taking those bubble baths along the way.