96. My Sobbing, Shaking Strength

96. My Sobbing, Shaking Strength

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

My Sobbing, Shaking Strength

Life is very interesting . . . in the end, some of your greatest pains, become your greatest strengths.

~Drew Barrymore

I never thought I would be someone who woke up one day in an abusive relationship. Of course, in reality it didn’t happen all of a sudden. My relationship wasn’t perfectly healthy and happy one day, and then abusive the next. The changes happened gradually, so gradually I didn’t even notice that things were changing between us. Ever so slowly, he became more and more controlling, more and more volatile and unstable.

Yet if you had asked, I would have told you that we were happy. I thought our relationship was beautiful and filled with love. Sure, we fought sometimes, but doesn’t every couple? It was true that he was perhaps a little too dependent. He didn’t like when I got together with my friends because he missed me too much when we were apart, even for just a few hours. And yes, he made me feel guilty about going home to visit my family during the summer because he couldn’t stand to be apart for days, much less weeks.

But these things, I rationalized, were signs that he loved me. If you had told me I was slipping down a rabbit hole of increasing emotional abuse, I would not have believed you. I defined myself as a strong person, and I didn’t think that strong people could get tangled up in abusive relationships.

Inner strength has been part of my identity and my own personal narrative since birth. I was born three months prematurely, weighing a terrifying two pounds, six ounces, and I stayed in the hospital for months as I fought to live. I needed a respirator to help me breathe and feeding tubes to help me eat. My feet were pricked countless times for blood samples, and my heart was monitored closely because of a small hole that eventually healed itself. “Your daughter is a fighter,” the surgeon told my parents. Against all odds, I battled my way into the world, and throughout my life I have drawn strength from the story of my birth: my experience of survival.

As I grew into a healthy little girl, my underdeveloped lungs grew strong. In middle school and high school I ran cross-country and track, where my teammates voted me “most inspirational” and team captain. I hiked to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. I traveled to England on my own and backpacked through eight countries in Europe. I was the friend others leaned on; I was independent; I was strong. I didn’t think of myself as someone who needed help from others.

And then I woke up one morning and found myself in an abusive relationship, engaged to be married to a man who was steadily becoming more and more frightening. Day by day, I could feel myself growing quieter, smaller, lonelier. I was becoming lost. I knew I should reach out to a friend or family member — I had many people in my life who cared for me deeply and who would drop everything to help me, just as I had helped them through various life disasters and problems.

But I felt ashamed. I thought I was strong, but obviously I was wrong about myself— how else could I have fallen so deeply into such a bad situation? And what made things worse and more complicated was the fact that, despite everything, I still loved this man. I was afraid to be on my own without him.

The red flags, however, kept piling up. When we argued, he threw books against the wall in frustration. One night while driving he angrily slammed the steering wheel and the car nearly veered off the road. When I was offered the career opportunity of my dreams, he ordered me to turn it down because it was halfway across the country. He couldn’t bear for us to ever be apart and wasn’t willing to make any changes in his own life so he could move there with me.

When he coldly shook his head, refusing to even glance at the letter I’d received congratulating me on this opportunity, my heart was ripped wide open. I had reached the breaking point. This was a red flag I couldn’t ignore.

That day, the day I finally left, I would have told you that I looked like a weak person. I certainly felt weak. I was a complete mess. My legs shook. I sobbed. I hadn’t been able to eat or sleep. It took all the strength I possessed to look into the eyes of this man I still loved and tell him, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this anymore. This isn’t a healthy relationship. I can’t marry you.”

It was the bravest, most difficult thing I have ever done. And I didn’t do it alone. My brother hopped on a plane and stayed with me for a week, driving me to work and bringing me dinner, making sure I ate and drank water and slept. My best friend drove six hours to be with me, and for an entire weekend she held my hand and rubbed my back as I cried. I continually received phone calls and e-mails from friends and relatives, checking up on me and asking if I needed anything. Even acquaintances I hadn’t known I could count on were there for me, inviting me out for coffee and lunch, making me feel part of the world again. The kindness and love I felt were overwhelming.

Inner strength, I learned, isn’t about putting up a façade. Inner strength isn’t refusing help from others. Inner strength isn’t relying only on yourself. My true inner strength came when I finally reached out to those around me and confessed that I was in a bad situation, and I needed their help to pull myself out. I learned that real inner strength comes from being true to your own authentic self, your desires, your needs.

Now, I still draw strength from the story of my birth, from the photo on my desk of my tiny newborn self, hooked up to an array of tubes and monitors in an incubator in the NICU. But I also have a new story to draw strength from. When I was a sobbing, shaking, heart-wrenched-wide-open mess, all I could see at the time was weakness. But now I can see that the opposite is true: I was actually a study in strength. I think of that day — one of the most difficult days of my life — and I am proud of what I went through. I am proud to be me.

~Dallas Woodburn

More stories from our partners