How Healthy Lifestyle Behaviors Saved Me from Domestic Abuse
My life has been filled with personal triumphs due to my embracing healthy habits at an early age. With an upbringing in the Englewood community on Chicago’s South Side, like many African-American women and girls, I struggled with obesity, leading a lifestyle of physical inactivity and poor nutrition. As a teenager, my mother inspired me to exercise and eat better, which allowed me to take charge of my health and completely distance myself from many negative peer influences in order to pursue a long and productive career in exercise science and nutrition (click here to read more about my personal story). However, with such triumphs I rarely share the darker side of my past, which healthy lifestyle behaviors also allowed me to conquer.
For two years I was a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of my partner. I met him early in my 20s and, like most young ladies this age, I was very much into my physical appearance—so was he. This man was significantly older than me and, questionably, more mature. In the beginning of our courtship he wined and dined me like most gentlemen do, but pretty soon, the wining and dining was replaced with verbal, mental, and, eventually, physical abuse. I should start by saying that I was not raised in an abusive environment. As the youngest of five children, I grew up surrounded by a whole lot of love. Sadly, this upbringing is probably why I was a tad bit naive when faced with someone who would eventually become an abusive partner.
The first signs of a problem began when I started personal training at a popular gym--you know, one of those gyms housing all the "pretty" folks. Needless to say, like most physically fit women, men flirted with me daily. Having noticed, my partner began frequenting the gym much more than necessary. In the beginning I thought it was kind of cute, thinking, "Awww, he's just a little jealous." This subtle jealousy reached a breaking point when it became intrusive. He began to interrupt my personal training sessions with male clients and started to intersect any correspondences I had with my male coworkers. Eventually, he began to “encourage” me to start my own business, which I did, not realizing that his number one objective was to stop me from going to this particular gym.
Months turned into a year and he was practically on my heels for the 16 hours he wasn't working. When he did work, he called me nonstop; so much that my earpiece became a part of my daily wardrobe. It was also during this time that he started to criticize everything I did. When I started bodybuilding with a group of males he accused me of cheating. When I got a couple of body piercings he said that I was doing this for another man. Eventually, I just stopped leaving the house unless I had clients. My young mind did not make the connection that these behaviors weren’t normal.
Eighteen months into this thing that I thought was a relationship, I realized that my face was full of acne and I had begun developing excessive amounts of belly fat due to the stress. Then he started calling me “fat." My eyes were always puffy because I cried all the time. The few friends who knew what was going on couldn't stand to be around me and they absolutely hated him. I was totally in hiding from my family. But, of course, I didn't think that this was abuse because he hadn't hit me, yet.
Why did I stay? Ask me now and I can’t believe I did. However, then, his verbal and mental abuse ALWAYS ended with a flourishing of flowers, gifts, and praise.
Fast forward. As the second year approached he started pressuring me into motherhood (not marriage). It was at this point that I had been accepted into graduate school. During this time he started saying things like, “You think you're better than me because you're getting a Master’s.” The critical point in this abusive relationship came when I told him I needed a break. He gave me a break all right. Less than a week into the “break” he started following me everywhere I went. On multiple occasions I found my car with all four tires deflated or completely emptied of fuel. In addition, he called me excessively at all times of the day and night with emotional rants.
Eventually, he told me that he just wanted to talk to me in person. I obliged, so he came to my apartment. During the conversation, I emphasized that we should remain friends. He didn't like that so he became enraged. I told him to leave and handed him a bag full of stuff that he'd left at my apartment, including a large pad lock. He took the bag and began to heavily criticize me using words that are too vulgar to repeat. The more I ignored him the worse he got. Once he saw that I was no longer fazed by his rants, he proceeded to push me again and again. The last push was so hard that the bag he held swung towards my face causing the lock to hit me directly on my mouth. There was blood everywhere.
One of my neighbors heard the commotion and had already called the police. When the police arrived, they looked at my mouth and immediately arrested him and encouraged me to file an order of protection. My neighbor gave me a mirror so that I could see my face—I looked like Denzel Washington in the final scenes of Mo' Better Blues. She cleaned my mouth and handed me a peace pipe. We talked for hours as she shared a similar experience. I left inspired to file that order of protection but I told my family first. My father came with me to file.
I remained still for weeks because oddly enough, I missed him. My domestic violence counselor told me that this was a natural response to abuse. Before corresponding with this counselor, I was not aware that there were so many “non-physical” types of domestic abuse (i.e. mental, verbal, religious, etc.). During my sessions with her, the counselor shared various coping strategies with me (i.e. meetings, drawing, journaling, etc.). They didn’t work.
I still needed a way to cope, so I started running excessively, sometimes 70 or 80 miles a week. It was also during this time that I became a vegan and underwent frequent juice fasts in an effort to clear my mind, body, spirit, and skin. I chopped off over a foot of hair because I felt a need to be completely free. Everyone who knew me thought that I was losing my mind. Due to my dramatic weight loss and fully faded hair it even became rumored that I was in chemotherapy. In addition to my exercise and clean diet, I started meditating heavily and the running mileage continued to pick up.
Close to seven or eight months after his arrest, he actually contacted me again and I spoke with him, “officially” calling it quits. He threatened to kill me over and over again, but by this time I was well focused on my graduate studies and feeling empowered thanks to my exercise, dietary, and meditation practices. I had totally snapped out of feeling like a victim. During our final correspondence, I reminded him that my family, including a host of male cousins, still resided in the Englewood community. That was pretty much the end of our correspondence. I saw him again in passing, and I believe that it was because he still followed me on occasion. However, there were no more problems.
I shared this story to inspire and empower people who have been, in any way, affected by domestic violence. Domestic violence is real and often it goes unnoticed and sometimes tragically ends in death. If you or someone you know has been or is currently a victim of domestic violence, it is important to understand that healing starts within. Sometimes it's not even the violence that does the most harm—the damaging of the spirit and associated stress can kill.
During my experience with domestic abuse, implementing meditative strategies with a clean diet allowed me to see things clearly and I began to remove myself from the situation. When I felt like crying or eating away the pain, I ran (albeit a bit excessively) in an effort to cope. Eventually, these lifestyle behaviors empowered me and I became a much stronger person as a result. I remain convinced that the fight against domestic violence begins with inspiring and empowering the "victim" to leave the situation--it all starts there.
Credit: Elvert Barnes (Flickr)
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or visit their website.
For more of the latest and greatest in health, fitness, and nutrition, "Like" me on Facebook at Nina Cherie, PhD of Complete Health Solutions