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My Story of Delayed Trauma

Not knowing you’re in an abusive relationship doesn’t make it any less painful

  • January 11, 2017
  • By Shelley Flannery
My Story of Delayed Trauma

I’ve been a freelance writer for 12 years. I’ve written on topics ranging from heart stents to luxury watches to toxins in the home. When I started writing for DomesticShelters.org, I saw it as an assignment. An important assignment, mind you—a way to bring awareness to a worthy topic and a chance to help someone. But still, an assignment nonetheless.

It wasn’t until three months in, as I was conducting the interview for "Survivor Story: Jessica Houston," that something clicked that I had never been conscious of before. I completed the interview and hung up with Houston. And I sat in front of my computer and sobbed. I had just realized I was a domestic violence survivor.

While the relationship with my abuser had ended more than five years prior, I had never labeled it domestic violence. It was bad, sure. He was possessive and controlling, interrogating me every time I left the house. “How can it possibly take more than 30 minutes to get an eyebrow wax?” he’d ask. “Who did you sit next to in your meeting today?” He made me feel so guilty about doing anything that didn’t involve him that I sacrificed relationships with my mom and sister even though, previously, we had been close. I was not allowed to have friends.

Even when he stood over me and clapped loudly for 45 minutes one night to prevent me from going to sleep, threatened to kill one of my loved ones or abandoned me during a trip in the middle of downtown Chicago (his hometown and a place I’d never been), it didn’t occur to me that what he was doing was abuse. After all, he’d never hit me.

Now, I know better. After writing for DomesticShelters.org for a year and a half, I know why it took so long to get over what I thought was just a “bad relationship.” Now I know what I went through was abuse. Now I know about gaslighting. Now, after all these years, I have to deal with the trauma. And, this month, I learned that I’m not alone.

What is Delayed Trauma?

“It is possible to not realize you were in an abusive relationship until after it ends. Sometimes, it becomes evident only after you have had a chance to reflect on it or you are in a new, balanced and equal relationship,” says Kristine Seitz, M.Ed, MSW, LSW, a staff therapist with Philadelphia-based Council for Relationships. “With physical abuse, you can see a bruise. With coercive and emotional abuse, scars are less evident and you might not see them right away.”

But just because you might not see them right away doesn’t mean they’re not as deep or don’t need to be tended to. Seitz recommends taking steps to begin the healing process, even if a significant amount of time has passed since the trauma occurred. She advocates for counseling.

“It is important to not blame yourself in anyway, but instead begin to explore the impact of the abuse,” she says. “Seeking a therapist with a background in trauma work can help you to safely explore the impact the trauma had on you and begin to heal.”

I haven’t yet sought counseling, but I have opened up a bit to my fiancée about what I went through. My mom and my sister still don’t know. Maybe one day I’ll tell them. But for me, for now, just being able to identify my feelings and know I have justification for feeling them is helpful, freeing.

If you’re reading this and wondering if what you’re experiencing is abuse, it might be. Check out “Normal Jealousy or the Start of Abuse?” and “How to Recognize Emotional Abuse” to start. 

Editor's Note: This article is part of #YourVoice, an ongoing column published on this website by individual contributors in their own personal capacity and that involves the opinions, recollections and/or information provided by such contributors, and which does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this website. Shelley Flannery is a freelance writer and editor. Two years ago, she decided to leave her day job as a content director for a multinational telecommunications company to serve her community in local law enforcement. She is a regular contributor to DomesticShelters.org and is trained in domestic violence advocacy.