Woman holding mug

Silence was the enemy that meant pain. Silence was torturous and calculated; part of the programming that kept me entrapped by an abuser. I learned to despise silence of any kind. I filled the quiet with music, a television show I wasn’t even listening to, the roar of the vacuum cleaner, or creating happy noises with my children.

Silence became my enemy because it meant that I was once again being punished by both the abuser, and the recordings he had so stealthily planted in my psyche. Rarely did I know the reason for the punishment, as that information was not shared. I was “expected” to know, which was part of the Emotional Abuser’s tools.

Those of us who have suffered at the whim of a toxic person, be it parent or partner, know that the silence of abuse really does kill. It kills your self-image and any sense of worth you may have. It’s called the “Silent Treatment”, and it says, quite loudly,

“You are not even worth my breath.”

Silence Meant Punishment

I was married to him for 25 years, and I was trained to believe this treatment was normal. If I transgressed against whatever the Rule Of The Day was, I could count on the seething silence. Sometimes accompanied by glaring, ominous stares. It would suck the oxygen from the room. Once we had children, the additional punishment was that he would speak to them in a sing-song, Disney Dad voice right in front of me while completely ignoring my existence. I later discovered that this tactic did not go unnoticed by my young children.

Moments after my final escape from him, I locked the front door, went to the family room, and laid down in the middle of the floor. It was late morning and the sun dripped through the second-story windows, falling in a pool onto the beige rug with juice stains on it. I basked in that light; arms outstretched as though ready to embrace my future.

It was silent.

Completely, utterly quiet except for the gentle November wind that whistled a bit on the chimney top. I felt absolutely no other emotion but sheer, unbounded joy. The joy only a released, wrongfully-convicted prisoner could possibly understand. For the first time, silence was a reward.

The Grief Attached To Silence

It didn’t take long for those silences, the absence of his anger, judgment, control, and pathology to become my worst enemy. My brain was long-trained to carry the abuse for him. The “tapes” are running, whether the toxic mix master is present or not. I began to discuss this with my counselor who gave me the normal speech of “letting someone live rent-free in your head”. While cognitively this made sense, emotionally and programmatically I was at a loss as to how to undo that dynamic. Eventually, I discovered that learning to love the silence was actually tied in with the grief process and had a few distinct stages.

Working Through the Grief Process

One thing I was never “allowed” to express was anger. If I did, I was being “unreasonable” or “too sensitive” or “picky and demanding”. As I targeted the pain of silence, the first thing I did was allow myself to unleash anger directed squarely at He Who Had Taken Over Every Part Of Me Since I Was 15. I would scream and swear, walking through my home, telling him to “fuck off!” and listing the grievances of long-held pain. I allowed myself to have safe temper tantrums, one of which included me ripping my wedding gown to shreds with my bare hands; seed pearls and lace flying in all directions. How incredibly cleansing it was to destroy the symbol of toxic romance!

The bargaining stage of grief was interesting.

Instead of bargaining with God or the abuser, as I had for so many years, I bargained with my own brain. I made deals with my thoughts and enforced them through the gentle snap of a rubber band around my wrist. Or the not-so-gentle lugging about of a backpack full of firewood. I reasoned that these reminders would help me internalize the idea that continuing to allow the silence to be filled with his messages meant I was not free. Those techniques worked so well that it became easier and easier to replace the ugly silences with peaceful ones.

No Smooth Sailing, But SO Worth The Trip

This road was not without its enormous potholes. The more steps I took toward freedom—and away from the one who tormented me—the more he upped his game. In the midst of freeing my thoughts and learning to love the silence, I was bombarded by harassing phone calls, emails, text messages, and false court filings; all manner of ways to attempt to continue the abuse and reiterate the same messages. By then, though, I had come far enough that my brain knew how to set boundaries and cope. I would deliver monologues to an invisible audience in my home; stating exactly what I thought of him, how he was an abysmal failure as a husband and father, and that he would never break me.

More than anything, learning to love silence was about practicing retraining my focus. Many times I sat in a chair with the window open, deliberately listening to the rain, no matter how much effort it took to keep my attention there. I would snuggle with my dogs;  listen to them breathe, and  the sound of my yellow Lab snoring. I would go sit in a park by myself, or hike alone with no distractions. I finally got to the point where I could go to a friend’s cabin in the mountains, which has no TV and no internet, and live monk-like in silence for days.

Reframing The Silence Of Abuse

While this is a difficult path requiring massive work, I found that by honoring the rational grief that was attached to this process, I was able to re-frame my thoughts. Years later, he still attempts to tell me what my worth is, and I am impervious.

By unraveling his many lies, it clarified for me that all his accusations and labels were lies, too. Yes, the “love” was a lie, but that’s okay. I can grieve for the lost and deserved love. In accepting that it wasn’t real, I am also renouncing his claim to my self-image.

Silence, now, is a chance to dream, to plan, to look at mountains or enjoy the peace of a snowfall.

Aubrey Cole

Aubrey Cole

I survived a quarter century of psychological, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. When I got out, I vowed to help others do the same and founded the Emotional Abuse Survivors Network project in 2012. Now, I offer hope and healing to others on their journey as they rediscover themselves. My forthcoming books, Bodies in the Basement and Define Winning, chronicle my experiences, escape, and recovery. There is nothing so special about me that others can't emerge and thrive.
Aubrey Cole

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