TW: This piece discusses a personal account of violence and may be triggering for some readers.
When I was in a past relationship of domestic violence, I actually used to envisage myself being surrounded by a ring of fire.
I was constantly hot and in pain, being scorched in every direction. But my only escape was to run directly through those scalding flames…
Ongoing abuse cycles had created trauma bonds in my brain that manifested as a literal chemical addiction to my abuser.
I despised how arrogant and entitled he was, despite being average in every way. I hated the grandiose show he put on for others while torturing me behind closed doors. He was the only person in my life causing me distress and pain. And yet he was seemingly the only one who could relieve the acute trauma he himself caused, time and time and time again.
“…you stabbed me in the chest then tended lovingly to my wounds, as I sobbed and clung to you…” An excerpt from my journal while in the thick of it.
I did not admire him in any way.
And yet I ran back to him in agony more times than I can even remember. My friends despaired. I despaired. I became smaller and more defeated with every return.
Through counselling I tried desperately to keep myself from falling apart, and was informed that breaking trauma bonds was chemically similar to detoxing from heroin.
My nervous system shattered from years of existing in fight or flight, I was devastated to hear this. It required energy I knew I didn’t have.
Maybe I could live with the searing heat after all..?
Maybe the fire would soon die down… even though that hadn’t been my experience of this fire so far. Perhaps I could put it out by loving harder!
So I threw myself into couples counselling, as if it’s possible to negotiate peace with a domestic terrorist who thrives on chaos and power.
These did not last. Of course. And it wasn’t long before I found myself at a women’s refuge sobbing uncontrollably. Again. And again.
The froggy fable and the question: Why did he or she stay?
Abuse victims are often asked why they stay. The analogy of a frog in boiling water is sometimes used as an explanation.
As the fable goes, a frog dropped suddenly into boiling water will hop out immediately. But the same frog in slowly heating water does not perceive its increasing danger. This frog meets an unfortunate end.
And this does make sense. Domestic violence also builds slowly.
The “water” is lovely at first, due to grooming and love bombing. But slowly-building broken boundaries and increasing infringements are systematically introduced and strategically apologised away. The water heats.
Social isolation, gaslighting, projection, silent treatment, contempt, physical and sexual violence, financial abuse, sexual coercion, chronic lying… What was previously outrageous is now commonplace, justified, normalised, compartmentalised.
But this is where the usefulness of the froggy fable ends. Because there is one crucial factor that is overlooked in this fable.
And it relates perfectly to the ring of fire I used to envisage around me.
The fact is that the frog does try to escape – over and over and over. But with each attempt it gets far more severely burnt on the much hotter pot, and recoils at this far greater pain.
Suddenly, the boiling water may not be so bad after all…
Trauma bonding, fear of or actual escalated abuse, complete exhaustion, being a financial hostage, threats of murder. Actual murder.
Scaling the pot is a much harder feat to survive than keeping your head above the boiling water – at least in the short term. And so with each excruciating try, the frog desperately starts to hope the hot water may just cool off soon.
Maybe it won’t continue to heat… Maybe I’m imagining it..? Maybe I can adapt if I’m stronger, more affectionate, more careful. If I speak less. If I am less.
Except we all know this isn’t how the story plays out for the poor frog. Or for domestic violence victims.
It took over two years from the moment I realised I was being boiled alive to finally accept I needed to face that scalding pot. One more year after this to finally make it over.
But I did it, even though it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And so can you.
The first step is realising you do need to leave. The water will kill you. The second is understanding that your escape is a process, not one single act.
Many victims start the escape process years before they physically leave. This can include slowly formulating a getaway plan, gathering resources and support, and mentally and physically preparing for resistance or retribution from their abuser. It can be hard for onlookers to watch this slow process but, in many cases, a slower but more strategic escape can be the best course of action for the victim.
And I promise all escaping victims this.
You will get burnt on the way out, and it will hurt like hell. The scars will take a long time to heal. But you can also make it over the side and rise triumphant out of the fire.
But not like a boiled frog. You will emerge like a glorious phoenix rising from the flames.
Stronger and more powerful than you ever were before you were touched by the fire.
If you or someone you know is in need of help due to sexual assault or family and domestic violence contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732
In an emergency call 000.