The following essay contains descriptions of domestic abuse that may be troubling for some readers.
When I first tried to leave him, he held me down and covered my nose and mouth. I couldn’t breathe for what felt like ages, but I fought like hell to free myself. Once I did, I begged and bargained for my life, assuring him that I wouldn’t leave him. So he let me live, but my life felt like it was no longer my own.
I had left dear friends and a well-established life in Los Angeles to run away with this man who professed to love me. We’d been in an on-and-off relationship for years since meeting in school, and I finally took the plunge to commit to him despite many red flags.
The relationship turned sour on the first day of our new life together when he began abusing me, and things only got worse. If he was mean to me, he would convince me that I deserved it. When he got aggressive or said things that cut my spirit down, I felt like I deserved it. I remember once taking a photo of my bleeding face with a throwaway camera, but I never bothered to develop it because my spirit was so broken. The strength I had inside seemed to be fading with each passing day.
It’s easy to push around an already wounded person, and he made me feel unworthy of anything better than the miserable days I spent with him.
Although I stayed for two years, being the victim of his cruelty felt like spending decades in a house of horrors. My saving grace was finding comfort in music. I listened to songs like Olivia Newton-John’s “Learn to Love Yourself” and Janet Jackson’s “Control.” I discovered Taylor Swift’s music and felt emboldened by the hope in her songs that I realized I hadn’t yet lost.
With empowering songs as my soundtrack, I built up the courage to once again risk my life by trying to leave. I would buy plane tickets to get far away, then I’d be too scared to use them. One time I got all the way to the airport, then called him sobbing, and he came to pick me up. I was so traumatized that I didn’t know what to do.
When I finally had the courage to leave, he let me go because, as he told me later, he was certain I would change my mind and come right back. But this time was different: I simply chose to take my life back, and that was that.
After I left him, I couldn’t leave the pain behind. I was depressed. I battled post-traumatic stress disorder, and I didn’t want to experience anything else in the world in which I’d found such immense pain.
However, the rainbow of hope my sorrow had been concealing cracked open when I met a caring friend whose kind support helped me start loving myself. He gently suggested I start therapy. I followed the advice, and therapy changed my world. It helped me start the long process of truly healing. I also journaled.
I learned from reading books like “Someone To Talk To: What Really Happens in Therapy and How It Can Work for You” by Joyce Houser and made myself comfortable in the personal development section of any bookstore. I started to express my pain through my writing and took steps to heal from the enormous wounds that left inner bruises long after the outer ones had faded. I didn’t know it then, but I was starting to prepare for what would become my greatest career adventure.
Even as I healed, though, I found that I didn’t want to leave my home.
While I had once been restless and eager to be on the go every single day, I now went long periods of time without leaving the house. Since I worked from home, I didn’t have to deal with the world beyond the love seat where I worked. I went to the store in the middle of the night when I knew I wouldn’t see many others. Fear and dread kept me reclusive. If I didn’t leave my home, I didn’t have to face the possibility of encountering another guy like my ex.
Then one day, while hiding behind my computer screen in the home I had barely left in the few years since I’d broken free from my ex, I received a travel writing assignment. A great editor I’d done a little work for offered me the chance to travel to Branson, Missouri, and report on what I found there.
I was over-the-moon thrilled, but I also felt conflicted. I had been longing to travel, but I was afraid to go around the block, let alone to another state. What if I encountered violence again? Nothing felt safe in my world any more.
Despite the fear, to the very depths of my spirit, I wanted to live. I didn’t want to just keep breathing, eating and sleeping in my sad stupor. Sure, I could continue to descend into my self-destruction, or there was another option. I could get up, live my dream and start doing what was necessary to take better care of myself.
I chose to live, and I was determined to live well. I said yes and got on a plane to Missouri.
When the plane finally landed in Branson, I felt grounded on an emotional level. Sure, I was nervous, but I was even more excited to start my first adventure as a travel writer.
As I met new people during my trip, fears would surface. I worried that people would not want to be around me or would see that I was somehow damaged from my trauma. Nevertheless, none of the fears seemed to materialize. Instead, I enjoyed dining on vegan meals and seeing plays and concerts.
After saying yes and choosing to embrace life, I found myself heading all over the country to pursue great travel stories. It got easier with each new adventure. In Fredericksburg, Texas, I ate sweet peaches and savored the beauty of the orchards. I got the first and best massage of my life in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. I met the cutest prairie dogs in Lubbock, Texas. Then, in the Highland Lakes area of the state, deer would come right up to where I was staying at the Painted Sky Inn, and I was in heaven watching them.
International travel was a blast, too. I had a corn massage at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya and dared to take a cooking class at the Hacienda Encantada in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. I savored the company of a rescued cat and the azure waters of the pristine beach at Breezes Bahamas. I trekked all over central Portugal, where I delved into its rich history, explored castles and churches and stayed at a boutique hotel where my room had a Willy Wonka theme.
I savored healthy vegan fare and felt delighted by the fairy doors in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I marveled at the sight of fall foliage in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Knoxville, Tennessee. I stood onstage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. I saw spring splendor in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I had an unforgettable olive oil tasting in Fairfield, California, and while exploring the city’s natural beauty, I remembered why I’ll always be a California girl at heart.
I watched a rainbow form near the sunrise at Makapu’u Beach on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, as I sat on a black rock. I reveled in the natural splendor until I felt beautiful simply being a part of it. My jaw dropped the first time I saw Denali. As I flew in a small plane over wildlife, fauna and mountains, I felt so alive and this on-fire sense of gratitude that I had never given up.
All along the way, in each destination I visited, I continued to work on myself. When I visited Peru, I was in awe as I watched the creation of a breathtaking mural by artist Kelsey Montague and got to know the girls of Peruvian Hearts, an organization that educates and inspires young women. As part of the program, Peruvian Hearts is providing their young scholars with travel experiences. Since travel had changed my life so dramatically, I was thrilled to see these girls get the chance to be empowered by it.
Although it was a gradual process of realizing I had the freedom to break away from the trauma that held me back, travel helped me see that the freedom was in my hands.
I felt like I had fully let go of my fears of the world when I flew to see two Taylor Swift ”Reputation” concerts in Dallas. It was her music that helped me find the strength to leave the abuse, and now her songs were the soundtrack to my more joyful life. Watching Taylor perform was a profound experience. One of the concerts I went to was recorded for her Netflix special, and it’s fun to relive that night when I celebrated my freedom from my fears.
As I continue to progress in my career as a travel writer, I’ve learned the beauty of self-love. I am no longer the girl I was when I let an abuser violate my life. I know how to protect myself now. I’m a strong, independent woman who won’t accept mistreatment in my life. No person or destination is intimidating when you embrace who you are.
One thing I relearn sometimes during my travels is that I still have so much to learn from others, and it’s a pure joy to explore the world and be open to what it has yet to show us.
It’s never too late to turn a single moment or your entire life around.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.