The photos that emerged a week ago of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson being choked by her husband Charles Saatchi at a restaurant and the subsequent discussions about domestic violence that erupted in its wake have touched close to home for a lot of people. Abuse in the home is so prevalent that if it hasn't happened to you or a loved one, chances are its happening now to friends or family behind closed doors. For every picture that exposes just how frightening this experience is, there are a thousand dark rooms where abuse happens in the shadows. Having the courage to get away from your abuser is the first step and often the most difficult. Re-claiming your life afterwards and finding the connection to who you were before the beatings, humiliation and betrayals is the mountain that survivors have to climb next. When you emerge out of an abusive relationship feeling broken that distant summit can seem so far out of reach - a life of normalcy you can't even imagine.
Just over 21 months ago I returned from LA in this broken state. Aside from family and close friends, very few people know the full story. My relationship was over. When I asked for an explanation to sum up the last few years of my life that I had invested into my marriage, business and our life together I was told “I needed you to keep working until we got here” - here being LA - the land of opportunity. The choice for me was to leave then and there or continue to endure the full spectrum of domestic abuse. Where hot cups of coffee in the face, punches and kicks, electrical cord cuts, and numerous affairs failed to rouse me to leave, something about the above quote broke through the numb haze that constituted my mental and emotional state at the time and fired a circuit in my brain. I knew I had to leave.
I can't tell you why we stay. I suspect it's different for everyone. I formed my own rationalizations. A big one was that we had created something exceptional in BodyRock that was reaching more people than I had ever dreamed possible. It came to represent the life I wanted to be living, a parallel reality of exciting travel pictures and scenic workouts clips between blog posts about cruises on the waterways of Venice and sunsets above the tiled rooftops of Verona. On YouTube it was perfect - life after the editing was not. For a long time I retreated into this fantasy world that was being staged for the world to see, and a huge part of me longed for the life that I weaved together in that multimedia tapestry to be real. I never understood why real life couldn't be the way it was portrayed on our blog. I kept waiting for something to shift so that the online and offline realities would sync up. The harder I worked at it, and the more success and attention that resulted the darker things became. In reality, I had about as much of a chance at love as an author of a fictional novel has with his imaginary heroine - the difference being that the videos and photos that were created and the story and dialogue I wrote were mirroring our real lives on a surface level that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. The analogue version of my life had become a nightmare of abusiveness - oceans away from friends and family - so I sought out refuge in and created the life I wanted digitally. For a while it was enough.
At some point - way back in the beginning we compromise ourselves. We allow a behaviour that is a clear warning sign, we let it slide rather than making a stand. I believe that it is in these moments we allow the seeds of abuse to be planted. In my case it started with screaming fits and name calling. Like a stone skipping along the surface of a pond it then went to doors slamming, plates smashing, cups being thrown to punches and kicks. It ramps up like a dial on your stereo being slowly twisted. By the time the first blow lands you have no idea how things have gotten so far out of control so fast. You never regain your balance, and if you were lucky enough to have come from a loving family background like I was - you have absolutely no coping mechanisms in place to prepare you for this kind of behaviour from someone that is suppose to love you. The confusion that results - especially when they apologize and become temporarily loving and kind again - jams your ability to apply any logic to your emotions. It's a trap that closes and opens with every swing of the fist or slam of the door and it is often for that reason that we stay as long as we do - against the pleading of our friends and families, and against the wreckage of our former selves that we feel slowly tearing us up inside.
And so I jettisoned out of that life. I left. I realized in perhaps the most profound moment of self-realization I've ever had that I had been critically damaged and if I didn't leave right then and there I would never recover. I bought a pair of beats headphones and listened to music so I wouldn't have to hear my wife laughing on the phone with my immediate replacement, packed my life into my one suitcase and between sobbing and Skype calling my mother back in Canada, I counted the hours until my early morning flight out of LAX and the life that I had known.
The word abuse was not the word I would have initially chosen to use to describe my experience. I was too heartbroken at the time. Too sad, too fucked up. All that I knew at the time was that I was hurt in a way that I had never experienced. Aside from the physical abuse there was a litany of smaller,sharp cuts that kept me forever off balance. It was a feeling of having been kicked around. A feeling of being continuously tossed aside. A sense that everything that I believed was good and decent and kind about who I was as a human being had been trashed. My confidence had been shattered by years of my body being savagely critiqued. My weight fluctuated dramatically in response. At 11% body fat I was labeled “fat”. I was never big enough, muscular enough, tall enough. The scope of it was overwhelming - there was nothing too trivial to escape critique - I walked too slow, the way I ate with my fork was wrong, the way I sat was a turn off. Out of everything the “needy song” had the most sting. Sung to the tune of 80's group A-Ha’s hit “The Sun Always Shines on Tv” she sang it whenever she sensed that I needed some emotional support or on the occasions I'd ask for a hug. Hearing that song became a signal that I was weak - that anything required that would sustain someone emotionally was a “turn off and pathetic”.
It wasn't until I had related what I had gone through in detail with my family doctor that she applied the term abuse. She first used the term while explaining to me why I was experiencing bouts of panic and depression - something wholly new for me. She explained that often when someone goes through prolonged abusive relationships, their brain can actually stop producing serotonin at the required levels to regulate mood and emotions. This may be another reason why we stay in abusive situations - eventually we become numb to it. Our brains literally shut off from functioning normally. Another doctor who has been helping me recover put it more bluntly when he said “you have been mugged - emotionally, and physically, and you are lucky to be out of it and alive”. This kind of outside, third party, professional perspective is invaluable in getting over abuse because eventually you have to arrive at what I call the “reset moment” the moment that you accept - albeit tentatively at first - that although you have to accept responsibility for the choices that brought you into the abusive relationship to begin with, the punishment and torture you suffered is not your fault. When you can draw that line, when you stop believing in whatever it was that your abuser hurled at you in the midst of their rages - at that point the wound closes and looking up you are that much closer to reaching the summit and reclaiming your life.
I am starting to walk at my own pace again, and although I still have more road to go, I've turned a corner in life that feels pretty good. I hope that by sharing this very personal account of my life experience it might help others.