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For me, Answering “Why Didn’t you Leave Your Abuser Sooner?” is Simple. I was Disabled.

TW: This article features descriptions of emotional abuse, sexual coercion, ableism please practise self care when reading.

One of my clearest memories of abuse was when my cancer was still growing inside me, undiagnosed. I had a rash, and mono-like symptoms. I was on antibiotics. My boyfriend Luca and I were on a road trip in rural Utah.

Even though nothing was wrong with our car (except a broken taillight), we were pulled over at the side of the road. I was in trouble because I’d made fun of the song he chose on the radio. He was screaming and crying, telling me he wouldn’t drive us any further until I apologised. “I’m so sorry,” I pleaded. “I won’t do it again.”

My memories of my 18 months of emotional abuse, a form of intimate partner violence, are vague. When I access them, it feels like searching for something in a dark attic, with only a flickering lightbulb to see. I didn’t have a word for what he did to me until two years later, when I was in a new relationship, and a flashback left me sobbing on the bathroom floor.

Even still, I sometimes feel like an abuse victim, afraid and on eggshells. But some things are unquestionable in hindsight. Your boyfriend shouldn’t threaten to abandon you on the streets of a city you’ve never been to before. Your partner shouldn’t have rules for your behaviour. They shouldn’t ever pressure you into sex. 

Six months after the road trip incident, I was diagnosed with blood cancer and my disability became a star character in my life. I remember being back in my hometown, away from all my friends, facing six months of intense treatment, and staring out the window of the empty apartment I’d be living in during treatment. I was crying, but not about cancer this time.

I knew my boyfriend was on a plane coming to be with me, and I didn’t want him there. I told my mom I thought I wanted to break up with him. “Don’t push someone who loves you away,” she said. “Not right now.”

Why didn’t I leave my abuser, you ask? Because I was disabled and afraid of what would happen if I pushed anyone away.

A sick person shouldn’t push someone away. A chorus of loved ones and expectations told me that even though I didn’t want to be with him anymore, and even though there were red flags popping up that were visible to others, I needed to keep him around because he loved me. I didn’t have the language to explain what he was doing wrong; I was so confused that even though I saw a “signs of abuse” poster in the bathroom of the hospital, nothing registered.

I just knew that the sicker I got, the scarier he got, and the more I wanted him gone. But the sicker I got, the less I trusted my own judgement, and the more pressure built up to have him stay.

Any concept more complex, like that love can hurt, and that even young, sick, suffering people can and should have autonomy, was overshadowed. Luca showered me, a sick girl, with affection. From the outside, that looked heroic. I later learned that went hand-in-hand with his abuse.

I had nicknames, and forehead kisses, and constant support. When my mom sat him down, one-on-one, at a coffee shop after chemo started, she gave him an out. “You can leave,” she said. “No one will hold it against you.” But he stayed, and supported me, gallantly.

He still yelled at me, in front of my parents, when I ate slightly burnt toast in front of him. He refused to get a flu shot to protect me. But he helped tidy up and reminded me about my meds. He held my hand and cried when my bone pain was so severe I was hospitalized. Who could leave someone like that?

So, I know exactly why I didn’t leave. He scared me, he manipulated me, and he made me feel like everything I did or said was a test. But I was visibly ill, a wheelchair user, a cancer patient. And he was there for me. I’d never seen someone like me represented in media who stuck up for themselves. I’d never heard people talk about or advocate for autonomy for people with disabilities. Maybe this is why inclusion is so important to me all these years later.

I was a disabled victim of intimate partner violence. According to the CDC, “Women with a disability are more likely than women without a disability to report experiencing rape, SV other than rape, physical violence, stalking, psychological aggression, and control of reproductive or sexual health by an intimate partner.”

The World Health Organization found that adults with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely to be a victim of violence than those without a disability. We deserve better, and it starts with changing the narrative.

I want young, disabled people to know that they don’t need a partner to find care and understanding. That love for them is not contingent, or a bargaining chip. Often, when Luca did something for me, I’d apologize, and he’d say, “it’s ok, you’ll take care of me one day.” But there is no quid-pro-quo in love. No matter how severe your disability, it is your choice whether to be in a relationship. Being a caregiver is not a license to act with impunity.

Luckily, my gut instincts won out in the end. And I did leave him, long after I cried in the empty apartment. 

I still feel guilty for the way I left. Treatment had ended, but we were long-distance and everyone I asked told me to give him another shot. So he flew to Boston, and I tried my hardest to give him a few days. But the moment we sat down, side by side, I knew I had to do what felt impossible. I couldn’t be the passive victim, the broken girl in need of help, any longer. And I told my abuser, who was also my caregiver, that I couldn’t be with him anymore.

Since his flight was non-refundable, my parents gave him the keys to their car, and he took one more road trip, this time alone.

Getting help

Below are links to sites which may be of help if you are in a similar situation.

Resources for cancer patients being abused

What is emotional abuse?

Early warning signs of relationship abuse

National Domestic Abuse Helpline (UK)

National domestic abuse hotline (USA)

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