“Do something today that your future self will thank you for.” ~Unknown
My whole life has been filled with toxic and abusive relationships, starting with extreme physical and emotional abuse from my parents, right up to the last relationship that I left in 2013. Abuse—physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal—is all I’ve ever known.
My entire life. I knew it wasn’t normal.
I desperately wanted to be loved, appreciated, and respected. I desperately wanted ‘normal,’ whatever that was. I longed for a fairy tale romance. I longed for happiness and peace. I just wasn’t convinced I would ever have that.
And I feared being alone.
Longing to Be Loved
I spent most of my adult life giving myself freely to anyone who showed me the least bit of attention. I was in and out of unhealthy relationships, looking for love in all the wrong places. Mostly on dating sites. I was always sure the next guy was ‘the one.’ Until he wasn’t.
My mission in life was to find someone who would love me the way I deserved to be loved and take care of me, and then we would live happily ever after.
I sacrificed myself in unspeakable ways just to be loved.
The problem was that I didn’t even know what real love was, or how to love myself. I had little to no respect for myself. I was looking for happiness in the form of another human being. I was sure a man would bring me eternal happiness and true love.
It wasn’t until I left my last abusive relationship that I realized I would never find happiness and true love until I loved myself.
My Last Toxic Relationship
He started out as “Mr. Not so Bad,” and despite all the frantically waving red flags, I convinced myself he would be the one.
The first year was touch and go. He lied to me and disrespected me many times, in many ways, but I ignored it. I clung on to him. He ticked off a lot of the boxes on my list. Surely, I could overlook his faults. Besides, I wasn’t perfect either.
The verbal and emotional abuse became more frequent into our third year together. I endured that for five more years before I finally packed it all in.
He belittled and bullied me almost on a daily basis. At the end of the day, he would apologize, and things would be better. He assured me he truly loved me, and he would improve. It gave me false hope, but hope nonetheless. I was sure things would get better.
They never did.
In our fifth year he took a job on a Caribbean island and left me. I was in total and complete shock. We had just bought a house and I had just bought a hair salon. I couldn’t understand why he was doing this. Though our relationship was far from perfect, we were still doing okay-ish.
He returned eight months later and, again, promised that we would work this out and we’d be okay. Things just got worse. He became a complete control freak, and the bullying was constant.
Everything was always my fault. I became a “yes sir/no sir” girl. Whatever he wanted he got. Whatever he wanted to do we did. I no longer had any say in anything with regards to the relationship or household decisions.
We did everything his way or no way at all.
I became a shell of a woman clinging to the hope that things would get better. I mean, he always did apologize at the end of the day, so surely, he meant well. Surely, things had to get better. And we weren’t spring chickens anymore either. We were both on our way to fifty.
“He’ll change,” I thought. “I know he will. I can help him with that. Show him his mean evil ways and let him know how much they hurt. I know this will change him. He’ll get it one day.”
That never happened either.
I Was a Complete Failure
By year seven I had probably already written ten “Dear John, I’m leaving you” letters that I never gave him. I couldn’t leave him. Where the hell was I supposed to go?
By this time, I had to close my hair salon business because it was dying a slow death (much like our relationship), I had just declared bankruptcy, and I didn’t have two cents to rub together. He had purchased another home and built a small salon in it for me, but all my clients had already abandoned me.
I was barely making any money and totally relying on him for financial security and stability.
My life had become a complete disaster. Emotionally, financially, professionally. I had nothing left in me.
I looked in the mirror and cried at the woman staring back at me. She was broke and broken in so many ways. The one-time bubbly, happy girl I used to know was now empty, hollow, and void of any emotion.
I was fifty-one years old, and the thought of ending my life crossed my mind more times than I care to admit. I was nothing and had nothing. I couldn’t even stand to look at myself in the mirror anymore.
I cried all the time. I became a meek, submissive, frail woman with no hope for the future. In my eyes, I was a complete failure.
Something had to give.
The Beginning of the End
It was Easter weekend, 2013. We were having a family dinner at our house. All my family. He had none close by. My family liked him enough. I was sure it was going to be a beautiful dinner filled with love and laughter.
What started out as a day with the two of us preparing things for dinner quickly turned into the biggest fight we had ever had, with him storming out of the house before the guests arrived.
He returned home late that night after the guests had all left. I had had enough. I couldn’t do this anymore. I spent the night in the spare bedroom and started to write yet another “Dear John” letter, but this time, I was going to deliver it to him. I was done.
I was an emotional wreck. I knew I had to leave, but I was terrified.
I had nothing. I had no money, no job, no belongings except the clothes on my back, and I was a shell of a human being. What I did have was a tiny thread of hope. I asked myself a hundred times that night, “Iva, if you don’t leave now, when will you leave? How much longer can you live like this?”
I was scared of my future. There were so many unanswered questions. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I wasn’t’ sure I could survive on my own. I had nothing. I had officially hit rock bottom.
Then I realized the only way out was up. It was up to me to claw my way out and fix this disaster I called my life.
My Healing Journey
That night I handed him the letter, we talked very briefly, and two weeks later I moved out of the house. I put all my faith and trust in the universe and found the courage to rebuild my life, first working on my self-esteem and then self-love.
Friends came out of the woodwork to help me get back on my feet. I was able to get my old job back at a salon I had worked at for years prior to me opening my own salon. People donated items and furniture. My sister lent me money to get an apartment.
Things all fell into place magically.
I still do remember the fear and uncertainty I felt on a daily basis. I couldn’t believe I finally left him, yet I still didn’t trust myself to make good decisions. My entire life was the result of all the bad choices I had made.
I didn’t know how to love or respect myself. I had no self-confidence and very little self-worth. I needed to learn what boundary lines were and start drawing them. Thick! I needed to learn what love was, self-love, and how to find happiness in me.
I had an awful lot to learn. Unplugging fifty-one years of limiting beliefs and being told “you’re no good, you’re worthless, you’re stupid” was going to take some time and a lot of work.
I was literally starting at zero and working my way up.
And I had no clue where to start. I had never felt so alone and afraid in my entire life. Everything was now up to me.
Learning to Love Myself
I found and read self-help eBooks online. I found personal growth and self-improvement articles. I listened to motivational podcasts and watched inspirational YouTube videos until my eyes bled. My healing journey was exhausting, frustrating, messy, and beautiful all at the same time.
Every time doubt crossed my mind, I’d shout it out declaring that “I am worthy, dammit!” I did this daily.
The more I read self-help, the stronger I became. Day by day, slowly but surely, I was finally learning to love and respect myself. My self-confidence was growing beyond anything I could have imagined.
I was stepping out of my comfort zone and making changes that scared the poop out of me but added to my growth.
I completely reinvented my life, trading in my twenty-five-plus year hairstyling career to become a freelance writer. I write of my healing journey, giving hope and inspiring others that they too can have the life they truly want. A life of happiness, joy, inner peace.
I still have growing to do. We never stop evolving. It’s just not as scary anymore, and it’s absolutely beautiful.
Change is Up to You
I think back on my life and wonder where I would be had I not left that toxic relationship, and I shudder. My desire to change my life became stronger than my desire to live in my comfort zone.
Yes, it’s scary. We all want to know what the future holds for us. We all want answers to our questions. We all want to know that we’ll be okay and life will get better.
But life won’t get better until you make the decision to make those big changes. It’s up to you to do that. Hard and scary? Yes. Impossible? Absolutely not.
You have to ask yourself this one question: “How bad do I want it?” You have to trust that life can and will get better when you decide to take control, step boldly out of your misery and comfort zone, and have faith.
Things might not magically fall into place right away, as they did for me, but things will improve over time if you believe in yourself and keep moving forward, one day at a time.
The life you want is one step away. Take the step. You are worthy. You are deserving of a better life. Do it for you, babe!