By Jasmine Yedigarian
What is trauma? What is abuse? For some, it is something terrible that many have witnessed happening to others. For others, it’s something that takes place behind closed doors, away from public eye. The hardest part about my experience was the realization that nobody knew what was happening to me and that my story primarily took place behind closed doors. In public- especially within the Armenian community in New York, my ex husband and I were seen as the perfect loving couple. We played the part very well- especially my ex husband, who was very charming in public. It was something I wanted so much that I even made our photographs reflect that. I wasn’t being honest with myself though. I wanted so much to believe that the problems he and I had weren’t so bad. I believed him when he told me that I was emotional & had a tendency to overreact. He also tried to convince me that my emotions weren’t valid while I was on my period- as if my reaction to his mistreatment was wrong.
Anyway, I intend to use my work and writing to help make sense of my experience. In addition, I’m sharing these experiences to make up for my silence during those difficult years. I want people to know that nobody is immune from abuse happening to them.
From the moment we met, he pressured me to do everything from the first kiss to sex. I made it clear to him that I wanted to wait until marriage to have sex, because I was a virgin and wanted to save that special first time for the wedding night. However, that didn’t stop him from trying. While engaged, he would try without asking and convinced me that the pullout method wasn’t sex.
I guess you could say I consented. But it was because I didn’t think we were having sex. But I felt really DIRTY every time I spent time with him. It felt wrong. It didn’t feel like it wasn’t sex. I was so confused that year and so depressed, with having just moved to New York City and starting classes at the School of Visual Arts, I didn’t consider asking anyone about this. Even if I had wanted to, I was too ashamed to speak up. It was only after our wedding that I learned that he was wrong- but I never confronted him about it. I should have though. I knew something wasn’t right when my hymen broke after one night together, months before our wedding. I never told him about that either. I just pretended the blood was my period, even though it clearly wasn’t. I didn’t have the courage to admit to myself that I lost my virginity before getting married. I didn’t have the courage to call what we were doing sex.
Most of the problems in my marriage were minor, but when added up, they have made me into a very timid, anxious, and insecure person around him. It left me walking on eggshells around him because nothing I did was ever good enough. I lived in fear of his anger. I held my breath every night to avoid waking him up by my movements. I stopped eating with a fork altogether and ate with a spoon & knife to avoid his angry reaction to the sound a fork makes on a plate. There were many accommodations I made to keep the harmony in the home, without him even knowing it. I denied myself my own humanity, in order to prevent any conflict with him- I tried to tiptoe around the apartment, keep the water faucet on low when using it, and keep the apartment clean, because he didn’t lift a finger to help. He argued that house chores were my responsibility, because he worked longer hours than me and I was supposed to match his hard work in what I did at home. It didn’t matter that I had work and class to attend also. I could never keep up though, because there were days that I’d forget to do things or was too tired or depressed to do as he asked. When I did manage to get everything done, he always managed to find things wrong with how I did them. In addition to all of this, he wanted to have a relationship with me and for me to be attentive to him and his needs- emotional & otherwise. I could only give so much. After a couple of years, I found myself running on empty, because he didn’t support me in the way that I supported him. He expected me to care for him and for myself. He made me responsible for managing my emotions and his. In the end, he accused me of neglecting him as his own mother did during his childhood. I wasn’t his mother though. When and why had he made me to be her in his mind? He didn’t see me for who I was in the end, but who he wanted me to be- he wanted me to be everyone who had let him down in life. I don’t think he saw me at all for who I was and I also lost sense of who I was until I escaped.
Why I Stayed
People have asked me why I stayed with my ex husband for so long if he mistreated me so much. I always struggle to answer that question. The problem with domestic abuse is that it never starts all at once; instead, it begins very gradually. It took years of things getting worse to even recognize it as abuse. It’s so easy to adjust to a person’s faults when you spend so much time around them and especially when you live with them. We are like this with our families and close friends- how many of us are truly aware of all the things they do that we don’t like? Especially within marriage, I wasn’t sure of where the line was between marital problems & abuse. So every time he got upset about something, I understood it to be a legitimate frustration of his. Even when his criticisms became overwhelming, I figured that it was an honest mistake of mine, & he was allowed to be upset. We didn’t live together until after marriage, so I understood our tensions to be part of adjusting to living with one another.
Another thing delayed my decision to get out of this situation: I didn’t have the proper vocabulary for describing my experiences. Like many survivors of abuse, I didn’t understand my experience to be abuse- so how could I discuss it as anything more than my ex husband being very hard on me? It took me a long time to develop this vocabulary, let alone know that it even existed for me. One thing that helped me develop this vocabulary was the fact that my ex husband is a budding psychologist in graduate school. I listened and learned many words that I didn’t know of before. The other thing that was crucial for my ability to call my experience abuse was hearing people I trusted call it such. If it wasn’t for my friends who pointed this out to me, I would have never considered it, or it would have taken me much longer to figure it out by myself.
Never underestimate the importance of being “woke”. I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now without getting woke, and most importantly, having woke friends help wake me up.
Ever since leaving my ex husband, I’ve been having anxiety attacks due to triggers almost every day. I am triggered by loud or sudden noises because every time my ex husband was upset with me, he would throw things and make a great deal of noise on purpose. Often times it would be slamming doors, or breaking both inexpensive and expensive items, such as a computer tablet.
In the beginning, I would ask him to stop and instead talk to me about what’s bothering him. He would look at me coldly and lie, saying “I’m not upset, this is the way I normally handle things” or “this is as calm as I’m going to get.” After awhile , I stopped asking him to stop and would go into another room and put in ear plugs, or just leave our apartment altogether to stay with friends. I didn’t know until I left him that these would become triggers for me, and that every time there’s a change in someone’s tone of voice or a sudden noise, that I’d have a meltdown or anxiety attack.
The response or reaction I have to these is completely involuntary and I wish I could stop it, but I can’t. Such is the nature of having PTSD. All I can do is figure out ways of coping. I have had different jobs this past year that I’ve had to quit because of how I was triggered at each of them. In addition, I can’t go to large stores or to places where it is too loud or there are too many people. I’m currently in a job that triggers me every day and while my managers have allowed accommodations for me with wearing earplugs, it still puts a strain on me. I’m trying my best though.
There must be a way to overcome this, but I don’t know how. Sometimes all I can do is call out of work and go home and hide in bed with ear plugs in my ears, waiting for my body and mind to calm down.
Feeling safe in my own bed is a very basic thing that I haven’t experienced until I left him.
While married, the bed was where I had to hold my breath and stay as still as I could so that I didn’t disturb his sleep.
While married, the bed was where I would be woken to him trying to have sex with me, and I would pretend to be asleep or ignore what was happening, while he did what he wanted.
While married, the bed was where I could only stay as long as he allowed. He didn’t allow me to sleep in and would angrily wake me up when I slept in on weekends.
While married, the bed was where I wasn’t allowed to be when I felt depressed or wasn’t feeling well. In either case, he’d guilt trip me into “sucking it up” and “act like a responsible adult” and do my home chores and never call out of work or school.
While married, if I hogged the blanket while asleep (even without realizing it), he would rudely wake me and rip the blanket off me and loudly tell me that I couldn’t have any blanket to sleep with because of taking it from him and disturbing his sleep.
While married, if I moved around too much in bed and woke him, he would turn on the lights, wake me up, and force me to stay awake with him until he decided to sleep again.
While married, the bed was where I experienced a great deal of guilt and shame regarding sex. It’s where I learned to hate sex.
While married, I couldn’t cuddle with him for long before he would make sexual advances and then accuse me of leading him on when I didn’t consent.
The first night I spent away from him last summer was a night of celebration in my mind, because I could breathe again. I could finally reclaim the bed as a safe space for myself, and that I did. The bed is a very important place in all of our lives because we spend more than half of life in it sleeping. It’s crucial for it to be a safe space for us. That’s why I make so many self portraits in my bed. It’s finally mine and it will never not be.
Losing my family
I lost many things while married, but the greatest thing I lost was my family. My ex husband slowly but surely drove a wedge between my family and me. As critical as he was of me, he was ten times more critical with my family. With time, I lost touch with the people who I shared blood with, and it pains me to this day that it happened. For six years I lost them. Sure, I still saw them here and there at least a few times a year, but our relationship was so strained- his mistreatment of my family was worse than his mistreatment of me, and because I was so susceptible, I believed him and what he said about them. My family and I reunited from the moment I told them I had decided to divorce my ex husband. In this past year, I have worked really hard to fix what damage had been made to my relationship with them. They have been supportive of me in ways that I feel I just don’t deserve. How can I deserve to be loved and forgiven for what caused them so much pain? How many birthdays and holidays and even mundane moments did we miss having with each other because of him? How could I have been so naïve? I was brainwashed.
Notes he used to leave me: THINGS TO REMEMBER
1. Ryan’s ears hurt when Jasmine talks loudly.
2. Ryan will discuss Jasmine’s job potential at St. Vladimir’s when Deacon Greg or Fr. Chad bring it up. Ryan will not initiate the conversation.
4. Think before you speak. This applies to digesting and condensing what you are about to say, before you say it, as well as considering whether or not you should say something.
5. Ryan would like to share what is going on with him without it being turned into something about Jasmine.
6. Ryan does not want to talk.
7. Ryan appreciates Jasmine wiping the counter down at the end of the night.
8. Ryan does not sleep well.
9. Ryan has a lot that he thinks about too. (of #5)
10. Ryan likes relaxing at night, not getting into serious, heavy, or counseling discussions.
11. Ryan gets very frustrated when having to repeat himself, either when jasmine is not listening or on a daily basis.
12. Ryan gets even more frustrated when he has to repeat that he gets frustrated when he has to repeat himself.
13. Ryan is tired of being tired.
14. Sometimes it is better to listen to ryan and take a break from a discussion.
. Ryan appreciates when Jasmine is open & vocal about what she wants in bed.
. When Ryan answers a binary question, he does not need to be questioned. Accept his answer.
. Ryan wants to be with Jasmine- Ryan is not going to leave Jasmine- but wants things to get better, become more harmonious- this cannot happen without change.
. Ryan is giving up on change.
. Ryan is tired.
My Armenian Church Community
I wasn’t allowed to discuss our marital problems with anyone, because he was concerned that I would taint his image for others. By spring of 2017, I no longer cared about what I was allowed to do and spoke with clergy & a few confidants. I was desperate, because our Brooklyn apartment felt like a warzone and each day had its own battles. I think it was when my ex husband decided to ignore me for two weeks & try to kick me out of the car on the way to church a few times that I began reaching out in secret. Some of the clergy who knew my ex husband were very saddened by what I told them, but were also not surprised, because they had witnessed his violent temper while he was studying at St. Nersess Armenian seminary. They were very supportive and said that it was up to me what I decided to do, but didn’t give any advice as to what I should do. But I was looking for a way out without even realizing it, because I kept going to other clergy I knew to seek out help. Unfortunately, some of the clergy I sought advice from admitted that they didn’t think my marital problems were very serious, or that perhaps I’m not giving him enough sex. They didn’t see signs of abuse, they just saw an unhappy wife complaining about her marriage. After being married for six years and relying on the Armenian Church for spiritual support, as well as emotional and otherwise, I had to learn the hard way that the Church couldn’t help me or didn’t know how to help me. My teachers and friends from the School of Visual Arts, where I had studied photography and held a degree, were the ones who gave me the vocabulary to understand my situation as abusive.
They validated my experiences and helped empower me as a person. They gave me a place to stay and helped me to move out of New York to a safe and wholesome environment. I never considered that I was undergoing abuse before this because it wasn’t physical abuse. But I learned from my friends and school family that not all abuse is physical, and that what I was experiencing was verbal and psychological abuse. I still have close friends in the Armenian Church and other Orthodox Churches, but my trust has been shaken, because when I didn’t know what to do, my mentor and friends from SVA were there to help me. I had to look outside of the Armenian community for help, because I couldn’t find any inside the community. I wish the Armenian Church was equipped to look for signs of abuse other than physical abuse. Even those priests who supported me were against divorce and spoke against it. Armenian clergy, even in the diaspora, don’t consider that psychological abuse can be just as toxic and dangerous as physical abuse. Yes, I was never injured, but I was driven to the point of wanting to kill myself every time we had a fight. Is that not a product of abuse?
In the first couple weeks of November 2015, my ex-husband got hit by a car while riding his bike from our home in Brooklyn to school in Manhattan. He blacked out during the collision and only remembers flying through the air and waking up on the pavement. We found out later that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury, as well as five herniated discs in his spine: in his neck and lower back. My ex husband had an excruciating amount of pain that no painkillers were able to lessen. From then on and for the next year and a half, I was his full time caretaker, as he was practically bedridden. I didn’t work, but instead stayed home to care for him. For six months, he was subject to monthly cortisone injections in his spine and when the injections lost their effectiveness, he opted for surgery to repair and replace a couple of his discs.
Things had already been tense between us, but the accident made my life with him go from being tolerable to a complete nightmare. Any goodness found in the marriage was slowly striped apart by what I had to endure while being his caretaker. More troubling than the pain he endured was his brain injury. He couldn’t remember where he had placed his keys after putting them down. He had slurred speech when he spoke for too long in conversation. Conversation was exhausting for him actually, because even when he didn’t slur, he would sometimes fall asleep. We later learned that in addition to a traumatic brain injury, he also had developed post traumatic stress disorder. I was already accustomed to his verbal abuse while he was in pain, but nothing prepared me for the psychological war he declared on me with these things happening in his brain. I was the brunt of projection and transference every day. In addition to struggling with day to day activities, he also was forced to address past traumas that had happened to him, many of which he had never worked through until this point in his life. For the first time in his life, he felt completely vulnerable. He was homebound, unable to work or study, and everything he had prided himself in being good at, was no longer something that came easily to him. He sincerely believed that there wasn’t a single thing he could fail at, that he was good at everything. This accident proved him wrong. The accident reminded him that he was human. That didn’t stop him from trying to be his regular self though, and every time he failed, he took it out on me.
It’s very difficult for me to write about these things. I’m forced to relive these memories in order to write about them. It leaves me really anxious and depressed- sometimes for hours and sometimes for days afterwards. The memories are so debilitating for me, but I am determined to continue writing and creating work about it, because bringing trauma to my mind’s surface forces me to deal with it & to work through it so I can heal and move on. In my day to day life now, these memories don’t come to my mind as frequently as they did before, because my life is much better now and looks very different. I don’t have to hold my breath while around my new partner or my friends and family. I can be myself without any consequences. This is extremely important, because my ex husband slowly stripped away at me by taking issue with every aspect of myself. My resistance was treated as pushback or as my refusal to have harmony between him and me. I wanted there to be harmony, so I did my best to comply, because I knew that compromise was an essential part of being in a relationship, but he didn’t do any compromising on his part. I felt so isolated during that time though and I remember taking walks and often screaming inside my mind- it took everything I had to keep from falling apart myself. I couldn’t fall apart then because I had to make the marriage work, and I can’t fall apart now, because I finally have a chance to live freely.
What made me decide to leave him? It was a number of things, the first of them being when he tried to kick me out of our home in spring of 2016. That was the first strike for me and the second one was when he started having meltdowns over little issues that were usually just things he didn’t like about me. The last strike came during our cross country road trip in June 2017. The car rides were full of so much verbal abuse and his aggressive driving.
He couldn’t stand being in close proximity with me for more than an hour without getting upset about something. Then in Colorado, he pulled over upon finding out that I was having trouble trusting him after he tried to kick me out the year prior. He then picked up his bag and said he was leaving to go live in the woods. I could tell he was not in his right mind when he decided this, and after much pleading, I threatened to call the police if he left. He threatened to divorce me if I did but I held my ground and we both got back in the car and resumed driving. He didn’t wear his wedding band for a week after that while in California, saying that without trust we weren’t married. Our first morning in Santa Fe, he started packing up his things and said that we’re going back to New York. I stood my ground and refused. After much back and forth, I did something I should have done at the beginning of this trip: I booked myself a hotel room and said he could go back without me. He was furious, but I made him promise that he would at least drop me off at the hotel. At one point he stopped the car and started taking my belongings out of the car saying that I could walk from here and that he didn’t want to take me anymore. I told him I didn’t want to get out of the car and grabbed my things. He continued driving and then suddenly turned the car around and announced that he was driving back to New York. I asked him to stop and take me to the hotel first but he ignored me. I began screaming at him, telling him to stop the car but he ignored me. By that point I just wanted to get out of the car and get away from him, but he wouldn’t stop driving, so I began pulling the emergency brake to force him to stop. He kept undoing the emergency brake each time I pulled the emergency brake, so I finally reached for the car key and pulled it out of ignition so that the car would stall. Only then did he come to his senses, began to cry, and took me to the hotel. It was only a week later that I told him I wanted a separate, and three weeks after that to tell him I wanted a divorce. It makes me sad that it took me fearing for my safety to leave him, but I suppose that’s what it took. I used to wonder where the line was for me with him, because I had put up with so much abuse over the years. It should have been much earlier in the marriage, but I always tried to overlook the negative and look at the positive in him. I made excuses for him and enabled him, because I saw the good in him, until I was so worn down that and he became so angry that I couldn’t see the good anymore.