As I watched the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris last week, I was emotionally transported back to my younger self, in the first days after I ended a yearslong abusive relationship. I felt just as vulnerable and unsure last week as I had more than a decade prior—because in this moment, I sense we are all emerging from years of abuse.
We got together when I was 19, coming off a long-term, serious relationship with someone I loved deeply. I was sad and lonely, and this new man talked a big game about all the things he could do for me, constantly reminding me how lucky I was to be with him. That should have been my first red flag.
Instead, I brushed aside his narcissistic tendencies as “just who he is.” I let him insult me because I didn’t want to trigger his alternating rage and perpetual victim complex. Nothing was ever his fault—including the time he threw a cellphone at my head one night in my apartment. It missed and shattered on the wall instead. I stayed with him, in one form or another, for at least another year. Each time I had a moment of strength and tried to break up with him, I’d turn around and let him back into my life, finding myself too broken-down and tired to withstand his crying, screaming, and empty promises to do better.
He was cruel, manipulative, and a master gaslighter. He had me convinced that I deserved to be belittled and couldn’t be trusted with my own agency, so it was best to let him be in control.
After months of back-and-forth, and with thousands of miles between us, I finally found the conviction to say “enough,” and end the relationship permanently. By then, I had isolated myself from most of my close friends, who eventually tired of the evermore absurd accommodations I made for him.
After years of mistreatment, basic decency felt foreign, and almost threatening.
What I remember most from those first days out of the relationship are the two friends who stuck by me. For weeks, their small acts of kindness would bowl me over emotionally. A friend’s offer to pay for dinner floored me. A simple, earnest compliment could bring me to tears. After years of mistreatment, basic decency felt foreign, and almost threatening. I spent a lot of time wide-eyed, trying to remind my body and my mind what tenderness felt like. It took many months before my nerves—and my heart—felt less painfully raw. I cried often.
Over the past four years, I often found myself reliving the emotional trauma of that relationship. Watching another egotistical, proudly cruel man run roughshod over the people and things I held dear evoked a familiar trauma response. I could often anticipate how the president would react to critique, based on my own experience trying to hold my abuser accountable for the daily indignities he inflicted on me. I saw the same insults, the same gaslighting, the same insistence that I was (or we were collectively) too stupid to know what was right, played out daily on national news.
So maybe that’s why, last week, I found myself sitting in front of my screen with tears running down my cheeks.
Neither Biden nor Harris was among my top choices for the nomination, and I am deeply skeptical of the focus on “unity” that, I fear, will exploit our short cultural attention spans to avoid any meaningful accountability. But during the inauguration, the COVID memorial, and the Celebrating America special, I couldn’t help but feel a familiar catch in my throat with each kind word uttered by Biden—such a drastic contrast to his predecessor. I felt the same wonder emerging at the now-unfamiliar sensation of respectful interaction, and the hint of consideration for our shared humanity.
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Like those early days away from my abuser, I find myself now reacting to basic, common decency—or even simple competency—with a sense of awe. Watching the president sign an executive order reaffirming my right, as a queer woman—and more importantly, the rights of the trans people I love—to equal employment protection, felt monumental. Hearing a press secretary answer questions from members of the media, with minimal spin and clear respect for her fellow professionals in the room, felt almost fictional in its functionality.
None of this can—nor should—absolve the incoming administration from critique. Indeed, we collectively face compounding catastrophes that will destroy us if we don’t act boldly and decisively. The courage to do so will demand principled conviction and will not come without sacrifice and opposition.
If you’ve found yourself unexpectedly or inexplicably emotional over the past week, consider that we all have just begun to emerge from an abusive relationship.
But if you’ve also found yourself unexpectedly or inexplicably emotional over the past week, consider that we all have just begun to emerge from an abusive relationship. The 45th president of the United States wielded power with cruelty, he reveled in sowing division, and lied so frequently that the truth became unrecognizable. And though the relationship we’re entering with the new administration is far from perfect—indeed, many of those now populating the executive branch have their own problematic histories to answer for—it is, at the very least, different. There is reason to believe that this new relationship will bring with it a touch more humility, more truth, and perhaps even more empathy.
I realize this is an imprecise parallel. My ex did not have the institutional power that Donald Trump was granted. The damage caused by my ex’s cruelty does not compare to the scale of suffering inflicted upon millions of people in this country and beyond over the past four years (and longer). My ex was enabled by a small group of those close to him, not by a major political party, organized White supremacists, and some 70 million of my fellow Americans.
But even so, healing from the harm he inflicted was very similar. It took me years—and I still have flashbacks when I encounter men who behave like he did. Watching a Supreme Court justice snivel and rage with such blatant White male entitlement when challenged on his conduct was just one such moment of the past four years. And I know it could have been much worse—and for many people, it still is.
In the coming days and weeks, I hope we remember that we are reemerging, and rediscovering ourselves, after many years under the thumb of malicious, abusive leadership. We are grieving so much, in both literal and figurative ways. We will not be the same as we were before, and we cannot go back to how it was—nor should we.
We may be bruised; we may have even believed that we are broken. But we made it out. We still face vast uncertainty, and desperately need deep, systemic change if we are going to survive the years ahead. And there will be other egotistical, power-hungry people eager to control us by seeking to divide and subdue us. They will likely be more cunning and polished than that which we just escaped.
But today, it feels a little easier to find someone who might share the kind word that will crack the dam, opening the flood of empathy and grief and love. Or to be that person for someone else.
This is what I’ve learned, as a survivor: We are stronger than we know, and we have more allies than we think. The first step feels simple, but requires monumental courage and resilience. Step forward out of the shadows of fear and isolation, and look around. Trust your own perception of what you just experienced, and slowly, start to recognize that you deserve better. We all do.