The ghost of my ex was still living in my body, causing panic and fear at the slightest provocation.

Warning: This article contains descriptions of abuse that may be upsetting. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, help is available. Call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE for confidential support.

In September 2019, my boyfriend of 3 years backed me into a corner, screamed in my face, and headbutted me. I collapsed to the ground, sobbing.

He quickly knelt down, begging forgiveness.

This had happened countless times before. This time was different.

At that moment, I knew I wasn’t going to make any more excuses for him. I kicked him out of our flat that day.

I’m not sure why that was what finally did it. Maybe it was because being headbutted was new: He normally stuck to fists.

Maybe it was because I’d secretly started reading about abusive relationships, trying to figure out if that was what was happening to me. Looking back, I think I had been building up to that moment for a long time, and that day just pushed me over the edge.

It took many months of hard work in therapy to get some perspective. I realized that I had been living in constant fear for nearly 2 years since we started living together.

Therapy helped me understand the patterns I had fallen into. I saw I was directly seeking out people in my life who “needed help.” These people then went on to take advantage of my selfless nature. Sometimes people use that in the worst possible way.

Basically, I was being treated like a doormat.

I wasn’t responsible for how I was being treated, but therapy helped me acknowledge that I had an unhealthy perception of how a relationship should be.

With time, I moved on and started dating again. I wanted to remind myself that there were people out there who weren’t like him. I practiced making healthy decisions and identifying the type of people I wanted to be around, rather than the people who “needed” me.

I never intended to get into another relationship, but as often happens, I met someone amazing when I wasn’t even looking.

Things moved quickly, although I made sure to take serious stock with myself about whether or not I was making the same mistakes as before. I found, over and over again, that I wasn’t.

I made him aware of my past on our very first date, a date that went on for over 24 hours.

My best friend was texting periodically to make sure I was okay, and I was reassuring her that I felt safe. My date asked me, jokingly, if my friend was checking up on me. I said yes, and explained that she’s a little more protective than most due to my last relationship.

It was early to tell him about my abusive ex, but I felt I had a good measure of his character. He asked me to let him know if he ever did anything unintentionally that made me feel uncomfortable.

When lockdown started, we moved in together. The alternative was being entirely alone for an unknown amount of time.

Luckily, it’s gone well. What I didn’t expect was my past trauma to raise its head.

Warning signs of abuse

If you’re concerned about a family member or friend, watch for several important signs that could indicate they’re in an abusive relationship and need help. These include:

  • withdrawing and making excuses not to see friends or family or do activities they once did (this can be something the abuser is controlling)
  • seeming anxious around their partner or afraid of their partner
  • having frequent bruises or injuries they lie about or can’t explain
  • having limited access to money, credit cards, or a car
  • showing an extreme difference in personality
  • getting frequent calls from a significant other, especially calls that require them to check in or that make them seem anxious
  • having a partner who has a temper, is easily jealous, or very possessive
  • clothing that could be hiding bruises, like long-sleeve shirts in the summer

For more information, see our Domestic Violence Resource Guide or reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

There were hints of old fears cropping up before we moved in together, but it became clear what was happening once we were spending all of our time together.

I had felt a little unsettled before, but it was much easier to brush off those feelings of anxiety and paranoia when they weren’t happening every day. Once we moved in together, I knew I had to talk to my boyfriend about what was going on with me.

The fear and defensiveness that were my norm with my ex were still present in the depths of my mind and body.

My new boyfriend is everything my ex wasn’t, and wouldn’t lay a finger on me. Still, I occasionally react as if he might.

I’m still conditioned to believe that any frustration or annoyance on the part of my partner can become anger and violence directed at me. I imagine it’s amplified by the fact that we’re living in the apartment I once shared with my abuser, as much as I’ve done my best to make the rooms feel different.

It’s the silly things that bring back these feelings — the things that no one should really get angry about.

My ex would use them as an excuse to indulge the frustration and rage within him. And for me, that meant I had to be afraid.

One day when my boyfriend knocked on the door after work, I flew into a full-blown panic. My ex used to get angry with me if I didn’t unlock the door when he texted to say he was on his way home.

I apologized over and over, on the verge of tears. My boyfriend spent several minutes calming me down and reassuring me that he wasn’t angry that I didn’t unlock the door.

When my new boyfriend was teaching me some jiu jitsu, he pinned me down by the wrists. I had been laughing and doing my best to throw him, but that particular position made me freeze up.

It was far too reminiscent of being pinned down and screamed at by my ex, something I had forgotten about until that moment. Memory can be strange like that, repressing trauma.

My boyfriend took one look at my terrified face and immediately let go. Then he held me while I cried.

Another time, we were play fighting after doing some baking, threatening to smear each other with the cookie dough left on the wooden spoon. I was laughing and dodging the sticky spoon until I got backed into a corner.

I froze, and he could immediately tell something was wrong. Our play stopped as he gently led me out of the corner. In that moment, my body felt like I was back in a situation I couldn’t escape, back when I had something I had to escape from.

There are countless examples of similar events — times when my body reacted instinctively to something that used to mean danger. Nowadays, I don’t have anything to be afraid of, but my body remembers when it did.

I spoke to Ammanda Major, relationship counselor, sex therapist, and the Head of Clinical Practice at Relate, the UK’s largest provider of relationship support, to try to understand why this was happening.

She explained that “the legacy of domestic abuse can be immense. Survivors are often left with trust issues, and in some cases potentially PTSD, but with specialist therapy it can often be managed and people can work through it.”

“One of the key things for moving forward is being able to recognize and ask for your own needs to be met, because in an abusive relationship your needs go entirely unrecognized,” says Major.

Even with therapy, it can be challenging for those coming out of an abusive relationship to recognize the warning signs when the same pattern starts happening again.

“It’s possible to have a good and healthy relationship, but many survivors will struggle to make healthy connections and communicate their needs. They may find that they’re drawn to other people who turn out to be abusive because it’s what they’ve become accustomed to,” says Major.

Other times, survivors don’t want to risk the possibility that abuse could happen all over again.

“Sometimes survivors can’t see themselves in a relationship again. It’s all about trust, and that trust has been broken,” Major says.

The important thing is to learn who you are, especially when you’re alone.

Major says “Although a new relationship can be incredibly healing to some people, the key takeaway and main way to move forward is to try and find out who you are as an individual, rather than as an accessory to your abuser.”

My responses aren’t all that surprising after spending 2 years constantly on edge. If my ex got annoyed at anyone or anything, it would be me taking the blame.

Even though my new partner is nothing like my old one, I’m preparing myself for the same reactions. Reactions that no loving, stable partner would have.

Major explains, “It’s what we call a traumatized response. It’s the brain telling you that you’ve experienced this before, that you might be in danger. It’s all part of the recovery process, as your brain doesn’t know at first that you’re safe.”

These steps can start the healing process and help rebuild trust:

  • Find a therapist who specializes in domestic abuse.
  • Practice breathing techniques to stay calm when things get tough.
  • Learn how to stay grounded and present during difficult situations.
  • Recognize and ask for your needs to be met in all your relationships.
  • Explain your triggers to your partner so they can be prepared.

“It makes a huge difference if your new partner is able to explain, understand, and be supportive,” Major says. “By laying down new experiences to replace the old, traumatic ones, the brain may eventually learn that these situations don’t indicate danger.”

I’m slowly learning that I’m safe again.

Each time my boyfriend gets annoyed at little things and doesn’t take his frustration out on me with bullying, unkind words, or physical violence, I relax a little bit.

Even though my mind has always known that my boyfriend is nothing like my ex, my body is also slowly learning to trust. And each time he does something that inadvertently triggers me, like back me into a corner or pin me down after a particularly enthusiastic tickle fight, he apologizes and learns from it.

He’ll either give me space if I don’t want to be touched in that moment, or hold me until my heart rate slows down to normal.

My whole life is different now. I’m no longer spending every waking moment appeasing someone else for fear of their mood swings. Occasionally though, my body still thinks it’s back with my abuser.

Once I thoroughly cut my ex out of my life, I thought I was healed. I knew I would have work to do on myself, but I didn’t expect the ghost of my ex to still be living in my body, causing panic and fear at the slightest provocation.

I may not have anticipated my subconscious fears would rear their head, but it’s getting better.

Like therapy, healing takes work. Having the support of a partner who’s kind, caring, and understanding makes the journey a lot easier.

Many resources exist for people who have experienced abuse. If you’re experiencing abuse, make sure it’s safe for you to access these resources on your computer or phone.

Bethany Fulton is a freelance writer and editor based in Manchester, United Kingdom.