There was a time when I found myself torn between two decisions: to stay in a toxic relationship and allow my daughter to believe that violence equated love, or to flee an abusive situation, leaving behind everything I had, facing homelessness and the unknown.
I chose freedom. I chose myself. I chose to break the cycle.
The relationship started strong, and I was heavily courted. There were gifts, trips, the showering of affection, and an elaborate, over-the-top marriage proposal. I thought, "What more could I ask for?" But suddenly, these grandiose acts had strings attached. The manipulation was meticulously laced throughout every facet of our relationship. I seemed to have developed blinders from the enchantment and couldn't see the blatant red flags rearing their ugly heads.
The relationship spiraled and I began to gradually find myself emotionally manipulated, gaslighted, shamed, belittled, name-called, abandoned and isolated. I walked on eggshells until the tension became too overwhelming and I became the victim of an aggressive outburst. I was expected to perform the traditional duties of a wife based on his perception of a marriage that was unattainable. My basic rights were taken away, such as driving my car or using my cell phone. The ties with my family and friends were slowly severed through guilt and manipulation.
I doubted my own sanity.
A myth about domestic violence is that it manifests in the form of physical abuse only. I used to believe in that concept and didn't think my suffering was worthy of seeking help. It wasn't until my daughter was afraid for her safety in our own home that I gave myself permission to leave.
I sought help from two local domestic violence agencies that gracefully took me in and helped open my eyes to the prevalent abuse in my relationship that had been corrupted by power, control and narcissism. Domestic violence can take many forms, including physical, emotional, spiritual, financial or sexual abuse, and I found myself enduring them all.
The resources the agencies provided restored my sense of hope. They provided the knowledge to put my abuse into words, with a safe space to plan an exit strategy from my relationship, with an educational support group, a pro-bono legal service, and the funds for my daughter and I to get an apartment for six months so I could financially get back on my feet.
The healing journey is a lifelong evolution comprised of discovering and embracing our authentic selves while discarding the muck, shame and negativity of the past. I equate it to the lotus flower. Through mud, roots and sludge, the lotus flower beautifully blooms, proudly claiming its position in the world, demonstrating strength, resilience and perseverance.
Thankfully, there are healing methods I've discovered for the post-traumatic stress that many domestic violence survivors experience. None are a one-size-fits-all, and none of them are a quick cure, but all of them have helped me move gradually toward peace while healing. Therapeutic yoga, essential oils, meeting with my therapist, neurofeedback, and a regular exercise routine have all positively impacted my stress levels. Being vulnerable, leaving my shame at the door where it belongs, and openly sharing my story with the community has helped me reclaim control over my life while relating to others who share similar experiences.
Now, I have the confidence and freedom to blaze a new trail.
In 2017, I founded an executive recruiting and talent consulting agency, now called W Talent Solutions. My firm donates 10% of its profit to West Michigan-based domestic violence agencies to support the same programs that have forever changed my life's trajectory. My hope is that I can help make change possible for women who are experiencing domestic violence and serve as an example of someone who was able to come out of it on the other side.
I am not alone in this journey. One in four women have experienced domestic violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Domestic violence doesn't need to be a taboo topic. The statistics prove that we all likely know someone experiencing domestic violence, and there are ways to make a difference by understanding the warning signs and being a resource to those in need.
By speaking up and being catalysts of awareness, resources and support, women experiencing domestic violence can lay the groundwork to change their lives for the better and receive the same hope that inspired me to rebuild my life.
YWCA West Central Michigan | ywcawcmi.org
Safe Haven Ministries | safehavenministries.org
SELAH Empowers | selah-empowers.org
Resilient Roots Trauma Informed Yoga | resilientrootsgr.com
Sound Body Sound Brain | soundbodysoundbrain.com
ThriveWorks Grand Rapids Domestic Violence Counseling | bit.ly/3oRp52b
Ashley Ward is the Founder and CEO of W Talent Solutions, an executive recruiting firm based in Grand Rapids. A survivor of domestic violence, Ashley founded W Talent Solutions in 2017 with a mission to empower women experiencing domestic violence and now gives 10% of profits to the YWCA so that other women can have the same chance she did.
This article originally appeared in the Oct/Nov '22 issue of West Michigan Woman.