‘I was a victim, but I am a survivor’: Woman’s miraculous journey from scarring physical abuse, to severe PTSD, to ‘hope and happiness’

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Warning: The following content deals with physical abuse and may be distressing to some readers.

“My story is so much more than weight loss, although that was a huge accomplishment. I didn’t have a perfect childhood and there were parts of it that geared me towards the path I went down, but it wasn’t horrible, and I wasn’t unloved. My parents really did the best they could with me. They were not perfect and there were issues that did affect me and the decisions I made, but the path I walked, I chose. Unable to cope and not wanting to deal with life stresses, I began running away at 14, staying between friends’ houses and dabbling with non-hardcore drugs and drinking. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be gone without word for a couple months at a time, reappearing at home for a few months before things got hard and I bailed again.

Ashley Gerger

Eventually, a regular day of hanging out at the mall with friends ended up sending me down to whatever lies beneath despair. I was 16, and currently on the run in between friends’ houses. I had been staying up all night with a group of runaways at a Denny’s near me. Then in the morning, we’d all pile in a house of someone whose parents were at work and sleep while they were gone. In the afternoon, we’d get up and usually go to the mall to eat and meet up with friends who actually went to school and lived at home. While at the mall we met one friend who was also a runaway. She offered for me to come stay with her by her friend’s house. He seemed nice, was kind of shy and quiet, and was very accommodating. He had money and cars and would basically let us hang out at his house while he worked and would take us out in his off-time.

Ashley Gerger

He was 23, drove a teal Trans Am, my fav color, and I thought he was amazing. As a 16-year-old, my mind didn’t see what was wrong with being with him, but the adult me is sickened. With him there was no stress, and everything was happy. Eventually my friend moved out, and I found myself in a relationship with him. It was great for the first couple months. Then one night some neighbors kept screaming in the alley outside. It went on for half an hour. I yelled for them to be quiet and felt a hand fly across my face. That was the first time he hurt me. He said I was going to get us shot and that he reacted out of fear. I had always felt safe with him, so I believed him.

I can’t remember when the next time was, just that it started slowly, always with a reason that made sense or seemed to justify it. Over the next year it picked up pace. He started getting irritated and angry at minor offenses. Putting me down emotionally and at times ‘correcting’ my behavior by shoving me, choking me, and hitting me. I wish I could say this is as bad as it got, but that was still a cake walk. Pregnant at 17, I tried to leave and was beaten black and blue. I had bruises all over my back. He knocked down the bathroom door and kicked me for I don’t even know how long. I balled up on the floor and waited for it to be over.

I waited for him to be gone and locked myself in the master bedroom. One thick, well installed door, two deadbolts, and a chain lock. It took three days for him to leave the house. I unlocked the deadbolts once in hopes of going to the bathroom and to get food, but he was there. He tried to push through the chain lock and had a knife (he was always armed). I backed off and pushed a dresser against the door, holding it in place with my legs. Unable to get in, he would mess with me by running the knife blade up and down the crack he kept pried in the door, then would stop for a little while and do it again. I heard him go downstairs a few hours later and I finally fully locked myself in. I didn’t open the door again until I saw his car leave the next night. I went to the hospital, called my mom and went back with my parents for a little while.

Ashley Gerger

But, as they usually do, he worked his way back in, using promises and guilt. It got much worse from here. One evening we were sitting on his front porch, our 2-month-old daughter sleeping inside. Two girls walked past, and he introduced me as his friend. I got upset and went in the house. His response to me ‘humiliating’ him in front of them was to go after our daughter. I got in between them, and he said, ‘Fine, either I hurt her or I hurt you.’ I said, ‘Hurt me then, don’t hurt her.’ He began hitting me and my mind just went numb to it. I accepted it. Eventually I found myself on the floor unable to move.

He shoved me over onto my stomach and used a box cutter to slice down my back starting at my shoulder blade going all the way to my buttocks. The thickness of the cut varied depending on what area he was cutting or if he needed to re-position the blade. When he was done, he carved his initials in my butt cheek and said, ‘From now on, any man you are with will know who ruined you,’ dumped a bottle of rubbing alcohol down my back so I ‘wouldn’t get infected’ and tossed a bedsheet on my back to soak up the blood. For the next few weeks every shirt I wore would reopen the wounds. Though a lot of the areas where he cut has now faded away, I still have many scars from the abuse I endured. From there, it was fear that kept me around. I tried going to the police, but he threatened to kill me and my daughter, so I recanted. The D.A. wasn’t having it and said they’d go on physical evidence without my testimony.

Ashley Gerger
Ashley Gerger

We fled. It wasn’t an option. My daughter and I went with him to Mexico City. I lived there for 2.5 months. While he was out one day, I took my daughter and our belongings and got a cheap room in another area of the massive city. I got a calling card, went to a payphone and called my mom. She and my aunt pooled the money to fly me back to the United States.

Eight years later, thinking he was out of our lives for good, it turns out he came back from Mexico and was living in Arizona. He moved in with his family and began fighting me for custody. I contested on the grounds of the open criminal case from the warrant he still had before we went to Mexico, however, it had been so long since the incident the D.A. no longer felt confident enough to try the case. He walked. This allowed his access to our daughter. Initially his visits were supervised, but he moved onto unsupervised overnights within a few months, even with me doing what I could to contest it. No more than a month into his visits, my daughter discovered something on his laptop that resulted in his arrest and prosecution. He was convicted on all 6 charges and sentenced to the state’s maximum on all counts. I’m not really sure if he will ever live to see life outside of prison.

Ashley Gerger

Although I have been on medications to treat my conditions in the past, I know that medications are meant to help get thoughts and emotions to a manageable level so you can learn the cognitive steps to get yourself through it without them. I don’t like medications personally, but if I feel like I am at a point where I need extra support I will use them as a temporary crutch until I can get my head back in the game.

Ashley Gerger
Ashley Gerger

The depression I believe I have worked my way out of successfully, though I know if I let my mind get down, it could creep back. Most of the nightmares and PTSD symptoms have subsided, with exception of when an event happens that triggers it. But the one that impacts me the most still is the anxiety and panic disorder.

Ashley Gerger

I’d be lying if I said I’m not afraid of my story being public, but I’m done being ashamed and I want to face it head it on despite the fear and anxiety. I’m over the weight of feeling other people’s judgements. They ask, ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ Fear, mind-conditioning, and being a 16-year-old with a teenage brain I suppose. After that, I went on untreated. I was never given a ‘how to get through trauma handbook,’ I didn’t even know I had those conditions. I just thought life was really bad at the time, and when things got better, I would feel better. I see now what needed to be done, but it was only after life took a turn and I lost everything. Intense therapy, medication management, classes, support groups, getting back in school, getting a job, and taking pride in the good that I’m accomplishing pushed my life back on track. I had a doctor tell me the fact that I didn’t become a statistic was amazing. I have had to fight for my life and the life of another, more than once. Although my struggles now are hard, they have never come close to what I am strong enough to survive.

Ashley Gerger

Getting my life back on track hasn’t been easy, and to be honest there are days when I stretch myself too thin and feel like I am failing. I don’t always get everything done that I hoped to — homework assignments left undone to spend the only time that night with my children that I can before bed, house left messy to take care of them or get school work done, days where I eat fast food for every meal. There is no accomplishment that I have made following my trauma that hasn’t come without stumbling or making mistakes. I have made progress, but that doesn’t mean I have it all figured out. I just do as much as I can, and tell myself that as long as I give my best I am allowed to stumble or fail. And as long as I do one thing each day to make life better, I am ok with that.

The weight loss has been such a positive boost to my health both physically and mentally. I no longer have back pain, am able to run and play with my children with ease, and I finally feel like myself again. Yet, even with all the weight gone, 15 years after my trauma, I am still learning to love my body for what it is, scars and all. It has taken a long time for me to be comfortable showing them, but they are mine and they remind me how far I have come. Your trials in life will make or break you. I was a victim, but I am a survivor.

My hope in sharing my story is that anyone who is still stuck with their abuser, or in the prison of their mind following the aftermath, sees that there is hope. Remind yourself of what you are capable of surviving. How strong you are to have endured what you have. Life can get better, and you deserve happiness.”

Ashley Gerger

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ashley Gerger, 34, of Wisconsin. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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