I have worked with numerous victims of abuse. It’s amazing how abuse – in any form – sneaks up on you. It’s only when you find yourself and your life spinning out of control and has become something you never thought would happen, do you even begin to have any clarity pave a path. How your lens about yourself and your life changes. Yet, abuse is just that insidious. The put downs, the verbal aggression are ever so slight and nuanced in a way, that at first glance, don’t appear to be exactly what it is – abuse. But, it is. And eventually the verbal and emotional abuse paves a wave for physical abuse.
And because abuse is insidious, people (predominately women, but many men as well) find themselves staying in an abusive and toxic relationship too long. Their lives become entwined, making it much more difficult to ‘just leave’ – as most people who have not experienced abuse say. I must admit that statement always leaves me with a quizzical look on my face because people say it as if victims don’t want to leave or as if that thought never crossed their mind! ugh!
With all that being said, when I was asked to write about my experience with abuse, I hit the pause button. I am a private person and I knew writing about this time in my life would make me feel raw and exposed. Yet the opportunity in all that would be a feeling of empowerment and if I could share my story to change just one person’s life and give them hope – then I would consider that a success and well worth any uncomfortable feeling I may have experienced.
My first husband was a hard worker. We came from similar backgrounds. He worked with his hands and was self employed (like my father). Although I had reservations about getting married, I ignored my gut and got married. He had ‘an edge’, was irritable and temperamental. I did a lot of things wrong in his mind. The marriage didn’t last long – about 14 months. I look back and realize how I young I was, how much I didn’t know. But, despite the years between my 1st and 2nd marriages, I didn’t do the necessary work to ensure I didn’t make the same mistake again. Had I done that – taken the necessary time – I might have not landed myself in another bad marriage. Who knows? But, I didn’t.
Charismatic, exciting, living on the edge and having an edge (yes another), would be how I would describe my first initial reaction to my second husband. He was a talker. A schmoozer. Narcissistic (that hasn’t changed. They never do). And no doubt if he were to read this, he would gloat reading that. As if. We hadn’t been dating long when he pushed me down in the parking lot of the apartment building where he was living. I don’t recall why he did it but no doubt I did or said something wrong. That would become a common theme. It would, unfortunately, become one of many instances of abuse that I would experience in the almost four years that we were together. And although my memory of the fight that ensued following that first push is now hazy and gray, I do recall feeling disbelief and shock. But, the actual memory of being pushed down resonates in the part of the brain that just doesn’t let those memories go. They fade and become blurry. But when you experience trauma, two parts of your brain – the fight/flight/freeze and memory – become ‘wedded for life’ and the memories can appear with very little effort. A smell, sight, feeling, words, picture, place – are all triggers.
We had our ups and downs like any bad relationship filled with breaking and making up, often contingent on his mood (think Jekyll & Hyde), but not always. I returned willingly knowing our history and how he had treated me in the past. But, in my mind, the bad stuff was peppered with some really good and fun days – even months. He had 2 young children at the time and I grew to love them and love him. That’s what makes abusive relationships so hard to break away from. The love mixed in with contempt, the good and fun times mixed in with the really bad times. This only adds to your confusion. Clearly I didn’t feel good about myself, my esteem wasn’t all that great, and I must have felt in some porthole of my brain, that I deserved it. That maybe what he was saying was true. This is how the abuser convinces you of what a bad a person you are.
He lied often about his whereabouts, what he was doing, where his money was going. I found out he was cheating, but somehow he talked himself out of that one. Somehow I was the disillusioned one. (I know now that much of his behavior could be defined as gaslighting). But, I was held to a whole different standard. Yet, despite the lies, abuse, and his moods, I continued to believe – and stay. He was a master of the cycle of abuse – coming around the next day, apologizing for his wrong, vowing to never to do it again. But he did.
Alcohol induced adrenalin had nothing on him. There was a time when I purchases this small hutch. The color was a bit different than what I thought it would be, but it was good enough. For me. But he didn’t like it and although he didn’t tell me as much, he demonstrated his hate when after a night of drinking decided to carry the hutch up a flight of stairs (2 steps at a time no less) and place it in the hallway. This was followed by being berated and belittled and how stupid I was to purchase this piece of furniture. I don’t recall how the hutch got moved back downstairs only that it wasn’t long for our apartment. Over the years, there were other physical incidents (kicking, punching) that would occur. Even now as I write this, the memories come flooding back as if it was yesterday.
Fortunately, my ‘aha’ moment did arrive less than a year into the marriage. It’s a day that I never forget. I describe it as a ‘flash’ that went off in my brain and it changed my life completely. And forever. Another argument erupted about how I did something wrong and being stupid (this time it was an AC unit) Fortunately, he quickly passed out due to drinking and I knew right then I was done. And I was. The next morning he left for work and I got busy. Packed up my jeep with as much of my belongings as I could, and I walked out the door. And never looked back.
Now, it would be a wonderful story if it ended right there. But, we all know that when you live with an abusive person, rarely does it end right there. I would correspond with him a few more times thinking we could part amicably (I know crazy, right?) finding myself still feeling stuck and bad for him (like victims do). But I also was still very fearful of him. Victims are incredibly fearful of retaliation and want to smooth things over – as they have been doing for the duration of the relationship. Although there would be a few threats made to me over the next few months, I moved on and so did he. It would be months later that I would return with my family – to retrieve the rest of my belongings.
My Happy Ending.
The day that I left is one of the best days of my life. It was my ‘aha’ moment, my game changer, my tipping point, and my pivot all wrapped up in one. It took me a long time to process how that time in my life had evolved to what it had become up until that point. But, doesn’t it take a long time to process all of that? Of course it does. It should. Who wants to end up in the same place, yet again?
And, I did get my happy ending. I bought a home, finished my doctorate, and eventually – years later – moved to NYC. In November of last year, I married for 3rd and final time to the most remarkable man I have ever met. All those things that embrace a healthy relationship, we have.
Are you a survivor of domestic violence? I would love to hear your story!