Thursday, October 7, 2010
My Unbreakable Heart
It’s October. The month I became a mother almost 8 years ago, Halloween. It’s also Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Last year, as a part of my own self-healing process, I wrote a story. It was my story, framed as fiction. Everything in it was real, except the device I used to tell it. Somehow discussing my marriage. The pain. The abuse. The heartache and tears and lies and betrayals. Somehow it was easier to talk about these people in the third person. To step back and see them as characters in a story I’d written. And I guess they were, in a way. In my 8 year marriage, I somehow became a caricature of myself. Living a life that wasn’t mine. Playing a part.
This is the first time I’ve written about those experiences as me. You can catch most of the details in the story below. But now, a year after having written it, I feel it needs some discussion.
Why do women stay in abusive marriages? This is the question most people think, if they don’t ask it outright. Hell, I STILL ask this question, as I have yet to come up with an adequate answer for myself.
In my story, the one below this post, it ends with my character enjoying a state of enlightenment I can only hope to achieve.
Who I Was and Who I Will Be
Right now, I am somewhere in the middle of who I was then and who I hope to be. I’m a woman, a writer, a single mom of three beautiful girls, struggling to make sense of myself, my past and my life. If you had asked me 10 years ago what I would do if a man strangled me, threatened to kill me, or hurt me in any way physically, my answer would have involved many expletives and a detailed description of what his key body parts would be doing without him.
I was strong. Beautiful. Independent. Intelligent. Educated. Trained in martial arts. A feminist. I was all the things you would NEVER expect of an abused wife. And then I became an abused wife. And all those other adjectives fell to the wayside as I became a ghost of myself, haunting my own life.
My husband wasn’t an evil man. I wasn’t a spineless, uneducated wimp. These are stereotypes that people like to imagine are true, so they feel immune to the realities of what could be. At least that’s how I thought.
Why did I stay?
Because I still believed it would change. Get better. That he would change. Because the image of him I held in my head wasn’t based on anything real, but I’m VERY good at imagining. Because I needed to not fail at this oh-so-important ritual of life. And then, because I wanted my girls to be raised by both parents. Because I didn’t (and still don’t) want to be a single mom. Because I was scared of losing him. Of what he would become. Of what I had become. Of facing the truth of myself. And because I was scared no one would believe me. (And many of our friends didn’t. He was, after all, more fun and easy going of the two of us. He plays video games and “hangs out” a lot. I don’t. So there’s that.)
But, I did leave. Well, I gave him a choice and he chose to leave. And I was left with the shell of myself. It took me 8 months to come out of my self-inflicted coma. What I saw when I finally looked in the mirror (proverbial and literal) shocked me. The memory of me was shattered by the reality of who I had become.
It’s been almost 2 years now. I am stronger. Wiser (I hope). Healthier. I’m doing work I love and supporting my children. But still inside me lives this demon of fear. It’s not as big. It’s not getting fed the steady diet it once enjoyed. But it’s not yet gone either.
In May I went up north to face my ex in court for a custody trial. And everything came back. My self-confident, intelligent, unflappable veneer was utterly blown apart. I sat in the witness stand and endured several hours of cross-examination by this man who had chosen to represent himself. My best friend as well as my attorney both likened the experience to watching a rapist cross-examine his victim. My body language, tone of voice, demeanor, all screamed “VICTIM!” Whereas his…well…he was the bully.
It’s absurd really. How guilty I felt when he asked me questions that would make him look bad.
“Did I ever tell you why I refuse to pay the child support?” “Yes.” “What did I tell you?”
I sheepishly glanced at my attorney, wondering “am I really allowed to answer that?”
Apologetically and with more fear than I like to admit, I told the court.
“Because you are angry that I have custody and you have supervised visitation and you said this was the only way you had to control me.”
“Isn’t it true that while we were married you completed your college degree and went to grad school?” Which sounded like “Isn’t it true that you sold yourself on a street corner, pimped out our kids and used meth during our whole marriage?”
“Yes.” As in “I’m so sorry I had the nerve to do something so awful and pay for it myself.”
And so it went.
At the end I was shaken, unnerved and undone.
But I survived it. And it was a hell of an eye-opener.
So my story is still evolving. I still wear the scars of that life. I still wake up nearly every night in a panic of fear and anxiety, never really feeling safe. Feeling invisible hands choking me.
And I have greater empathy for those who don’t leave. But also greater knowledge that they MUST leave. Or they will die. One way or another.
I would have died. Within a few years I imagine. If I had stayed. One way or another, I would be dead now.
We need to be aware. Aware that abusers don’t all look like scumbags wearing wife-beaters. And the abused don’t all look like the stereotypes we imagine.
The abusers can be fun, easy going guys who enjoy hanging with their friends. The abused can be strong, independent women who enjoy a successful professional life.
You just never know.
But you need to know.
We all need to know. It can happen anywhere. To anyone. At any time.
It happened to me. And I will never be the same because of it. I just hope my story will help bring light to this issue. Help women walk away. Help men reassess how they handle their anger. Help those on the sidelines understand a little more why she would ever stay. And why she HAS to leave.
*** Please let this lead to discussions about domestic violence. I was not a "normal" case. I wasn't isolated from my family. I worked. I was never "hit" but rather choked. It was easy for me to justify and ignore what was happening because of the stereotypes I held. What stereotypes do you carry about domestic violence? How has this post helped you question those? What do you wish people knew about this subject?