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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.

The abuser.

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?


  1. As a child growing up and watching this happen to my mother, I felt at times useless, ashamed, embarrassed, and i felt as though my world was worthless. I couldnt do anything to stop this from progressing into my father hitting my mum.
    And yes, like so many, this abuse starts out as mental abuse, and eventually escalates into physical abuse.
    In a childs mind, this cannot be understood, nor explained. The only salvation seems to be to cower into your room and pull your pillow over your head in some vane attempt to block out the noise.
    You lay there on your bed sobbing into the pillow, screaming into nothing, yelling out words such as "Stop it..!" "Your hurting her..!" "Please, make it go away...!". I mean, what can a child do? The one time that I tried to stop it, i felt the back hand of my dads force drive me into the wall.
    But, what really blew me away, was the fact that the very next day, or later that week, my dad would do something nice for my mum and my three sisters. I tried many times to say to myself, "Dont see through the bullshit. Dont except his kind generosity".
    So, what the heck am I supposed to do? Laugh, smile, have fun, enjoy life for a day, hate life for a day, be suspended in some bad dream of not knowing how I felt. Conflicted emotions, fantasising and day dreaming about a perfect family, then being smashed in the brain by a reality the next day that had no certainty.
    And as for the beautiful bride that was stripped of all her self esteem, self confidence and her own self being and worth, what was she thinking staying with this crap. Why wont she fight back? Why Why Why......
    All these questions I had as a kid could not be answered until it was time for me to evolve into adulthood, get married, have three amazing kids, and then go through 16 yrs of very much the same. I have some answers now, not all, but some. I am also grateful to some extent for being put into that situation, it has made me find myself, find answers, and find my destiny.
    But, I will never forget. I only hope that my mum is proud of her son, knowing that he did everything he could to break the mold before he grew up, got married, had children, and never ever forgot what it is like to watch a woman be stripped of every single emotion and worth in her life....


  2. Ditto.

    It's been almost three years for me. That voice in your head, your goes away, I promise. Once it did, I had such a sense of peace...something I hadn't known in years.

  3. Thank you Anon, for your personal thoughts on this. I'm sorry you had to go through that, but it seems to have shaped you into an extraordinary man.

  4. Jill,
    I'm so glad we've connected. And I'm so sorry you've gone through what you have. The demons are settling, I think. I'm glad to know an end is in sight. I struggle most I think with the memories of what happened and the trauma in his life that lead him down that path of alcoholism and PTSD from serious combat trauma. So many victims.