Thursday, October 15, 2009

Love Yourself Enough

Rewind 30 years and 7 months. I was barely 20, unmarried (although I had just gotten engaged to someone I "was in love with") and I found out that I was pregnant. It seemed that the logical thing to do at the time was to just bump up the wedding date, although I had already been thinking about moving the wedding date the OTHER way. My gut told me that there were a few concerns but I figured a little more time might work thru them - after all, every couple has "growing pains". I knew no marriage was perfect, but I guess having grown up in the stereotypical dysfunctional family with one alcholic parent and the other being passive aggressive, maybe I was a bit desensitized to the reality of some of the things that were commonplace in my life, but would have made young women of a different day or life experience run for the hills.

The wedding took place a few weeks later. At just over 3 months pregnant, I wasn't showing - which my mother was thankful for... the less people that knew, the better, in her mind. Looking back on it, I pretty much felt like a little child, still being told what to do in my best interest by everyone - my family, my soon to be husband, his family, my pastor - a role I had pretty much never fought against. Both of our families were convinced that the marriage would never work - his for totally different reasons than mine (somewhere along the way they had decided I was marrying him for his money - although I had been covering his bills for a couple of months at the time), and if negative energy has anything to do with outcome, there was enough negative energy flowing through this period in my life to put a damper on enjoying anything. Little did I know.

The emotional abuse started that following Monday. All of a sudden I was "too fat" to be sexy - I weighed about 125 pounds back then at barely 5'5". He would refuse to drive me to the train station so I could get to work on time and would call me once I got there to harrass me about whatever he could think to accuse me of. I eventually was told that if the phone calls at work didn't stop, I'd lose my job. So I begged him to stop - and that was the first time he shoved me into a wall.

I should have left that night, but I had nowhere to go or the funds to take care of myself - and I wasn't going to admit that I had made a mistake to anyone. So I did what most women in that situation and with my personality type do - I did whatever I could to smooth things over and make his life better. Over the next 17 years, I gave up my life for all intents and purposes. I threw myself into motherhood - we went on to have 3 children together - and learned to stay under his radar. Of course I wasn't successful, because I honestly never knew what would set him off. The violence and emotional abuse escalated and I had my share of black eyes and bruises - both physical and emotional. I tried to shield the kids from alot of it, but that usually meant giving in on or trying my best to ignore everything. Black eyes were covered with tons of makeup, bruises were blamed on my being a klutz. Everytime I would get the courage to take the kids and leave after an especially brutal episode, he would beg me to come home and then use the kids as a weapon... after all, I would be denying them their father if we didn't "come home." I would fall for it. I eventually fell into the same passive aggressive attitude, that I realized much later through counseling, I had seen my mother exhibit. The worse the rants became, the more eggshells I would walk on, until I couldn't take it anymore and then fight back in whatever way I could. If anyone was aware of what was going on (and I was still very reticent about "calling him out" on things in front of family or friends), they weren't acknowledging it, even when I would try to ask for help. For the 19 years we were together there were countless fights, endless threats against my life to the point where I was afraid to be alone with him, affairs, trying to deal with his own threats of suicide (which I of course would have "forced" him into), marital rape, and more insidious physical violence and emotional abuse.

So what changed things? I lost my job. Actually we both did, because we had been working for the same company (it was easier for him to keep an eye on me that way and control my life). With a healthy severance package, we had plans to take advantage of some federally funded educational opportunities and then go back to work. I spent the next 6 months busting my butt learning about computers and computer programs and whatever skills I could to improve my chances of getting a better job. He went back to work after giving up on school (he still goes from job to job, pipe dream to pipe dream) and a couple of weeks before I was due to finish the last of my classes, a temporary position opened up in the office building he was working in for a separate division of the company he was working for. The job of course met with his criteria, since he could continue "keeping an eye on me" that way and since I had been the major breadwinner through most of our marriage, he'd have less pressure to man up.

I believe that job literally saved my life. The temporary position gave way to a permanent position and a string of promotions. It seemed like the universe was surrounding me with people who had "been there, done that"... and they could see past my brave facade. Here's where I have to say a thank you to a few people whose simple being there for me in the right way at the right time in the right place turned my life around. First, to two wonderful women, LouAnn and Evelyn - both survivors of domestic violence situations, who both helped me to finally admit to them and myself that I was putting my life on the line and life wouldn't change unless I made it change. The second thank you goes to a visiting vice president who noticed my husband's behavior in our somewhat common workspace. This particular executive probably doesn't realize it to this day, but by calling me into his office one fateful day to tell me that he had planned on putting his foot down to my husband about his behavior, for the first time in my life, I felt vindicated and justified. The fact that he was referring us both to our Employee Assistance Program proved to be another turning point. I also want to thank a great psychologist I was referred to (who has since retired) who helped me find the self esteem and courage to put the wheels of change in motion. It took 2 more years to effect the full complement of changes that would enable me to find my way out of the insanity that had become my life.

Did I do it the right way? Many would say I didn't. I did it in a way that I believed would provide the greatest amount of safety to myself and the least amount of pain to my family. I spent those last two years of my first marriage convincing my husband that I was the reason his life was so miserable by pointing out my every flaw, and that the only way he would be able to have the wonderful life he so richly deserved was to move on with his own. I knew full well that he didn't want the hassle of being responsible for the kids, so it was relatively easy to convince him to let me retain physical custody in return for his paying a minimal amount of child support. Yes, you read that right. I took on 80% of the children's support, all of our common debt, gave him a down payment for a car and the costs for moving into his first apartment. In return, I got my sanity and my life back.

In late March of 1998, I walked into a courtroom, a copy of my divorce folder in hand where I was joined by my soon-to-be-ex-husband, who in his typical style, sat down next to me, smiling charmingly at everyone sitting around us and muttering under his breath that he would kill me right then and there if I said one word against him. We had just acknowledged our 19th wedding anniversary 2 weeks earlier...2 hours later with the promise of a finalized divorce just waiting for the filing, I walked out of that courtroom into a bright sunny day. It was an end to an era of pain for me and while it was also a bit scary in its own way and life hasn't always been a bowl of cherries for me since then, it is finally MY life.

My advice to anyone in a similar situation is probably a little different than the typical "Get out now". It would be to "get out safely." Hopefully you'll never find yourself in this situation, but the reality is that even the most easy going, charming, stable partners can change. And if the person has issues to begin with, they probably will not get better. Life can get out of control and situations can arise that put people into a situation of not being themselves. No two situations are the same. Be aware - keep your eyes and ears open and don't disregard any ill behavior that become a serious cause for concern. Take threats seriously. Don't be afraid to leave if the situation warrants it - the kids may initially not understand, but as their parent and the adult, you have an obligation to keep them and yourself safe. They wouldn't understand your death either. On the other hand, leaving immediately in some situations only escalates things - and if you don't have a 100% safe place to go, do the best you can and assess whether or not staying might be safer in the short term. Don't isolate yourself. Find at least one person - whether it's a close friend, a family member or even an online buddy that you can depend on for support - who is aware enough of the situation to check up on you if and when you "go missing". I've found for the most part that calling the police is pretty ineffective in the long term - as are orders of protection. Those routes work in rational situations. Domestic violence is anything but rational. And last but not least, don't be ashamed. You're human and you're entitled to not be perfect or make perfect choices all the time. Love yourself enough to acknowledge that your life, and its quality, are worth it. You deserve peace in your world.

October is Domestic Violence awareness month. Be Aware. Be Supportive. Be Smart. Be Safe. Love Yourself Enough.

The lovely little sculptures featured in this article are available at TheMidnightOrange on Etsy.

13 comments:

Altered Beauty said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I worked in domestic violence shelters for years, and I am a certified domestic violence advocate. Your advice is SO accurate. It's easy for someone to say "why don't you just leave" but in reality, it isn't nearly that simple. I hope you don't mind if I share some of my thoughts. As you said, sometimes leaving immediately is simply not safe. While the police care, they aren't able to stay with you 24 hours a day. When your abuser comes back and violates the protective order, and you are being threatened and terrorized, the police are long gone. Formulate a plan. Keep copies of important documents (medical records, birth certificates, social security cards etc), emergency money, and clothing at a trusted friend's house. Don't be afraid to contact a local domestic violence shelter. Going to a shelter is a sign of IMMENSE strength, not weakness. Everyone deserves to live a life free of violence and terror. Here is a great website for information:
http://www.ndvh.org/
They have a 24 hour hotline, so if you need to talk (and are able to safely do so) call them.

Altered Beauty said...

I forgot to mention, I can't tell you how much I admire women like you. I am so happy that you are out of that situation!

storybeader said...

mystic - what a brave woman you are. 19 years of abuse! My Lord (and I don't often say that!) I'm so proud of you for your endurance and very thankful to that vice-president at work. It wakes a big person to put to interfere, when they see a wrong being done, in a situation like yours. Education is certainly key for people in trouble! {:-Deb

Avlor said...

Wow. You are amazing for being able to leave and step out on your own! May you reach the people (it's not always just women) who need to hear this.

Annette said...

Your story is inspiring and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing this part of yourself.

Anitra Cameron said...

What a wonderful and inspiring entry, one that I hope will give courage to any woman in a similar situation.

Not only did you get your children and yourself out of a horrible situation, you've drawn a map for others.

Beth said...

Wow,this is a great post! One of my best friends has gone through this, before we met. Horrifying stories. But she is one of the strongest women I know.You are too:)

Kathleen said...

Glad this is all behind you! Praying for you!

Splendid Little Stars said...

Thanks for the courage it took to share your story. It is so inspiring! My heart hurts for your suffering. I hope your life today is fulfilling and joyful. much admiration for a strong woman!

FELT 4U said...

You have really touched my soul by your candid story. Thanks you for sharing the painful aspects of yourlife.
Elaine Sackson
FELT 4U

BeadedTail said...

Thanks for sharing your story. You are very inspiring and I admire your strength and courage. I am so glad this is all behind you and hope your life is filled with the happiness you deserve today!

f.sarah said...

i could read this only today.
it's amazing to know this about you and how patient you have been and how courageous you are.

Admire you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Karen!! Sharing your experiences out in the open will help so many women and children! Most won't even tell you, but they will read your words and feel better because they now know that they're not alone. Maybe it will give them the extra courage they need to get out safely too!

Every single thing you went through has made you into the precious being that you are today! Of course, we always want to change our past, but we wouldn't be the same now if we did. Blessings to you and your family!! Namaste!

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