I never knew what was going to set him off. One day it might be that I stepped on the white tiles of the floor, the next it would be because I stepped on the black. Maybe dinner was not to his liking, although he had proclaimed this dish to be his favorite last week. Perhaps I failed to hang his shirts in the particular order that he had decreed proper, or I had left my room before receiving permission.
Tonight it was the evening news.
Somewhere in the broadcast, I had gone from casual viewer to responsible for a story’s content. Exactly when that occurred, I could not say. I had been too busy nursing our less than six week old baby to spare much attention to anything else around me, but his rising voice and angry pacing now commanded my full attention. We exchanged some words, words I cannot recall to this day.
There are really on three other things I remember about that night. The first is none of our neighbors were home, and I was aware of how alone I was as I faced him. The second is that when I rose to turn off the TV he pounced, wrapping his arm around my neck in a headlock – there were two distinct thoughts that filled my head, don’t drop the baby and don’t let him break your neck. I held my daughter with one arm and gripped his forearm with my other, trying to take the strain from neck as he lifted my feet from the floor and shook me like a ragdoll.
I managed to absorb the force of the fall in my shoulder and hip when he threw me away from him, and avoided crushing the baby still in my arms. He never stopped screaming his rage at the television. Blood dripped from my lips onto the pastel baby blanket, causing me to freeze but simultaneously causing my mind to race. I rose to my feet and faced him. I reached out and turned the TV off. I can still remember the coldness in my voice as I said, “If you are going to act like that you need to leave.”
It was the first time that he attacked me in such a manner. The abuse until that moment had been of other kinds. The kinds that he believed would not injure his unborn child, but now, I was fair game to his rage.
It is hard for some to understand why I can honestly say that this moment was a relief, why the tangible violence was so much easier to bear than the mental, emotional, and even the sexual attacks that had gone before. I think we both always knew it was a matter of time, and we were just waiting for him to have the guts to do what he really wanted to do to me. It was the explosion after months of watching a slow burning fuse. Finally, I could breathe again instead of holding my breath in dread.
After years of study and close to two decades of reflection, I now know why I did not call the authorities. That night I believed myself to be completely alone and I was acting on the instinct to survive. There was no room for a misstep and to stumble would cause him to pounce with renewed vengeance. A glimmer of fear would be the only excuse he needed.
In the end, it was my knowledge of the danger that bought him the time he required to plant the seeds of doubt that would keep me there for another two years. For as I waited for the moment when I could escape or make a call, he was there full of contrition and affirmations of his love. The excuses for his anger and why I had to help him overcome this ugly part of who he was. He loved me, he adored me, but most of all, he needed me. Tears poured down his face as he wept at my feet, begging for my forgiveness and promising me that he would never hurt me again. This became our dance – dread and fear, ideal circumstances of isolation, violence, contrition, appeals for grace and affirmations of love, a few days of peace and hope, and then a return to dread.
When I share my story today, someone always asks the question, “Why did you stay?” The answer is not simple, for the threads that bind an abuser to their victim are so thin that they are invisible to the eyes of those not ensnared by them, but their strength is in numbers. I could say that I stayed for the children, and for a time, I believed that was true. I could say I stayed because I loved him, and I also believed that was true. I could say that I stayed because I believed that I could help him get better and we could move beyond the rage that filled his heart and mind, and this, too, I believed was true. But even all of these things do not begin to encompass the reasons I stayed, for as these threads were shredded under the weight of reality, others took their place binding me with equal efficiency.
But perhaps the biggest factor in keeping me there as long as I was, was nothing more than the idea that I should feel good about walking away from my abuser, that there would be a sense of joy and vindication at leaving such an evil situation and person. It was the response that those who loved me wished for me, encouraged me to reach for, and to embrace as my right. So I waited, hoping that I could find a sliver of the right feeling to propel me forward.
It never came.
I cried the day I packed up mine and my children’s meager belongings. I wept as I loaded my friend and brother’s trucks with the odds and ends of furniture while I prayed that my husband would not return. I did not leave a triumphant victor, but slunk away a broken and defeated shell of a woman.
It took me a long time to realize that I was not grieving the loss of my abuser, my emotional captor. It took me a long to stop feel shame for missing him and wanting to find a way back in hopes of repairing our broken marriage. It took a long time to unweave the threads that bound me, and I learned the truth that had been so carefully hidden from me – I was not grieving the loss of the man who left bruises on my ribs or bloodied my lips. I was not aching to return to marriage wrecked with violence. I was not grieving for the reality lost.
I was grieving for the death of a dream, the hope and promise of what should been, of who he claimed to be. I was crying for the person I loved, not the person he was. I was missing the man he had promised to be and had never become. My heart ached for the dream that would never be, and the person that I would never be because I dared to place my faith in lie.
Who can feel joy, or even vindication, at such truth? For even if my head could not understand it in those moments, my heart did. I will forever be the divorcee, the single mom, the abuse victim, and the woman I never intended to be. Picket fences and daisies edging the yard were ripped from my future. Happily ever after was consigned once again to fairy tales, when I had been promised it could be mine.
Grief was and is the proper response.
It was only when the pain of reality became bigger than the fear of losing a dream that was already dead that I could leave. And it was only when I could find the strength to face the truth that the dream had died a long time ago that I could turn loose of the man who killed it.
Why do I share this dark part of my life? Why when I have moved on, found new dreams and new visions for my future that have exceeded anything that I may have clung to before? Because there is a woman out there, right now, who believed the lie I once did. She is working so hard not to make him mad, and she dancing a dance I know all too well, but sister, it is time to realize that dream is dead and it is not coming back. Walking away means you will have to accept that cold hard truth, and you will grieve. Friends and family will not understand why it fills you with sadness, and they won’t get the tears or why you are not happy about reclaiming your life and freedom, but that doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you do.
Healing will come. New dreams will be found, and life will change if you have the courage to walk away. It will not be as you envisioned it before, but it can be greater than you dare hope for now. I promise, because I have lived it and I am here to tell my tale.