It was my fault he said.
We had both had too much to drink. I went into the laundry room to change a load over; he came in, called me names, and said he was leaving for good. I stood in front of the doorway telling him he wasn’t going to leave — not yet, not before there was some sort of resolution to our argument. He pushed me hard and my wrist caught a rusty nail on the way to the floor. He left anyway.
The next day at urgent care, while getting a tetanus shot, I traced the puffy, bloody scrape on my wrist over and over again. I was done. I wasn’t going to be one of “those” women. I was too smart. Too proud. I was so, so done. When I got home, he was waiting for me. Apparently what I remembered happening wasn’t the extent of the story; we had too much to drink after all, honey, and if you’d just moved I wouldn’t have had to scoot you out of the way…
Scoot you out of the way. My brain swirled and throbbed, trying to make sense and trying to deny. Trying to reconcile and to choose my next move. I guess that’s what happened after all. The man I love wouldn’t push me.
Sometimes things were really good. Other times he continued to push me, he accused me of cheating if I wasn’t home right when I said I’d be. Sometimes we’d go on trips or I’d get expensive vintage jewelry so he’d never actually have to utter the words “I’m sorry.” I’d wear long sleeves to hide the finger shaped bruises from where he’d grabbed my arms and held me to a wall. He bought us my dream house, with its original windows and pre- Depression era built-ins. Two nights after moving in, we were unpacking boxes upstairs when I said something he didn’t like. He backhanded me so hard and so fast that for a brief moment the room got dark like I was in a tunnel…
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience violence at the hands of their partner in the course of their lifetime, and yet the stigma around being abused lingers. Victims are often shamed or asked why they didn’t just leave. Oftentimes, victims suffer in silence. Tragically, domestic violence accounts for over 1,500 deaths in the United States every year.
After that night, I felt stuck. In the months leading up to the move, I had quit working — an idea we came to together — he grew up with a stay at home mom after all. I had closed down my accounts and waited in vain to be added to his. Slowly, he chipped away at my independence, like the old frog in boiling water analogy. Soon, I had nothing of my own and was dependent on him for nearly everything. We were about to be married, I was barely pregnant with my youngest child, when on the way to our wedding he told me, “If you weren’t pregnant, I wouldn’t marry you.” Hours after our wedding, driving down a dirt road to our rented honeymoon house, our fight continued. I tried to slap him but it was dark and it didn’t land. He unbuckled my seatbelt and pushed me out of the slow moving car. We slept in separate rooms for half our honeymoon. I was 10 weeks pregnant.
There was the time at 21 weeks pregnant, he locked me outside in the snow barefoot and in only a t-shirt during an argument or the time four weeks later he dumped used motor oil on top of my head à la the prom scene in Carrie because he “had to do something to shock me into shutting up.” On July 4th he held me to the bathroom wall by my throat. More abuse of every kind: mental, emotional, physical, financial. Humiliation. Lies I told friends and family. Lies I told myself. Still I stayed. This was my mess. I could clean it up. At least the kids were happy. At least they weren’t seeing any of it.
I’m smart. I’m college educated and from a middle class upbringing. I fit so many stereotypes of domestic violence victims and yet, don’t fit so many others. But I didn’t leave. Where would I go? I had no family to take me in. I had no money of my own. No job. Three babies.
One day I came home and found all my stuff and all my children’s stuff in black trash bags on the front porch. We separated. He promised he’d change. Five months later and while holding our infant, he kicked me so hard chasing me down the hall that the rubber of his shoe made a bloody gash on my ankle. While I called 911, he screamed obscenities in my face. “Does he not know this is being recorded?,” the dispatcher frantically asked. I handed the baby to my oldest child and told him no matter what he heard, to lock his bedroom door and to not come out until I came and told him it was okay. Hours later, I found my children huddled in their closet, the final straw, and I asked friends for help. The kids and I moved into a hotel for a week. Secretly, I retained an attorney, a rental house, a moving company, and filed for divorce.
Leaving wasn’t easy, nor was the subsequent divorce and custody battle. I had supportive friends and family. I had a lot of therapy. I had to unlearn trauma and I had to teach myself that living life and surviving life are two vastly different things. For months I looked over my shoulder. For months the absence of chaos left me nearly as unsettled as being in the thick of chaos itself. Mostly I am healed and whole…
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend asked me about the first time my ex-husband physically assaulted me and I told him. His eyes flashed with pain and rage, his jaw clenched, his hand shook as he poured a glass of wine. With my finger, I traced the scar on my wrist, usually hidden by a watch band. “I sold my soul for built-ins and spent years telling myself it was probably my fault,” I looked up and muttered. There he was, looking at me like I was the most precious thing he’d ever seen while I chewed nervously on my bottom lip. “It’s not your fault,” he said as he shook his head. “I know,” I answered.