October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month which prompted me to share my story. I didn’t think it could happen to me. And yet it did. I am (and always have been) a super strong, very capable person. I’ve managed to build a life that I am proud of out of nothing. I didn’t finish college and was a divorced, single mother. I created a career and supported my three children through private school and college. I worked really hard to have happy and healthy children but it wasn’t easy. I was singularly focused on my children and I didn't take shit from anyone. I bulldogged my way through everything. But I was also living my life from a place of fear. Underneath my show of strength, I was fearful that I wouldn't be able to provide for my children. Fearful that I would lose my job. Fearful that the divorce would have a terrible impact on my children. Fearful that the bottom could fall out at any moment as it once had.
At my weakest moment, when I was about to be alone for the first time in forever, I met someone who saw that fear in me and he used it against me. It was fear that propelled me to marry him. What I didn’t know at the time was that the fear I had been living with was fractional compared to the fear of living with a narcissist. Once we got married, it was like a switch had been flipped in him and the gloves were off. I lived in a constant state of fear, never knowing what would set him off. I diminished myself so that I didn't take attention away from him. I began to believe it when he would say that I was the one who had made him react the way he had. He used a tactic called gaslighting, common amongst abusers and narcissists, psychological manipulation for power and control.
For my 50th birthday (which I turned shortly after getting married - hmmm, maybe another fear), my daughter gave me the most incredible gift. She contacted 50 of my dearest friends and family and had them write letters to me. When she gave them to me, beautifully packaged and tied with a gorgeous ribbon, she said that she wanted me to know and remember what and how people felt about me and to hold that feeling tight. I was losing myself and she saw it.
Emotional abuse is such a difficult topic. There are no bruises or blood or broken bones. You can't see someone's broken spirit by looking at them. You can't tell that they've lost their sense of themselves or their self worth. There were so many times I would hide in my closet and read those letters and tell myself I had to get out of the situation. But he played a game. When he knew he had crossed a line, he would flip and be nice and charm himself out of the situation and make me question myself. Eventually though, he would snap and scream something at me that would cut me to the bone, as a reminder of who had the power.
One of the most memorable blow ups was because someone asked me about my children. As I answered, there was a shift in him and I knew there was something bad coming my way. I wasn’t sure what the trigger had been until later that evening, he screamed at me that I had embarrassed him by talking about "my" children and leaving him out. Let's be clear, he was not their father and not their step-father. They were grown when I met him. That gives you an understanding of how unreasonable his triggers could be.
It took a comment from my daughter for me to make the decision to leave. She was home from college about to leave for a semester abroad and to be honest I don't remember what he said to me because I had numbed myself to reacting to his cutting words. She looked at me and said, "Really, you let him treat you this way?" That was it. For me to have my children see me in this relationship, a shell of who I really was, being treated terribly and the look in her eyes; she looked so disappointed and scared. I had to get out. The problem is, the most dangerous time for someone in an abusive relationship is when you try to leave. So, I planned carefully so that I wouldn't make any mistakes. I worked with a therapist who recommended the battered woman protocol. I visited the police who said there was nothing they could do. I visited an attorney and had all of the paperwork drawn up to divorce him (after asking my family to send money directly to the attorney so he wouldn't know). I was terrified of what his reaction would be. The night that I told him I was leaving, I recorded the conversation in case something happened to me. His response was that he would "destroy me and then bury me."
I carry a lot of shame for having been in such a destructive and dangerous relationship and most importantly, that I exposed my children to it. While they were grown, it has had an impact on them and for that, I will always be so deeply sorry. As I move forward in my life, I choose to look at the positive. I am very, very proud of myself for having had the courage to leave. For choosing to prioritize myself over my fear. For doing the hardest thing I’ve ever done, especially when others couldn’t understand from the outside looking in.
Things are never as they seem. And what I cannot stress enough is that it can happen to anyone. Do not just look for bruises and broken bones. Look for a shift in someone's spirit, a hollowness. Listen carefully for the "everything is fine." Abusers are predators and they will exploit any weakness they can. Even the people we see in our lives as the strongest are not immune. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
If you or anyone you know is in an abusive relationship (verbal, emotional, physical) please reach out for help. Confide in a friend, a family member, a therapist. One of the hardest things to do, is to say it out loud.