Trigger warning for domestic violence and death threats.
You see it happening in the world. You see how the abused stay with their abusers to be hurt again and again, and you tell yourself that will never be you.
It was never going to be me. But then, at age 19, when I moved from California to Texas with my not-quite-2-year-old to follow my 36-year-old “boyfriend,” I didn’t know that the man I thought I was in love with had a dark side that would scar me for life in more ways than one.
But he was charming and he made me feel loved. We had a nice life and I felt useful and grown up, helping him run the family business and keeping our house while I cared for my daughter. And at 19 I had no real understanding of how relationships are supposed to work. I’m not sure I do at 53.
The first red flag I can remember is when his nephew, an old neighborhood friend much closer to my age, came to visit. When he came in the door from the airport we hugged, and I learned that hugging other men was not allowed. Before long I learned that looking at other men out the car window wasn’t allowed, either.
But he made me feel loved and he was sweet most of the time and I just kept telling myself that love was enough. Because that’s what I had learned from everything I’d seen in the movies and on tv. If you love someone enough, it all works out. You find your diamond in the rough, polish him up, and bam, happily ever after.
Things got worse. He got more controlling and critical and left me alone for long periods to deal with things like packing our entire house for fumigation while he took his son to play softball and then putting the fear of God in me when I showed up at the diamond to tell him off. I wrote my mom long, anguished letters comparing him to my dad, for reasons that make even more sense in retrospect. I got a job and was terrified to form relationships with my male coworkers lest he catch me laughing with them (he never visited me at work, but he kept me vigilant all the same).
I was miserable and so I got together enough cash for a Greyhound ticket and spent 3 days on that bastard with my toddler. I woke in the spare room at my dad’s house a few days later from a dream that I was back in Texas, back in that house with my abuser, and before the flood of relief had fully hit, my dad was in the doorway telling me that my abuser was on the phone and I should deal with him directly rather than avoiding the situation. But on the phone he begged and pleaded, he said he was getting help for his anger, he wanted to have babies, he was driving out to get me. And I capitulated. And even as I awaited his coming, a sick feeling formed in my gut. But our reunion was sweet and passionate and romantic and we drove back to Texas a family. We went back to our life and things were okay for a while.
The real darkness fell one early evening during the holiday season. We were at a party, we’d both had drinks, and I made the mistake of thinking I could joke with his right-hand man, who I saw every day. I was wrong, and was reprimanded right there and then. Alcohol gave me courage, and I left the party and hitchhiked home in the dark.
He came home in a rage—not only had I left him at the party but I’d allowed a man to drive me home—and knocked me around our bedroom a bit. He picked up a putty knife from the dresser (being a house painter by profession) and jabbed me in the face with it, saying he’d make sure no man would ever find me attractive again (cliché much?). He jabbed fingers into my eyes, and in a certain light, I can see the scars he left there (in addition to the one on my cheek which has faded now). He said he’d bury me out in one of the empty fields near our growing housing development and I believed him.
My daughter woke up crying in her room during all this and he let me go and get her. I don’t know what all she saw, but I know she cried as he shouted and threatened me. It wasn’t long, thankfully, before someone knocked on the door. He left the room and I grabbed my daughter and fled out a back door off the master bath. I’ve never seen a master bath with a back door before or since, but I’ll always be grateful for that one. I ran out the back gate across a field carrying my 30lb child and came to a house where a family let me in and called a local pastor to come and take me to a shelter. I sat in their living room waiting and said “I know about those women who go back, and that’s not going to be me.”
We spent the night in a women’s shelter, had breakfast, listened to a sermon, and then I started making phone calls. The first was to a mentor who I truly thought would come to my rescue, but she told me that it was his responsibility to get me home from Texas. Then I called my dad, who told me I probably did something to piss him off and I should go back and work it out. My dad promised to send me some money I could put away if I ever wanted to come home. I don’t remember whether that money ever came, but it wasn’t there when I needed it.
My final call was to the man who had put me in the women’s shelter, and he was SO relieved to hear from me. He said he’d woken up on the living room floor blacked out and couldn’t remember what happened. I told him what he’d done and he apologized, cried, swore he’d never do it again, begged me to come home. So I did.
All was lovely for a time, but of course it wasn’t long before he blew another fuse, and all it took this time was an angry tongue-lashing for me to pack a few things, call a cab, and get out. That cabby drove me all over Katy, TX as I pawned jewelry and he ultimately didn’t charge me when he dropped us off near a bus station. I bought a ticket to Waco, home of Dr. Pepper and the Branch Davidians, and at 2am, I introduced myself and my 2-yr-old to my paternal grandfather for the first time. My grandpa was a flawed man, but in that moment he was my hero. He took us in, paraded us around town proudly for all his friends to see, showed us where our ancestors are buried, and spent his Social Security check to buy us a plane ticket back home and there we stayed, me looking over my shoulder for months and waking up from that same dream of being back in Texas and wondering how the hell I was going to get us out again.
But…that’s where it finally ended.
Why did I stay with my abuser? I thought he loved me and I loved him and I thought that love would get us through it.
Why did I go back? The support network I thought I had—that I should have had—failed me and he said all the right things. Twice.
How did I get out? I was lucky. If he’d found me, he might have killed me like he promised to do the first time and for months I was terrified he would. Most abused women whose abusers murder them don’t die until after they leave.
What can we do? We can listen to survivors of domestic abuse when they tell their stories and give them space to do so. We can donate to the organizations that support them before and after they leave. And finally, we can stop asking the first two questions above because they aren’t useful. They don’t help us ensure that when an abuse victim decides it’s time to get out, they can formulate a plan to do so safely. They don’t help us ensure that once they’re out, they are protected from their abuser. What they do—what our society so often does—is focus on how the abused might have behaved differently while ignoring the fact that the behavioral problem here is with the person who perpetrated the abuse.
So, that’s my call to action: Support abuse survivors. Stop putting the blame on the victim. And if you’re determined to ask “why?”
PSA: Abusive commenters will be deleted and banned, so kindly piss off in advance. (Comment Policy)
A Brief History (the Bad Parts Version) (Make Me a Sammich)
National Domestic Violence Hotline (online chat available)