Published October 26, 2000
Would you be embarrassed to call 9-1-1 if a stranger was in your house pinning you against walls? Refusing to let you see your children? Ripping your telephone off the wall? Picking you up and throwing you against the refrigerator? Of course not! You’d want the police there to help get rid of the creep and file assault and other charges.
But what if that stranger was your husband? Your wife? Your girlfriend or boyfriend or child?
Suddenly the answer isn’t so easy. The picture is the same, but it’s totally different, like a copy of the Mona Lisa.
Who does this happen to? Who would be so stupid as to let themselves be abused? Surely, this only happens to the uneducated, the poor, the addicted and the lonely, right?
One night in 1986, my then husband ripped the telephone out of the wall, blocked the hallway so I couldn’t get to my children, threw me against the refrigerator, and pinned me against the wall. A few months before he punched a hole in the bedroom wall, put his fist through the living room window, stabbed the front door with a butcher knife and threatened to kill me, my brother and my father.
It’s not like this was a surprise. Before we were married, he tried to smack my mother.
The only explanation I have formed for why I didn’t recognize his pattern of abuse is this: When you grow up not knowing physical abuse, it feels unreal when it happens in your home. You know it’s not the way things have been, but you’re not sure if it’s the way things are supposed to be, only someone forgot to tell you. And so you get embarrassed. Embarrassed to call the police, embarrassed to face the neighbors, embarrassed to explain to your employer why you had to be in court, embarrassed to talk to your friends, and embarrassed to explain his actions to your family.
But I was educated, middle-class and not addicted. What was wrong with me?
“Love” is what was wrong. Or what I thought was love.
The abuse started subtly, slowly, eroding my strength and my confidence. Through it all, I still “loved” him because I had stopped loving myself and couldn’t realize the way my husband chose to behave was not love. I didn’t respect myself enough to think I could live differently or independently. Being a Christian, I had the added burden of misinformation of what the Bible really says about abuse, and I thought it was my job to “change” him.
He spent a few days in jail in 1986 and when he got out, he called me, his voice happy and sing-songy. We had a misunderstanding, he told me. The police shouldn’t have taken him away. It was all their fault. He figured we’d just work it out.
I was stunned and then I second-guessed myself. Maybe I had overreacted. Maybe I shouldn’t have called anyone when I felt threatened. He ripped the telephone out of the wall to prevent me from making a big mistake. Yes, that was it. If anything I should call the police and apologize for taking up so much of their time.
And I would have continued to think that way if a woman from a domestic violence prevention agency in Minneapolis hadn’t said to me, “He’s wrong. What he did was wrong. You don’t deserve it.” While I went back to him again and again, her words stuck somewhere inside me and they got louder and louder until I took back my life and, scared to death, asked him to leave in 1988.
I wish that was the end of the story, but abusers don’t stop abusing just because they leave. My ex-husband’s need to control something, anything, was as strong as ever, especially when he drank. The nightmare continued one night when I found out he was drunk and wouldn’t let me take our then 4-year-old daughter, Cassie, home with me. It was his weekend, he said. After back and forth verbal threats, he picked her up out of bed (she had been sleeping), threw her down the hallway and told me to “get the little s–t out of here; I never want to see her again.”
And he hasn’t since 1991.
I’m still afraid of him, 12 years after the divorce and 500 miles between us. He made a formal apology to me in 1993, which I accepted, but trust doesn’t come that easy, and for my own protection and my children’s, I can never fully trust him again. I will not post this column on our newspaper’s website because I know he reads my work from his home in Virginia. He says he’s interested in reading my columns, but I suspect he’s checking up on me, making sure I don’t write about this very thing. I know how subtle he can be and every instinct in me says he’s still a threat.
What would he do? I don’t know, but I won’t take that chance. I’ve already said enough in this column to make me terribly uncomfortable, but I believe, as a friend once said to me, “Any time someone tells their story it has an impact on someone. You never know where or when.” If I’ve impacted one person, it is worth it.
While I am now in a truly loving and mutually respectful relationship, I can recall the low self-esteem created by the past abuse as fast as a blink. I still ask myself sometimes how could I have been so blind? But then I thank God I found the strength to leave. Sadly, some people don’t live long enough to discover when enough is enough. Several women and men have died or been maimed in this county in the past few years as a result of domestic violence. It is for the Heidi’s, the Terri’s, the Karla’s and the Ed’s that I write this.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month. As this month comes to a close, I ask you to ponder this advice:
To the people who abuse, I know most of you know that what you’re doing is wrong. My ex-husband knew it, but his overwhelming rage kept him from stopping himself. Stop the cycle of abusing, apologizing, promising never to do it again and then abusing once more. Let her keep her job. Let her talk on the phone. Stop blaming her for your anger and get help.
To the abused, I beg you to realize your self-worth. Even if it’s just to understand that the fact that you’re breathing is a miracle. Your future happiness depends on how you view yourself, not on how he views you. No one has the right to hurt you and you can’t change him. You don’t bring him up, he brings you down. And you won’t realize it until you look back.
There are people you can call just to talk to. No decisions have to be made. Just talk to people who understand. In Clarion County, Stop Abuse For Everyone can be reached at 226-8481 or 800-992-3039. Community Action also has a toll-free number for people to call for help – 800-598-3998.
To people who read this and think it’s easy to leave an abuser or who think abuse is a private matter, please, rethink your views. You might think there’s nothing you can do to help the abused or abuser, but remember, attitude is everything. If you make it known to people that you do not tolerate domestic violence, that you will not listen to tasteless jokes about abuse, or that you are a “safe” person for an abused person to talk to, it can make all the difference in the world to someone around you who you have no idea is being abused.
It took one person outside my family to tell me what my husband was doing was wrong. It took four separations before I found the courage to leave.
But leave I did and I’ve discovered that real love doesn’t hurt.