On Anger

I mentioned in my first post that I have struggled a lot with anger since leaving my husband. This is a natural response to escaping from domestic violence. Domestic violence is like living in a Petri dish for anger. When I would wake up in the morning, I could tell whether it was going to be a good or bad day just by the way my husband was moving in the house. If he was slamming doors or throwing things around, my heart raced, even before I knew what was wrong. By the end of our relationship, I woke up in the mornings with my heart racing when he was still asleep, or even when he was gone. If he was there, when he rolled over and put his arm around me, I would recoil from his touch, which hurt his feelings. He would tell me that he was ashamed because I was scared of him, then I would feel guilty, and I would comfort him. It was a very complicated dynamic.

I lived in a permanent state of fight or flight, and I could never relax, but I could see that he was miserable also. Since I’m someone who wants to take care of others, I thought that, if he was happier, he would stop abusing me. I spent most of my energy trying to make him happy rather than taking care of myself. I wasn’t allowed to express any anger or hurt without dangerous consequences, so I started bottling things in, then having outbursts later. He once told me “I will never be happy unless I have a wife who is happy with me all of the time.” That was the moment that I knew our relationship was going to end. By then, I was unhappy with him most of the time. I tried to force myself to feel happy because I was scared of the violence that manifested in the wake of my unhappiness, but it is difficult to feel happy with someone who batters, manipulates, and lies to you.

After he made that statement, I went to see a counselor, and I showed her the bruises on my arms. She hugged me while I wept, and together, for the next couple of months, we made a plan for me to move on with my life, with or without him. She told me that, when she started seeing me, she didn’t think a “tidal wave” would have gotten me away from him, yet two months later, I had moved out. She was so proud of me, and in the face of her support, I realized that I was a lot stronger than I thought I was, and I am still very proud of myself for making that change.

In the beginning, the anger had a purpose, and it was powerful. It got me out of the relationship. As I was packing my son and my bags the day I moved out for good, my husband followed me around screaming “You are provoking me to abuse you! You are provoking me!” I was scared, but the anger kept me going. I knew I needed to just pack the bags quickly and get out of there. He had a no abusive contact order, so he was going to be thrown in jail if he touched me, but I knew I had to be quick. When I got to the car, I was dizzy and lightheaded.  I couldn’t breathe. I still remember parts of that day so clearly. It was cloudy, and windy. I remember the wind because I went to a gas station and filled my car with gas. I didn’t know what else to do. While I was filling my car, I called my friend Rebecca and asked her if Reed and I could stay with her. The wind rushed between my ear and the phone. It was difficult to hear her, and for her to hear me. I thought that I was going to pass out, but I didn’t. I let that wind swirl around me, and I stood my ground.

In the months after I left, the anger served another purpose. It kept me out of the relationship. I still loved him, which sounds crazy, I know. I will post about the complexity of love and DV later, but I missed him desperately, and if he spoke to me with any gentleness, I found myself seduced back into his charm. But he was angry with me too. He didn’t usually speak to me with gentleness. He yelled, and threatened, and bullied. After a while, his lawyer advised him that I might be taping him, and for the most part, that behavior stopped, but he made himself very easy not to love, and my anger, for the most part, kept me from wanting to go back to him. It also kept him from wanting to get back together with me.

But, now, I still feel a lot of anger, and that anger has no purpose. His case is over–it was mishandled in a grand fashion by the police and the prosecutor–but it is over. In The Domestic Violence Recovery Workbook, which I have linked to in the sidebar, they have a useful chapter on anger and how toxic it is when it remains after the relationship, which it does for some time. My feelings of anger are not unusual. Anyone in my situation would feel angry. Unfortunately, the book uses the old euphemism of “Being angry is like taking poison, then waiting for the other person to die.”  I need to work through my stages of grief in order to get over the anger because I don’t want to be trapped in the angry stage. I don’t want to be poisoned.

Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine was raped by another acquaintance. You can read the story here. At the time, she was open about what happened to her. She was frustrated by the lack of justice and support she was getting through the legal system, so she felt that she could, at least, educate others about what had happened. I was surprised that she would share such a story so willingly. I thought that, if that had happened to me, I would have wanted to hide it. But now, having been the victim of gender violence myself, I’ve realized that I don’t want to hide it anymore. I hid it for years, and I was miserable. Hiding it now would mean that I’m ashamed, and shame is even more poisonous than anger. Much of my anger in recent days has been, like that of my acquaintance, at the injustice of the legal system. I am angry at him for not taking a plea, I am angry at the prosecutor for not pursuing it further, I am angry at the police for their misconduct, and I am angry at myself for remaining complicit in that dismissal because I was afraid. I was afraid to go to trial.

I have been trying to think about ways to turn my anger from something purposeless to something purposeful, and this blog is an attempt at a remedy. When I left my husband, I desperately searched the web for other women’s stories. I was alone for the first time in years, terribly lonely and afraid, huddled up on that twin mattress on the floor of a guest room, and I tried every search term I could think of to find stories from other women. Stories that could reach through the clutter of the internet and tell me that I was not alone. I want to be able to give those stories to someone else.

I am a writer, and my words are my power. My voice is my activism, so I am going to share my stories here. They are personal. They are humiliating. They are infuriating. They are sad. But maybe–just maybe–someone else will read them and know that they are not alone.

On Expectations

Someone posted this video on Facebook today, and it really affected me. It is a Ted talk by Barry Schwartz titled “The Paradox of Choice.” The basic premise is that the secret to happiness is low expectations, and this is something that has been true for me in the past few months.

As I wrote in my previous post, my life bottomed out after I left my husband. In truth, it bottomed out before I left my husband, which was why I left him. Still, while we were married, I had a fair amount of material comforts. We weren’t well off, but we owned a home and two cars. We had a kitchen we remodeled ourselves. We could afford to occasionally take vacations.

After I left him, things weren’t so comfortable. My son and I moved in with my sweet friend Rebecca and her partner, Evan, for a month, and we each slept on twin mattresses on the floor. I was injured and in a lot of physical pain. I was also in emotional pain, and I was in shock. I actually have holes in my memory from much of that time period. I couldn’t take any time off work, and so despite my physical and emotional limitations, I had to continue being responsible for the education of 88 students. I was adjusting to being a single mom. My husband, for all of his flaws, had been a fairly active father, and it was difficult to have to do everything myself. My son had snow days and 2-hour-delays, and I had to find people to watch him, so I could go to work. This caused me a great deal of stress. I had to unpack my house, put things away, and figure out how to fix problems in my 80-year-old house that I had never had to fix before. I had no idea what was going to happen in my future. Although I worked well over full-time hours, I was an adjunct instructor, so I was considered a part-time employee with no health insurance or benefits. I didn’t know if I would even have work in the summer or in the upcoming semester. I had to find a lawyer and figure out how to file for divorce without losing my healthcare. I could go on and on. It was just a terrible time.

It culminated in me calling my mother from the side of the freeway sobbing about 4 months after I had separated from my husband. After everything I had been through, the thing that nearly broke me was when my husband and I met to trade off our son in a nearby town, and I was hurt by the way his father had looked at me. It seems so silly in comparison to the other struggles that I had in my life at that time, but the hardest thing to go through was the grief of losing my husband and his family, or at least the dream of what I had thought we would have together. And that moment, by the side of the freeway, was the moment that I realized we were never going to have any of that. We were never going to have anything together again,  and I moved on then from the stage of denial and isolation.

When I look back at my life, I can identify that as the lowest point in my life, but honestly, things did start to look up after that. It’s a such a cliché, but they did. All of those problems I described previously, I resolved. I figured out how to get into a routine where I could manage the demands of being a single mom. I figured out what I was going to do for work. I figured out where I would get my health insurance. I figured out how to afford a lawyer (I found a lawyer who represented me for free). I won custody of my son. I sacrificed on certain financial matters with my husband, so that he wouldn’t drag our divorce into a long battle. I moved to another state.

I moved on with my life. And I did it with the help of my parents and many friends, but I did it without him. Part of our dynamic, and why I stayed long after he started abusing me, was because he said that I needed him, that I couldn’t do things on my own, and I believed him. But I have learned now that I can do pretty much anything I put my mind to.

So, now, I live without a lot of material comforts. My son and I live in a tiny apartment. My teaching fellowship doesn’t stretch far enough for vacations or luxuries. I don’t have a washer and dryer or a dishwasher. None of that matters though. I am still much happier than I was a year ago.

I agree with Schwartz’s premise. Even though my life now is very stressful–I don’t think anyone would say that being a single mother and PhD student is easy–having low expectations has helped me manage that stress. Having low expectations doesn’t mean that I’ve settled. I don’t feel that way at all. Honestly, I am living my dream right now, and it is something I never could have done while I was still married, but I have lowered my expectations, and lowering my expectations has freed me.

On Powerlessness

Certain events in my life have forced me to confront the issue of powerlessness. I have been fairly open about this in recent months, but I am a survivor of domestic violence. When I first started saying those words, I called myself a victim. I didn’t think I had survived. I didn’t have a lot of hope for the future. I was living my life, but mostly, as a matter of routine. On November 20, 2012, my husband was arrested for Domestic Battery. In the aftermath of that arrest, I moved out of the home we shared, opened up about my struggle to my friends and family, lived with my son at a friend’s house for a month, continued teaching full-time and working part-time in another capacity, filed for divorce, applied to PhD programs, was accepted to the top PhD program in the country for my field, drove across the country and worked in Idaho for the summer, drove back across the country, and with the assistance of my parents, packed up my house, went to my divorce hearing, and moved to Ohio in a matter of days.
After all of that, I think I can finally say I’m a survivor.
 But no one should have to survive what I survived. And that is why I struggle with feelings of powerlessness. Domestic violence victims feel powerless. It’s part of our pathology. Abuse isn’t always about anger. My husband didn’t struggle with anger. He wasn’t one of those people who would have outbursts at work, or engage in acts of road rage. My husband struggled with control. He, too, felt powerless. He felt powerless about many things, both inside and outside of our relationship. I know that about him, and when I made him feel powerless—generally by being upset with him or hurt about something he had done—then he regained that sense of power by battering me. Then he felt deep shame, and he would apologize and cry or make some kind of grand romantic gesture, and I would forgive him because I recognized those feelings of powerlessness in him, and the cycle would start over again. I thought that we were partners, and that my job was to support him and take care of him. But I wasn’t taking care of myself. And he wasn’t taking care of me either. And over time, I became more and more broken.
 I have struggled with anger since I left him. Honestly, I have probably struggled more with anger than he has. I have been angry with him, I have been angry with his family, I have been angry with his friends, but most of all, I have been angry with myself. It is a hard truth to acknowledge that I loved someone who abused me. This recent study found that psychopaths can recognize a victim just by the way they walk. Sometimes, as I’m walking, I’ll feel my shoulders slump forward, and I’ll think “Is this the gait that made me prey? Is this how he knew I wouldn’t leave him?” And that makes me feel more angry. More than anything, the anger comes from the feelings of powerlessness, from feeling as though I am “prey” instead of a person, from feeling as though my life has been stolen from me by someone who claimed to love me, and who did love me, but who didn’t love me more than his own sickness.
The reason I am thinking about powerlessness today is because this weekend, after a year and two months, his case was finally resolved, and my journey with the “justice” system has left me feeling more disillusioned and powerless than ever. When my husband was arrested, it was because I had called 911. I was terrified and panicked, and I called for help. At that point, he had been breaking my cell phones to keep me from calling for help, so I ran into the bedroom and dialed 911 before he could get to the phone. I didn’t want for him to be arrested. I just didn’t want him to hurt me anymore, but when the police came, they saw that I was injured, so they had to arrest him. When the police officer arrested him, the officer asked my husband “Did she hit you too?” My husband answered no. The police officer then said, “Because we can arrest her too.”
At that point, we had both told our stories to the police. Nowhere in those stories had either of us said anything about me hitting him, yet that police officer was offering to arrest me. Offering. And I know that, had my husband been savvier about the system—which he is now—he would have lied and had me arrested. I think about the next woman who will be battered by my husband, and my heart breaks for her because she will not be as lucky as me. He knows the system now. He will batter someone else, I’m sure, but he will never be arrested again.
After the arrest, I heard nothing. He hired the most expensive lawyer in town, and the prosecutor’s office never called me. I called them. I tried to find out what was happening. I emailed her. The domestic violence shelter called her on my behalf. Yet, there was no response. I didn’t even know his court date. Finally, I reached someone in the Victim’s Assistance Program who told me when the date of his first hearing would be. She asked me if I would be willing to let the prosecutor offer him a plea, or if I wanted to go to trial. I expressed at that time that a plea would be fine, that the only thing I cared about was that he be mandated to take Batterer’s Intervention courses.
 I’d like to think that maybe he’ll get better. It’s unlikely, but I want to have that hope at least, and I thought those classes might help. I didn’t want to go to trial. Trial was a lose-lose situation, and it wouldn’t have been good for me or our child, but I was willing to go to trial if that was what it took.
 On this past Friday, the day of his first hearing, the prosecutor’s office called just as I was heading into an important meeting at work. He was refusing to plea. He was calling my bluff. Even though there were photos, and witnesses, and he had written a statement where he admitted to battering me, he knew I wouldn’t want to go to trial. The prosecutor had two options—she could dismiss the charges or go to trial. As I was standing in the break room, filling a cup of coffee, with my 2nd grader in tow because he had a snow day, I had to decide. Which did I want? A dismissal? Or trial?
 I didn’t know what to say. I was flustered and late for my meeting at that point. I said again that the only thing I cared about was that he takes Batterers Intervention classes. The representative who I was speaking to said “Oh, he did that.” My response to her was that I was dismayed if that was the case because his mentality did not seem to have changed at all. I finally told her that the prosecutor could do whatever she thought was best.
 I then went into that meeting and fought not to lose it in front of all of the other people at the meeting, while my little boy, who was reading Harry Potter quietly, was completely oblivious to what was happening. Then, as I sat there, my heart started racing. I couldn’t stand the thought of a trial. If he lost at trial, he would end up in jail and lose his job. If he won at trial, I would be devastated. I got up and ran out of the meeting. I went back to the break room, called the representative who didn’t answer and left  her a message saying that they could dismiss the charges.
But, here’s the rub. He hadn’t taken Batterer’s Intervention classes. She was wrong. I did the math this morning and realized that it wasn’t possible. So I called and asked him, and he admitted that he hadn’t taken the classes. The prosecutor had 14 months to talk to me, and she didn’t call me until the morning of his hearing while I was at work, and even then, it wasn’t the prosecutor who I had spoken to.
 I was a mess for the rest of the day. I didn’t know if they had dismissed the charges or not.  Five-o-clock rolled around, and I realized that they weren’t going to call me. They weren’t even going to tell me what had happened.
 Again, I felt powerless. I was not in control of my own future. My husband had made me feel powerless for years, and after I finally regained my power from him, the legal system that was supposed to protect me had made me feel powerless again. As my best friend put it, it was both ironic and awful.
He called me Friday night and told me what had happened. The prosecutor had dismissed his charges, but she had told him that he has to write me a letter of apology, and it needs to be sincere. He has to submit it to her for approval. He told her that he had known I wanted an apology, but his lawyer had told him not to apologize to me. He told her that he would have apologized if he could have. Even in that moment, with a woman who clearly knew he was guilty, he was still trying to figure out how to make himself look decent. If he had been sorry, he would have apologized, lawyer or not. To his credit, he then told me that he knew I was the reason he wasn’t in jail, and that he was grateful for that, and I did appreciate his acknowledgment of that.
I have spent this weekend wrestling with these feelings of powerlessness and feeling like the system that was supposed to protect me failed me, and today, I realized that I do have a form of power. I have these words. I can’t go back and make him not hit me. I can’t make that police officer treat me the way I deserved to be treated. I can’t make that prosecutor less overwhelmed and better able to manage the demands of her job. I can’t make a system that is inherently unfair fair. But I can tell my story. I can use my words, and I can find power in them. Because I am a survivor now. I am no longer a victim.
And at the end of this journey, I am going to make a t-shirt that says:
I Went Through Hell, And All I Got Was This Lousy Letter of Apology.