On Telling Our Stories

I received an email from a woman this morning, and I meant to only write her a short reply, but as is typical for me, I got a little carried away. After finishing my reply, I realized that it was something I wanted to share here because it articulates much of my thinking about abuse.

Dear —–,

Thank you so much for taking the time to write to me. It’s important to me to hear from other women who identify with my story because I, too, for a long time, felt that my story wasn’t recognizable in the narratives I was reading. What I’ve discovered from writing my blog is that there is no typical domestic abuse narrative. There are red flags, and patterns, and cycles, but there is not necessarily a typical narrative. I think the idea of there being a typical narrative does women like us a disservice because we don’t fit into the mold that people think of when they think of domestic abuse victims/survivors, and because we don’t fit that mold, some people have a hard time believing that the abuse was real, or that it happened. Or maybe because we seem to be doing okay–we’re educated, we have jobs, and we’re capable–people don’t realize how much damage has been done to us on the inside, how much of the damage is not visible.

It breaks my heart to hear that your girlfriends weren’t there for you in the way you needed. My girlfriends have been my biggest support system. They have kept me sane during a time when a man who I loved was (and is) actively trying to convince me that I’m insane. But your story with your girlfriends is all-too-common. I don’t know why they weren’t there for you. It’s probably a combination of the reasons you described, that it was difficult for them to hear, that they are a little selfish, and that you might have pushed them away. I didn’t have that experience with my girlfriends, but I did with my parents. They haven’t been supportive in the ways that I needed. They have been supportive, but they have also undercut my efforts to move on, and then, they have acted offended when I didn’t think they were very supportive. It’s frustrating to them and to me. Again, there is no typical narrative, but one thing I have discovered is that all survivors have someone in their life who doesn’t support them in the way they need. That is a pattern.

A big part of the frustration of abuse is that it’s easier for the abuser to move on than the victim. It’s easier for the abuser to move on, to be happy, and to be stable. People see the abuser doing fine, and they see the victim still struggling with their issues, still struggling with sadness, or anger, or self-esteem. Most of all, they see the victim struggling to tell their story. It is so hard for us to tell our stories. It requires a great deal of self-reflection, of analysis of the world and culture around us, and of re-evaluating the narrative of our own lives. People don’t realize that is not any easier for us to piece together how or what happened than it is for them. If it is hard for them to understand what happened, it is even harder for us because we were effectively brainwashed in the abusive relationship. That brainwashing does not just go away. We have to be deprogrammed. We have to put the pieces together. It is all very confusing and foggy. And people see victims struggling through this process, and they question the victim’s credibility, and that becomes another form of victimization, and it also justifies their decision to stay friends with the abuser. 

In divorces, the common mantra is It takes two. This is generally true, but I see people saying the same thing about abuse, and no, it does not take two. Abuse takes only one. And because of that, there are sides in abusive situations, and anyone who truly supports the victim will be willing to take a side, will be willing to eliminate contact with the abusive person, and anyone who thinks that it is “immature” or “petty” of me to say that does not understand abusers. Anyone who thinks that it is okay to remain in contact with an abuser does not understand that the abuser takes silence as permission, that their silence empowers the abuser, and that the person who remains in contact with the abuser (assuming they have not taken a stand directly to the abuser, and let’s face it, if they have taken that stand, then the abuser would have dropped them already) becomes complicit in the abuse. I wholly believe this. It is a controversial view. Our culture thrives on neutrality, glorifies neutrality, but there is no neutrality in abuse, and people of integrity who truly support the victim will withdraw support of the abuser. It is not possible to support the abuser and the victim. It simply isn’t.

I use the words victim and survivor at different times. One of my pet peeves is people who interject into a conversation about victimization, “Oh, I prefer the word survivor.” I respect the choice of victims/survivors to choose how they identify themselves, and if I want to use the word victim, then I hope that others respect my decision to use that word. It is not that I see myself as a victim. I don’t. I see myself as a survivor, but during my marriage, I was a victim. I use that word as a way of articulating that I was not a participant. I was a victim. Caleb victimized me. That was all him. I am now a survivor. I survived something terrible, and I’ve thrived. Hell, yes, I’m a survivor, but I was victimized. That is part of my history now, so I use the word victim when describing the process of being actively victimized, and I use the word survivor when describing the actions I’ve taken since leaving my situation. I don’t know how you choose to identify yourself, but I wanted to let you know the way the terms function for me.

You mentioned that you sometimes wonder if your situation was bad enough to qualify as abuse, and I’ll say this: Yes, it was bad enough.

We all worry about that when we get out. We have gotten so used to minimizing our situations that we all wonder if our situation was bad enough. I wondered the same thing. I thought my situation wasn’t bad enough. My ex-husband tried to force me to swallow a bottle of Ambien, and I still left the relationship wondering if it was bad enough. 

Yes, it was bad enough. And the emotional abuse is the worst, and the physical intimidation is maybe even scarier than the violence. Just last night, I told my friend that I don’t know if Caleb will hit his new girlfriend. He has had consequences for hitting, and everyone knows now that he is abusive, and he was always in control. He never lost control. He chose his violence. I believe that he will be able to choose not to hit the new girlfriend. But he will be even smarter about other forms of abuse. He will still emotionally abuse her. He will still physically intimidate her. He will back her into corners so she feels threatened, then wonders if she should be feeling that way because he did not hit her. He will take her keys when she tries to leave, try to break her phone, and most of all, try to break her soul by making her feel inadequate, by making her feel as though no one but him will ever be able to love someone like her, and because he might not hit her, she will be even worse off than me because she will not have that visible marker that says, This is abuse. 

Sometimes, we need that definitive evidence that we have been abused. As sick as it might sound, I am sometimes glad that Caleb was so clearly abusive, that no one can call my story into question. There are still people who call my story into question, but those people are clearly sick themselves, and they can’t see that Caleb’s abuse comes from his own fundamental cruelty. Yes, Caleb has kindness too. Yes, Caleb has a sense of humor. Yes, Caleb has vulnerability. All of those are qualities that he possesses. They are not going anywhere, so why do people seem to think that his cruelty will go away? I am thinking now of the people who have told me they thought he would change. He will not change. He cannot change one of the tenets of his character, which is cruelty. He is not able to change the fact that part of his fundamental character is cruelty. That is not going anywhere. 

While Caleb was abusing me, I wrote an essay. It was titled “Cruelty Was the Only Thing She Knew.” It was about babysitting and what I had witnessed as a child. Many people commented to me that it was a deeply dark essay. It was. I know this now. I know this because, when I re-read it, it is as though I cannot recognize the person who wrote it. I was so immersed in Caleb’s cruelty and his darkness, that the darkness was coming out in my writing in subtle ways. That was before he was actively hitting me, but he was physically intimidating me and emotionally abusing me. He had hit me already, but it wasn’t common. Still, because of the way he treated me, I did believe that cruelty was the only thing I knew. He was cruel. He is cruel, and that is what I knew.

But I no longer think the world is cruel. I am able to see now that the cruelty was in him. It was not the world. It was all his own.

You have given me a lot to think about, and I appreciate that. You are not alone. We are not alone. We are all too common, and I am glad we are able to find each other when we need it.

On Holidays

My birthday is on Christmas.

I woke up missing Caleb this morning.

These things are probably related.

We used to be a family, and I miss that. And I wanted to call him and tell him that I missed him, but I didn’t. I didn’t do that because there was no point, and because I’m certain he doesn’t miss me, and because he doesn’t deserve my nostalgia, and because he doesn’t deserve my love.

I told my mom that I woke up missing Caleb, and she came over and hugged me, which was unexpected because she’s not a hugger, but I appreciated her solace. It made me feel cared for. Then, I started to complain about him. I started to complain about how much he had hurt me, and how hard things were, and she stopped comforting me and started lecturing me instead. She didn’t mean to lecture. She only wants to help, but she doesn’t like my anger. No one likes my anger.

I am not allowed my anger. I am only allowed my sadness.

My father is still Facebook friends with my ex-husband. I am no longer Facebook friends with my father. This is petty, I know, but I took a stand. I un-friended everyone on Facebook who was friends with Caleb. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t because I didn’t like them. Most of them are people with whom I only had marginal contact anyway. This is evidenced by the fact that I really haven’t noticed the absence of their stories in my feed. But I needed to take that stand. It was painful for me to see him “liking” their posts. It was painful for me to see them having conversations with him. It was painful for me to see his name again and again and again. It was painful for me to feel that my suffering meant nothing to these people. It was painful for me to realize that all of us are alone in our pain, that only I can feel this pain, no one else can feel it for me, because if they did, they would not want to be “friends” with the man who slammed his fist into my head, over and over again.

But I am not allowed to say this. I am not allowed to say “You shouldn’t want to be friends with the man who abused me.” I am not allowed to say that because that would make me sound angry. And I am not allowed my anger.

I see a woman on Facebook expressing a lot of rage at her abuser. It is the focus of most of her posts. I am jealous of her. I am jealous of her ability to be angry. I am jealous of her strength. I am jealous that she doesn’t capitulate to the narrative of “victim as survivor” where the victim’s role is only to uplift, to show what’s possible in the wake of abuse. I am jealous of her, but I will not do the same thing. I have had my own expressions of anger on Facebook, but not to that degree. I have not expressed my anger in that way because I am a good girl. I am always a good girl.

I am a very good girl, and good girls don’t get to be angry.

I am tired of being a good girl.

I see that woman’s posts, and I know how she feels. I used to have that kind of anger. It ate me up inside. It tried to claw its way out of me. There were nights when I ran in the dark. I ran so hard and so fast that my chest felt as though it would explode because that pain was the only thing that took away the anger. The running was my way of self-harming, of punishing myself for my anger.

I am no longer angry like that. I am rarely angry like that. And this is something to be thankful for. I am not often angry at him. I am not often angry at his friends. I am not often angry at the world.

Life has been good to me since leaving him, and I no longer feel hopeless, so I no longer feel angry.

But I do still miss him at times, and I am jealous that he has a girlfriend. I am not jealous that he is with someone else. I am not jealous that she is with him. I have no desire to be with him any longer, but I am jealous that, for now, she gets to be with the Caleb I fell in love with. That Caleb is so charming, so kind. I spent years trying to get that Caleb back, wishing for that Caleb to return. That Caleb let me pick out the fanciest, most elaborate birthday cake I wanted, and then, he made it for me. That Caleb treated me like I was the most special woman in the world. That Caleb has been dead to me for a long time, but for a period, this new girlfriend gets to have that Caleb, and I envy her that. I envy her that, while also pitying her. I pity her because she will fall in love with that Caleb, and I know how deeply that love can go, but also how disappointed she will be in the end.

Truthfully, Christmas was always a stressful time when we were married. We almost always fought on Christmas. I have more terrible memories of Christmas than I do good ones. There was the year that my best friend secretly collected money from our friends for my birthday. Caleb and I were going to be staying at my sister-in-law’s on Christmas, and my friend wanted me to have something more special than that. She told everyone how hard it was for me to have a birthday on Christmas. She said that she wanted to collect enough money for us to stay in the fanciest hotel in town. She collected a large sum of money. It was one of the most thoughtful and loving things that anyone has ever done for me. But it angered Caleb. It angered him because he thought I had been complaining about having to stay at his sister’s. I had only mentioned it to my friend, but Caleb thought I had been complaining, and he raged at me on Christmas Eve. He raged at me, and he beat me. It was one of the first times he beat me, and I was shocked. It was Christmas Eve, and I thought, “I am going to have to leave this man. He just beat me,” But by the next morning, he was apologetic, and then, soon, I felt guilty. Maybe I had complained too much, I thought. Maybe I had embarrassed him, I thought. Maybe I had made him feel shame, I thought. It was my fault, I thought. So we drove to his parents’ house, and I wore long sleeves and hoped they didn’t notice how puffy my eyes were from crying.

I’ll never have a Christmas like that again. That is something to be thankful for. There is much to be thankful for right now. But that doesn’t change the fact that I miss him sometimes, that I forget these terrible things for the briefest of moments and, instead, I remember playing Christmas Carols and dancing in front of the Christmas tree. I remember envisioning a future with him where we could have a Christmas without misery. I don’t get to have the solace of that dream now. That dream is gone.

There was a man who I met this summer. We talked for months. We got to know each other, and right before summer ended, we started a romance. It was all rather impulsive and irresponsible. We don’t live in the same state, and that is not going to change. But it happened. It happened, and I really fell for him, and two nights before I left for the summer, he stayed the night with me. It was the first time I had slept in the same bed with someone since I had left Caleb. In the middle of the night, I rolled over, and I accidentally woke him, and I said, “Sorry, honey.” And then I was embarrassed, and I apologized sleepily. I have no idea why I apologized, but I said “I used to call my husband, ‘honey’.” And this man just took my head and tucked it into his chest to silence me, and I fell back asleep, and I slept so soundly, and so peacefully, and it was beautiful. And when I arrived at the house yesterday, I took my suitcase into this room, and I saw the bed where I had slept with that man, and I was hit with a profound sense of loss. I was hit with the awareness that everything comes with a price, that my decision to pursue my PhD means I don’t have the flexibility to be in a relationship with this man, that having primary custody of my son makes dating extremely hard and complicated, that leaving my abusive husband came with a host of other problems. There are always trade-offs, and I don’t want trade-offs. I want it all. I am selfish with want.

It is not lost upon me that, while my life has gotten vastly more complicated, Caleb’s has gotten easier. He gets to have a girlfriend. He gets to go to bars like a twenty-something. He no longer has to take care of a sick child, or get up in the mornings. He has more time and money. His life is carefree, and I resent this sometimes.

But on days like this Christmas Eve when I wake up missing him, even on days like this, I still know that I am better off without him. I still know that my complications are part of my beauty, that my PhD program, and my son, and my writing, and my career have trade-offs, but I am in charge of the decision making.

I am the one in control, and that is something to be thankful for.

On Needs

There is a lot of sadness in the world today. I need to take a moment to acknowledge that before I continue. Black men are being shot because they are black. This is not like the violence I escaped from my marriage. This violence is inescapable. It is institutionalized. In addition to that, one of my dearest friends, Rebecca, the friend who took Reed and me in after I left Caleb, has a friend being held hostage by al-Qaeda. If you have a moment, I implore you to sign this petition asking the American government to help secure his release. [Update, sadly Luke Somers was killed by al-Qaeda during a rescue attempt by US forces]. Again, this violence is institutionalized. Like many Americans today, I feel helpless in the face of all of this. I feel helpless to stop it. I feel helpless in a way that is different from the ways in which I felt helpless in my marriage.

A woman who I knew rather well in my hometown, a woman of great spirit, died of breast cancer yesterday, and it is difficult for me to think of someone who always felt so alive being dead.

Someone I know in a professional capacity lost her home to a fire, and she has no clothes. Her family was already poor  She is one of the sweetest people I know, but I only know her in a professional capacity. I am trying to figure out if it would be appropriate for me to anonymously send her a gift card to a clothing store. I am trying to figure out if that would help or hurt.

I am usually crying by the end of a blog post. Tonight, I am already crying. I am crying in the face of all of this helplessness. I am a crier. This is no secret. Crying is not an escape, but it is a release, at least.

Helplessness is a painful feeling. I want to find ways to escape it, but I have learned that what I want is not always what I need. Sometimes, I need to collapse myself into the helplessness. Sometimes, I need to admit that there are things I cannot change.

There are parts of myself that I will never change. This is true, I know. There are aspects of my life that I will never change. There are things from my past that I will never change. There are actions I have taken that I can never undo. There are things yet to come that I will not be able to change.

There was so much about Caleb that I could not change.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t try. I tried so hard.

Today, while teaching, I mentioned that I’m almost thirty-seven. I said it casually as I was looking at the computer. I heard a bunch of noise and looked up. My most vocal student was staring at me with his mouth agape, “What did you just say?” he said. “You’re HOW old?”

“I’m almost thirty-seven,” I said.

Another student who had been writing in his notebook looked up and turned to the person next to him, “Wait, what did she say?”

Then, they all started chattering, telling me how they never would have guessed I was that old. I would have thought they were just trying to flatter me, if it hadn’t been for their genuine surprise and somewhat tactless comments about how old I was to be a graduate student.

I feel vain by even repeating this story, but here is why it mattered so much–In all my years of teaching during my marriage, none of my students ever expressed surprise at my age. In fact, I think they usually thought I was older than I was.

Because I was older than I was.

I carried the abuse in my body, in my soul, and in my eyes. I spent the entirety of my marriage looking and feeling ten years older than I was. I aged twenty years in ten.

And since leaving Caleb, I feel as though I have reverse aged. My skin looks better. My eyes glow again. My hair is thick and healthy. I have more energy. I sleep more soundly. I am not a new person. I am the person I always was.

I am the person who was being masked by years of abuse.

I had a difficult week. I won’t go into the details, but it was the kind of week where I was being very hard on myself. Feeling very inadequate. I talked on the phone to my mom. Have I mentioned lately how great my mom is? We weren’t always close, although we always loved each other, but I feel very close to my mom now. For the first time in my life, I feel as though I’m completely honest with her. I feel as though she knows the real me. And that is different because, for a long time, if I couldn’t be exactly the person she wanted me to be, then I didn’t want her to know who I really was. This is because, as I have been informed by my counselor, I’m an approval seeker. Finding this out was a surprise to me, although it seems to have surprised no one who knows me.

I’m an approval seeker, so I’m constantly seeking approval from others, even in situations where no approval will be forthcoming. And I was telling my mom how dejected I was feeling, she told me “You need to stop being so hard on yourself. You need to stop being so hard on yourself because Reed is going to see it, and he’s going to be hard on himself too.” And the hard truth for me is that Reed is hard on himself. He gets frustrated when he doesn’t get a perfect score on a spelling test, and I tell him “We don’t have to be perfect, buddy!” in my best peppy “mom” voice, but I don’t think he hears it when he sees me constantly striving for perfection in my own unattainable ways.

And I’m tired of trying to be perfect.

Reed talks to his dad on the phone every night. He puts him on speaker phone so he can play while he’s talking, and we live in a small house, so I get stuck overhearing their conversations. Last night, Reed asked Caleb, “If you could be anything, what would you be?” And Caleb paused for a while, then said, “I don’t know. I’m pretty happy with what I am now.”

And I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.

This was the man who told me, “I’ll never be happy if I don’t have a wife who is not happy with me all of the time.”

This was the man who told me, “I’ll never be happy if I don’t publish a book.”

This was the man who told me, “I’ll never be happy if I’m not successful.”

This was the man who told me, “I’ll never be happy if I don’t get a tenure-track job.”

The list of things that would make him “never be happy” felt endless.

Above all, I could never make him happy. Reed could never make him happy. Our home could never make him happy. Our dogs could never make him happy. Our family could never make him happy.

I felt like I was always rowing a sinking boat upstream. I was rowing, and he was just along for the ride.

Now, all of a sudden, he’s happy with who he is? That is what I craved. Above all, I craved his happiness. I spent so little time thinking of my own. But I couldn’t make him happy, so I was helpless. I was helpless in the face of his unhappiness.

As my friend, Megan, who is a counselor, has pointed out to me, the “I’ll never be happy if I don’t have a wife who is not happy with me all of the time” statement is the statement of a master manipulator. He basically told me that I could never be unhappy, never be annoyed, never be sad, never be angry, never be upset. And when telling me that didn’t work, he showed me. He showed me this with his fists.

There was a night. A terrible night where he beat me in the head so badly that my scalp swelled, and my arms, which I had raised over my ears, bruised. I am tired of telling these stories. I am so tired of telling these stories, but I don’t know how to tell my story without telling these stories. He hurt me so badly, then he went to bed. And I stayed up for a long time. And I went to my computer, and I wrote a counselor who had been referred to me by Caleb’s counselor, a man who had been counseling us as a couple, but to whom we hadn’t divulged the abuse. I wrote to her from my work email address because I knew that Caleb could read my personal email. I wrote to her and told her that my husband was beating me, and that I had to tell her right then before I lost my courage. I had never even met her. I was operating on faith. And then I went to bed. I went to bed with him. And the next morning, he rolled around and put his arm around me, and I flinched and pulled away from him, and he asked what was wrong?

He claimed not to remember what had happened. He didn’t deny that it had happened. He could see the bruises, but he claimed not to remember. Then he told me with deep sadness how much it broke his heart that when he touched his wife, she flinched. He told me this with deep remorse, and I reached out to him and comforted him. I believed that he had blacked out, that he hadn’t been himself, and I comforted him.

And when I checked my email, the counselor had written back, and she had told me to go and see her ASAP. And I saw her that afternoon, and I showed her the bruises, and she held me–this stranger–and I wept on her shoulder. I wept for myself, and I wept for him, and I wept for my marriage because, even though I didn’t know I knew it yet, I knew that my marriage was ending.

And that night, my husband made a comment about the night before. He was angry that I had gone to see the counselor. I had told him that I had shown her the bruises. His comment was about something he shouldn’t have remembered (if he had truly blacked out), and I said, “Wait, do you remember?” And he claimed not to, but I saw it in his eyes. I saw a cold, hard gleam in his eyes that showed me he did remember. He was lying to me.

He lied to me so many times. He lied to me so many times that I had no idea what to believe.

After I left him, I had a somewhat heated communication with one of his female friends. She asked me why I stayed past when things got dangerous. I tried to explain to her that she didn’t have the right to ask that question of me, that she was victim-blaming me. I was angry and didn’t explain myself very well.

But here is why I stayed past when it got dangerous: I stayed because he lied to me. I stayed because I believed him. I stayed because his abuse was so slow, so insidious, that I didn’t know it was happening. I stayed because he gaslighted me so much, that, by the time things got truly dangerous, I didn’t believe my own perceptions anymore. I only believed what he told me.

I stayed because he brainwashed me.

This woman had been a victim of stranger assault, so I had thought she would have some understanding of what I had been through, but I have learned that other assault victims do not necessarily understand what all assault victims are going through. I don’t know what she went through, and she doesn’t know what I went through. She doesn’t know how it feels to be lied to, manipulated, and gaslighted over a period of years by the person who you love the most. I don’t know how the look in a stranger’s eyes changes when he becomes dangerous.

She shouldn’t presume to think she knows what my experience was like, or what could have prevented it. And I shouldn’t have presumed to think that she would understand because she had been assaulted herself in a different fashion.

And how does this connect back to my needs? I don’t really know, honestly. These blog posts always take me on a path of their own. They are different from the rest of my writing, more organic, more like a path that I follow than a path I carve, so now, I don’t really know how all of this connects back to my needs. I guess it connects because this is what I needed to say.

I have learned that I have a hard time distinguishing between what I want and what I need. Last night, I had a lot of grading to do, but I was also very tired. And I thought that the grading was what I needed to do, but I wanted to sleep. And I slept. And here’s the thing: the sleep was what I needed. The grading waited. It waited until today, and I finished it by the skin of my teeth. But I had needed sleep, and I had given myself the thing I needed.

And I need to be easier on myself.

And I need to be able to recognize what I need. For so long, I didn’t even know what I needed because my needs were so focused on his.

I have gotten pretty good at recognizing my needs. I give myself little mantras to help. After I left Caleb, I called 2013 “The Year of Asking For What I Need” and I was given everything I needed. It was like a miracle the universe had bestowed on me. Much to my mother’s dismay, I am not religious, but I almost could be after that year. Everything I needed came to me, including a last-minute acceptance to the top PhD program in the country, and I learned, once and for all, that I could survive on my own.

I called 2014 “My Honey Badger Year” based on this video. Rebecca wrote to me recently, “I’ve rarely known someone with such a combination of fierceness and softness,” and that was maybe one of the best things she could have said. I have worked so hard to access that fierceness. Fierceness without hardness. That is what I want for my life.

I also called 2014 “The Year of Saying Yes,” and I’ve said yes to almost every opportunity presented to me. It has paid off. In the past year, I’ve had an essay go viral, met tons of new writers, landed a top-notch agent (No, seriously, like really top notch!), had breakfast with editors at fancy publishing houses, traveled across the country, made new friends, kissed men who weren’t Caleb, started turning my assemblage of writings into a real book, and, basically, lived the life I’ve always dreamed of.

And it turns out that life makes me tired.

So 2015 is going to be “The Year of Balance,” or maybe “The Year of Saying No.” Still, I have no doubt that it will be beautiful in so many ways because, no matter what, I’m going to keep a sign flashing over my door: “Is this something I want? Or something I need?”

I started this post crying, but I am no longer crying.
I am okay.
I was always okay.