The Next Woman is younger than me. The Next Woman looks like Caleb with his same angular features. The Next Woman has similar coloring to me, but she is slimmer with longer hair. The Next Woman likes to crochet, and craft, and make things with her hands. The Next Woman hula hoops in bikinis. The Next Woman likes braids.
The Next Woman bakes cookies with my son. The Next Woman is nice to my son. The Next Woman refuses to meet me. The Next Woman says she will never shake my hand. The Next Woman thinks I’m a crazy liar. The Next Woman is marrying my abuser. The Next Woman believes my abuser. The Next Woman thinks it will be different for her.
Maybe it will be different for her.
God, I hope it will be different for her.
I don’t know her. Everything I describe about her comes from snooping on social media. She snoops on me too. It is obvious. We take turns blocking each other. The 21st Century is problematic for trauma survivors.
I don’t want her to become a trauma survivor. Maybe she already is one.
I also don’t want her to know how it feels to be held down. I don’t want her to know how it feels to finally decide to fight back, then find that he can hold her down so easily. That he will spit in her face–not once, but three times–just to show her how powerless she is.
I don’t want her to know how it feels to have Caleb’s hands around her neck, how as her oxygen supply disappears, his face will grow blurry, but it is red–so red–and his eyes will have something in them that looks like pleasure.
I don’t want her to ever think “His face will be the last thing I see before I die.”
I don’t want her to ever think “I am ready to die.”
I don’t want her to apologize when he finally lets go because he has her so inside-out and upside-down that she thinks she brought it upon herself.
I don’t want that life for her.
Even more, I don’t want my son to see his father do that to another woman.
When I divorced Caleb, I told my lawyer, a lawyer who only represents domestic violence victims for free, that I wasn’t worried about Caleb abusing Reed, that child abuse wasn’t a part of his pattern. She looked at me, then said, “But what if he gets together with another woman?”
I hadn’t thought of that. It was hard for me to imagine Caleb with another woman. I knew that he was still in love with me when I left him. As messed up as it was, I had also still been in love with him when I left him. I couldn’t imagine either of us with other people.
I am very loyal; I didn’t believe in falling out of love.
When I left Caleb, he said, “You’ll find someone else.”
And I replied, “I will never love anyone else. I will only ever love you, but I am better off alone than I am with you.”
And I meant it about not loving someone else, but I was wrong. I have been with other men. I have learned how it feels to be treated with respect and kindness. I have learned that I am capable of loving someone else, though I have not loved someone else.
But I love myself now, and that is something I never felt when I was with Caleb.
Today, I was at the Post Office. I had to show the guy my driver’s license. He looked at it, then looked back up. He peered at my face. He didn’t believe it was me. I guess they take this stuff seriously at the Post Office.
I said, “I have longer hair and contacts now, but I promise that it’s me.” He looked again, then back at my driver’s license, then back at me, and said, “Wow.” And honestly, it stung. I knew what he was getting at. I had that photo taken right after I left Caleb, but before we divorced. I looked the worst I had ever looked in my life. I looked tired, old, miserable, and frankly, like someone who had given up. But today, standing in front of that man, I was completely transformed. I am happy. I have my glow back.
And it’s probably in my imagination, but when I see the Next Woman at our child hand-offs in the 7-11 parking lot, it’s like I can see her glow diminishing a little more every other week. But the truth is that I try not to look at her. I immediately get on my phone. It is all so very painful.
I want to say to her, “You are so young, and still, so beautiful. Don’t let that go. Don’t marry a man who will make you feel diminished. Don’t marry a man who hates the women from before you. Don’t marry a man whose own son says, ‘You know my dad. He just goes crazy sometimes.’ Don’t marry a man who is raising a son who distrusts his own father. Don’t have that man’s babies. Don’t give them the childhood that his oldest son has had.”
I can’t say that to her, so I’ll say it here. Maybe she will read it. More likely, she won’t. Caleb has made it clear that no one in his life will read my writing. I guess I’m grateful for that, although that is not why he keeps them from reading it.
Tuesday morning, as my son was leaving for school, he said, “Mom, did I tell you that Dad and Next Woman are getting married?”
And I said, “Wow, that’s great buddy!”
What was I supposed to say?
And I said, “Are you happy?”
And he replied, “Sure.” Then he went outside to wait for the bus.
And I realized that his father’s marriage means little to my son. What’s the difference? My son has no control over his surroundings. He learned early on that he has to ride the waves of his father’s moods.
If I ever remarry, I have no doubt that my son will respond differently. It is obvious that he sees me as the stable force in his life. For that reason, I have protected him from any dating that I have done.
Thankfully, my son is doing great. I remember how Caleb diminished my parenting abilities when we were married, how he made me feel unfit and inadequate, how Caleb took the credit for every good thing in our lives. When I look at Reed now, I know that I’m a good parent. Reed affirms it to me every day. He is kind, empathetic, confident, happy, and good. He is just goodness embodied. And Caleb can’t take the credit for that. I am the one raising that boy, and if I have anything to do with it, he will turn into a beautiful man who respects women and treats them with care.
I was surprised by my feelings when I found out the engagement between Caleb and Next Woman was official. I felt very heavy. It wasn’t jealousy, nor was it sadness. Just an inexplicable heaviness. There were so many feelings involved. I felt fear for Reed and his future. I felt sadness for Next Woman and the hopelessness that is waiting for her. I felt inadequate because I’m not yet at that place in my own life. And I felt resentment towards Next Woman for disbelieving me, even though all of the evidence in the world proves that what I’ve written is true.
My friend Megan, who has been my friend since we were toddlers, and who is a counselor, told me that Next Woman’s entire life depends upon believing what Caleb says, and I know this to be true. Megan’s words helped me to work past the resentment.
The author Mo Daviau, recently wrote a blog post about this same subject. She wrote about how every abuse survivor eventually reads the book Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft. (If you’re reading this blog and you haven’t read that book, then read it. Just do me a favor, please, and read it.)
But Mo pointed out that when the Next Woman agrees with the abuser that the ex is crazy, then the Next Woman is placed in the position of proving that she’s different. That means the Next Woman can never disagree with the abuser, and always has to give in to his needs. Thus, the abuse dynamic is set into place early on.
Can I admit something here? My fear is not really that Caleb will hold Next Woman down. My real fear is that he won’t hold Next Woman down, and she won’t have any reason to leave. I think it’s possible he won’t physically abuse her. I feel that I am a large part of that. I am actively writing about this. He already has one domestic violence charge in his town, and everyone knows what he has done. Is he really going to want to risk the consequences again? Lundy also says that highly intelligent abusers are the most dangerous because they have so much control over their actions. Caleb never “lost control.” He chose to abuse me because it got him what he wanted.
So, my real fear is that Caleb will emotionally abuse Next Woman, which is so much harder to identify, and much harder to get out of. And let me be clear when I say that I have no doubt that he will emotionally abuse her. This is not an if.
Other survivors tell me that it’s naive of me to think he might not hit Next Woman, and I’ve learned that other survivors are usually right. There are patterns to this behavior.
Mo has also written that she wished her ex had hit her. And I get that. I do. I’m not glad that Caleb hit me, but it gives my story a legitimacy that others don’t have. Still, the emotional abuse is what lingers. The emotional abuse is what turns their voice into your voice.
I doubt that Caleb will get arrested again, but I have no doubt that he will abuse Next Woman.
I’m in an online support group of sorts. A woman recently asked when it stops hurting. I was the first to reply. I said that it takes a while, and even then, it’s not permanent, that triggers continue to happen. Every response that followed was similar. We are not on a timeline, nor can we be. We don’t know what’s going to hurt and what won’t.
Can I tell you about my last major trigger? It was when Caleb got together with Next Woman. I realized via social media snooping, and I had a nightmare that Caleb was in my house. I tried to run out the door. He wouldn’t let me. He stepped in front of me in whichever direction I went (which was what he did when we lived together). I said, “Why are you here?” But he just smiled at me. I said, “Are you here to kill me?” And he smiled again and nodded, then reached out his hands.
Then, I woke up. I was so panicked that I spent the next day incapacitated on the couch. I couldn’t stop crying. I was wrapped in a blanket the entire time. My mom called because she often calls me. I don’t really talk a lot to my mom about my feelings. It’s just not the way that my family operates, but I told her about the dream and the way it affected me. I started crying while I was talking. It was one of the few times that, instead of telling me what I should have done, she told me that she understood. She just listened, and I relaxed.
That was the last time I was triggered in that way, and it was over a year ago. Yesterday, my friend, Kelly M. told me how nice it was for her to realize that I rarely talk about Caleb anymore, that I only talk about him in logistical terms. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t sad to hear about his engagement, but for the most part, I’ve moved on.
And the day after I felt so heavy because of the news of Caleb’s engagement, I felt better. That was all it took. A day. And my friend and I decided to prank one of the writers at my university. He has an affinity for polar bears, and so, we bought a polar bear from the grocery store and set it on his porch in a creepy fashion. Reed had no idea what we were doing, but he loved it. He wrote the card, and he laughed, and it was wonderful. After the prank was completed, the writer’s wife wrote, “Kelly, you and Reed are just the personification of joy.”
And we are. Our life is good. Honestly, it is better than good. And I can’t help Caleb’s Next Woman, but I can make sure that I will never be someone else’s Next Woman, and I can make sure that, most of the time, Reed is living with joy rather than yelling.