Survivor Stories, Guest Post: The Escape Bag

For an introduction to Jane Eaton Hamilton’s story, you can read her previous post, “Never Say I Didn’t Bring You Flowers.”

The Escape Bag
by Jane Eaton Hamilton

Today is the anniversary of the day that I got free from my abusive ex, Feb 22, 2011, 5 years ago. I don’t know what kind of day this is for me. I’m not even sure I have any feelings about it. I can’t celebrate it, because to celebrate it would be to celebrate losing a relationship that was my heart and soul (even as it threatened to kill me). Yet neither can I mourn it because I am desperately glad to be shut of it.
I remember how cold and callous my ex became when she found out that I was not only going to say no to her violence, which I had done at the end for 6 months, but also flee it. There was a two-week window between my telling her and the day she stayed home from work to “supervise” my move (to determine that I didn’t take my half of the household possessions). Those two weeks were the most frightening of my life because she was livid and acting out. For good reason, as it turned out: during that time, my ex paralyzed my left arm.
I loved my ex unconditionally, as one would have to in order to stay in a relationship shot through with decades of disrespect, bullying, gaslighting and violence.
And here is why: 90% of the time, she was a kind, funny, giving and sensitive partner, and we made a tremendously good team. The violence that I spent untold private hours unspooling late at night in my office or in the TV room when she had fallen asleep, was just, I told myself, “not that bad.” She had never slugged me, and a fist to the face was my litmus test for whether I was battered. It was hers, too.
I told myself I wasn’t battered even as I was riddled with fingerprint bruises, as I splinted my arms and wrists and hands injured from her twisting, as I dodged under her arm and ran from rooms she’d trapped me in, as she raged, as she hung intimidatingly over my body like a curved arrow, as she slammed doors, as she beat up furniture, as she chased me, as she caused public scenes in restaurants, as she threw things, as I considered leaping from the moving car while she, furious over nothing-as-usual (toilet paper!), drove erratically.
Over those years, as best I could, I “managed” her—tried to anticipate when the violence was coming and cut it off at its outset. This could mean mollycoddling her through days of surliness, careful never to give in with a snarky comment while she picked at my Achilles’ heels, or keeping the kids away from her, or quieting them, or tending to her desires in bed, or launching into a program of superlatives about how great she was. All those things.
I always said to myself, She doesn’t mean anything; she just can’t control her anger. Herself and her shadow self. Which is real? The woman who gives me the 90% or the woman who gives me the 10%? Jekyll and Hyde, sure, but come on, be fair: she’s bloody amazing when she’s “herself.”
I was fully committed regardless of circumstance until death parted us. I made my desperate choice: 90% was “real.” 10% was ignorable.
Later I learned that batterers and rapists can indeed control themselves, that they would batter and rape in front of everyone—and would batter and rape friends and relatives at holiday dinners, say–if they were in fact “out of control.” But I didn’t know then that domestic violence is premeditated.
The two of us had a simple unstated rule for dealing with her abuse: we vanished it. If neither of us acknowledged it, and if she never apologized for it, if the next day we just went on as if the relationship required no adjustment at all, well, then, it hadn’t happened.
Even after we split, I was still begging her to take anger management classes—and had she agreed, and graduated, and been tender and gentle with me, I would have gone back. I understand now, of course, that these wouldn’t have been sufficient, but back then I was more naïve.
Congratulations! some friends say. Aren’t you over that yet? others say.
And to the latter, I say, No, I’m not over it yet. And I am traumatized that some people choose to maintain a relationship with her. I keep what I hope is distance from them, and I trust that anyone who does associate with her will let me know so that I can make the decision I need to make to feel safe, which will be not to see them again.
And I say to them: You haven’t got half a clue.
And yes, I am still hurting, especially because I learned that while I thought we were going along happily, more or less, she had been longing for my death. She told our couples’ counsellor this when I was sitting beside her. Afterwards, when I questioned her about it, tears pouring down my face, she said, “You weren’t supposed to hear that.”
My heart falls apart every time I hear she’s dating someone new. Not because I am jealous—I am blisteringly far from that. But because I know where their relationship is inevitably going, and the people she dates, at first, do not. They will be dazzled by her simple explanations for how she lost herself in our relationship and thinks, astonishingly, that she didn’t stand up for herself because she lied about her feelings and thoughts (but lying is not the same as not standing up for yourself), and this caused the so-called “anomalies” in in her behaviour, and how now she has her “self” back, and has become benign, and how I “just left for no reason.” I want them to be smarter than her explanations, but I know, in limerance, that they will not be.
Let me repeat what I’ve said in other essays: All you need for battering to happen is one person willing to batter. You don’t need one man and one woman. You don’t need one large person and one small person. You just need someone who wants to hurt someone else.
Batterers are controlling, they are entitiled, they justify their abuse, they deny and minimize, they are possessive. Anger, as it happens, is just their vehicle, the carapace behind which they shield their grasp of how they think their worlds should work.*
On this anniversary, I’ve been thinking not about my ex’s violence, which is pretty much a constant in my life as I slowly sift through its tendrils, understanding more about its scope and subtleties all the time, and about how abusers and society control us after abuse has stopped by demanding our silence (how dangerous it is to speak out), reading and talking and remembering, but about another day, a later day when my ex and I had been apart some months, when we were loading something into my trunk and came across a maroon carry-on bag. Adrenalin prickled through my body: I’m in trouble, trouble, trouble now.
“What is that?” she said, yanking it out.
I lifted out a change of clothing, a baggie of meds, bathroom essentials. My voice came out squeaky. “Oh, you know,” I said. “Just, um, you know. For sleepovers. You know, at [our daughter’s] house.”
A credit card, a change purse.
I pulled out a book, a months-overdue library book I hadn’t been able to find. It wasn’t for sleepovers, that bag. I looked at my wife. She looked back at me with the dull hostile stare I’d lately grown so accustomed to.
I knew. She knew. It was my escape bag. From her.
I’d run before. On one epic night—that night she raised her fist and didn’t connect—she chased me through our house, pulled me down some stairs and then chased me out to my car and tried to drag me out of it; she beat up the hood while I held my finger to the last “1” in 9-1-1. “I’m dialing,” I kept shouting. “I’m going to call if you don’t stop. I’m counting to three. One… Two…” That threat of exposure de-escalated her.
Nothing more happened that day I found my escape bag. I was safe because it was mid-day, in public, and I didn’t have to walk back inside our house with her. Shaking and sweating, I slid behind my wheel without being accosted, and drove around the corner until I could calm down, then took the book to the library depository feeling I was sliding something horrible and cursed down their chute.  
Now, today, on this anniversary, I remember my preparatory panic over leaving, how disrupted and wary my sleep was as the date drew closer, how I longed more than anything for my ex to fall to her knees, apologize and beg me to stay. I landed alone in my apartment aerie, freaking at all the things I was not able to physically handle on my own. Freaking at how I missed her. Freaking at how I needed her. Freaking at how I wanted her.
I have PTSD from that relationship. It was triggered two weeks ago by an insensitive friend. I sobbed and shook for some hours. This is something I have to work through. It took five years for the PTSD to manifest. I think about that. Does it mean I’m recuperating, or getting worse?
What has become of me in five years? I wish I could report that the news is good, but it is only adequate. Being both ill and disabled, I was completely dependent on my ex, and without her physical care, and her financial underpinnings, and because of the stress of battling her towards divorce, I have undergone severe physical diminishments and a steep slide into poverty. I always thought that when my illness turned the corner into tormenting she would be there for me as I had always been there for her, through illness, but no, she never intended that our relationship would go on or that she would nurture me in my decline.
I’ve avoided getting into serious relationships for the fear, I guess, that batterers and rapists can “see an easy mark coming.”   
It is five years. I don’t know how I feel today. Sad and still broken, mostly. I have a fervent desire never to have to look at my ex’s face in my lifetime again, and I’d ask my friends and loved ones to help that wish come true. I didn’t experience my foundational losses and simply pick up and move on—not at my age and in my compromised health.
I’m sorry that on this week that is also the anniversary of my mother’s death, I think more about the death of my relationship. I want to change that. I want to light my “Mama lantern,” usually lit on the anniversary of my mother’s birth, and watch it flicker in my garden.
But what else? I feel celebratory. I have small successes— I’ve won a couple of prominent short fiction contests, and now have two published books to add to my pile of earlier books. That is not nothing. As well, my small extended family—without my ex’s caustic appraisals of them continually in my ears—grow, thrive and propagate, and I have become someone’s grandqueer, the loveliest relationship I can imagine. I feel pleasure at looking at the fat buds about to burst open on the early cherry trees, the plump daffodil heads about to unfurl their tissue paper spathes and nod their cheerful yellow tops.
It is spring, and spring is hope, isn’t it?
* drawn from: Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, Lundy Bancroft

Jane Eaton Hamilton is the Canadian author of 9 books of short fiction and poetry. Her novel ‘Weekend’ is forthcoming in 2016. Her books have been shortlisted for the MIND Book Award, the BC Book Prize, the VanCity Award, the Pat Lowther Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award. She is the two-time winner of Canada’s CBC Literary Award for fiction (2003/2014). Her work is included in The Journey Prize Anthology, Best Canadian Short Stories and has appeared in publications such as Salon and the NY Times. She lives in Vancouver.

A Valentine’s Love Letter to Myself Written While the Pizza is in the Oven

While you’re making the nine o clock pizza, and the dough won’t stretch, don’t stare at that misshapen mess of holes and think, “Well, this is a good metaphor for my love life.”

Instead, keep patiently working that dough until it stretches into just the shape you need it to be, then think, “Now, this is a good metaphor for my love life.”

While you’re making that pizza, don’t play the Sharon Van Etten station on Pandora and listen to the song, “Sometimes I Don’t Think About You At All,” then think about when Caleb did the “12 Days of Valentine’s” in your first year of marriage where he gave you a thoughtful present every day, and your dad said (grumpily) that he was making the other men in your life look bad.

Don’t remember the year that your dad only gave your mom cherry bagels from the grocery store for Valentine’s Day, and you had always used that as an example of what you did not want in a man because, without a doubt, you knew that you wanted someone different from your dad. But the truth was that your dad was being funny, and he knew it, and your mom knew it, and the joke was that your dad loved your mom, and respected her, and as far as you know, was faithful to her, so the joke was, ultimately, Who cares about cherry bagels?

Don’t remember how you let Caleb use everything that you ever told him against you, how he said, “Well, at least I didn’t give you cherry bagels” when he made you lobster, and rubbed your shoulders, and gave you diamond earrings, but had also beaten you only days earlier.

When the Mazzy Star song “Fade Into You” comes on to your Pandora Station, don’t remember the year after high school, when you and your roommates laid side by side in your twin beds in Missoula, Montana, and listened to that song and willingly let yourselves be swept into melancholic fantasies about men you didn’t know because the ultimate fantasy was to be able to fade into someone

Then, years later, you actually did fade into someone, and it wasn’t beautiful. It was sad, and lonely, and very much like losing what little of yourself that you had left by then. 

Instead of focusing on that song, focus on the other dreams you had. You dreamed of being a writer. You dreamed of creating something beautiful. You dreamed of traveling. You dreamed of having a PhD. You dreamed of being able to comfortably support yourself. You dreamed of having the whole world.

You were never the person who dreamed of being a mother, but you became one anyway, and then, you found, unexpectedly, that being a mother suited you, and you were good at it, so let’s just say that was also a dream of yours.

Realize, that, while that dream you had of fading into someone only came true for a short period of your life, it was not a dream that you should have ever wanted.

Instead, you should have wanted what you have: a night spent writing in a tiny loft office above a snowy hollow in Appalachia while the rest of the world spins around you. You are two-thirds of the way finished with your PhD. You have a book coming out with a major New York publishing house. You will be spending your summer in Europe and your home state. Opportunities for you keep opening up, but above all else, you know that you are very, very loved. 

You might not be fading into someone, but you are living the life that you are meant to be living. This moment–of swirling snow outside, but warmth inside–is all that you can control, and it is a good moment.

And the pizza is done.

On Approval

On Thursday, I announced that my memoir will be published in 2017 by HarperCollins Publishers. I have been tremendously joyful about this, but life can still be tough.

For so many years, I was afraid to dream.

I have had too many disappointments, and I am tired. 

In the past few years, I have cracked open. I feel again after years of numbness. It would be easier not to feel, but I know that is not the life I want.

I am publishing a book with a major New York publishing house. I have a talented editor who has edited Pulitzer Prize winning books. I have an editor who believes in me, and my talent, and my story. The first time I spoke with this editor, I knew that I wanted to work with her because she sounded kind. 

I crave kindness. Kindness is what has sustained me through the darkness. 

I am not good at being kind to myself.

This past week, I did something thoughtless, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. Still, from the amount of apologizing I did, you would have thought I had killed a kitten. I wondered why I felt such a need to apologize to someone I barely knew, and to whom I owed nothing? I finally realized that what I really wanted to say to this person was, “I was treated very poorly for many years. I am just looking for you to tell me that you still like me.”
Tell Me You Still Like Me could be the title of my book.

My best friend told me after an argument, “Kelly, I am not Caleb. I love you unconditionally,” and I felt this weight lift. I needed to hear those words.

This weekend, I was in Morgantown–the town where I used to live with Caleb–and I saw my friend soothing her baby. She had him tucked over her arm, and she swung him back and forth. His eyes drifted shut, and I said, “I wish that someone had been able to do that to me when I left Caleb.” I meant it. I felt so alone when I left Caleb. Even my parents were absent, but what I had was a best friend who said, “Kelly, I love you unconditionally.” 

I am trying to learn how to give that to myself.

I have not been back to Morgantown since I moved. I have tried to return, but have never been able to bring myself to do it. Morgantown was the setting for so much trauma. 

Still, recently, some of my friends from my graduate program proposed a reunion, and it seemed like an opportunity to return in a way that felt joyful. I knew that I should return to that town at some point. I knew that I needed to face those demons.

So, I went.

It was hard. On Saturday, I went to have brunch at some friends’ apartment. Their apartment was located close to the hotel where I used to stay to when I would try to leave Caleb. As I neared their apartment, I looked for the hotel, but I didn’t find it. I remembered the woman who worked the front desk, who recognized me, and who knew that I was local. Her eyes told me that she knew my story. 

I thought of how I sat on that hotel bed inside of those cinder block walls and graded papers because even though my life was falling apart, I still had a job to do. 

As I drove closer to where the hotel was, I started to tear up in the car, but I wouldn’t let myself cry. When I arrived at my friends’ house, they hugged me, and fed me so well, and made me laugh, and they were so genuinely happy for me about my book news. 

They also told me that the hotel had been razed to the ground. 

I wish I could have stood there when the wrecking ball hit those walls. I wish I could have watched those walls fall.

I think of ghosts. I think of the ghosts of selves. There is a ghost of me in the space where that hotel was. There is a ghost of me in the house that I owned with Caleb, the house where the porch is now painted a godawful shade of baby blue, but everything else is the same.

There is a ghost of me in Morgantown. 

There is a ghost of Caleb inside of me.

Caleb is nothing but a ghost to me now.

After brunch with my friends, I went to the coffee shop I used to frequent. I bought my favorite coffee–an iced Americano with a little bit of maple syrup and a splash of cream. I left the shop, drank my coffee, looked up and saw the English department building where my office had been. The taste, and the walk, and the view: they catapulted me back into that place. That place when Caleb and I used to walk on that sidewalk together, and laugh, and talk, and genuinely enjoy each other. 

Caleb used to get me a sandwich from that coffee shop and bring it to my office. We would sit at my desk and eat lunch together. He could be so thoughtful. He nurtured me so well when he wasn’t hurting me.

It was the same desk where one of my best students, an adorable smart, redhead who has since stayed in touch with me and who follows my writing, came to see me. Caleb was there, and when he left, she said to me, “I can’t believe he is your husband. You are both my favorite teachers!”

It was also the desk where I had the Stevie Smith poem Not Waving But Drowning taped to the cork board next to a photo of Caleb holding Reed.

I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning.

Many of the English teachers at WVU teach my most prominent essay. I have no doubt that more than one of those students has also been in Caleb’s class when they read that essay. I have no doubt that the students haven’t realized that he is the man in the essay. He seems so wonderful in person.

A woman wrote me recently and said, “I read your essay yesterday morning (the one that made it into Best American Essays), and it made me weep. I felt that I was right there beside you in your indecision.”

I wanted to thank her so many times.

If there was a goal with the essay, it was for people to understand my indecision; I loved him, you see?

Today, at brunch, I told my MFA mentor, “I don’t know why I loved him. I have no idea why I loved him.” 

But that was a lie. I know why I loved him. Even now, it is difficult for me to admit that because I want to be able to rewrite history and turn him into a total monster.

He was not a total monster.

I am part of a support group for women who have survived these kinds of things. Everyone has their own rationalization. Everyone has their own answer as to, why?

Mine is that I loved him. Sure, he manipulated me. Sure, he lied to me. Sure, he convinced me that I was unworthy and awful.

But also, I loved him. I loved him unconditionally. I loved him through his damage, and his abuse, and his cruelty. I loved him because of his kindness, and his humor, and his heart. I loved him through the worst of it, but because of the best of it.

In the end, I loved myself more. 

I left because I loved myself more.
Love should always have conditions. 

Even my best friend’s love, as much as she says it doesn’t, has conditions, and that’s okay because I will always work to earn her love and to love her back equally. I am invested in being a good friend. I am invested in being a good person. I work at this. I will continue to work at this.

But I will never love anyone else unconditionally. That doesn’t mean I won’t love them, but there will be conditions. Conditions are necessary for love to thrive. 

While I was drinking that coffee and looking at my former office, I started to choke up. I thought, “Do not cry. Do not cry.” And then, I realized that I needed to cry, so I decided that, if I could make it to the car, I would let myself cry. 

I didn’t make it to the car; I cried in the parking lot. Still, once I got into the car, I let myself sob. I don’t remember the last time I sobbed like that.

The truth is that, all over again, I was sobbing over the loss of Caleb. I was sobbing over the loss of that love. More than anything, I was sobbing over the loss of my dreams. For too many years, Caleb was my dream.

And this book doesn’t replace my dream of loving him or raising my son with his father. I think that some people think it should, but it doesn’t.

This does not mean that I still love him. I don’t. But oh, those dreams, they had so much power.

I sobbed for a while, and then, I drove to my see my friends. And here is the magic of sobbing: I got it out of my system. 

When I saw my friends from my MFA program, I realized how far I’ve come. And I felt joy. Such joy. We drank champagne. They toasted me for my book news. We laughed. We went to a bar where a very special friend is a bartender, and we ate crappy hot dogs, and I realized how much of Morgantown that I had missed out on when I was married to Caleb.

I spent so little time with these people when I was in the program. Abusive relationships are all-consuming. I had been able to sustain my old friendships, but it had been impossible to make new ones.

While I was in Morgantown, I only cared whether Caleb liked me, so I did not build or nurture other relationships. The truth is that I’m not ever going to be a person who doesn’t care whether people like me (or offer their approval to me). I would love to be someone who doesn’t care, but that’s never going to be me.

So, maybe, for me, the key is having a support system. I need more than one person in my life who can tell me that they like me. This might not be the  healthiest way to live, but it’s my healthiest way to live.

And this weekend, on a very emotional return to the setting of my trauma,I found a lot of wonderful people who support me absolutely, even though Caleb is the person who lives in their town. 

None of them disbelieve me or discredit me. And they’re thrilled about my life, and my book, and my general well-being. 

I don’t need their approval, but it still feels good.