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.