On Unpacking

I am currently in the process of packing for a move. It is a good move. My son and I are moving from our little apartment surrounded by college students into a house in the country, a house with a deck, a hammock, and a yard for playing. This house is surrounded by woods, and nice neighbors, and my son can have a real childhood there. We can have his friends over. We can have birthday parties there. For the past year, I feel as though my son’s childhood has been on pause. We have lived like transients. He has gone from one home, to another, to another, to another, and then, yet another. We are nearing the part of the year where he is going to have an extended stay with his father. I am faking cheeriness about this. “Are you excited?” I ask, with a big smile. “It’s going to be so much fun!” Meanwhile, my eyes are tearing up. I am not excited. I am worried. My ex-husband is not abusive to our son, but he is also not a good father. I recently bought the book, When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse. I wish I didn’t have to buy this book, but this is the life we are living, my son and I. We are in this together.

As the date looms over us where he will go to his father’s, and I will go to Idaho, my son has become more tender. He asks me, “Can I cuddle up in your bed with you? Your bed is so comfy, and I like talking to you.” This was something we used to do with his father, all three of us cuddled up in bed. Now, it is just the two of us, along with our dog Teddy. My son lays next to me with his head on my shoulder. He tells me about his day. He has become obsessed with Mother’s Day. He wants to make me breakfast. He wants to get me a present. He wants to give me surprises every day this week. He wants the day to be special for me. I find this heartbreaking because I know, that underneath all of that want, is a desire for him to ease his mother’s pain. He is maturing faster than he should have to mature. I see this every day. When I ask him for help around the house, he wants to help me. He turns off his cartoon in order to rinse the dishes while I wash. He feeds the dog before asking for his own dinner. He has none of the entitlement or selfishness that I had as a child who had two loving parents at home. I want him to be more selfish. I want that for him. I don’t want him to think of me first.

In the process of packing for the move, I’ve also had to unpack. There are boxes that I had stuffed into my closet and never opened. I am opening them now. It is a bit like sifting through rubble, so painful. Last weekend, I was so triggered by what I found that my body felt heavy. I had to crawl into bed and rest. My son crawled in next to me, not understanding what was happening, but offering comfort nonetheless.

I found this letter from my husband that I’ve been unable to throw away. He wrote it after the first time I left him. We had only been married for a year. He wrote, I was living an immoral life. I loved booze and mistreated you because of that. I was a horrible man when you met me, and I’m paying for that now. I never told you this, but I do talk to God, and I know I’ve been wrong. I’m working on forgiveness now. Don’t rush forgiving me, Honey. I need to earn it, and I want it to be right. I want our life to be perfect together.

And then this: Remember when you used to come and stay with me in my shack in the woods? I’d watch for you for hours making sure you didn’t miss the turn off of Highway 21. I remember holding you while we slept on that couch and I never felt crowded. You always fit perfectly beside me.

And this: This was how I felt the night I had to move out and sleep without you. It’s also probably how you felt about that night as well; I left you crying. I didn’t know if I could fix what I’d done to our marriage. I was so miserable, and it was my fault. I don’t blame you for what happened between us. Please Honey, if you can forgive me, please try. I don’t ever want to live without you.

And so, I forgave him. How could I not? How could I not forgive someone who wrote me such lovely words?

It was the first in a series of chances. How might things have been different if I hadn’t given him that first chance?

Because then I found my journal where I described him choking me by the neck, where I detailed the cruel things he had said to me while I gasped for air. I described these things in my journal so that I wouldn’t forget them, so that, in my memory, I wouldn’t replace his cruelty with kindness.

I also found my son’s art projects. I found first grade and kindergarten drawings of his family. He drew pictures of all of us, including both dogs, in front of our house. He no longer draws pictures of his family. Only superheroes.

I found an old planner from last year at this time. I didn’t even remember having it, yet when I opened it, every line was filled out. I was confronted with the reality of my schedule from those months in the wake of my ex-husband’s arrest. I was working 60-70 hours a week, raising our son alone, trying to get a divorce, applying to PhD programs and jobs, finding a new place to live. I coped by making to-do lists. Long, unreal to-do lists that looked unmanageable. Yet, every single item on those to-do lists was crossed off. I managed somehow.

I found my son’s first grade journal that his teacher had him keep. In it, he wrote what he was going to do on the weekend. One entry said simply this:

“I am spending this weekend with my mom. My mom will make a to-do list.”

I want to make a new to-do list, and this to-do list will have only one task, Cuddle in bed with my son.

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.
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After all of that, I think I can finally say I’m a survivor.
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 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.
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 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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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 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.
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 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?
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 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.
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 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.
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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.
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 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.
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 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.