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 Anger

I mentioned in my first post that I have struggled a lot with anger since leaving my husband. This is a natural response to escaping from domestic violence. Domestic violence is like living in a Petri dish for anger. When I would wake up in the morning, I could tell whether it was going to be a good or bad day just by the way my husband was moving in the house. If he was slamming doors or throwing things around, my heart raced, even before I knew what was wrong. By the end of our relationship, I woke up in the mornings with my heart racing when he was still asleep, or even when he was gone. If he was there, when he rolled over and put his arm around me, I would recoil from his touch, which hurt his feelings. He would tell me that he was ashamed because I was scared of him, then I would feel guilty, and I would comfort him. It was a very complicated dynamic.

I lived in a permanent state of fight or flight, and I could never relax, but I could see that he was miserable also. Since I’m someone who wants to take care of others, I thought that, if he was happier, he would stop abusing me. I spent most of my energy trying to make him happy rather than taking care of myself. I wasn’t allowed to express any anger or hurt without dangerous consequences, so I started bottling things in, then having outbursts later. He once told me “I will never be happy unless I have a wife who is happy with me all of the time.” That was the moment that I knew our relationship was going to end. By then, I was unhappy with him most of the time. I tried to force myself to feel happy because I was scared of the violence that manifested in the wake of my unhappiness, but it is difficult to feel happy with someone who batters, manipulates, and lies to you.

After he made that statement, I went to see a counselor, and I showed her the bruises on my arms. She hugged me while I wept, and together, for the next couple of months, we made a plan for me to move on with my life, with or without him. She told me that, when she started seeing me, she didn’t think a “tidal wave” would have gotten me away from him, yet two months later, I had moved out. She was so proud of me, and in the face of her support, I realized that I was a lot stronger than I thought I was, and I am still very proud of myself for making that change.

In the beginning, the anger had a purpose, and it was powerful. It got me out of the relationship. As I was packing my son and my bags the day I moved out for good, my husband followed me around screaming “You are provoking me to abuse you! You are provoking me!” I was scared, but the anger kept me going. I knew I needed to just pack the bags quickly and get out of there. He had a no abusive contact order, so he was going to be thrown in jail if he touched me, but I knew I had to be quick. When I got to the car, I was dizzy and lightheaded.  I couldn’t breathe. I still remember parts of that day so clearly. It was cloudy, and windy. I remember the wind because I went to a gas station and filled my car with gas. I didn’t know what else to do. While I was filling my car, I called my friend Rebecca and asked her if Reed and I could stay with her. The wind rushed between my ear and the phone. It was difficult to hear her, and for her to hear me. I thought that I was going to pass out, but I didn’t. I let that wind swirl around me, and I stood my ground.

In the months after I left, the anger served another purpose. It kept me out of the relationship. I still loved him, which sounds crazy, I know. I will post about the complexity of love and DV later, but I missed him desperately, and if he spoke to me with any gentleness, I found myself seduced back into his charm. But he was angry with me too. He didn’t usually speak to me with gentleness. He yelled, and threatened, and bullied. After a while, his lawyer advised him that I might be taping him, and for the most part, that behavior stopped, but he made himself very easy not to love, and my anger, for the most part, kept me from wanting to go back to him. It also kept him from wanting to get back together with me.

But, now, I still feel a lot of anger, and that anger has no purpose. His case is over–it was mishandled in a grand fashion by the police and the prosecutor–but it is over. In The Domestic Violence Recovery Workbook, which I have linked to in the sidebar, they have a useful chapter on anger and how toxic it is when it remains after the relationship, which it does for some time. My feelings of anger are not unusual. Anyone in my situation would feel angry. Unfortunately, the book uses the old euphemism of “Being angry is like taking poison, then waiting for the other person to die.”  I need to work through my stages of grief in order to get over the anger because I don’t want to be trapped in the angry stage. I don’t want to be poisoned.

Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine was raped by another acquaintance. You can read the story here. At the time, she was open about what happened to her. She was frustrated by the lack of justice and support she was getting through the legal system, so she felt that she could, at least, educate others about what had happened. I was surprised that she would share such a story so willingly. I thought that, if that had happened to me, I would have wanted to hide it. But now, having been the victim of gender violence myself, I’ve realized that I don’t want to hide it anymore. I hid it for years, and I was miserable. Hiding it now would mean that I’m ashamed, and shame is even more poisonous than anger. Much of my anger in recent days has been, like that of my acquaintance, at the injustice of the legal system. I am angry at him for not taking a plea, I am angry at the prosecutor for not pursuing it further, I am angry at the police for their misconduct, and I am angry at myself for remaining complicit in that dismissal because I was afraid. I was afraid to go to trial.

I have been trying to think about ways to turn my anger from something purposeless to something purposeful, and this blog is an attempt at a remedy. When I left my husband, I desperately searched the web for other women’s stories. I was alone for the first time in years, terribly lonely and afraid, huddled up on that twin mattress on the floor of a guest room, and I tried every search term I could think of to find stories from other women. Stories that could reach through the clutter of the internet and tell me that I was not alone. I want to be able to give those stories to someone else.

I am a writer, and my words are my power. My voice is my activism, so I am going to share my stories here. They are personal. They are humiliating. They are infuriating. They are sad. But maybe–just maybe–someone else will read them and know that they are not alone.

On Expectations

Someone posted this video on Facebook today, and it really affected me. It is a Ted talk by Barry Schwartz titled “The Paradox of Choice.” The basic premise is that the secret to happiness is low expectations, and this is something that has been true for me in the past few months.

As I wrote in my previous post, my life bottomed out after I left my husband. In truth, it bottomed out before I left my husband, which was why I left him. Still, while we were married, I had a fair amount of material comforts. We weren’t well off, but we owned a home and two cars. We had a kitchen we remodeled ourselves. We could afford to occasionally take vacations.

After I left him, things weren’t so comfortable. My son and I moved in with my sweet friend Rebecca and her partner, Evan, for a month, and we each slept on twin mattresses on the floor. I was injured and in a lot of physical pain. I was also in emotional pain, and I was in shock. I actually have holes in my memory from much of that time period. I couldn’t take any time off work, and so despite my physical and emotional limitations, I had to continue being responsible for the education of 88 students. I was adjusting to being a single mom. My husband, for all of his flaws, had been a fairly active father, and it was difficult to have to do everything myself. My son had snow days and 2-hour-delays, and I had to find people to watch him, so I could go to work. This caused me a great deal of stress. I had to unpack my house, put things away, and figure out how to fix problems in my 80-year-old house that I had never had to fix before. I had no idea what was going to happen in my future. Although I worked well over full-time hours, I was an adjunct instructor, so I was considered a part-time employee with no health insurance or benefits. I didn’t know if I would even have work in the summer or in the upcoming semester. I had to find a lawyer and figure out how to file for divorce without losing my healthcare. I could go on and on. It was just a terrible time.

It culminated in me calling my mother from the side of the freeway sobbing about 4 months after I had separated from my husband. After everything I had been through, the thing that nearly broke me was when my husband and I met to trade off our son in a nearby town, and I was hurt by the way his father had looked at me. It seems so silly in comparison to the other struggles that I had in my life at that time, but the hardest thing to go through was the grief of losing my husband and his family, or at least the dream of what I had thought we would have together. And that moment, by the side of the freeway, was the moment that I realized we were never going to have any of that. We were never going to have anything together again,  and I moved on then from the stage of denial and isolation.

When I look back at my life, I can identify that as the lowest point in my life, but honestly, things did start to look up after that. It’s a such a cliché, but they did. All of those problems I described previously, I resolved. I figured out how to get into a routine where I could manage the demands of being a single mom. I figured out what I was going to do for work. I figured out where I would get my health insurance. I figured out how to afford a lawyer (I found a lawyer who represented me for free). I won custody of my son. I sacrificed on certain financial matters with my husband, so that he wouldn’t drag our divorce into a long battle. I moved to another state.

I moved on with my life. And I did it with the help of my parents and many friends, but I did it without him. Part of our dynamic, and why I stayed long after he started abusing me, was because he said that I needed him, that I couldn’t do things on my own, and I believed him. But I have learned now that I can do pretty much anything I put my mind to.

So, now, I live without a lot of material comforts. My son and I live in a tiny apartment. My teaching fellowship doesn’t stretch far enough for vacations or luxuries. I don’t have a washer and dryer or a dishwasher. None of that matters though. I am still much happier than I was a year ago.

I agree with Schwartz’s premise. Even though my life now is very stressful–I don’t think anyone would say that being a single mother and PhD student is easy–having low expectations has helped me manage that stress. Having low expectations doesn’t mean that I’ve settled. I don’t feel that way at all. Honestly, I am living my dream right now, and it is something I never could have done while I was still married, but I have lowered my expectations, and lowering my expectations has freed me.