In one of my previous posts, I promised to write at some point about the tricky dynamics of love and abuse, but in all truth, I haven’t wanted to revisit those feelings. I haven’t wanted to explore what I loved about him. I don’t love him anymore. At least, I don’t think I do. I don’t know if that kind of love ever goes away. I was always someone who was very invested in romantic notions of love. When I was young, I thought that I would only love once. It never occurred to me that I would love (and have my heart broken) then love (and break someone else’s heart) then love (and have my heart broken again) in a pattern that would begin to feel endless. When I married my husband, I thought I was breaking that pattern. I thought that I would never have to live through heartbreak again.
I recently published this essay It Will Look Like A Sunset at Guernica Magazine. The essay has been read and shared many times. Truthfully, the response has been quite overwhelming. So many women have reached out to me, to share their own stories with me, and to thank me for putting a voice to their stories. I have felt quite cared for in the past few weeks, and I have not felt alone in my struggle for one of the first times, but it is difficult to realize how not alone I am. I have seen my blog’s views grow by the thousands, and it breaks my heart to think that many of those views are coming from women who have been battered, or who are currently being battered. I wish there was some way for me to reach through the Internet and hug every one of them. And to protect them. More than anything, I wish I could protect them.
A discussion about my essay was started at the website MetaFilter. As I read through the hundreds of comments. I was startled by how familiar these comments were, how so many of these women struggled with the same feelings of love and ambivalence about leaving their abusive partners. One woman wrote quite beautifully:
Her writing is so lucid that many of us (myself included) hear our own voices in hers. To me, it’s not only an effort to share what happened (maybe perhaps someone will see warning signs they didn’t recognize before) but also…to not be alone. Because when the abuse starts, we are alone with a monster–even in public, we are alone. So maybe to discover “it’s not just me” and think “you too?” the crushing weight of solitude is lifted a little, and we can figure out how to escape from under the rock someone dropped on us.
She’s right. This is why I have been writing so much about what happened. I have been writing to escape that feeling of solitude. Of isolation. Of living a lie. Of living a life where, even in public, I feel alone because no one really knows, or could possibly understand (I think), what I am experiencing.
Another writer articulated very well how hard it is to leave:
It’s so hard to move on, because all that re-wiring in your brain just stays with you. Not to mention, I’ve always thought that abusers had to be extra talented at romancing. They have to get you to stay somehow, so of course the highs are higher than with anyone else. You HAVE to have the most amazing time and the most amazing memories with them, because that’s what will get you to stay with them the other times. I know I didn’t escape because I’m special or because my Nope Cortex is special.
I know I escaped because I was lucky. There was a tiny little window of time where the stars aligned and I jumped through that window so hard. The aftermath is harder sometimes. The people who can’t understand why you wouldn’t tell them it was happening, because of course they would have been there for you! And now I just think about the friends that I know know know are in abusive situations, and I can’t help. I can’t. All I can do is keep being a steady friend. Ready for them when they walk away. I wish with everything I have that I could help them get out sooner, but the magic window will appear when it does. It can’t be hurried.
She, too, is right. My magic window appeared when the police knocked on the door. I wasn’t ready yet to jump, and I didn’t jump for two more days. I spent two days helping my ex-husband find a lawyer, trying to figure out how we were going to get his charges dismissed, and hoping that our marriage would change. He was arrested on Monday. On Wednesday, I lied and told him I was going to grade papers, but my mom had made me promise I would go to the domestic violence shelter. I went and sat with a counselor, and she showed me the cycle of violence. It broke through the clutter. I realized, for the first time, that we were in a pattern that would not change. I went home and my husband had whiled away the morning hours looking at porn while I had tried to figure out our future. I remember looking at him and a chill went through my body. It was like my blood was turning thick into ice. My fingers tingled. I knew I needed to leave.
And I jumped. I jumped so hard.
I spoke with a friend recently who is in an unhealthy relationship. That moment seems to have arrived for her. Her window has opened, but she doesn’t want that window to be open. No one ever wants that window to be open. We want to keep loving the person we once loved. We don’t want to jump. The landing is hard. It is so hard. It is not an easy jump where we magically grow wings and fly. Sometimes, parts of us are broken in the process, but we still need to jump.
Women who have been abused are not very good at self-care. We are not great at recognizing what our needs are, but we can still love other people and recognize what’s good for them. I knew that she couldn’t hear me if I said “You need to jump. You will be glad if you jump.” So, instead, I said, “Aren’t you glad I jumped?”
And to you, dear readers, if you have come by this blog because it’s time for you to jump, then I say this to you.
Aren’t you glad I jumped?
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.