My first marriage began happy, healthy and full of hope. I crawled out ten years later riddled with shame, alcoholic, and a victim of long-term domestic abuse.
When thinking of domestic abuse, we picture the woman with the black eye, the bruises. Physical abuse is horrific, and once it begins even the threat that it will happen again is traumatizing. But there is a more insidious type of domestic abuse that affects countless women and their families every single day. Abuse that can be almost impossible to prove. Emotional, mental and verbal abuse.
Publicly declaring myself a recovering alcoholic was taking my first step towards standing in my truth. For years I avoided talking about the abuse I suffered, ashamed to admit that I had chosen the father of my children so poorly. Recovery has taught me to own my story.
Abuse makes most people really uncomfortable, but that only changes if we start talking and we don’t stop until a public dialogue starts. Absolutely nothing has scared me more than writing about my abuse. I think it’s because while there still exists a stigma attached to alcoholism, there is conversation and an ever-growing understanding of addiction. Yet domestic abuse remains largely in the shadows, and its effect on those who suffer from abuse and their families continues to remain a rarely discussed subject.
I vividly remember the first time he put his hands around my neck, the first time he slapped me across the face, knocking me to the floor in front of my oldest son, all of those firsts. The shock that flares in your brain, that someone has physically hurt you is overwhelming and the violation is visceral. Yet, for me, the psychological abuse was so much more damaging. And maybe that’s because while the physical abuse was terrifying, it wasn’t the star of my abuse story.
I now realize, with the benefit of hindsight, therapy and lots of reading and self-discovery, that the abuse started early in the marriage. It was the constant mood swings, the balancing act you quickly developed to make sure he is happy, because when he’s not the atmosphere in the house is so tense, and everyone, including your children walk on eggshells, just trying not to make him mad. And then little by little, things get worse. But it happens so gradually, the unacceptable things that would horrify if you saw someone else do them, that you don’t even realize how many lines have been crossed until the lines are gone. And those boundaries, the lines that keep you safe, will never come back.
The constant pleasing and trying to make him happy evolved into trying to keep him away from the kids as much as possible. So they wouldn’t misbehave in front of him, risking his anger and unacceptable physical punishment. As they got older and he was upset with them the risk grew.
Even now, eight years out of the marriage, I’m not ready to write the full story. Not yet. It’s so dark, so ugly, so terrifying and yet over time it became our normal. The physical danger, the implied threats, the daily shame, the relentless attacks on sense of self, the chaos, the destruction of favorite belongings, the endless stress, lack of predictability and the utter absence of safety. Heartbreakingly, that is the backdrop of my children’s lives.
Through my journey into recovery I’ve come to see the lonely place of judgement that exists when someone talks about the most painful things that have happened to them. There seems to be a silent accusation that attaches itself to a story about addiction, abuse or both. That you chose this, that you knowingly brought this destruction into your life. That you put yourself in this situation. And indeed you did, we all choose who we are going to have relationships with, we choose to take that drink or drug to feel better, to numb pain.
Someone who’s experienced addiction or abuse made horribly bad choices. I know I did. I became a victim, I didn’t see a way out and I turned to alcohol as a way to numb my pain. I thought I was building a wonderful life and instead it turned out to be tortuous, filled with unimaginable amounts of pain and heartbreak. The part that gutted me? I chose this man as the father of my children. For the rest of my life I will never forget each of my children, as they reached the age of 9 or 10, asking me “why did you choose him to be our father?”
One of the hardest parts about psychological abuse is, that unlike physical abuse that ends when there’s no longer any physical contact or proximity, psychological abuse has no bounds. Each one of us is vulnerable to something, a way we can be hurt and controlled. Unfortunately in many cases of domestic abuse our children are our vulnerability.
Even after I obtained my divorce in 2012, the abuse went on, and I was still so damaged from it, that I went back in May of 2014. I couldn’t handle how hard it was for my children at his house, how vulnerable they were without me there, and how there wasn’t a legal way to stop him, no matter how many times CPS received reports from my children’s therapists and school counselors.
His control over me ended the day in December 2014 when my oldest son came to me and told me he wanted to die, that he couldn’t handle his father’s abuse. As I checked my son into a psychiatric hospital, I realized the lie I was telling myself. I thought that by being back in the house together I was protecting my children more, when really I didn’t think I could ever be stronger than him. The full immersion of my soul and mind into victim thinking had happened, and I hadn’t even noticed, I was so caught up in lying to myself.
The sad reality is that for many of us, the abuse won’t ever stop. Our children will still be weaponized against us, because the men who abused us will never stop trying to control us, to bully us and to keep us down. That realization, that I might not be able to stop him, was my tipping point. The place where I went from alcohol abuse to full scale alcoholism.
The bad news is you might not be able to change what has happened to you, or that it might continue. But you do have control over your thoughts and how you chose to perceive your role in the world. You also have a choice, to find people who support you and to constantly remember that, more than anything else, you must stay strong. You have to be your children’s example. You don’t have a choice. They deserve a happy and healthy life.
They have to know, as they grow up, that even if you failed to get them away from him, that you tried over and over – for years. They have to see you fight for them and then you have to be that person for them. The one that they trust, that understands, that loves and supports them and helps them put the pieces of their soul back together again. There will be anger, blame, grief, and it might be directed at you.
Nurture your own strength and sense of self, seek purpose in the pain and strive daily to be show up as your best self. Make sure your children see you doing the work and making time for self-care. Admitting your mistakes and making amends – honesty builds precious love, trust and closeness. Life is rarely what we imagine it will be, and sometimes it is downright cruel. But life is full of moments that unexpectedly take you someplace new – never give up hope that better is right around the corner. Even if it takes us years to get there.