Breaking the Silence, Part 3

Today I am finishing up my three-part series on domestic violence. If you have not read the previous two parts and would like to catch up, you can find them here and here.

My Story (Continued): Finally Free

I thought that filing for divorce would finally bring the end of the nightmare what was my life, but really it only began a new chapter of abuse. My ex-husband was angry, to say the least, that I had sought a divorce. He refused to accept the paperwork despite numerous attempts to serve him.  He had added me to his health insurance (since I had lost mine) while we were separated but before I filed for divorce. I think he did it thinking it would force me to stay with him. As an act of revenge against me for filing for divorce, he told me that he was going to remove me from his insurance. (At that time I was working for a temp agency and had no option of getting my own health insurance.) On top of that punishment, he threatened to do everything in his power to take the child from me as soon as she was born. He even went so far as to swear that he would stalk all the local hospitals around my due date if I refused to tell him when and where I was giving birth. He actually drew up a “contract” that he wanted me to sign stating that he would keep me on his insurance as long as I promised to give him copies of all sonograms, keep him informed of the progress of my pregnancy, and notify him when I went into labor. Thanks to my aunt, I was able to get a good family law attorney who fought very hard for me. He came up with an idea to trick my ex-husband. The lawyer called him and basically said, “Hey, I’ll take a look at this contract you’ve drawn up and see about getting your wife to sign it, but first we really need you to accept the divorce papers and sign for them. My hands are tied and I can’t do anything to help you out until you let us serve you the papers.” My ex fell for it hook, line and sinker and was served with the divorce papers the very next day. He was rather pleased with himself, and even made boastful comments to me in an email that he had my lawyer working for him. He lost it when he opened up the papers and saw that I was seeking sole custody with no visitation and no custody for him. He called my lawyer screaming, yelling, and demanded to know what was going on. Let’s just say that it was the icing on the cake when my lawyer mentioned that I would not be signing his “contract,” and that he would be held in contempt if he removed me from his health insurance as it was a violation of the divorce proceedings. When he realized he had been tricked he was angrier than ever before, and honestly I was terrified. I had no idea what he was capable of. He swore to keep his promise that he would be stalking hospitals around the time of the baby’s birth, and I had been notified by my doctor’s office that someone had called and inquired about me as a patient. (Thank God for HIPAA!)

When served with divorce papers in the state of California, you have exactly 30 days to file a response with the court; if you do not respond within that time then you are no longer a party to the case. Basically, you can no longer have a say in what happens because you have essentially told the court that you don’t care. Those 30 days were the longest of my life, waiting to see if he was going to contest the divorce. Fortunately for me, in his mind he thought that he would hurt me more by refusing to sign and return the papers (thus making himself a party to the case). When the 30 days were up, I could finally breathe a sign of relief knowing that the odds were in my favor to get sole custody. Sure enough, things went pretty smoothly from there, legally speaking. I didn’t even need to be present when my attorney went before the judge, and my custody request was signed without issue. I chose not to go after child support because I just wanted free of him, so the divorce decree stated that child support rights were reserved, meaning that child support could be requested at any time in the future. (I feel I should note that even though child support was not ordered, he could have given money to help with the baby at any point, but not once did he ever offer to help. He wanted control of me, and the baby by extension, but he did not want any of the responsibility that came along with it.)

At that time I had an online pregnancy message board I was a member of, and I thought it was the only safe place I could vent about what was going on because he was unaware of it. Little did I know, his sister was stalking me on the group and telling him everything I put there. Fortunately I didn’t say anything too personal, but at one time I did mention that I had decided to give the baby my maiden name as her last name, since I would be returning to that name as soon as the divorce was finalized. When he found out about this, he was furious and harassed me through email for weeks. I realize now that he saw the baby as his property. Her name, in his mind, should reflect his ownership of her. He had already lost custody even though the baby wasn’t even born yet, so he was grasping at straws doing everything in his power to keep whatever control he could. Once again, he renewed his threat to stalk all the hospitals in the area the entire month the baby was due and swore that he would find me, and that I could not keep him from his child. I can see so clearly now that he was nothing more than a pathetic abuser who had lost control over his victim and was trying anything he could to regain that control. Unfortunately, being young and naive I believed him capable of far more and I was terrified every day that he would make good on his threats and somehow manage to steal the baby from me. When the time came to have the baby, I checked into the hospital under an assumed name. It’s sad that all of the baby’s keepsakes from the hospital have a fake name on them. They are usually special treasures for mothers, but for me they will always be reminders of how frightened I was in those days. I do, however, give thanks for a wonderful hospital staff. They were fantastic through the entire process and helped keep me safe. I’ll never know whether he kept his promise and stalked the hospitals, but I was able to give birth and recover in the hospital without fear of him showing up to take the baby.

Shortly after her birth, I had an idea of how I could end his harassment once and for all. Distance from his control and abuse, as well as empowerment from those around me gave me courage I had not previously had. I made a deal with him that as long as he left us alone, I would never go after him for child support; if he continued his harassment, however, I would go after the maximum amount I could get – and, like his first ex-wife, I would get the child support agency involved and make sure his paychecks were garnished. He conceded immediately. For the first time I felt truly empowered and no longer afraid of him. I now knew what was most important to my ex-husband: himself. His money, his belongings, HIM. If I threatened to jeopardize any of those things, then I held the control. He kept to the promise, and I never heard from him again. My child will soon be 9 years old and I have never once been offered even a dime from him, but we have peace and freedom, and that’s worth more to me than all the money in the world.

Reflections

It’s been nearly a decade since I met my ex-husband, and to look at my life now you would never guess what I had been through then. I have not forgotten though, and occasionally that man still haunts my dreams. I’m happy to say that I am no longer afraid of him. I hit rock bottom in those days. I had nothing but the mercy of others to rely on, and family and friends came through in ways I never thought possible. I realized that when I was in control of my life, I found myself crashing and burning. Once and for all, I gave everything over to God. I learned in those days that there’s a difference between being a saved Christian and being a surrendered Christian. I was finally surrendered. I gave my life over to God because I knew I could never fix the mess I made. Boy oh boy, did He ever come through!

When my baby was little over a year old, I met the man who would become my husband. It took about 9 months of knowing one another to actually begin dating, and 9 months after that we were married. The following year, he adopted her and legally became her dad, with no fight from my ex. From her earliest memories, my husband has always been there and she knows he always will be. Words can never properly express just how thankful I am to the Lord for bringing that wonderful man into my life. He’s not perfect and our marriage has normal struggles, but he loves me and he loves me daughter. I know he will never, ever leave us, nor will he ever harm us. We’ve had three more children since, and I give thanks for every one of them. It’s an incredible journey I’ve been through, and truth be told I wouldn’t change a thing. If I had not gone through that period of hell on earth, I wouldn’t have my wonderful eldest child, and I probably would have my husband either because I would never have learned to look for the qualities that truly matter in a husband.

Thoughts from a Domestic Violence Survivor

Since beginning this series, I have had several different people ask me how they can help people who are or have been in domestic violence relationships. The first thing I would recommend is to educate yourself about DV. Did you know that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence at some point in life? It’s so much more prevalent than we realize. Not to mention, there are many forms of abuse, and they aren’t always as recognizable as black eyes or bruises on a woman’s body. We cannot help victims if we don’t understand just what DV is or recognize the warning signs.

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Do you know someone in a DV situation and want to know how you can help? Listen. Care. Just be there. On average, an abused woman will leave her parter 7 times before she finally leaves for good. It’s not because she wants to be abused. It’s because she’s afraid. She thinks she has nowhere to go, or she fears what will happen to her and/or her loved ones if she doesn’t go back. So often, women don’t have advocates to help them stay gone. BE AN ADVOCATE. Help her find a safe place to go. Offer your home to her, or help her find a shelter where she can be safe while she plans her next steps. She is so used to being controlled that often she does not know how to make decisions on her own.Help her understand the Cycle of Abuse, and recognize that things aren’t going to change unless she is willing to do something drastic. What she needs is someone to empower her, advocate for her, to guide her to those who can help her recover.

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If you do not personally know someone who is in a DV relationship but want to help, please consider donating to local DV shelters. They are always looking for clothing, diapers, etc. The best thing to donate would be gift cards to places such as grocery stores, Target, Wal-Mart, etc. Those donations go directly to abuse victims to buy the things they need.

Lastly, talk about it. Spread awareness. Let’s break the stigma and tear down the barriers of race, religion, income, culture, etc. Domestic violence is NEVER okay, and the world need to know this.

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Breaking the Silence, Part 2

This is the story of my escape from domestic violence. If you have not yet read part one, please click here to read the story to learn how this all began.

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My Story (Continued): Sleeping With the Enemy

I moved in soon after, and I immediately began to see the problems I had been trying my best to ignore. He did find another job quickly, as he told me he would. However, I came across termination paperwork from his previous job. He didn’t quit; he was fired. I asked him why he lied, but he got angry at me for questioning him. He said that he really did quit, but that the manager was a friend and keyed it in as a termination so that he could collect unemployment benefits. Once again, I believed him. I wish I could tell you that lying to me was the extent of his abuse, but then I would be the liar. No, it was much worse. He began limiting my contact with the outside world. He was allowed to have friends, but I was not. I had a cell phone because I had one from before the marriage, but he would not allow a home phone or internet service. I wasn’t allowed to make friends at work or in the neighborhood. He never once allowed me to find a new church, despite all his promises that he would. When grocery shopping needed to be done, we did it together or he went out to do it on his own. When we would argue, I was never allowed to storm out, but he would leave and disappear for hours on end. Sometimes he would stay gone until the next day, but I was never permitted to know where he was. I believed he was cheating on me, but I did not have the proof to back up those suspicions. He abused his dog. I witnessed him punch and kick her when he was angry. I once watched him grow so violently angry at the dog for eating the cat’s food that he choked her, then held her by the neck and beat her head against the bedroom wall. In my fear, I did nothing to protect that poor animal. At this time he had not yet put his hands on me in a harmful way, but he put his fists through walls and cupboards, slammed doors, threw things, and would scream at me and say things I would never dream of repeating. His favorite attack was against my Christianity. “You call yourself a Christian, but a good Christian wife would never ______.” (Fill in the blank with anything I ever did that displeased him, such as suggest something for dinner that he did not want, come home 3 minutes late from work, call my aunt on the phone and tell her about something he had done, etc.) I believe he liked to use that attack on me because it would reduce me to tears every time. He seemed to enjoy breaking my spirit.

It did not end there. In addition to everything else, he also did drugs, smoked and drank alcohol. One afternoon I had to stop by home during the middle of my work shift, which was not something I commonly did. I arrived and found him with a bag of drugs on the coffee table (I think it was marijuana, but I don’t know enough about drugs to know for sure). He was alone, but insisted had had a friend over, and the friend must have gone left it behind. He swore up and down that the drugs were not his, thought it certainly appeared that he was caught red handed. I often smelled cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana on him when he would return from spending time with his friend.

Another way he managed to control me was through our finances. Money would disappear and bills would go unpaid. We had our water shut off more than once due to non payment. One one occasion, after getting an eviction notice, my aunt ended up paying our rent that was very behind (though I was never told how far behind it was). I was never allowed to know where the money was going, and that included my own paychecks. I was no longer believing his lies, but I was trapped. I was too scared to leave. Not only was I scared of the violent anger I had witnessed in this man, but I also thought I had nowhere to go. I was an adult, and had entered the marriage of my own free will. How could I turn and run away just because things weren’t going as I had planned? I also had my marriage vows to consider. I wanted so much to work through the problems and just be a normal, happy, newly-married couple.

The last way in which he abused me is the part that’s hardest for me to talk about. He was sexually abusive. He was obsessed with pornography. He also seemed to get a certain enjoyment out of forcing situations upon me which were demeaning and made me horribly unhappy. As a very conservative Christian woman, I cannot bring myself to go into a great deal of detail on this, but suffice it to say that sexual abuse/control was a powerful weapon at his disposal, and he had no qualms about using it.

Changing of the Tides

It didn’t take long for me to become pregnant. That news came as quite a shock to me because I had been actively trying to avoid it. I was so scared that he would be angry that I threw the pregnancy test out in the apartment complex dumpster where he would never find it. I didn’t know how I was going to tell him. Little did I know that the opportunity was going to present itself that very night. Once again we were fighting, but that night he became angrier than ever before. He pulled off his wedding ring, threw it at me, and told me to leave. (The fight was because I had pleaded with him to work on his anger.) He told me to pack my things and get out. I am not sure if he actually would have let me go when it came to it, but in that moment I genuinely believed I was being kicked out of my home and had nowhere to go. Frightened though I was, I told him about the pregnancy. Wow, what a change I saw in him in an instant. He suddenly became so gentle and loving. He told me how sorry he was and assured me that everything would be okay. Here was the man I had known before we were married. He was finally back, and all it took was having a child together! I was blissfully happy, and so was he. Everything was becoming just as I had dreamed it would.

Unfortunately, the happiness was short-lived. Within a matter of days he was back to his old self. I had become so sure he was cheating on me, but I needed proof. I did something that was not in my nature to do. I picked up his phone and called his voicemail, and there it was; I had been right all along. All the pieces of the puzzle were coming together, and I realized I no longer trusted anything my husband told me. After that, I got up the courage and called his ex-wife and asked her what had really happened in their marriage. I needed to know the truth, once and for all. She told me everything, and the story was so much like my own. Not surprisingly, it was nothing like the lies he told me about the crazy ex-wife who kept his son from him by telling all sorts of untrue stories about him to a judge who bought it hook, line and sinker. My worst fear of all was realized when she told me that although he did not start out as physically abusive, in time he had begun hitting her. I knew then and there that any man who was capable of hurting a helpless dog and a woman pregnant with his own child was capable of harming anyone. I became so scared for myself and the new life that was growing inside me. That was the day I began plotting my escape. I was not going to stand by and allow this man to hurt my child. Protectiveness of my baby began to give me strength that I had not had before. I called credit card companies and had him removed from my credit cards. I tried to put some money aside in the hopes that he would not notice. My plan was to return to my aunt. (I knew then she would help me, especially since I was pregnant.) I tried to leave him once but I went back – as is common for domestic violence victims. It’s not easy to work up the courage to leave and stay gone.

The day I left for good stands out in my memory as one of the most frightening days of my life. I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember clearly that he became more violently angry that day than he had ever been before. He grabbed anything within his reach to throw at me: a box of soda cans, unopened cans of soda, shoes, even the coffee table. He tried to force me into the bedroom to keep me from leaving, but I fought back and tried to get away from him. He tried to slam the door on me and the doorknob hit my pregnant stomach so hard that it actually left a bruise. I ran into the closet and hid to call 911. I had just long enough to give them our address and beg for help before he was back in the bedroom again.

His demeanor had changed. Here was the tender and loving husband again, begging me to come out of the closet. I did as he asked, but I was in tears and scared half to death. He took me to the bed and sat me down, asking me why I was so upset. It was as though the man sitting next to me had no idea what had happened a few minutes before. He was forcing me to kiss him, demanding me to calm down and trust that he loved me and everything would be okay. I asked him to stop, but he kept going. The next thing I knew, he had me pinned down on the bed and was forcing himself on me, completely deaf to my hysterical pleadings for him to stop. I thank the Lord above that the police knocked on the door before he was able to fully undress me. He answered the door perfectly cool and calm, and tried to convince the two officers that it was all a big misunderstanding. Looking back, I wish I had showed them the marks on my stomach and insisted that the police arrest him then and there, but at the time I was a frightened 22-year-old who wanted nothing more than to escape. I let the officers leave without filing a report, but I did at least have the foresight to ask them to escort me to my car so that I could get safely away. I didn’t care about fighting back or making sure he got what he rightfully deserved; all I cared about was protecting myself and the baby. I left with my car, my cat, and all the clothing I could carry in my arms. I drove straight to my aunt’s home a couple of hours away. I was able to return a week or so later with my aunt and a police officer to retrieve some of my belongings, but I had to leave my job behind (which also meant that I lost my health insurance while pregnant) and I lost the majority of everything I had worked for in my young life.

Even after all of that, I still tried to fix our marriage. I did everything I could to honor the marriage vows I had taken with him. I told him that I would stay married to him if he agreed to go to counseling, but I refused to move back in with him again until I felt safe. He went to exactly one counseling session. The pastor of the church I had grown up in asked me to step out of the room while he spoke with my ex-husband before beginning the counseling session. A little while later, my ex stormed out the church and refused to ever return to counseling again. To this day, I still have no idea what was said that made him so angry. I finally filed for divorce when I realized it was over.

It did not end there, however.

Click here for the last post in this series where I share how the story ended, and to learn about where my life is today.

Breaking the Silence, Part 1

Many people do not know that I was married once before – and of those who do know, fewer still know much about the marriage other than the fact that it was short. I do not avoid speaking about that year of my life because it causes me pain to do so; I avoid talking about it because I don’t want to make others uncomfortable. It’s been nearly a decade since it all happened, and as the years have passed I have witnessed far too many around me go through similar or far worse experiences. The time has come to break the silence. I apologize in advance if this post makes you uncomfortable, but perhaps we all need to be made uncomfortable from time to time in order to wake us up to what is going on all around us. It should not be taboo. It should be talked about not in whispers, but in shouts loud enough for the whole world to hear. Today, once and for all, I am screaming:

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My Story: The Cycle of Abuse Begins

I suppose it all began long before I met my ex-husband. In hindsight, I realize that it probably began when I was a very little girl. I was raised in an abusive home. I can remember abuse from as far back as my earliest memories. My father abused my mother. He controlled her every move. He would not allow her to have friends. He limited her contact with the outside world. He hit her, and far worse. He also abused me, as well as my older brother (fortunately for my brother, he doesn’t remember much, if anything). My father abused everyone around him, really. I know he had enemies who were looking for him. I remember a time when we had to crawl past the windows of the house and couldn’t have any lights on because we were hiding from one of the many people looking for him. I couldn’t have been much older than 3 or 4 when that happened. I remember times when I heard my mother crying after he had hurt her. I remember screaming and shouting. There are also lots of things I don’t remember, but that have left their mark nonetheless. Thirty years later, I still bear a scar across my nose and one eye from the time that he threw me across the room and I fell onto a cup that had been left on the floor. It broke, and I had glass shards in my eye. I have been told it’s a miracle that I even have vision in that eye. I was two when it happened. He hurt me sexually, too. Eventually, he ended up in prison for attempted murder after he shot his friend in the back while the man stood in his garage, unaware that my father was there. I still remember the night he was arrested. I was sent to the neighbor’s house and she closed her curtains, but I peeked outside and saw cop cars all around. I was very confused and frightened.

Unfortunately, the abuse did not end there, but it did change a little. It came from other family members, and it became more verbal. I remember being told I was ugly, that my hair was a rat’s nest, that I was stupid and that I would never amount to anything. I was abandoned and left with family who really didn’t want the responsibility of raising another generation of children. And in time, more physical abuse came. I was beaten with a wooden paddle with holes drilled to reduce wind resistance thereby increasing pain. I remember a time when I actually had welts on my bottom from that paddle and it was painful to sit. I won’t say I was an easy child or undeserving of discipline, but who can expect an angel of a child after all I had been through?

When I was 10, I moved in with my aunt who never once lifted a hand to me. I thank God every day for sending me to her. Unfortunately, for all her love and patience with me, she could not protect me from my own past. It took a very long time for me to heal, and during that healing time my father was released from prison and for a time came back into my life. I witnessed and experienced more abuse from him, and to this day I believe he is responsible for my grandfather’s rapid decline in health and subsequent death after my father punched him in a fit of rage. I had been told more than once not to speak when he was like that, but one day he demanded answers from me. I do not recall now what he was asking me, but I was trying to remain silent as I had been told. He picked me up off the couch by my shirt and violently shook me, screaming at me that I answer him. My grandfather stepped in to defend me, and my father turned on him and hit him, hard. My grandpa was already weak from emphysema. He was on oxygen 24/7, and it didn’t take much to tire him. Being attacked by my father was too much for him, and he was hospitalized after the attack. He never made it out of the hospital, and even though it’s been 17 years since he died I still miss him more than words can say.

At 14 years old, I was finally free from abuse. I healed and forgave – or at least I thought I did. I was pretty much a normal, happy teenager, except for the whole looking-for-love-from-boys-because-I-never-knew-the-love-of-a-father part. I bounced from one relationship to another, never going long without a boyfriend because I could not bear to be without that attention I craved so desperately. I didn’t understand it then; all I knew was that I needed the affirmation that came from having a male love me (or, what I thought was love).

Ignoring the Red Flags

Given my history, it’s not surprising that I ended up marrying the first guy who hinted at the idea, especially after I had been previously engaged to another young man who cheated on me. All I wanted was someone who was going to love me and not hurt me. When I met my ex-husband, I fell immediately for his charms. He somehow managed to always say exactly what I wanted to hear. I said I was a Christian, and he stated he was raised Catholic but that he identified more with Christianity. He liked baseball, but when I said I was a NASCAR fan, suddenly he announced that he was a NASCAR fan too and gave up his Yankees obsession. I wanted a family, and he was a family man. I believed every lie he told me about himself, probably because I wanted to believe him. I wanted someone who was family-oriented, who would give me the life I had always dreamed of but had never known. I wanted to be a wife and a mother and to give them everything I never had as a child. He said he wanted a wife and children. It was perfection. Okay, so he was married before. No biggie, we all have a past, right? He said his ex was crazy and made up all sorts of lies to take his son (who was then just 7 years old) away from him. I believed it. I mean, there are lots of guys out there with crazy exes. He had recently moved from New York to be closer to his son, so obviously he was a stellar dad, and wasn’t that just what I was looking for?

Just weeks after meeting, I was talking to him on the phone and told him that I had had a dream where he proposed and I said yes, which I told him was crazy because we had only known one another such a short time! His response? He suggested that we should do just what I had dreamed. I fought the idea at first, but he pushed and kept at it until I agreed, and honestly it didn’t take much cajoling because I was already desperately longing to fill the huge hole left in my heart by my own parents. We were married immediately after. I should have trusted my gut when I had a panic attack the night before the wedding. I called and asked him to wait and give me some more time, but he cried and told me how much he needed me and he couldn’t bear life without me. This should have been a huge red flag, but I felt so guilty for making him feel that way. Clearly, it was my fault. I had allowed him to hope for marriage, and there I was on the eve of the wedding trying to call it off and shattering his dreams. I agreed to go on with the wedding as planned. He was happy, so I was happy.

Looking back, another red flag leading up to the wedding was that he suddenly announced that he had quit his job. How on earth could I marry someone who was unemployed? My retail salary couldn’t get us by! (And better yet, why would he quit his job knowing he was about to take on the responsibility of a wife? Too bad I didn’t have the foresight to ask that question.) He assured me it was okay, that he always found a job quickly, and that he had a little money put away that would help us get by. I trusted him when he told me everything would be okay. Because of job circumstances and getting married so quickly, I was unable to move in with him right away. I had to get a job transfer and that took a little while to make happen. While waiting, I drove down to visit him (at the time he lived in San Diego and I lived in the LA area). When I was gone, he would be very moody. He would yell and become abusively angry, saying the most horrendous things to me. He would always apologize afterward. He told me it was because he couldn’t handle having his wife so far away from him, and promised that things would get better once I moved in.

Click here to continue reading the story.