He was the type of man that young, naïve girls always fall for. He was charming, charismatic and intelligent. He had a rare drive and determination. He was a visionary, politically-minded and talked a really good talk, and moreover, he had already lived a full, fascinating life by the time we began dating.
His dedication to fitness and exercise was inspiring. In fact, he was in such good shape and so physically attractive that he was a local model featured on billboards, in television commercials and in various publications.
We went to grade school together and were, in fact, in the same 4th grade class. So when he and I met back up in our 20s, I felt a sense of safety with him for having known him my entire life.
I fell for him immediately.
Abuse comes in many forms, from physical, mental and verbal to sexual, all are terrifying. I know all too well how abuse affects a person, because I experienced each one of those in my marriage.
Looking back, I clearly see the warning signs that flashed all around me. The first time he was physical with me was at his apartment, while we were dating. He and his roommate pulled me into their debate. They described a situation, not telling me which side each were on, and asked my thoughts. My response indicated that I agreed not with the side Jim (we’ll call him) was debating but with that of his roommate. After being asked my opinion and freely expressing my thoughts, I ended up being corned in his living room, while he yelled at the top of his lungs at me. I quickly left his apartment and ended our relationship.
That was the first time.
I didn’t quite recognize Jim’s actions that night as physical abuse. I mean, he hadn’t even touched me. But the fact is, preventing someone from leaving an area against their will is considered physical abuse. It’s called false imprisonment, and it’s against the law.
As often happens in abusive relationships, he later came to me with tears in his eyes profusely apologizing and promising to never do anything like that again. On his knees, he begged for my forgiveness. And I believed him. That was the beginning of a vicious seven-year cycle.
A Pivotal Moment
The night before our wedding, I made a desperate call to a loved one about wanting to call off the wedding. “Don’t you dare call off that wedding,” she said. “You have family from all over the country in town.”
The next day, as my daddy walked me down the aisle, he whispered to me, “You know, it’s not too late to call it off.” Bless my sweet daddy. Many times, I wished I could have gone back to that moment and taken him up on his offer. We would have run right out of that church and never looked back. But I didn’t. Instead, I continued walking and whispered to him, “I can’t. I have family from all over the country in town.”
How many times do we make decisions that harm ourselves to gain the acceptance of others, conform to what society thinks we should do or keep our loved ones from feeling embarrassed? Simply put, how often do we put the needs of others’ or their happiness above our own?
No one else is going to put your needs above theirs, so why are we willing to do that for them? I’m not talking about the Christ-like acts we do on behalf of others; I’m talking about the life-decisions we make in an attempt to help others feel more comfortable in our presence.
Everything inside of me was screaming Stop! But because I was seeking the approval of others, not wanting to disappoint them and attempting to prevent my family from public humiliation, I proceeded to marry a man I knew was dangerous. Literally speaking, I sacrificed my entire existence in an attempt to gain the approval of others.
Abusive relationships always escalate. My abuse quickly escalated, once we were married. It led to being held down on the bed with him sitting on top of me, nose-to-nose, yelling so loudly that neighbors could hear him inside of their homes. He roared the most vile, disgusting things I had ever heard in my life. Abhorrent, disgusting, evil words that stung my soul.
This is where I learned the skill of dissociation to escape from the reality of what was happening. My fight-or-flight survival response allowed me to transition to out-of-body experiences, where I was no longer in the moment but instead went somewhere far, far away.
Eventually, I completely and totally detached from my life. There is a certain photograph of me from the year 2000, taken while we were living in Florida, which was four states away from my friends and family. In this picture, I’m leaning against our front door and looking off into the distance. It’s a snapshot in time that truly is worth a thousand words. I no longer recognize that person. Her eyes were sad and hopeless, and she had become an empty shell of a person. She was completely lost.
The violence continued to increase. It turned into being picked up against my will, tossed over his shoulder and carried back to wherever I was running from. It grew into being pushed down stairs, thrust down a hill, shoved across the room or thrown into a bush. It led to being picked up or dragged by my hair, having my head slammed in doors, being held down with my neck beside a butcher block of knives and, during our separations, having my clothes violently ripped off and being forced to have sex.
But he never hit me. No, he never hit me. Bruises on my arms and wrists, blood on my face and chunks of hair coming out of my head, but he never hit me.
That’s what Jim told me. I’ve never hit you. And you know what, he didn’t. Not once did he ever hit me.
Why Do We Stay?
How many times did friends and family implore with me to leave? Countless times. Countless times countless people offered their homes as a refuge for me and my children. They offered to help me get out. They offered financial assistance. But I stayed, and each time I did leave, I went back.
Why? Why would anyone continue going back to a place of terror?
Women (and men) stay in abusive relationships for a variety of reasons, including fear of retaliation, religious beliefs, social/family pressures, financial security, low self-esteem or a desire to be loved. Some even believe what they are experiencing is normal. Abuse often starts small and gradually increases in intensity and frequency. Our boundaries get pushed further and further back and we begin to accept more and more, until one day, we look up and no longer recognize our lives.
“That couldn’t happen to me,” people say. “I’d never put up with it.” However, research proves anyone can end up in an abusive relationship. Blaming the victims for being abused is a huge part of the problem. It reinforces their shame.
Victim-blaming is dangerous. The US Department of Health and Human Services cites, as a barrier to ending domestic violence, the brute fact that “peers, family members, and others in the community (e.g., coworkers, social service-providers, police, or clergy) minimize or ignore the abuse and fail to provide consequences.” Instead of condemning the abuse, people around the victims often simply admonish them with “What do you expect if you choose to stay?”
Many times, victims of abuse think they can change the abuser, because “he didn’t really mean to hurt me.” We remember how good they can be, when they aren’t abusing us, and we cling to those moments, hoping things improve. Oftentimes, we end up like yo-yos, going back-and-forth, leaving and going back, breaking up and reconciling. This is exactly what I did.
My final separation came one night after a physical altercation in my home. The yelling woke up my three-year-old daughter, and she made her way into our room. Jim quickly picked her up, and she went ballistic. She was screaming, crying and even sweating from the stress of the situation. She was pleading for me to get her, but he refused to give her up. Stretching her little arms out as far as she could, she was calling out for her mother. On speakerphone, the 911 agent told him to give that baby to her mother! He finally did.
I ran to my son’s room, put them both in the car and took off. I drove for hours, not knowing where to go. At some point, I called my pastor and his wife, and I’ll never forget what he said to me that night.
Amy, if you stay in this marriage, I fear I will be officiating your funeral soon.
Boom. Okay. You have my attention, now. The thought of my babies growing up in a home with him WITHOUT me – that scared me more than anything he could have ever done to me.
So after years of being a yo-yo, I left for good. After seven years of marriage, I finally left. That was fourteen years ago.
Abused individuals come from all walks of life. They are rich, poor, strong, weak, women and men. And society blames them for not getting out.
Those who are abused cling to the positive traits their abusers possess in hopes they will eventually get better. They ignore the bad and focus on the good. They stay as long as they do, because they truly love the person – or at least their illusion of the person. And getting out of an abusive relationship isn’t easy. The courageous ones actually leave. They make a decision, develop a safety plan and follow through.
After I finally left, he threw me around one last time.
I was getting my master’s degree at the time and was dropping off my kids at his apartment, so I could go to class. The kids begged me not to leave them with him, which infuriated him and caused him to turn his wrath on me. Their older brother took them into his apartment for safety and after who knows how long, things calmed down enough for me to communicate to him to help pack their things, so we could leave.
After years of unpredictable behavior, you learn certain methods of lessening the chances of another outburst. I had come to be very precise about my body language and facial expression. I was standing several feet away from his apartment, looking down at the ground with my hands behind my back in an attempt to be as non-threatening as possible, when out of nowhere, I heard Ben yell, “F@CK!!!!,” as he started charging at me. I was standing against a brick wall and threw my hands up to protect my face in self-defense. He picked me up and threw me across a concrete walkway into some big, prickly bushes. He grabbed my cell phone and threw it across the courtyard, shattering it in the process.
That was the last time.
After every other physical alteration, I dropped the charges against Jim by using the spousal privilege that “protected me” from testifying against my husband. This time, I did not. This time, I wanted to ensure domestic violence was permanently on his record.
Leaving Jim was one of the most terrifying, but ultimately most rewarding, things I ever did. In the weeks and months following my leaving, I realized this huge black cloud that had been covering my entire existence was starting to very slowly dissipate; however as it did, I became even more confused.
I realized I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I didn’t know what I believed. I didn’t know what I liked. I didn’t know what I did or didn’t know. Now, I recognize what I was experiencing as the after-effects of gaslighting.
Fourteen Years Later
It’s hard for me to believe that the things I described was actually my life – just the tip of the iceberg of what I endured during those seven years. It’s hard for me to believe that I allowed those things to happen. But the cold hard truth is that it was me and that I did allow every single event, after the first time, to happen. I taught him that he could abuse me and get away with it.
We teach others how to treat us by choosing what we will and won’t allow in our lives. I chose to stay, just like my husband chose to abuse me.
We all have a choice. Each of us is responsible for our own actions. Abusers are responsible for their abuse. However, without a person willing to be a victim, their abuse has nowhere to go. Victims are responsible for their choice to stay.
It took me years to truly grasp this concept and to not just require but also believe that I truly am worthy of love and respect. Today, I understand that what I allow, I condone. I understand that I deserve better, am worthy of better and can get better. In fact, I know that I deserve nothing but the very best in every one of my relationships and have very strong boundaries around what I will and will not allow in my life.
Fourteen years later, I am thriving. I have peace in my home, close relationships with my children, healthy friendships, restored relationships with family members and a career that I love. I live my life out loud and with intention.
I choose positive. I choose joy. I choose love.
And being the beloved daughter of the King of all kings, I know He wants only the best for me.
If you or someone you know is being abused, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).