I realize tonight that I have stayed silent too often, for too long.
I feel guilty for coming out of an abusive relationship and... I feel guilty for leaving it.
Those are some pretty powerful statements because in my head I know that I have no guilt here, I am not responsible for the abuse I and my children experienced. I know that by staying silent I feed into the problem yet I fear speaking out. I have spoken out publicly. I have shared the story in front of crowds, yet I find it difficult to speak out with my story to people I know. It's easier to share it with strangers. I've been cautious about who I share with and how much, but I realize that it is time to just speak out.
Domestic violence, in any form, is dangerous. I watched a TED Talk today by Leslie Morgan Steiner "Why Domestic Violence Victims Don't Leave". She reminded me that silence only heightens the problem.
My abuse was not greatly physical. Instead it was emotional and verbal. In that end, he has accused me of villainizing him by simply stating the facts. He has refused to admit that there is any abuse or that he has caused harm to the children or I, and certainly that there is not ongoing abuse. Even the day he hit our youngest son on the top of his head with a full Pepsi (personal size) bottle his response was to turn to me and say "That wasn't abusive by the way". It wasn't the first time he'd done something like that. When I returned to him after a six month separation the first time he hit me, he grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. Immediately after, he said "I guess you're going to leave me again". I should have. I didn't. I felt trapped by not leaving in that moment.
His physical abuse of me ended after that. He still hit walls, still hit our vehicle when he was angry, still yelled and cursed at me, still blamed me for every fault, everything that went wrong in his or our lives. I spent so many months protecting our children, justifying their behaviours, downplaying the problems, walking on eggshells. When he started hitting our oldest son I knew things were headed downhill. He would be angry at me, but it would be our son he would hit. In September, I told him that I saw it as abusive, that I wouldn't allow our children to be hit, that I would leave him if it continued... it improved for a bit and then, it escalated. It was December before I reached out to the Women's Shelter and began counseling. They reported him to Child Family Services who responded that I was protecting the boys and that was enough. It wasn't enough. I didn't feel sufficient. I was there, I was doing my best, but my son was being hit in the head almost daily. I couldn't watch it, I couldn't bear it. I decided I would leave after Christmas. I was putting together a plan, figuring it out, but no one wants to ruin Christmas with a separation unless they have to.
Christmas Eve I received a number of gift certificates for Christmas shopping so I left him with the children for a couple hours while I went out for presents and groceries. We had nothing that year - I had only been able to purchase one dollar store item for each of the boys and they needed things. I spent almost all of it... it had been earmarked for Christmas, it was an extra unexpected bonus. I filled our cupboards, bought presents for everyone (I didn't go overboard), except myself and brought it all home.
He was vacuuming when I got home. I offered to finish for him if he would bring it all in because I was suffering a shoulder injury. He was angry because the boys wouldn't help him clean (they were 3 & 5) and they kept getting in his way. He slammed his fist into the wall on the way to the car and I quickly pulled the boys together and got everything organized. He went right back to his computer when he was finished bringing everything in. That's where he spent his days, ignoring us, living as he wanted and only coming out when we dragged him off of it or when the boys got too rambunctious and he got angry.
It was the next day before he realized I had spent all the money we had been given. We were on our way to my cousin's home for dinner when he figured it out. He slammed on the brakes, throwing us against our seat belts. He railed at me the entire way, then continued with completely inappropriate comments during dinner. On the way home he yelled at me, and criticized me for starting an at-home business to help with our family budget, accusing me of starting it only so I could afford to leave him.
By the time we got home that evening and put the boys to bed, I was a mess. I was broken inside, devastated and terrified. For the first time in our marriage, I slept on the floor in the boys bedroom. When we got up for church in the morning I tried to get them ready quietly so as not to awaken their daddy, not knowing what to expect. He woke shortly before we were ready to leave and readied in record time, angry at me because I did not wake him up earlier, when for so many other weekends he had refused to rouse in time for church.
At church I sat away from him while he told anyone who would listen that I had not awakened him that morning, that I didn't want him there. I wasn't talking about it, I didn't want others to know how bad it was. During the service our eldest son was snuggled up to him and put his feet up on the back of the pew in front of us, he was told to put them down and when he didn't respond fast enough, my ex punched him in the legs to force his feet down. That was the last straw for me. I couldn't handle anymore. I was finished. I asked a friend to come home with me and when we got there I told him he had to leave.
He took his time packing. He was angry, accused me of having another man, accused me of planning this. Said good-bye to the boys like he was never going to see them again and thanked me for 10 wonderful years of marriage. He had threatened to commit suicide if I ever left him and I didn't know what to expect in the coming days, the way he said good-bye scared me, but I needed to stop what was happening, I needed to protect our children.
My heart broke that day. I knew our marriage was over. I knew I could not and would not continue living that way, I would not and could not continue to expose our children to abuse. They deserved better, I had promised they would not grow up in a family like mine was.
So, why do I feel guilty? When I look at my story, I realize that it is not the life and death story of so many other domestic violence survivors. In my perspective, it seems a fairly "mild" case of abuse ... because I left early on. I feel guilty sometimes for not sticking it out, for not finding out if he was capable of change... but to be able to change one must be willing to change and there were no signs of that. Sometimes I feel like I didn't have the right to leave because we weren't in life-threatening danger.
Do you know what else? I've had people say that to me in subtle, back-handed ways. I've had people blame me for the abuse. There are many who ask why domestic violence women stay and one of those reasons is that they are not believed until, for some, it is too late.
For domestic violence to be reduced and eventually end, there must be two things. First, as Lesley Morgan Steiner says, we must end the silence. Silence is killing women, children and men across this country, this world! Secondly, we must put up a zero tolerance for domestic violence. We must place emotional and verbal abuse in as severe a category as physical abuse. We must stop negating it's deadly power in our lives. We all know words can hurt, imagine what happens when the one person who has pledged to love you and care for you for the rest of your life uses words only to harm you and to break you down. To speak lies about you to you, themselves and others. How can one fight against words? Words that will be denied if you ever try to defend yourself against them.
Domestic Violence kills.
It starts in our hearts, our souls and it ends with our bodies. Where do we draw the line?