I'm most recently a writer. In the six plus decades of my life, I've been a wife, mother, grandmother, Jill of all trades though mistress of but a few, and most of the time pretty content with my lot. As a much younger person, I believed I was called to write, but life and living distracted me for most of those decades. An unwilling transplant from the South, twenty years ago I unintentionally landed in the geographical center of the US. Writing came about in part due to the unwillingness, I expect. When caring for family, gardening, and renovating a century-old house failed to provide sufficient creative outlets, I turned to the one thing I always intended to do. Eight titles later, I'm grateful I found myself while Lost in the Plains!
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Why I Stayed
I am a survivor of domestic violence. I lived it, denied it, defended it, and eventually I woke up to the reality of it and knew I had to leave it. To this day, I remain cautious, aware that somewhere out there someone I once loved, shared the most intimate aspects of my life with and sincerely tried to understand hates me for leaving. I live with the knowledge that his rage can be triggered by the mention of my name and despite the hundreds of miles that separate me from him, that still frightens me.
Leaving, and staying away, was the hardest thing I've ever done, but I was one of the fortunate ones. I was supported by a tight circle of friends who made it possible for me to stay away, to avoid the all too powerful temptation to go back when faced with the daunting reality of no money, no job and no place to live. That isn't true for a lot of women. Without those friends, who's to say I might not have gone back. Familiar horrors begin to seem bearable when confronted with a faceless unknown. That's what he tells you, when he senses you're thinking of leaving. You won't be able to take care of yourself because he's doing such a good job of taking care of you. You can't make the kind of money, live in the kind of neighborhood, wear the kind of clothes, provide for the kids the way he can. The truth of that is louder than your fear. It drowns out your awareness of the exorbitant price you're already paying for all those things.
Each woman stays for different reasons, but those reasons add up to staying because leaving doesn't seem to be a viable reality. At the heart of staying is the fact that at times, if not at that moment, you love him. What drew you to him is still there in the good times. And there are good times along with the bad ones. I found it difficult to even recall the horrors when things were going well. Maybe I overreacted, maybe I misunderstood, maybe I was in some way to blame. When you love someone, even in the best of relationships, there's a lot of forgiveness involved. If you believe, as I do, in the sanctity of marriage, in keeping your promises, in loving unselfishly, you'll forgive a lot in the name of keeping the peace and sharing those good times. While the reasons for staying differ, I believe every woman will agree that love, as battered and tested as it may become, is at the heart of staying.
Money may seem like a poor reason, but imagine putting your checkbook, your credit cards, the keys to your house on the kitchen table and walking out with what you can carry, with no job, no permanent address and no idea what tomorrow might bring. While some women have the time and foresight to plan, many reach the day of departure with very little to take with them but their lives. That was my case, and in truth I felt safer leaving it all. But I won't say I felt confident of anything. It was one day at a time, one hurdle at a time, one disappointment at a time. Without the help and protection of my little circle, I might have been forced to go back. I know how blessed I was and that many women lack that kind of support.
Fear is the most powerful motivator of all, in both directions. Fearing what he'll do if you try to leave, fearing what he'll do if you stay on. Fearing what he might do to the people you love, your parents, your children, your friends, and fear of what he might do to himself. That fear kept me in place for all of our marriage. I told myself I could handle what he did to me, the verbal abuse, the control, the threats of violence, better than I could seeing anyone else suffer, including him. The consequences of leaving, the destruction of our family, and living with the guilt of wondering if I'd done something differently it might all have been avoided, stopped me in my tracks any time I dared consider taking such a step.
Shame plays a part too, the shame of admitting that you lived with someone who treated you that way, the shame of being the one to break the wall of silence and tell the world your life wasn't what you'd worked so hard to make it appear. The shame of taking back all those lies you told about how wonderful he was and how happy you were, the lies you convinced even yourself were true. I'm a good actress and I write fiction. I did an exceptional job of creating the illusion of happy home, loving husband, treasured wife. And then in one day, I had to tear down the illusion and admit the truth to a lot of people who couldn't believe it and others who never did.
What I accepted in the moment I knew I would leave was that it couldn't matter, not the love, the security, the fear or the shame, as much as regaining my life. I had surrendered everything to someone who would never be satisfied with what I had to give. I had trusted someone who time and again broke faith. I had taken the blame for pushing him to his limits when in fact there was no rhyme or reason to his limits, they were merely unpredictable whims. Staying no longer made sense. Staying could serve no purpose other than to further surrender, live without trust, and accept the blame for my own destruction.
Arriving at that moment required me to drop the veil of denial, look hard at the sad truth and let go of all hope for a miraculous change. I remember thinking how ironic it was that I had watched all those discussions of domestic violence on Oprah, I had been the girl who said if a guy ever hit me, I'd be out of there. I had deluded myself into believing we were different because I was looking at the reality of domestic abuse from inside, where the discussion translated into the language of our shared history.
I said before that leaving was the hardest thing I've ever done. Sometimes I'm still amazed that I did it. Each step away was a conscious choice, taken with the awareness that I was becoming a different woman, one who faced a new reality with eyes wide open, who could never look back without regret or forward without remembering. After over twenty years, my heart still races when the topic is discussed and all the memories, the worst and the best, cross my mind in an emotional kaleidoscope.
Currently, the discussion has much to do with a culture that exempts certain men from responsibility. But from where I live now, on the other side of leaving, every man is exempt until proven otherwise, and then our culture as a whole continues to find fault with the woman for having stayed. Without living in her body, we can't know why she stayed or how she perceived her unique situation. Without her background, personality and thought process, we can't know what it felt like when he yelled, or threatened, or hit. None of us, no matter our own experience with domestic violence or lack thereof, can judge her choices.
What we can do is everything in our power to raise awareness, to promote a rational, constructive discussion, to equip our sons and daughters with the necessary tools to build a society where domestic violence is taboo. We can reserve our unsolicited advice and offer unconditional support. Blame, no matter where directed, is unproductive. "Should have" and "why" are a waste of breath. Change is the only viable solution. It will not happen over night, or even in a generation. But it can happen. Don't let the conversation die until the next high-profile case hits the headlines. Look around you. Find a place to add your voice. Open your minds and give of your time. Every woman out there now, living on the inside of domestic abuse, needs you to become part of the change.