Jan* sat with me recently and through tears, sighs and long periods of silence, she told me of her years in a violent relationship. Jan is now 50 years old and her 3 children are well into their teens. “I hope to shed some light on an issue that is prevalent amongst women, “she explained.
Raised in Indiana and New York, Jan is now working as a para-legal. She is a single mom who cares for her children, home and an awesome dog.
[Please note; there have been thousands of books written on this topic and neither Jan nor I expect that her story will answer all the questions someone may have.]
You have been married twice, tell me about your first marriage.
I married a man who was an alcoholic and an addict. He wasn’t abusive in obvious ways, but when I left him he sought me out and brought me back. I went into hiding with my young son, was unable to keep my job and lived in terror for quite a while. I recall taking a shower one day and the shower curtain moved due to a breeze through an open window. My reaction was to panic as I thought it was him. I thought he had found me and was in the house. Leaving later to shop, I had to turn back home as I was so sick from that incident. Fear can be all consuming.
And your second marriage?
I met Richard* at an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting. We each had several years of sobriety. Richard adored my young son and was persistent in his desire to date me. To be honest, I wasn’t interested in him, but he pursued me relentlessly. He had swept in like a knight in shining armor and was financially secure. I was such a financial wreck and trying to raise a child. I felt that I needed rescuing and eventually I let him into my life.
We dated for about 2 years and then married. We were living in New York, but Richard moved us to Connecticut. In hindsight, I see that he wanted to isolate me from family and friends. I was not emotionally well because our infant was born with serious medical problems and was not expected to live. Richard went to work each day and was emotionally absent. He was a master when it came to avoiding his responsibilities. We were blessed and my baby was well when we finally brought him home. But, that nightmare took a serious toll on my well-being.
You were psychologically drained when the abuse began?
Yes. About a year into our marriage I said something that made Richard angry. He smacked me across the face. The next day he came home with several pieces of expensive jewellery. That was the beginning and that was his pattern. One time he grabbed me by the hair and threw me into the toilet. The seal on that toilet is still broken.
He was also verbally abusive and emotionally cruel. I have a hard time remembering specific events as I tend to block out those painful times. He was abusive across the board. I do remember one time that I was defending one of my children against his fairly common wraths. He hit me, pulled my hair and said reprehensible things. He used gross language and would just vomit out his rage. He was demeaning. After such an episode, he would feel better and I would withdraw more.
Were the children about during these episodes?
Sometimes he would start up in front of the kids. They knew to go into their rooms and lock the door. My daughter would hide in a corner, my young son would hide under the bed and my oldest son would leave the house. I could hear the little ones crying – it was horrible.
Was there anything in particular that would set him off?
It’s hard to explain. He would have me believing that if I hadn’t done whatever it was that angered him, then he wouldn’t have to react that way. As the frequency of beatings increased I withdrew into myself. I had the children so I focused on them. I became numb. [Lengthy silence]
You see, in the beginning he felt validated… he felt he was saving me. That fed his low self-esteem.
How long did this go on?
Did you let anyone know? Friends, family?
No, not for years. I was ashamed. I knew what was happening was wrong but I was so beaten down… I was depressed, anxious and I withdrew from everything except my children. I think I unconsciously dealt with this by putting myself on ‘auto pilot. I got up each day, took care of my children and my house. It was not a home. Some nights I would get hit, but not every night. After being hurt, Richard would go on and on about it being my fault. Then he would buy some expensive thing to make up for it. Money was never an object. He felt that he was a good husband and father because we had everything we wanted.
Some that might say that you should have taken your children and left…
I know. [Lengthy silence]
I felt like I was a hostage. He made me feel like one and I made myself feel like one. I was a hostage to shame, self-loathing,feelings of not being good enough and not being capable. I felt paralysed. In some sick way, your abuser is your protector too. I was in denial – that is where my mind went to survive. At one point I had a psychotic break, but managed to still be a mom. People tend to judge the victim, not the abuser. The abuser is like a snake in the grass… you don’t see it until it is upon you. I know that there are people who don’t understand, people that have never experienced this. My children are the most important people in my life and I would cut off my right arm to help them. I guess you could say that ‘I couldn’t see the wood for the trees’. At that time I truly felt that leaving was not an option. I wish I could explain this better.
Can you shed some light on Battered Woman Syndrome?
Most women stay with their abuser. We believe what our abuser tells us… that we are worthless. Richard probably said over a hundred times that I was nothing without him. I believed him. I believed that my children and I couldn’t get by without him, Women end up suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on top of everything else. You see, the abusers are seductive. They seduce you into feeling you need them.
How did this all end?
Richard had started drinking again. One night he came home drunk and started hitting my oldest boy. I called the police and then I took my kids to a dear friend’s house. I let her in on my ‘dirty secret’. The next day Richard left. He said that he was the victim… that because I was so withdrawn he felt lonely. He instigated the divorce. He had justified all the abuse as he thought he deserved better and that I fell short
The emotional abuse was insidious. It doesn’t leave bruises that others can see. I have a quote that I like and I brought it with me; “The scars from mental cruelty can be as deep and long-lasting as wounds from punches or slaps but are often not as obvious. In fact, even among women who have experienced violence from a partner, half or more report that the man’s emotional abuse is what is causing them the greatest harm”. [Lundy Bancroft]
I think that in some ways he felt worthless and needed to bring me down to his level. I’ve been in therapy, as have my kids, and I continue to learn about how and why this happened the way that it did. I know that my children were scarred and traumatised, which breaks my heart. I am trying to teach my daughter that this isn’t normal, that a woman should never be abused. You know, it’s interesting; he never took me on a vacation, rarely attended the kid’s sports or activities and never did a thing around the house. He would go off gambling and leave me with our little ones. Richard was physically and emotionally absent.
What would you say to a woman in a similar position?
Tell everybody! You’re only as sick as your secrets. The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave. You are not worthless. You do not need him. You are not alone. There are compassionate people out there willing to help.
How are you now ?
He’s been gone 7 years. For the most part I feel good about myself. I tend to let family members bully me and I am working on that. I also have times when I feel incapable of succeeding. That message is hard to get rid of. But there is peace now. That destructive force is no longer there. The demon has gone.
I feel frustrated that I can’t fully explain everything. Honestly, I am still learning. As I said though, the demon is gone. And that is so wonderful.
*All names have been changed.