All leaves have roots somewhere and my story is no different.
Growing up, I used to hope that a school friend, a parent, a teacher, someone — anyone — would notice and tell an authority figure who could help me. I grew up with a parent who every single day of my childhood told me I was dumb, stupid and couldn’t do anything right.
I was hit every day. Not strong and aggressive hits, but the split second stings of “you can’t get anything right” smacks.
She would stand behind me during homework time. Every answer I got wrong was met with an array of hateful words and a hit to drive the lesson home. I felt anything but love from my caretaker. I was never the receiver of a warm and affectionate kiss and, when she did attempt an act of love, it was in front of an audience, for show. No, her “love” wasn’t comforting or caring. It gave me chills.
But, I had my own little safe haven in a small storage closet next to an alcove in the far back of the house. When things got really bad, I’d find comfort in closing myself into that dark closet, surrounded by the trailing lengths of cashmere scarves and wool coat sleeves, and just let my tears flow freely. I remember, I’d sit in front of the mirror and tell myself over and over again that it was all going to be ok someday. Sleeping was also a time I could let my guard down. I would cry myself to sleep most nights replaying the nasty words aimed at me during the day. Someday I would feel that warmth of real love all the time.
It was my senior year of high school when I remember standing up for myself for the first time. By this time I was actually taller than her. She went to hit me for being “stupid” yet again. To this day I have no idea what came over me, but instead of feeling that familiar slap come down across my upper arm, I turned around and grabbed her hand. I looked her straight in the eye and said with power and determination, “Don’t you ever touch me again.”
The physical pain ceased, but the more hurtful emotional punches and constant snickering continued into my adult years. Odd as it may sound to some, I truly felt as if I had no choice but to continue the relationship with her. I felt obligation to this hateful person due to social norms that were expected of me.
As I matured and built my own life, I tried to avoid interactions with her so as not to subject myself to her onslaught of all the things wrong with me: “You’re such a disappointment,” “How can you live like this,” “You’re so smart — What happened to you?” “How could you have stayed with an abusive man for so many years?” “Look at what you subjected your kids to, what were you thinking?” “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror — You’re so fat!” “You can’t do anything right,” “Have you thought about an abortion,” (when sharing I was pregnant with my first child), “You don’t make enough money,” “Your house is too cluttered,” “You don’t dress your children well enough.”
Anything you could possibly imagine was my fault and, nothing I ever did was good enough.
I continued to let myself hear these words in every interaction — over and over. I eventually grew stronger and put a stop to it after my counselor shared two important revelations:
- My mother is an abuser.
- I have a choice, not an obligation, to continue a relationship with her.
There’s a Reason Why it’s Called the Abuse CYCLE
Having been abused as a child left me a prime target to be abused as an adult. I craved what I missed from my caretaker growing up. I craved love. I craved a loving family of my own.
The International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) found that 72% of women who were abused either physically or sexually as a child go on to experience violence in their adult lives.
I see all the telltale signs of his narcissistic and manipulative personality now, but back then he was just an attractive man offering me freedom from my abusive past. He was a means of achieving that happy family, my heart’s dream, and I latched on to that future with clenched fists.
My ex-husband was charming and charismatic. He very convincingly promised me a beautiful life and I fell right into his trap. The honeymoon stage was a dream come true. I finally felt loved and cared for, something I craved so much in those dark childhood years.
I remember the first time I felt his wrath. I was pregnant with our first child. He was angry over some extremely minor thing from his workday. In an angry fit, he used his bare hand to shatter our glass coffee table right before my eyes.
I was in shock. I had never seen such a strong, violent act take place in front of me before. He screamed at me about how I made him break the glass because I wasn’t a supportive enough wife. My next steps dictated my actions over the next twelve years. I got down on my hands and knees and cleaned up the shattered glass sprawled across the carpet. And I apologized to him.
Abusers Play Mind Games, Making Victims Feel Accountable for their Behavior
I think about that moment often. I had a chance to say, “I’m not going to let violence and intimidation happen in life.” I had my chance to walk away.
Instead, I chose to clean up for my abusive husband. To cover up his violent wrath. To pretend it didn’t happen. To believe his twisted manipulation that it was my fault.
The months and years that followed only saw his anger worsen. When our kids were younger, he was physically abusive to them. He would waterboard my two older children if they wouldn’t go to sleep. He beat my daughter so hard that he left handprints on her back that lasted for days. He would throw my son across the room in anger. Nothing I would do or say would make him stop.
I learned to shield the children by quickly calming them before his anger would erupt. He said that he was teaching them to be strong and that he planned to control his anger before they would be old enough to remember. That never happened.
At some point, after our third child was born, his physical anger turned to me. I was pushed, punched, and dragged by my hair. Whenever something didn’t go his way, I was his main target.
Having to take a drive with him while he was angry account for some of my scariest memories. Weaving in and out of lanes, speeding over 100mph only to abruptly screech to a stop to punish drivers who were going “too slow.” I was terrified for my life, yet time and time again I willingly got into the car with him.
45.4% of female rape victims (and 29% of male rape victims) were raped by an intimate partner. — The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)
Like most abusive relationships, his physical aggression extended into our shared bedroom. As in his dominant nature, he raped me. Each time, I felt him exerting his dominance and power over me. I felt exposed, naked and I always cried.
He told me it helped him be “less aggressive.” Being aggressive helps lessen aggression? It didn’t make sense.
His physical and sexual abuse, although painful, did not cause my deepest pain. His emotional abuse and intimidation were, by far, the most painful. I had no confidence in myself. Even the smallest of things, such as how I placed the dishes in the sink, had the potential of getting me in trouble. If the dishes weren’t placed orderly, he’d rearrange them to stack on top of eachother, high into the air, as an insult to me being a messy pig.
He often played mind games, making me question if incidences actually occurred, making me feel crazy that I would have such thoughts.
He made me take and send him pictures of the meals I fed the kids because he felt the food was “garbage.” Yet, despite the constant slew of horrific words aimed in my direction, he could always spin it to prove to himself that he never said anything negative.
His use of intimidation to control me was mammoth. He broke plates, computers, tables, chairs, phones, and whatever else he could get his hands on when he was angry. Whatever was shattered was always somehow tied back to me being “bad.”
And what did I do? I cowered in fear, tried my best to hide any public act of violence to protect him, and, everytime, I immediately repurchased whatever he broke.
He warned the kids and I that he had “hidden cameras” throughout the house and was recording every computer keystroke.
On the rare occasion we were out in public together, I remained petrified that the horrific insults he would shout at people would eventually result in violent retaliation by the other party.
My ex-husband was a racist, a bigot, and a misogynist. No one was as good as him. He referred to other people as “ants” who “deserved to be stepped on.” He furthered his intimidation with bragging stories of how he hurt others and “put them in their place” for turning on him. Cruel stories of how he had set fire to a woman’s umbrella and arranged to have innocent people beaten up. At one point he even threw our family dog out the second floor window over a little accident on the bathroom floor. Rules didn’t matter to Fireball, the devil. In fact, when presented with a rule, it only drove him to break it quicker. He really felt as if he were above the law.
As another form of control, he made me, his wife, feel responsible for his overall well being. I was forced to feed him with a fork, as if he were a child. If he didn’t eat, it was my fault. If I didn’t wake him up the right way in the morning, his actions throughout the day would all be my fault.
A few years before leaving him I remember a friend of his tried to waken me from his cult. Because, in retrospect, it truly felt like he was a domineering cult organizer and I, his captive, had no choice but to follow and protect him.
This friend saw the aggression my ex-husband showed to our oldest son. He witnessed the Fireball erupt and physically and emotionally abuse me, spin it around to be my fault and then watch me apologize. His friend went so far as to share the number of a local church with me and try to give me a safe phone.
And what did I do? I told that devil of an ex-husband about it. I was not ready to leave him. I couldn’t fully grasp his wrongdoings yet. He was my husband and I felt I had no choice but to protect him.
Abusers Perpetuate Stereotypes, Hate and Ignorance
In those last few months before I left he started to teach our kids to be little racists, bigots and misogynists.
The Childhood Domestic Violence Association (CDV) found that children who grow up in homes with domestic abuse are 74% more likely to commit a violent crime and 3 times more likely to perpetuate future domestic violence in their own home.
My eight year old son developed a beautiful and empathetic pattern of commenting on my beauty and finding small ways to compliment me in wake of the constant insults thrown my way. He once asked Fireball why he doesn’t comment on my beauty to which my ex-husband’s response was that saying those words would make me feel too good about myself and I needed to be kept in my place.
He vehemently believed that all women were inferior and disgusting and began to impart these ignorant and dangerous thoughts on my young son. Just a few weeks before I left him, I overhead him teaching my older daughter about “Stupid Americans,” his skewed lesson on immigrants and how those who are not white are “much less than her” and how they “deserve to be stepped on in life.”
And on another night — During dinner the kids commented how much they enjoyed their meal to which the Fireball burst out in rage, calling the food “garbage.” He continued on to lecture the kids about how important it is to get me in the most vulnerable spot possible before going in for the most painful punch to “really get me.” He was literally teaching my children how to hurt people as I sat by helpless, in tears.
As a means of survival, I attempted to manage his moods. Keeping him happy meant we could catch our breath for a few moments. But his manic episodes were so prolonged and so severe that toward the end that I was often braced for the inevitable. He was going to kill me.
I wrote goodbye notes to my children. He planned several trips for just him and me in those last months and, each time I left, I thought it really could be the last time I would ever see my children.
Why did I go along with it? I felt as if I didn’t have a choice. If I went, he could hurt me. If I stayed he was sure to hurt me and the kids.
Not surprisingly, he was manipulative in how he tried to make me stay in the relationship. He made me think that I told him I would be betraying my religion in leaving him, when I never said such things. He said that he had a brain tumor that was “coming back” and needed help. He said he was going to kill himself and asked to see his life insurance policies. He vehemently tried to get me pregnant. And on and on. I felt responsible for his life.
You Have a Choice and a Voice
I started to write down his words, verbatim, to prove to myself that he was actually saying those terrible words to me and performing such intimidating acts. I would read the ever-growing list to myself over and over, still believing his mind games.
I had an especially tough time convincing myself of 3 facts:
- My ex-husband is a narcissist, a racist, a bigot, and a misogynist who controlled and abused me from the beginning.
- I am not responsible for my ex-husband’s actions or feelings.
- I have a choice. I do not have to stay, protect or take care of him.
My decision to devise a solid plan to leave my abusive ex-husband became rooted in my realization of these three stark facts, yet another eerily planned “just us” trip to some remote island and my son, who verbally expressed his fear to me in coming back home where he was sure Fireball would kill us all. At the very last minute, just before our “island vacation,” I made the decision to lie to Fireball. I lied because I made the choice to live.
That was the last time my children saw the hate and violence spew from Fireball. That was the last time I ever saw him as a man in my home.
Healing From Years of Domestic Abuse
Time has passed since leaving my ex-husband and let me tell you, it hasn’t been easy.
Still under his spell, I first had to get over my guilt about not being there to take care of him. It took months to unravel that guilt and stop feeling personally responsible for his well being. I also felt embarrassed. I wouldn’t shop in my local town. I felt ashamed that people would think I was weak.
The divorce process was extremely trying and took two whole years until completion. And during that time, odd things would occur in way to intimidate me. I found the trunk of my car standing wide open when leaving the gym one day. Mail was taken from my mailbox. Upon returning home several times, I found my garage door open. His intimidation and control over me was so great that I was was truly afraid he was going to kill me.
After filing for divorce, I was in and out of court for what felt like at least fifty unique meetings and hearings. Fireball was arrested for assault and risk of injury to a minor, among other charges. Not surprisingly, he evaded police and was eventually extradited from Florida to Connecticut to face charges.
And although I decided not to hold him judicially accountable for sexual assault, I still endured two days of detailed questioning about the rapes during my divorce trail. I’ll never forget the smirk on his attorney’s face while I was repeatedly asked why I continued to stay by his side. I continually answered that I felt as if I didn’t have a choice. He clearly did not understand what it was like to be under the control of a vicious and aggressive cult leader like Fireball.
The effects of the trauma inflicted by my ex-husband didn’t end with my divorce. My children and I all struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and, although symptoms have greatly reduced, we all have triggers from our trauma that will forever remain with us.
It took over a year for my children to stop having weekly nightmares of him entering the house and killing me and/or kidnapping them. Learning how to recognize and address triggers has been a family-wide necessity. To this day, having left him almost five years ago, various triggers bring to mind horrific situations that I’ve long-blocked out of my mind. Although manageable, we will forever remain hypervigilant.
My children do not feel they have any relation to him whatsoever. In counseling they were not able to even refer to him as a biological father. Instead, if ever needed, they refer to him as “Fireball,” a name that reminds them of the danger of his violent bursts of rage.
I’ve had to re-learn a lot of basic skills for independence and relationships too. I remember how odd it felt leaving the house at night with the kids for the first time. It was a new, unfamiliar feeling and I felt exposed, as if I was going to get in trouble. I had to completely re-learn how to communicate and that it’s ok to share opinions and alternatives. And I had to learn to stop fearing and expecting pain.
The road to finding a healthy relationship hasn’t been easy. Although I’ve long since broken the chains of my ex-husband’s reign, I’ve found that those with large empathetic hearts, like mine, are especially vulnerable to abusers, narcissists and manipulative people. And, boy have I met my share of them since my divorce!
It has taken me a great amount of time and determination and the help of support groups and counseling sessions to understand and overcome my traumatic past. I’ve had to face my childhood abuse head on. I’ve come to terms with choosing an abuser masked as a partner and now I’ve chosen to end the cycle and foster a loving and supportive home for my children.
During my lengthy divorce and the years immediately following, I learned many things.
- I’ve learned not to apologize for things that are not my fault. For a long time I lived with a second hand tendency to say, “I’m sorry” for everything. Most things were not my fault, but living with a narcissist for over a decade made me feel responsible for all wrongdoings.
- Our judicial system lacks understanding in domestic violence. My idealistic view of finding justice and punishing the wrong party was just that — idealistic. In reality, many judges, attorneys and officials need to be better educated about domestic violence and how to interact with those who were once victims. Many have no concept of what it’s like to be under the control of another human being to the point that they feel that they have no choice but to follow orders of their abuser.
- Don’t expect family and friends to be there. In my experience, it was either too much for them to handle, they felt I wasn’t fighting hard enough and listening to their advise or they felt it was my fault for not leaving my ex-husband earlier. Finding blame in the abused sickened me and further drove my ambition to fight for Women’s Rights. To this, the old adage holds true: Don’t assume, you have no idea what it was like to walk in my shoes. As such, another idealistic view I had about life, and likely the most difficult one to swallow, crumpled during my divorce — people who you would expect to support you during difficult times of your life will not all be there for you. In fact, most will run. Say goodbye, they’re not worth the fight.
- I am strong, Confident, Powerful and Enough! I do not need a partner to feel “whole.” I’ve learned to feel empowered instead of feeling compelled to serve others or make them happy in order to achieve my happiness. Life is not contingent on making others happy. Self fulfillment comes from within and I am enough.
- There is a valuable lesson in every experience. I’ve learned to take the time to better understand the motivations behind people. My experiences have opened my eyes to the inadequacies of our justice system. They’ve made me more aligned to the Resistance Movement and the Women’s March and they ignited my ambition to undo all of the injustices in this world, particularly those toward women, children and minorities. Despite my past, I remain a highly empathetic and supportive person. My abusive ex-husband may have momentarily masked my path, but in the end I’m the one basking in the sun.
- My children always come first. I’ve learned to put my children before my partner and to serve as a role model for them to resist, to lead and to stand up for what they believe in. Having broken the cycle of abuse, (and feeling better protected via standing orders of protection against Fireball) I want my children to feel beautiful, strong, empowered and capable of changing the world. And above all, I want them to always feel loved.
- Lastly, I’ve learned that I can choose who I wish to surround me in life. I do not have to be obliged by family or friendship ties. In learning what constitutes a healthy relationship, I choose to keep those who do not support me at long arms length. They do not deserve me. I choose to surround myself with people who add value to my life and with people who love and support me. I choose to be happy.