As I walked across the living room to brew coffee in the kitchen one morning, I noticed bits of paper littering the floor like confetti. Puzzled, I bent down to pick them up and recognized the pieces — photos of me, ripped to shreds. An icy feeling gripped me, but I had no time to process it. The front door banged open and my boyfriend marched in, his face contorted, eyes bulging.
I knew the look.
James was in one of his terrifying rages that I had dreaded since experiencing the first one about a year and a half earlier, soon after we started dating.
As he towered his six-foot frame over me, I shrank back, steeling myself. Was he going to grab my arm and throw me across the room again? Or would it be a tirade of threats and epithets, which he’d spewed at me numerous times?
He jabbed a forefinger in my face. “You’re poisoning my pills! I’m taking them to my cop friend and having them tested!”
I was stunned with the absurdity of it, then I felt the crash of realization. James was insane — and dangerous. I’d once witnessed him reporting his business partner to the child protection agency to avenge a perceived slight.
I had to leave him.
After railing that I was trying to “brainwash” him by urging him the previous day to get therapy for what seemed to me borderline personality disorder, James stalked out of the apartment. I immediately called a moving company. An hour later, I was packing up my life with the man I’d once told, “you’re the angel sent to me from heaven.”
I was 43 years old. I’d been married and divorced. Owned a house. I was the mother of an 11-year-old boy. Until I’d quit my job to move cross-country to live with James, I’d been a reporter at a major newspaper. I was, by most accounts, a success.
That evening, as I sat in the hotel I’d fled to after stowing my stuff in storage and picking up my son from school, I wondered how I had ever got myself into this mess. More baffling, why had I stayed in it?
I felt utterly alone and overwhelmed with shame.
In my mid-twenties, I’d had a boyfriend who showed signs of mental illness.
He was convinced the Army was out to get him after he flunked out of an officer training program. After a date at the movies one night, during which he accused me of coming on to guys when I slouched in my chair with my legs apart, I broke up with him. I was done after three months.
Another time, an alcoholic boyfriend choked me and shoved my head into a window. I left after that.
It seemed that I was smarter in my twenties than in my forties. We’re supposed to get wiser with age. What happened? In the wave of self-reflection that followed the breakup, I came to see that age can make us more vulnerable, especially when it comes to finding love.
After my divorce, I eschewed dating for six years, funneling my energy into renovating my house, motherhood, my career, writing a novel.
When I finally decided to date, I found the scene much different than in my twenties, when single men were everywhere. Now, it was a drastically smaller pool with few good candidates. I went on coffee date after coffee date, hoping to find that elusive spark of attraction. I dated one guy I didn’t even like all that much for a couple of months for companionship and sex. Maybe I was just meant to be alone, I thought.
I met James when I was least expecting it.
He called the newsroom with a story tip. When I met with him to discuss the story, he immediately asked me out to dinner. I turned him down since he was a potential source. My editors decided not to pursue his story. Instead, James pursued me. He kept calling until I finally said yes to his dinner invitation.
I was soon dazzled by his attentive, flattering courtship, his gifts, and promises.
All that made up for his behavior that became increasingly erratic, at least at first. His sudden rages and name-calling. His rifling through my computer files. His blocking my neighbor from seeing me. His demands that I run errands for him. His wild accusations that I was giving blowjobs to waiters in the back hallways of restaurants or to random men on the beach.
I kept justifying his behavior because I so wanted to be part of a couple again. His craziness only occurred once in a while, I told myself. It wasn’t that bad because he’d get over it and things would be fine for a while, great, in fact.
But it steadily got worse. I knew there was something wrong with him and tried to get him help. He said he’d see a therapist but he never did. His controlling behavior and possessiveness became unbearable. I became a person who had to lie and sneak around to live my life and avoid triggering his temper. I lost my sense of self.
After I finally left James, I felt humiliated, a shipwreck of a woman. I kept asking myself how I had fallen for him.
An acquaintance suggested I go to a domestic violence support group.
Around a table dotted with tissue boxes sat women of all ethnicities, backgrounds — and ages. Some had got involved in abusive relationships in their teens. Others were in their fifties and sixties. Some had had more than one abusive relationship. Some had stayed for decades with batterers.
No one judged me. No one asked me why. They simply handed me the tissue box when I melted down at the first meeting I attended. After a few meetings, I became able to talk about the relationship without breaking down.
Then I was able to slowly heal and take stock of what had happened.
I found I didn’t become less smart with age — it’s that life becomes more finite the older we get.
When I was younger, life seemed limitless, the horizon was sky-big. I was eager to move on to the next thing, whatever that was. But our options narrow as we take on responsibilities in our middle years — career, a mortgage, children. And we have to live with the consequences of our prior choices.
I focused on what I lacked — a long-term relationship or a successful marriage — instead of upholding all the things I did have. I envied the accomplishments of others instead of taking pride in my own achievements. I allowed myself to feel “less than” in being single rather than valuing my independence and can-do spirit.
So when someone came along and dangled the promise of what I did not have — coupledom, it was like giving a fix to a junkie. I was willing to do or put up with anything to fill that basic emotional need we all have for love.
Through the support group, I found that self-blame is universal among women who have suffered abuse.
I also learned that the real question of abusive relationships is not “why did I stay with him?” but “why did he act that way?” Everyone, including victims, seems to overlook the batterers’ actions.
This week, I started the 60-hour training course (via Zoom) to become a State of California-certified domestic violence counselor. One of my goals is to help women climb out of the hole of self-recrimination, no matter their age, and move forward with their lives.