Humpty Dumpty: Piecing Myself Together after an Abusive Relationship
Have you ever experienced a moment in your life when you realize that everything you’ve been working so hard and long for, has finally fallen into place? Well, ten years ago that was me and my life.
I was a reporter at a top newspaper, the Miami Herald. I’d bought a three-bedroom house, been an in-demand foreign correspondent, travelled the world, spoke Spanish and French fluently. I’d built an accomplished life as a career woman and I was the proud mother of a young son. I was the epitome of success.
Early one morning, I received a call in the newsroom from a man named James, a businessman from Chicago who said he had a story about the mob in South Florida. I was intrigued, so I went to meet him at his friend’s mansion where he was staying to discuss the story. In the middle of our conversation, he abruptly asked me out to dinner. Stunned at his directness, I turned him down, saying it would be a conflict of interest since he was a potential source. The truth was I didn’t know if I liked him. Frankly, he was loud and brash, yet he had a rough-hewn charm, a genuineness. Plus, since my divorce six years prior, I hadn’t dated much and my skills were rusty, to say the least.
My editors decided we didn’t have the time or manpower to pursue James’s story, but over the next six months, he would periodically call me after-hours on my cell phone. As I hung up after a long personal conversation with him one Sunday afternoon, I realized I liked him. It was refreshing to listen to a man revealing his feelings, fears and doubts. The best part? He seemed genuinely interested in me. His attention was flattering and seductive. I finally accepted his dinner invitation.
That first date was magical. As the sun faded into a palette of oranges and pinks, we sat at an outdoor table at a bayfront restaurant. A balmy breeze caressed my back. The water lapped gently, yachts clinked against their moorings. As I sipped a glass of Chablis, James leaned his head on an arm, smiled and said, “Tell me everything about you.” A warm glow spread inside me. As night dropped around us, I talked and talked. About my childhood, my adventurous career. It was something I’d rarely done.
As a child, I’d moved around the world, so I was always the kid who never fit in. Talking about myself made me more of a misfit — so I didn’t. I’d also learnt to navigate the world in relation to my alcoholic father. Early on, to avoid being a target of his sarcasm and putdowns, I learnt to stay quiet. The result was that at age 43, when I met James, I was starved for attention although I didn’t know it.
“Christina,” James said when I finished, “you are the most interesting person I have ever met.” I slipped right into his smile like a long drink of water.
If I was hooked, so was he. On a whim, he’d jump on a plane to be with me. He’d call me at all hours of the day or night just to hear my voice. He pampered me at a luxury spa one weekend in Key West. He praised my writing to the hilt. “No one sees you like I do, Christina,” he said. “I see the real you.” And I truly felt he did. I literally thought he was an angel sent to me from heaven, and I told him so. He told me I was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
A month or two into the relationship, however, I started noticing some odd behavior. How he would cut in lines, angering people and embarrassing me. How he took the candy out of my 10-year-old son’s Lunchable boxes. When I asked him about this stuff, he’d laugh it off with wave his hand. Well, everyone has their quirks, I thought.
One night we were at a casino with some of his friends. I was talking to a guy in the group when James insisted I fetch him a glass of water. When I didn’t respond, he stormed off. An hour later, he returned and called me an asshole in front of everyone, who rushed to my defense. I wanted to leave but I was stuck. James had driven. On the way home, he pulled off on the side of the road and apologized. He wouldn’t drive on until I accepted his apology. So I did.
Everything ran smoothly for a while, until one day he confessed to hunting through my email trash when I left my computer on. Then he blocked my neighbor at the door and prevented her from seeing me. When I confronted him about these incidents, he always had an excuse — he was protecting me, people were jealous of me, I was making a big deal over nothing. It was bizarre, but I brushed off my doubts. His attention had become my heroin, a drug that made me feel worthy, validated.
After a few months, he suggested I move to Chicago but I wasn’t keen to uproot my comfortable life. So he ramped up the pressure. Miami was a backwater, he said, you can’t maximize your talent here. You’re getting old, opportunities are going to dry up. “Just come and check out Chicago,” he begged. So I flew out.
One night he went into a gas station and returned in a terrifying rage, accusing me of doing preposterous things with men, calling me a scumbag. When we arrived at his apartment, I immediately packed my bag. He grabbed my wrist … and threw me. Luckily, I landed on the bed. I got up warily, shocked and scared. He immediately apologized, promised it would never happen again, confessed that he was bad at relationships, he didn’t want to lose me, he was insecure. I caved. Because the good still outweighed the bad. I quit my job, sold my house and moved myself and my son.
Once I was far from family and friends, his erratic behavior escalated. He left me stranded at the beach, accused me of having sex with plumbers and waiters, checked up wherever I was going, hovered over me as I made phone calls, railed at me over perceived slights. My son hated James for ordering me around and dominating me. Fortunately, he largely ignored my son. I felt trapped, like I was on a petrifying rollercoaster ride that never stopped.
I knew something was drastically wrong with him. And in moments of clarity, he admitted it. More than once, he promised to go for therapy but never did.
By now, you may be wondering when on earth is this woman going to come to her senses? The breaking point came when my son reported that James had given him $50 to spy on me. No way was I going to stand by and let him manipulate my child, as he’d done to me. It was like a bucket of ice dumped on my head. After he went out one morning, I called movers and left.
It was a long road back to myself after that. At points, I felt like Humpty Dumpty. I’d fallen off the wall of my life and lay shattered on the ground. One piece of me would erupt into crying jags and I’d have to run into the bathroom at work or pull over on the highway. Another piece was waves of overwhelming shame and humiliation. What the hell had I done to my life and my son’s?
After a few months, the hurt began to subside. I felt ready to reinvent myself, make a new life and friends. So one day, I invited a casual acquaintance to lunch and after much hesitation, I shared with her what I’d been through in an effort to be more open, more personal. Staring at me, she said, “So what does that say about you, Christina?”
My face boiled. I was glad I was wearing foundation. It wasn’t the first time I’d shared my experience but no one had implied that something was wrong with me. Seeing my shock, the woman backpedaled. Later, as I walked to my car, her words echoed in my head, and I felt nauseous. Could there even be a sliver of truth in her question?
A few sleepless nights later, I realized she was right. I had to take a hard look in the mirror. Why had I ignored the early red flags? Why had I given a year and a half of my life to someone who didn’t deserve it? I was desperate to make sense of something that seemingly had no sense.
My first stop was a therapist because I felt vastly off-kilter. She told me right away that I was a victim of domestic violence. Domestic violence? Me? In my mind, that happened to women in housing projects and trailer parks. But I researched it. I found intimate partner violence affects one in four women and one in nine men in the United States. It cuts across all ethnic, racial and socioeconomic lines. I also found it wasn’t just physical abuse. It was emotional and verbal abuse, too. It had happened to me. It was a humbling realization.
I remembered that my sister had once gone to Al-Anon, a self-help group, so I figured I’d try that. Al-Anon was full of people like me, who’d tried to manage the out of control lives of others and neglected their own. I was often invited to speak at meetings and I found telling my story shored up my badly eroded self-confidence and self-esteem.
However, it wasn’t until a friend suggested I go to a domestic violence support group, that I found my home. There, I didn’t have to explain myself. There was no judgment, no questions. As women of all nationalities, social classes, educational levels shared their experiences, I recognized they were me, I was them.
Perhaps the most cathartic activity of all was something I’d been doing my whole life: writing. Writing helped me put order to the chaos that my life had devolved into, to sort through the tumult of guilt and anger I felt. I had poems and short stories about the relationship published in literary reviews. Then I felt driven to use my experience so teen girls could recognize the signs of an abuser as they’re starting their dating lives. If I’d known those signs, maybe I could’ve avoided this catastrophe. So I wrote a young adult novel based on what I went through. It’s called “Girl on the Brink,” and I’m proud to say it was named to the 2016 Best YA list by Suspense magazine.
Looking back, while I would never want to repeat this relationship, in a strange way I’m grateful for it because I learned that painful experiences can be opportunities to blossom. When we find the courage to still the busyness of life and go deep inside ourselves, we find our hurt inner child, and then we can heal that wound. Healing leads us to a brighter light in our lives, a light that shines with compassion for ourselves so we can love ourselves as we are. When we achieve that sense of self-worth from within, then, and only then, are we truly successful.