A friend and I were visiting the other day. The question came up, “How does a seemingly strong, independent woman, end up in a relationship where she’s being abused?”
I don’t know that I have an answer, and it’s not something I broadcast from the top of a mountain, but I have been that woman. It often starts small, with an underhanded compliment designed to confuse you, and advances from there until you wind up hating yourself so badly you don’t know who you are, who you were, or why anyone would love you. A cloud of darkness envelopes you, and at least for me, I found it very hard to want to do much of anything, short of kill myself.
In 2000, I got married. I had a big, fancy wedding, a tall, handsome, fit, husband who pulled in a good income. I should have not had a worry in the world. I was a junior in college, was rodeoing, and wasn’t working other than on my grades, my breakaway roping and goat tying. On the surface it looked like I had the world by the tail. That my life was perfect. The barn was full of nice horses. It appeared I could go and do and that we were really happy. But people like my ex-husband, they don’t really know what happy is. He was a narcissist. Three therapists can’t be wrong. This type of domestic abuse, it’s not about you, ladies, it’s about them.
They feign empathy.
They’re full of apathy.
The world is out to get them and therefore the rules do not apply to them.
They’re always the exception to the rule. Always.
The abuse is so slight in the beginning, you seriously think you’re losing your mind.
First, I couldn’t cook worth a damn. He’d walk in from work, and declare, “I”m not eating that shit.”
Then, when there were money struggles, we couldn’t tell anyone, but we still had to go out on the weekends to make it look like everything was just dandy.
At some point, I became “too fat to look at.”
Little girls were outrunning me at the barrel races, so “how do you like getting outrun by a nine-year-old?”
Isolation wasn’t far behind all of the above. We didn’t have the time or money to go see family or friends. I felt like a literal caged animal with nowhere to go, no one to turn to.
Everything was suddenly my fault. If he was mad, I’d made him that way. If something broke, I did it on purpose. If we were out of money for the month, I’d spent too much. I could do NOTHING right.
He controlled everything from the grocery list, to where I bought clothes, to the kind of clothes I did buy. The who, what, where, when, why and how of my life, down to every last detail/person. I did without, when money got tight, but he couldn’t. He was in sales, he had to look good. So, while I struggled to keep a household running when his commission check was late, he’d spent $2500 on a new suit. My parents had to make our pickup payment multiple times; had to pay to feed my horses.
Mind games took on a whole new meaning. We lived two hours from his office. So at 6pm, He’d call and tell me he was on his way home. By 8:30 pm he wasn’t there. He also wasn’t answering his phone. by 10:30 pm I’d still not heard from him. I should be in bed sleeping, getting ready for class the next day, but instead, I’m worrying that he’s dead in a ditch somewhere. At midnight, he’d finally call me from the bar, where he was hanging out with “clients”.
“Why are you so worried and acting like a crazy person?”
“Why are you so upset?”
He was fine and he’d be home when he got home.
That was that.
He was so apathetic, that he came to South Dakota on a hunting trip during my semester finals one year — it was over Thanksgiving. He had failed to pay the light bill — so our electricity got shut off. Again, “Why was I so upset?” Um, because maybe, just maybe, I need to study? That may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, if you will. I dug into his past and discovered that everything, EVERYTHING he had told me about himself was a lie. I know, you’re thinking, how do you get duped this way? Well, he kept me away from his family and friends and anyone in his past that could maybe, just maybe, spill the beans. I attempted to kick him out of the house. But he paid the bills and he made the money and I didn’t get to make that decision.
The physical abuse didn’t start, at least in my situation, until after I realized (through the help of therapy, and anti-depressants, that I finally found through the College Health Clinic and a friend/mentor at the time), that an adult human male (or any other human in your life), does not get to “let” me do things. I am a grown adult with a mind of my own. Allowing another human that sort of control over ones self isn’t how a marriage/relationship should work. Once the mental and emotional abuse no longer served to completely control me, the physical abuse began. I’m not saying that you should just flatly tell your spouse, “no.” But what I am saying is that we shouldn’t seek to control one another’s actions. He controlled what I said and to who I said it. I constantly second guessed myself, because he constantly berated me for saying/telling people things that I believed were innocuous. He however, believed they were better left a “secret”.
Despite the physical abuse and anti-depressants, as well as failing several classes one semester, I somehow, managed to start running again. It had always been something I loved to do. Clearly my depression had caused me to gain some weight. I went from a size 00 to a 10. Running was going to be the one little thing I could do that he (hopefully) couldn’t find anything negative about. I started to feel good again, ditched the anti-depressants, started making it back to rodeo practice, and class.
When I graduated from college, he didn’t bother to get me a gift or even acknowledge my accomplishment. I had decided to move back in with my parents, so that I was closer to the “job hunt” if you will. And it was one evening, right around Christmas, when the suggestion was made that I leave him, move out, be done with him. It was both the most terrifying, yet freeing thing that I have ever experienced.
In 2004, two years after leaving him, my divorce was finally finalized. We had nothing to fight about save for a couple nice horses. He just decided it would be fun to dodge the process server for 6 months. I was left with 50k in debt, because I had good credit, and he had used it. Texas isn’t an alimony state, and while you can get spousal support, the court doesn’t enforce it.
It took me the better part of the last decade to heal.
I had to learn to love myself again.
I had to learn that I had value.
That I was enough.
My self-worth was what he took away from me. That’s what all abusers take from you – your ability to love and believe in yourself.
You can’t be the best for your kids, or for society, or for anyone if you don’t first love yourself. Like my therapist in college told me, “you know what it’s like to feel like you have the world by the tail. You know what it’s like to know who you are and where you’re going. You can get back to that place.”
If you’re currently in this situation, you may feel trapped. I know I did. I had no job, no income, and really, really, really needed to finish school so that I felt like I had a better chance of saving myself. Though I was fortunate to have a family that could help me, not everyone is in that situation. I believe it is up to those of us who’ve managed to escape the hell that is domestic violence, to be available to women who feel trapped. I am forever grateful to the women in my life that helped me — friends in college that let me vent, that kept my “secrets”, that helped me feed my horses, that hauled with me to rodeos and let me feel a taste of freedom. Women that didn’t judge me for the situation in which I found myself.
If you are in this dangerous situation, please, know you are not alone. Find someone to talk to, someone that can help you get out. I for one know I’d be happy to help. You too can be a survivor.