#whyIstayed is a popular hashtag these days. I commend those who are sharing. Now it’s my turn.
I’ve been asked often since the release of “Please, Pretty Lights” the same question. Where did you come up with this story? I know what they are really asking. “Have you ever been punched in the face?” I like to remind readers that it’s fiction and not memoir. Still.
I have never been slapped or hit in the face. He skipped that part. He went from shoving to attempted murder. He never actually hit me though. The progression of domestic violence isn’t always as predictable as people like to think.
It was many years ago. We had been out at a sports bar. He had been furious with me. I can’t even remember why. He had been drinking. On the way to the car he shoved me so hard I ended up sitting on my ass on the sidewalk; my dress grimy from the wet cement. I had braced my fall with my hands, so they were bleeding. Just a little. Someone came over and asked me if I needed help, but he stood in their way saying, “She’s fine, her heels are just too high.”
“I’m fine, thanks.” I told the guy who knew otherwise. He shook his head at me and walked away. I didn’t want help. I wanted the nice guy to just go away because I was embarrassed. Back in the day, embarrassment used to override every other emotion for me: including fear.
Embarrassment made me want to work it all out in my head somehow. Maybe these shoes are kind of high? The pavement is slick. It’s so much easier to have that be the story instead of the truth: the man who is supposed to love me and care for me is treating me like trash. But that night, as I stood up and picked the bits of sidewalk out of my palms, I knew I couldn’t lie to myself anymore. This wasn’t okay. This was never going to be okay. I was too afraid to tell him though. I just kept my mouth shut. On the ride home he spoke the words that I used in Please, Pretty Lights. “I’m sorry you made me do that.”
The next day I returned to my childhood home and confessed the awful truth to my mother. She lovingly took me in just as I knew she would. I begged her not to tell a soul. I was one of the lucky ones. I had a job, a college degree. I had a place to crash. So many women don’t have that luxury.
So, I left. He let it go. No worries. The end. Right?
Wrong. What many don’t understand is that the most dangerous thing an abused woman can do is leave. Yet it’s the only salvation. It’s the paradoxical nightmare that keeps smart, strong women from getting help. My case offers a clear example. A few weeks later, he came over and pounded on my mother’s front door in the middle of the night. My mother worked the graveyard shift and wasn’t there. As I went to the door, my heart felt like it was trying to escape my body by way of my throat. I looked out the front window and saw the neighbor’s lights coming on. He was yelling and threatening to kick the door in. I was terrified, but also mortified.
And then I did the most idiotic thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. I unlocked the door and let him in. I had to calm him down. His cursing was reverberating through the cul-de-sac. Everyone would know. I had, after all, chosen this man. Built my life with him. I didn’t want my failure broadcasted.
He had been drinking. A lot. He grabbed my arms and started shaking me. The light above my head finally clicked on. He was out-of-his-mind furious. He was going to hurt me. I considered screaming, but STILL feared having my private life cracked open like a Jerry Springer Show piñata. I didn’t want my neighbors – the same folks who gave me candy on Halloween and cookies at Christmas – to know I had chosen this crazy man. Instead I pulled away and ran for the phone. This was before cell phones, so the phone was attached to a wall in the kitchen. Until he pulled it out of the wall, that is. He blocked my way and came at me.
It was time to scream.
He backed me up against a large second-story picture window that looked down over the back yard; the back yard where I had played as a kid. Where I lounged in the sun as a teenager and dreamed of falling in love. He said he was going to push me through the glass and down onto the concrete patio below. He wanted to break my neck. He pushed, but I pushed back as a swirl of my own questions taunted me. Was the broken glass going to slice me up? Would I land on my head? Why had I let him in? How could I have been so stupid?
And then someone pulled him off of me. It was a police officer. What? There were two of them holding him down on the kitchen floor. Another officer took me into the living room. It was then I heard the sirens. I looked out to see three squad cars. Red and blue lights flashed across the faces of my neighbors who lined the sidewalk. I don’t know which one of them called 911. I’m just so thankful they did.
These kind, concerned neighbors of mine witnessed my darkest moments. They watched as the police stuffed him into the back of a squad car as he yelled, “I’m going to fucking kill her!”
I was shaking uncontrollably. An officer put a blanket over my shoulders. I was too shocked to cry or speak. I was embarrassed – humiliated. But, I just didn’t care anymore because, god dammit, I was alive.
He did 10 days in jail. He did counseling. He still isn’t legally allowed in my home state, which works for me.
I rarely think about that night. It was a lifetime ago. My world is amazing these days. I am strong — imperfect — but, strong. Domestic violence comes on gradually. First there is a subtle eroding of a woman’s support network, then her confidence. Enter children and financial dependence into the equation and the abuser is in control. From there, the emotional manipulation is easy. I didn’t even realize it was happening until I was committed. Stuck. Too ashamed to admit I needed help. It seemed my fault. I should have known better. This shame is what kept me quiet.
I want women to know that domestic violence can happen to anyone. It doesn’t define you. It doesn’t make you weak or stupid or trashy. I’ve been there. So many of us have, but it’s humiliating and so we just don’t talk about it. I’m thinking that we should because information is power.
Please share this and/or comment if anything I’ve said strikes a chord will you.
For information about support services and counseling, call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.