“At least he didn’t hurt you.”
My attorney is trying to explain why she won’t be able to obtain a protective order against my estranged husband.
“Unless you had medical treatment. Or a police report with proof of injury. Or if he’d been arrested.”
Her voice trails off and I will myself to calm. She’s at least fifteen years younger than I am, perfectly coiffed and sitting on the other side of a gleaming conference table that feels like an ocean. If I peeked under the table, I would remind myself that she is heavily pregnant. I tune her out and listen to the competing voices in my head.
“She just doesn’t understand.” That’s my rational self, ever in denial.
“How can she NOT understand?” retorts my other self, the one who knows how much can be hidden under a layer of clothing, education and trappings of success.
I am amazed that I am still alive.
At first it was isolated bursts of rage, books thrown against the wall, plates of food overturned onto the kitchen floor, menacing gestures. I wove stories around these events to excuse both of us, stress, lack of sleep, a misunderstanding, too much to drink. He wove stories around me, his versions of the truth like cobwebs in front of my eyes. His life, you see, had been so much more difficult than mine, he’d worked so much harder for what I took for granted. In turn, I shared my heartbreaks, my sadness, anything to broker better understanding and commonality.
I didn’t know then that my words would be weaponized, my secrets mocked, my fears picked apart and pieces of false intimacy shattered on the floor. I was sure that I could make it work, have a happy family and contented lives. To those outside the walls of our homes, or at least out of earshot, we had exactly that.
Inside though, was an alternate universe, a grotesque fun house operating on a twenty four hour a day schedule. There were days, weeks and occasionally months of relative calm. But that calm could disappear in a nanosecond, like the shifting of atoms in space. I always knew the violence was coming; what I didn’t know was when or in what form the carnage would appear.
There were threats of every kind: to divorce me, to kick me out, to hurt my children, to take my children away, to smash my computer, to disrupt a class I was teaching. Taunting, name-calling, character assassination, diatribes about what a dreadful wife and mother I was. Raging about his beliefs that I was unfaithful or stealing money or turning his children away or not supporting his house rules, which changed as quickly as the brightly painted horses on a carousel moved up and down. I now have permanent hearing loss. Maybe I just trained myself not to hear certain voices.
You see, my experience of domestic violence wasn’t illegal and I wasn’t entitled to protection under the law. After all, the words weren’t sticks or stones or fists or anything the outside world could visualize. Sure, there were guns in the house, bought legally but without my knowledge or consent, and there was the kind of driving that goes way past reckless to terrifying, designed to cow me into silence if not submission. I would close my eyes and make bargains with anything in the spirit world to spare my children or at least let me live long enough to protect them. Shouts and curses and pounding on the door or the mattress in the middle of the night, calling me the kind of words that he knew cut me to the core: slut, whore, cunt, nigger lover, lazy, stupid, dumb.
Just words. Assaults on dignity and peace of mind are not actionable.
I let this continue for decades. I tried about four times to leave before I was successful. I feel tremendous guilt about the impact on my children.
No part of me was safe or off limits. Sometimes days of brutal silence were my punishment. Eventually, our children were no longer spared the verbal and emotional brutality. My soul was pressed ever deeper, iced over and clotted with scar tissue, nourished solely through the ever shrinking feeding tube of day dreams and fantasies about a life anywhere else. I locked down my heart so hard that it took almost a year to shed a tear after our escape. Once I started, sitting in the bathtub of our rented cocoon of an apartment, I wept until I couldn’t breath and through my bleary eyes the entire bathroom appeared painted with blood. This frightened me, until my therapist assured me that seeing blood wasn’t a bit surprising. I was beginning to process the trauma.
Somehow, perhaps it was hope over all reason, I thought that once we were gone, everything would be fine. What I hadn’t contemplated was not having a normal upon which to model our lives. Some days, it was all just about getting to the next breath. It was excruciating to leave the house at all. Talking was a massive undertaking. My career was dangling over a precipice. A raised male voice made me jump; a car horn brought on a muffled scream. It was a long time before I could be a passenger.
One of my frequently mocked character flaws was my memory. In mental self-defense and a futile attempt to understand, I had long kept written records of behavior patterns, words and actions. When my attorneys asked for proof of the events leading to my divorce filing, I seized the chance to memorialize my sufferings, almost 30 years of mean and cruel and heartbreak. It was quite an undertaking and in the end, absolutely useless in any legal capacity.
“At least he didn’t hurt you.”
I know that I am one of the lucky ones in countless ways.
I turned the legally useless timeline information into my personal proof that these things had actually been said, that I had suffered, that my kids had been traumatized. When I wanted a sense of progress, however tiny, I would reread bits. I came to understand how profoundly I had been damaged, how wrecked my self-esteem was, how large my blind spot was when it came to intimate relationships. I often wondered if it was pure stubbornness and maternal love that had both kept me incarcerated in my own home and kept me from ending my life by angering him enough to hurt me, to stop the pain permanently. Even beating myself in the face until I was bruised in response to the things he said, and the agony I felt, never made an impact.
Ultimately, picking over my written words stopped helping. I destroyed them but I remember them.
Shouting still bothers me and I suppose it should.
I still don’t sleep through the night, probably never will, because on some primal survival level, I need to be aware enough to know if I am going to be under siege. My phone is always in my pillow case; never set to airplane mode and always password protected. When irrational, paralyzing fear and anxiety pummel me, the laughter of my children, now young adults, blankets me until my heart stops racing.
Last night, I nearly slept all the way through, sandwiched between two rescue dogs who kept watch.
Ms. Abbott, a previous contributor to Persephone's Daughters, has written three novels: Running Through the Wormhole (Black Rose Writing 2015), What She Knew (Black Rose Writing 2019) and Asana of Malevolence (Mascot Books 2016). Her work has also appeared in Mamalode, Screamin Mamas, Sammiches and Psych Meds,The Good Mother Project, the Ottawa House, Manifest Station and Kudzu House.