Months ago, I heard from a local colleague, telling me that she had served for the birth of a third baby. As it happened, I had attended the birth of this mother’s first child. Most of the time, when a client has another baby, I’m among the first to be told. I wasn’t surprised, this time, to learn that I hadn’t been invited. My colleague didn’t ask my thoughts, and I didn’t offer them, but I knew exactly why I wasn’t there. The woman she had served was living with abuse, and I had taken the risk of calling it out for what it was.
As her doula, that wasn’t my role. Nowhere in my scope of practice is “abuse awareness” mentioned. Professionally, I was stepping outside of the box. As a woman, witnessing what I had seen firsthand and hearing her tears, her pain, and her frustration, I couldn’t leave it unspoken. So, at her postpartum visit, I urged her to seek help. I left information with her on resources that were available. I offered to listen, if she needed support. I never heard from her again.
Mental, emotional and financial abuse is widespread. It may not leave bruises, but the injuries run deep. Women from all walks of life can be subject to it. It happens to people of all races, all faiths, all income levels, all cultures. Surprisingly, even in light of this, it’s seldom spoken of openly. The guilt, shame, and potential for misunderstanding leaves a woman feeling frozen solid, unable to speak. Many people fail to understand how a woman could continue to allow herself to remain in this position. It’s so easy for an outside observer to ask,”If it’s so bad, why doesn’t she just leave?” The blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the victim.
If you and I met today, I hope that you would see me as a strong, confident, happy person. I’m an empowered small business owner. I’m well-educated, financially stable, have a wonderful circle of friends, with a loving partner and a cherished family. Yet, I too once found myself trapped in abuse.
At 22, I met a charming, handsome young man. He had moved to town, he said, to pursue a new career as a stockbroker. He was full of hope and promise. He was spontaneous, smart, and funny. He thought I was fascinating and beautiful. He admired that I came from a good family. He called me “princess”. He listened to my stories for hours on end. He was interested in learning more about the things I was interested in.
Intimacy was built quickly with the sharing of our life stories. He trusted me enough, he said, to tell me of the abusive Vietnam Vet father who kidnapped him away from his mother when he was three, and the family who never loved him. He shared his emotional pain about his “crazy ex wife” and the infant daughter that she “wouldn’t allow him to see” that he’d left behind, states away. He admired and respected that I was raised in a traditional way, and that I wanted nothing more than to be a wife and mother. He said he wanted to make that our dream together – to be the loving father he never had, and to be the loving husband he had never had the chance to be.
The red flags were there, even then, but I never saw them. I didn’t know, then, that the chameleon identity of a sociopath can show up as “I want to learn how to do all of the things that interest you”. At his older sister’s wedding, where I met his extended family, his youngest sister cautioned me that “he only loves women until their credit line is used up”. His parents were angry with him for leaving his daughter. Furious letters came in the mail from his ex, saying that she hoped he didn’t lie to me like he did to her. This only served to fortify his woeful tale – the ex was jealous, he said, because I was going to have the stay-at-home-mommy life that she had always wanted. He couldn’t be the loving husband to her, because she was so bitter – not sweet, like me. His parents, his sisters? Well, hadn’t he told me that he’d always been the black sheep in his stepmother’s eyes because he was adopted? A shame that they couldn’t see him for who he really was – not like me.
Like most abusive relationships, the shift into isolation, enforced poverty, emotional torture, and self-blame didn’t happen all at once. There was never a grand proclamation of, “Now that I’ve got you fooled, let the games begin!” Instead, after calling my father for his blessing, what he said was, “You make my life better. Marry me.”
We married less than a year after we met. I got my first credit card. He got several of his own, and several more in my name. My paychecks went into our joint account, while he took care of everything. At first, his work was going well. He had made enough to buy us a home. He said it was time to quit my job, so that I could focus on making a nice home for us, and allow him to be the breadwinner. He paid the bills, and gave me an allowance – a generous one, I thought – for food, and for what we needed at home. We were ready to start a little family. My life was committed to being a good wife, and a good mommy.
Sure, sometimes he was moody and irritable, but we all have bad days sometimes. He was more forgetful as the days went by, blamed on ADHD. I found pornographic videos and magazines hidden in the house or in his car a few times. I felt betrayed, and became angry. More than once, I loaded it all into the trunk of my car and drove it to a dumpster in another part of town. I would threaten that this could not be part of our marriage. But, if I wasn’t so tired from the baby, he’d said, or if I hadn’t put on so much weight, or if I just gave him more of my attention, he wouldn’t have to resort to that. It was my fault, really.
During that time, he experienced two miserable job failures. He’d been fired from one job for what his boss called “a gambling problem,” and then the stock market crashed. It was only after tens of thousands had been squandered that I even learned there was trouble. He “hadn’t wanted to worry me”, because I was only weeks away from my due date with our first child, but things were looking bleak. The bank accounts were all overdrawn. He had taken out loans that he couldn’t repay. The credit cards were all maxed out. He’d had to call my parents to borrow money to get by. He’d used up all of our savings, he said, to pay his office assistant while he tried desperately to keep his office running. He had invested in a high-risk stock and lost everything we had. All of our bills were unpaid. We began working with a credit counseling service, making payment arrangements that would allow the roof to be kept over our heads.
When the first baby was six months old, he filed for bankruptcy. Months later, I was expecting again. Within a year, things had gone from bad to worse. He said, “I want to be a better husband and provider. I want to move away with you, and start our lives fresh. We’ll never go through anything like this again. I’ve been offered a job in New Jersey. We move in two weeks.” We sold everything. Well, everything I had that was of any value. We moved, leaving behind my lifelong friends, my church community, and my parenting support circles.
When we arrived in New Jersey, there was no job after all. We lived with my parents for two months, before relocating into a house that was leased with the intent to purchase, before losing it because no mortgage could be obtained. Some days, he went on job interviews. Others, he slept for hours on end. He might keep a paper route for a few weeks, only to lose the job as a result of spending three uninterrupted days in the garage, forgoing food or sleep, converting it into a workshop and gym using cabinets he’d trashpicked and equipment he’d bought with his paycheck. There was no help with the housework, ever, and cleaning up after himself was unheard of. “When you’re married, you just do things like that for your husband,” he’d say.
The next several years were spent in a rental house the size of a cracker box, in a town far away from my family, living hand-to-mouth. He sold my car, since I “didn’t need to go anywhere”, to save us money. He had a new job every few weeks. Some, when things were good, would last a few months. While he always had new clothes because he had to dress to impress for work, everything my babies and I needed came from hand-me-downs, yard sales and thrift stores. He always had a cell phone and a computer for work. I often had neither. We had a land line when the bill could be paid, which it sometimes wasn’t. I was given no more allowance. Paychecks seemed few and far between, while he reported computer trouble in the office that was causing the delay, or a problem with his paperwork in HR, or once that “the main office where paychecks come from was in the Twin Towers in New York, and we haven’t been paid since they fell.”
We went deeper and deeper in debt to my parents. The house we still owned in Texas was foreclosed on, after he spent the checks from the renting tenant on three broken motorcycles instead of house payments. He’d leave for work while it was still dark out, and return long after the babies were in bed. He never answered his phone. My days were spent alone, with two small children. Sometimes we had food in the house. Sometimes, we didn’t. Sometimes, we had pancakes and apples for a week at a time. Sometimes, his work went well, eventually making it possible for another house to be bought. Sometimes, it didn’t. His manic attempt to start his own business during my third pregnancy ended in thousands more in debt, and almost a hundred thousand is still owed to the IRS (in his name, not mine, thank G_d).
He always had money. Even when I was home alone for days at a time, with little ones who needed diapers or food, he always had money. The accounts were kept in a bank different from our always-overdrawn joint account. He had the statements mailed to his office, so I wouldn’t see them. He put a hold on our home mail at the local post office, so that he could pick it up there himself, so that I wouldn’t see the unpaid bills, the collection notices, or the checks that sometimes came in.
Sometimes, I would threaten to leave. Sometimes, I did leave, once staying for eight weeks with a friend in another state. Convinced by my upbringing that divorce was wrong, and convinced by him that this was my fault for being “bad with money,” thinking I had nowhere to turn for support, I always came back.
In the midst of it all, I was sure that we were going to pull out of this darkness; that all would be well. He would have bouts of remorse resulting in late-night “tell all” sessions in which I would learn of his affairs, his trips to strip clubs, his desire to get help, his “finding Jesus,” his longing to get better and be happy. I would believe him. I didn’t know yet that this is how abusers work – giving only the promise of change, just enough to keep their prisoners from leaving. I valued my life – homeschooling my children, being with them every day, tending our home and hearth. I wanted to believe that the bad parts would get better, so the good parts could remain.
In time, when the third baby became old enough for me to leave her with a sitter, I made the tough decision to put my homeschooled boys into the public school, and I went back to work. I took on a catsitting job, twenty hours a week, for an eccentric elderly man. I was growing my doula practice, something I’d already set in motion part-time for a few years. Getting it off the ground as a full-time job took years, but it did happen. The more I earned, the worse the financial situation seemed to become. Now that I had income, his money could be spent freely on toys from eBay and Craigslist; motorcycles, road trips, a coin collection, workout equipment. Broken down cars, set aside to repair and resell “someday”, lined the driveway.
It was then that the hoarding began, with first the garage, then the storage basement, then the finished basement, the pool shed and eventually an upstairs bedroom becoming full of useless “toys” he would find online. Most often, he would claim that they had been given to him by someone at work, or that he had won them in a fundraiser auction. It was left to me to pay for food and the mortgage. The utilities, bills I never saw that were always in my name because his credit was too damaged to get an account, would go unpaid until shut-off notices were left on the door. “I’ll pay you back for that as soon as I can,” he’d say. That never happened. I drove falling-apart clunkers, the cheapest that could be found, until they died and had to be replaced. I fed my family on $80 a week, and heard, “Can’t you make anything that isn’t beans or soup?” There was never anything left over for self-care or savings.
When I opened my own checking account, he searched for my checkbook and, upon finding it, wrote a check to a coworker, in the amount of everything I had, to payback a loan. Savings bonds,intended for college for the children, given by their grandparents, would disappear from my filing cabinet, along with the jewelry I was always managing to “lose”. Birthday gifts of cash, the insurance check to fix the kitchen ceiling, or monetary gifts from my folks always ended up in his pocket, or deposited in a mythical mutual fund that he could somehow never find the statements for, when asked. When I tried to keep cash hidden in the back of a dresser drawer, saving up so that I could flee, he’d wait until I was out of the house, and would search until he had found it. When questioned, he never knew anything about the missing money, and claimed that maybe I lost it, or one of the children had found it. Saving money was impossible, and getting out remained a dream.
Meanwhile, extramarital affairs were now part of my reality. As he was no longer satisfied with the fantasies of porn, he sought out real people through local hook-up sites. One affair, which was devastating news enough on its own, I learned of while pregnant with my third child. I cried a lot. I prayed. We went to a couples retreat for surviving an affair, and made promises that it would get better. He started a twelve-step program for sexual addiction, and went into a treatment program for bipolar disorder. Neither lasted very long, and both provided more excuses to leave the home for hours at a time, making opportunities for further infidelity easier to hide. I worked hard to re-establish trust and be a better wife. Another affair three years later, equally traumatic, was revealed. He continued to work odd jobs, and leave at strange hours of the day and night. Learning of another infidelity became a constant fear. Sometimes, he didn’t come home because he was in jail for shoplifting and assault. Meanwhile, I was going through growing and changing of my own, joining a study group for women’s empowerment work that took me away from home one weekend a month. I was learning more about who I am, and becoming brave enough to live as my authentic self.
I didn’t need anyone else to ask why I didn’t just leave – I asked myself that question, all the time. The answers came easily. I stayed because I thought I loved him. I stayed because love meant not abandoning him. I stayed because divorce is a sin. I stayed because I made a promise in front of my family, my friends, and my Creator that I would never leave. I stayed because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I stayed because I thought I could make him want to change. I stayed because I thought I had nowhere to go, and I didn’t want divorce to hurt my children. I stayed because I didn’t believe that this was abuse.
I wasn’t covered in bruises. My husband didn’t drink or use drugs. I wasn’t beaten – well, once, hit in the ribs, with an elbow, but just once, because he was really mad that I looked over his shoulder at his computer, and he was really sorry about it… Sure, things had happened that I didn’t approve of. In his periodic bursts of anger, there were holes punched in the walls of the garage. I had a hairspray bottle thrown at my body. Through his gritted teeth, I was called every nasty name in the book, told that I was worthless, and that no one else would ever want me. And yet, through it all, I did not identify as a woman experiencing abuse.
I saw myself as strong, and powerful – someone who understood what commitment meant, and who could endure hardship without complaint. I prided myself on staying true to a lifelong promise I had made with a struggling man who was trying very hard to be better. Being in charge and taking care of him was my job. Without me, I knew he would simply self-destruct.
I had no idea the extent of the secrecy until much later, when an email account of his was left open on a computer we shared. Then, I saw years worth of personal ads, emails exchanged, and plans made. The number of people he had communicated with was in the triple digits. Some were women, some were men, some were couples or groups. Some of them, he asked for money for offering his “services”. In one email exchange, the woman he planned to meet had said, “You’re wearing a wedding ring in your picture. What if your wife finds out?” He answered, “I’m careful. I never leave any traces of what I’m doing. Besides, if she did find out about our little trysts, nothing would change. She depends on me for the life she wants. I keep her completely financially dependent. So what if she knows? She can’t do anything about it.”
Here, for so long, I had thought I was the good and supportive wife, enduring financial hardship, “for richer or for poorer”, out of love. And here it was, in black and white: I was being held captive. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand – he just didn’t care. His life was about getting what he wanted, when he wanted it, from whomever would give it. On the same computer, I discovered video from a hidden camera placed in my bathroom. Though we’d declared ourselves as “separated”, and were living in different parts of the house, he’d been watching me while I changed clothes and got in the shower. This was not love, this was about power and control.
The divorce decree was signed two weeks later, at our kitchen table – it was cheap, it was quick, and it was quiet. Seventeen years after saying, “I do,” I got the kids, he got the house and the “stuff”. That was all he wanted. I got out. I found my own place – small, but enough to keep us sheltered and safe. I worked fifty hours or more every week, between doula work and pet sitting, to keep a roof over our heads. I sought out public assistance. I put the youngest child in school. I put myself in therapy. I started to get a lot better.
I wish I could say that it all stopped then. There were episodes, still, of his taking things from my new home. Lawn tools disappeared from my basement. A Saint Joseph medallion that he wanted and demanded to have, that I refused to give him, disappeared from my dresser days later on an evening that he picked the kids up from my home. When asked, he said, “You said you didn’t have it. I don’t take anything that isn’t mine.” I’m told that he wears it around his neck to this day.
He refused to pay child support, and is thousands in arrears even now. The financial and mental games continued. Without me to pay the bills, his home was often without water or heat. My autistic son was lost five times in one month while in his father’s care. My daughter would be taken to school after visitation in his home, dirty and inappropriately dressed for the weather, wearing only a a Halloween costume in June, or sundress and sandals in mid-winter. They would be given foods that they were allergic to, and end up in the hospital. They would be returned home without their shoes or backpacks. The challenges were endless.
Eventually,a year after I left, there was an assault on my body with his vehicle, on the day that I filed to have child support deducted from his paycheck. I called the police,went to the police station, and got a restraining order. I began to speak up. I told. I told my parents, I told my brother. I told the court, and a support group, and the IRS, and my therapist. To fight the restraining order and re-establish contact with me, he took me to court thirteen times in the following two years, strapping me with the financial hardship of attorney fees. He lost, every time. With the help of a fabulous, stubborn, creative attorney, I won a ruling against use of the court system to harass and abuse a domestic violence survivor. This was the first time this had ever been awarded in the area in which I live, and now provides hope to other survivors who will come after me. Further mistakes on his part, those that came from endangering my children and placing them in harm’s way from his addictions while in his care, ended in a severing of his parental rights and court-ordered “no contact” between him and the children.
A string of a dozen girlfriends has come along in his life since then. They’ve been used as well-meaning unintentional enablers, every one of them. A few along the way have reached out to me, to ask my side of the story. They want to ask if they’re crazy, or if it’s really happening that their bank accounts are getting wiped out, or that maybe he’s not as “forgetful” about repaying his debts to them as he’d like them to believe. It’s not any fault of theirs – they’re generous, kind-hearted women who get hooked by the sob story and really just want to help, just like me, and just like the wife (actually a pretty cool chick) who came before me. None have lasted very long. They’ve been quicker than I was at seeing the signs and figuring out the real story. I don’t tell them my details, but I tell them to trust themselves.
The house I once lived in, the very house in which my daughter was born, once so cozy and full of life, now looks like the site of a reality TV show on mental illness, full of filth. Very little of the piles of random clutter and trash left behind is worth saving. The organic wooden and cloth children’s toys have all been mouse-chewed. Insect and rodent traps are in every room. Things stored in the basement are covered with mold. The ceilings are falling in from water damage, and the plaster is crumbling off the walls. It’s being foreclosed soon, after years of non-payment, and he’s crossing the country with his newest love to start his life over, weaving again the woe-is-me tale of leaving his “evil ex” and his children behind. He didn’t even tell them goodbye.
As for me, I’m stable, and I’m happy. I’m grateful for my beautiful blended family, and the home that we cherish. I love my job, I own my functional car, my bills are paid, and we’re not worried about where our next meal will come from. I have a lot of joy in my life.
The journey to this point has taken a lot of inner work, and remains ongoing. I’m embarrassed, still, by the red flags that I didn’t see. I’m humbled, still, by the number of times and the sincerity with which I wanted everything to turn out ok. I’m ashamed, still, of how much I didn’t know, or didn’t see though it was right in front of me, and that I let someone who professed to love me treat me so badly – that I allowed myself to be controlled, demeaned, and humiliated. I’ve learned, too, to own up to my part in it. I never talked about it. I was mistaken in thinking that I was alone, that nobody would understand, that I would be blamed and thought of as crazy. I had never heard another woman share a story like mine. This is the harm that comes from silence.
I have learned to claim my own self-worth, and to treat myself as having value. I was wrong to think that I could be responsible for someone else’s health or happiness, or to blame myself for someone else’s actions, or to think that my anger, hurt, insistence, or sadness would make a difference in what someone else chooses to do. I’ve learned, too, to forgive myself, and to accept that sometimes I was doing the best I could, even when my best didn’t look very good.
Mine, I have now learned, is not an unusual story. Though I may not fit the description of what most imagine as “the face of domestic violence”, I’m a pretty typical survivor, and we are everywhere. This story may be echoed by your sister, your daughter, your friend, your colleague, or your client. It might even be your own story. By current statistics from the CDC, Intimate Partner Violence, including psychological abuse, is experienced by 24 people each and every minute. No one living with abuse ever needs to think that she is alone.
Today, I pledge to keep the silence broken. I will continue to speak up, to speak out. I will tell a sister that she, too, has value. She didn’t ask for this, it isn’t her fault, and it isn’t her job to fix it. I will speak, even when I am judged as weak or foolish for staying for so long. I will tell another woman that I believe her, that abuse is real even when it doesn’t break bones, and help is available. I will continue to speak, even when it means that she might never see me again.
We need to share our stories with one another, to remove the shame, and to offer hope. We need to let those who still suffer know that we’re not alone. We never are. Sometimes, life is messy, and that’s why we’ve got to be in it together.