Perhaps one of the questions that I get asked the most, especially as it pertains to domestic violence, is “why did you stay so long”. It can be infuriating when people ask me that question, but then I remember to believe the best in people; I try my best to answer their question. While I am writing a book on the entire story, I wanted to write a “special edition” for domestic violence month.
I’m often conflicted about telling my story, because if often times leaving people comparing their pain to mine. I do not pretend to have the corner on pain; all of us have it, some just different than others.
By the time I graduated from college, my mom died, my favorite uncle died, and I was under a mountain of debt. I drove off the campus of Clearwater Christian College with hope in my pocket and stars in my eyes. The college, and the children’s home before that, did a great job of rebuilding hurts from childhood. Hurts that range from any form of abuse you can name and ultimately being abandoned by my mom–so that she could marry one of my abusers. But May 7, 1994, I drove across the bridge I had driven over all 4 years of college, I turned the radio up, and enjoyed the beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico for as long as I could. I was excited to get to whatever was next; most of my friends secured employment before graduating, I characteristically was not worried about it. I ended up moving back to Jacksonville and living with my sister. I secured a job at my old school, teaching 6th grade Math, Science, History and Bible. I had never been so broke, and had a nice introduction to reality.
I had not been home very long when I met the man I would later marry. We spent every weekend together. He was funny, kind, sweet and loved being on the water, or anywhere near the water. A year after I met him, we moved in together. He drank quite a bit, and I hated that, but that first year, he was all of things that attracted to me to him in the first place. He was a salesman, dressed in a shirt and tie every day–he could not have been more my type.
But something changed.
My first memory of abuse came in the form of verbal abuse. I forgot ketchup at the grocery store. He laid into me like I was the dumbest person ever for forgetting ketchup. Those were the days of the rebuilt Amy, I was so sensitive. I remember putting the groceries away and going up to our room and sobbing into a pillow. His words hurt so much. After I collected myself, I got back in the car and bought ketchup. I didn’t say a word and neither did he; but suffice it to say it went downhill from there. Every time an episode like this would happen, I would shut down and try harder to prevent them. Every time they happened, I was convinced that I had no value. My sense of value was barely there in the first place, and each event slowly took away what I did have.
I could go on and on and tell you each story that I can remember; but the physical violence was bad–yet I tried harder to be a better wife and stop the violence. I often tip toed around things so that I wouldn’t find myself punched in the face, slapped, kicked, and a bunch of other things I do not want to write here. I just kept trying so hard; eventually I realized that I needed to, in the words of Casting Crowns, “stop trying so hard to stop trying so hard”.
I realized I needed to get back into church. He isolated me from most my friends; but I needed to be fed, I was out of church for almost a decade, and it showed too because I had nobody, and even felt like my cries out to God were met with deaf ears. Once I began going to church, I met people that built value in me. I got the opportunity to teach and that met a very specific need for me. I was beginning to stand up to him. Even though some of those times the ensuing abuse was hard, there was something very freeing about standing up for myself. “Please don’t talk to me like that” was a phrase around our house almost everyday. He then began to tell me that I was a bad wife and that I should leave. These comments were often when he was drunk or hung over, but they stung just the same. As the physical violence escalated, we even made a plan for me lock myself in a room when he was mad and by no means was I to open the door until I felt safe. One day, my morning started by being held by my throat up against the refrigerator. I had the coffee pot in my hand, I dropped it and ran for the safe room. I barely got the door locked when he came plowing through it, breaking a few ribs in the process. That was the day he punched me in the face. I immediately went to the grocery store and got something that would take my blood off the floor. In hind sight, I wish I would have gone to the police station; but I was so scared that I could not live without him; and by that I mean financially. We owned a business together and my paycheck came with his signature on it. My car was in his name; he had taken my name off of credit cards and checking accounts. When I got paid, he would give me $300 out of my check; and I got that because I was fulfilling an obligation to a friend.
One day, after he had been drinking, I found him in one of our guest rooms with one of his friends. The next morning, I felt like this was my way out–that if that was the kind of life he wanted to live, there was no judgement but that I wanted no part of it. He explained it away, let me take his Lexus to a Jaguars game and it was never spoken of again. But, as I began to get confidence and self worth, I was standing up to him more and more. One day when he told me to leave, after another physical altercation, I told him that the next time he said that to me that I would leave. I also told him the next time he harmed me, I would also leave. I do not think he believed me, and honestly, I didn’t have a clue how I was going to pull it off if I needed to do so.
I don’t know how much time went by, but one night I woke up with a flash light in my eyes and a cold metal object pointed at my temple. He was pressing the gun so hard that I felt the blood trickle down my face. I pushed him off of me; and since he had about 100 pounds on me, I felt a tear in my right shoulder as he went plummeting to the ground. I grabbed the gun, and went to the guest room, locking the door behind me and fully intending on shooting him if I needed to do so. I fell asleep against the door; when the morning light came in the windows, I carefully walked out to get coffee. He was sitting on the back porch and could not believe how upset I was. Apparently, he remembered nothing. I showed him the spot on my head, I showed him how I could not lift my right arm; and I walked away, fully intending on leaving, but the timing had to be right.
When the timing was right, and it was safe, I left. I had a lot of people that helped me from Jacksonville to Tampa to Toronto. I drove downtown while he was out of town and filed for divorce. As soon as I knew he had been served, I boarded a plane for Toronto in the interest of safety and in the interest of needing to be around family. I was heart broken–in fact I was just broken. I had no clue where I was going to work; I had some money saved up for an apartment but that was it. I returned to the states to sign the divorce papers 21 days later and just like that on March 16, 2007 we were divorced. When it came time for me to get the rest of my stuff from the house, I had already taken my wedding ring off-he had not, but he had by the time I left.
So, the long answer to “why did you stay so long” comes down to one word: value. I did not have it, nor was I getting it from anybody; it was only after I started going back to church that I even sort of realized that I was valuable. It is a struggle to this day for me to remember my value; and I often make stupid decisions based on the false belief that I have none. It was not practical for me to leave, and my brain could not process any of it. I was ashamed. It never occurred to me to call the police or to tell a mandated reporter. While some victims of domestic violence have the strength to do those things, I just kept wishing each time would be the last time. He was my family, as was his family, and I had very little family of my own. But something clicked in my brain the day I did leave. It is part of how I am wired; once I make a decision I don’t go back on it. I have no doubt that my situation was met with many people praying for me; and a God Who provided protection in the way of him not killing me.
So, if you are reading this and you are a victim of domestic violence I would say to you to leave when you feel comfortable doing so. Oftentimes, leaving escalates into more violence. I would say move as far as you can away from your abuser. I did that and have no doubt it is why I am alive today. He sent many threats on my life and I was finally granted a lifetime restraining order against him. That order stayed in place until the day he died. Yes, he died–this year actually. And that grief is grief that I can not explain–but it was real and it was hard. It was difficult to navigate the grief because this was somebody who I vowed to love forever, and while we were divorced part of me always loved him–because I believe love is final–but it didn’t mean that I needed to stay in that situation. I would encourage you to get some friends. Pick the ones that won’t make you feel badly for staying but rather those that will monitor the situation and step it if necessary. Having that support system brings a level of freedom–you are not the only one harboring this horrible secret. Friends are essential to your getting out–I can not stress this enough.
If you are reading this and you know somebody who is a victim, you need to be patient. Statistics are that a victim leaves 7 times before actually staying away. Try to not be angry at the victim, they have enough of that already. Closely monitor the situation and enter into it with law enforcement, do not try to pack her stuff or force her to leave. The decision has to be hers–unless it is truly a life threatening situation, then you act. My friends just watched and observed. The time never came when they needed to get law enforcement involved because I didn’t tell them everything. So, don’t expect her to be truthful with you either. But makeup and clothes can only cover up so much. Observe constantly. Again, you are not going to get her to leave by lecturing her or getting angry with her. My friends would cry at night worrying; I cared about that. And honestly, it was part of the reason I left; they weren’t pushy, they just told me how concerned they were for me.
Domestic Violence has become an epidemic. It hits every part of our being from basic needs to self-actualization. If you have not been there (and thank God for that) it is hard for you go grasp why she stays. Remember, the bruises, cuts and broken bones heal, but what he robs from her soul never returns. Human beings make decisions based on their perception of their well being. When that decision is met with the deprivation of self worth; there is no energy to leave. There is only energy to breathe, and even then breathing in air can seem over-whelming. There are times when she doesn’t want to live because he has taken that will from her. Love her, spend time with her, observe her, and do not judge her. Leaving is complicated, if you are a victim, know that somebody out there understands that. If you aren’t and you know somebody who is, it’s important that you become part of the solution, not the problem.
If you are in a domestic violence situation, and want to get out, even if you have nowhere to go, all states provide shelters. The phone number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Refrain from using your phone to make the call. Most of all, remember, there is hope. It doesn’t need to end your happiness or more importantly your life. It is not simple, it is hard, but you will know when, and you so have it in you to leave. YOU MATTER.