Every time she asked me to talk about my time living there, I could only describe grey wet coldness. I had nothing else. I couldn’t breathe with that heavy house sitting on my chest and would start to cry. I didn’t know why. She never pushed me, but let it pass. When I left the counseling session, I would try to put it out of my mind and get on with my life. Focus...focus. And then the next week she would ask me about living in that town once again.
One evening, I watched my elder son yelling at his brother and watched my younger son submit to that onslaught of words. I suddenly knew why that house was sitting on my chest—and so 10 years after, I woke up the memory that my former husband used to hit me. It came flowing back like a broken dam. Every detail, every bruise. Every moment. My former husband abused me. And when he stopped hitting me, he started hitting the walls. And yelling at me. Telling me over and over I was a pile of shit, nothing.
How could I forget these seven years of my life?
I always wondered how I could talk about abuse with such conviction. I thought I was just empathetic to women who were abused. Once in a Sociology class as an undergraduate, a student made a comment about how some women “asked for it,” and the professor failed to correct that impression. I stood up and almost shouted, “There is no way a woman wants to be beaten. There is no way she thinks, ‘Oh please smash my face.’ There is no way she begs for degradation and pain and horror. There is just no way.” I had no idea how that conviction came to me; I assumed I just knew; it just felt true. The class sat stunned for a moment until the professor replied to the previous student, ignoring my outburst, “But it does seem that way sometimes, doesn’t it?”
The first time he hit me, we were recently married. My pregnancy was starting to show; I was decorating the baby’s room. Afterwards I sat shocked in the rocking chair, holding the baby’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Rocking. Crying. Rocking. He was mad and his fist came out of nowhere. I figured it was because he didn’t know any better. We weren’t grown up yet. We were 18.
We moved north to Oregon. We were dirt poor. As his frustration over the poverty increased, and his availability of alcohol increased, the abuse increased. And then one day, he stopped hitting me. He started hitting the walls. We had big fist holes in the walls of the house. I found this even more frightening because he made sure I knew that wall could be me, was me...but He had more control than that. He was superior with that control. He was my captor. While we lived in that town, I had little contact with people outside the house. Oh I babysat a little boy every day and I talked to the woman next door, but I was extremely isolated. We couldn’t afford to even allow me to call home very often.
When I went into labor with my first son, it was a tough birth. I was in labor for 72 hours. I woke him up to tell him, only to find a fist in my face. He was very angry that I had awakened him so early. I remembered this when I went into labor with my second son at 3 am and quietly got up to have my labor in the other room. His sister was arriving that morning, so I quietly got our son up and drove to the bus station to get her. It happened to be my elder son’s birthday, so I continued to bake the cake and get the little party ready for him. I then asked to be taken to the hospital. I tried to be good.
I always tried to be good.
When we moved farther north to where I now live, he stopped smashing the walls except on occasion. But he upped his psychological abuse. He rarely came home nights and when he did, he constantly reminded me how ugly I was, how fat I was, how stupid I was, how no one would want me, not even him so I should be grateful he stayed. Yelling. Always yelling.
I never told anyone. When I would tentatively approached the subject with my parents, my father would say clichés like, “Smile, things could get worse,” (so I smiled and sure enough, they did) and “Every marriage has its ups and downs.” I never continued. I never told.
When things would be calm, I knew the onslaught was due soon; there was a building tension that made me crazy. So I would do something or say something that I knew would trigger his abuse, just to get it over with. Yeah...I guess I “asked for it.” It was the only control I felt I had over my life. I remember standing in the bathroom, the boys asleep, Him gone, sobbing, beating my head against the wall. Literally beating my head against the wall.
Until I said, “Enough.”
One Saturday I sat at the kitchen table and wrote a list of my abilities and what I wanted to do. I was now 24; my sons were 3 and 5. I remembered I had once been a free spirit who felt she could accomplish anything. I remembered I once was someone who was strong and pretty and street-smart. Naive maybe, but alive. Always alive.
I still wanted to do the right thing. I asked Him to decide what he wanted to do. He was never home nights, only came home to change clothes and go back out again. I asked him to decide if he wanted to be married or single. He stayed out the next night and returned in the morning to announce he wanted to stay married. I asked him why. I thought it was a reasonable question. He started screaming that it should be good enough that he wanted to stay. The following night he failed to come home, so I simply told him to move out; I had decided.
I was in control over my own life again.
I went on with my life. I got a job through C.E.D.A.* in special education with Portland Public Schools. I then went on to college. I was a graduate student when I started counseling for an immediate problem and then continued for the next three years. And during those sessions, ten years after the divorce, I woke up to these memories. All because I saw my elder son had learned how to talk to me and his brother from watching his father long ago. And my younger son had learned how to respond by watching me long ago. I had to wake up these memories so I could stop this cycle.
It took me many years to move beyond the consequences of abuse. Every time I would get involved with someone and that relationship would start to move to “serious,” I would see a car drive past: the man would be sitting straight and angry at the steering wheel and the woman would be far against the passenger door, staring out the window with the look of sadness and fear on her face. I always sabotaged the relationship at that point. In the late 90s I knew I wanted to take the risk to live again, to take the risk to love again.
And I have :)
* C.E.D.A.--The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973--was a program to train workers and provide them with jobs in the public service. It was an extension of and modeled after the WPA, Works Progress Administration program, from the 1930s.