Every morning while driving into work I blast the song “Fighter” by Christina Aguillera. It gives me the kick in the @$$ I need to face my day with a calendar full of people who are depending on me to fight their battles with them.
And it reminds me of everything I went through during and after leaving my abusive marriage.
They say our favorite songs give life to the things we wish we had the courage to say out loud.
I’d say this is true for me.
It is a daily reminder of the woman I’ve become after going through so much to keep it together hiding the toll of physical and emotional abuse.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
And this month marks the five year anniversary of the last time my now exhusband put his hands on me.
I’ve struggled majorly with whether I would share my experiences here but I know that reading the stories of other survivors helped me shed more of the shame so I want that for other women in abusive relationships reading this today.
Because I did not want to give up the image of the happy family/happy life that I’d created.
Because I didn’t like the woman I’d become in the process of struggling to maintain that image. I deserved more. Heaven knows, way more. And now I have more and AM more.
I remember the first time he slapped me squarely in my face.
While upset, shocked and surprised, we had a trip to NY the next day and I had to pull it together to make sure that no one saw the purple and blue hand print in my face.
MAC Studio Fix and Naphcon were my saviors during that trip.
I’d feared my makeup would melt and reveal the truth of what I was hiding.
The embarrassment. Shame. Guilt. Feeling that I was betraying the woman inside me who was screaming out for help. The woman who knew this wasn’t the kind of life or marriage she was meant to have.
I still remember the day visiting with our friends in the city and constantly checking the mirror to make sure that my concealer covered any and all bluish hues under my eyes.
Then there were the obligatory visits to our respective families and showing up with a busted lip, bruised face and bloodshot eyes wasn’t an option.
So I powdered my face and loaded my eyes with Naphcon under the guise of being vain but I was really hiding pain and embarassment more than anything else.
During the trip to NY, I knew that if I told my mother, she would go to bat for me and burn down a whole city to make sure I am safe, but I didn’t want to bring this to her doorstep.
After all, she saw me as this really strong woman, impervious to life’s curve balls. But there I was holding in for what would be years, the reality that I needed help and didn’t know how to reach out to her.
I didn’t want to shatter the image she held so proudly of me in her heart.
I’d spent so much time being a rock to everyone else both personally and professionally that I didn’t know how to reach out and allow someone else to do that for me.
And the thing about covering up abuse is you just don’t understand the emotional somersaults and the resulting wear and tear on your psyche until you’re out of it.
Even now reflecting on a conversation I had with our then couples therapist (once the divorce was final), she had no idea that physical abuse was a part of our narrative.
She asked why I never spoke up.
My response was that it was simply something that never occurred to me that I should have done so.
Think about that. I am a therapist. Seeing another therapist for help with my marriage. Ok, not much of an ego trip there.
But to have to tell her that the strong and determined woman I cast for her was also being hit and slapped around? Nah.
I couldn’t and wouldn’t share that fact with her. And at that time, I saw nothing wrong with it.
My closest friends did not know. At the time, I swore they would never know. That’s how deep this was for me. I was going to hide the truth regardless of the sacrifices because I was deeply ashamed. Some may read today this and realize they didn’t know the whole story.
I remember a good friend of mine Jayce said to me “you’ve changed, and I don’t like it. It’s like you’re this different person. No more light. No laughter. You’re not enjoying life. I know it. You know it. But we don’t have to talk about it. Just know that I know and when you’re ready to talk, I’m here.“
Compelled by shame to keep my secrets, and the need to keep him out of jail if he found out the truth, I remained silent.
So I smiled and grinned my way through that exchange while crying inside. He would eventually help me move all of my things out once I filed for divorce.
When I did reach out to my pastor’s wife for guidance, she asked me what I’d done to provoke him to anger. <insert bewilderment here>
I won’t say who she is but I lost respect for her that day. But I stayed. Because deep down part of me believed her. So I stayed. But I left that church shortly afterwards.
The physical altercations would continue until the last time. Five years ago this month.
I was bloody, bruised and had a cracked rib sitting outside the door in the corner crying on the phone with the 911 dispatcher who calmed me down long enough to give her my location.
Calling the police was the hardest thing I had to do because I knew my life would change forever on that day. It meant giving up the mask. Giving up the image of the happy life. Because the truth is the happy wife left the building years ago.
But there was no forgiving this. There was no way that I could reconcile what had happened.
More importantly, I deserved better.
I was locked out with no keys, no money and no way to escape the reality that our neighbors now knew the full scope of what had being going on behind closed doors.
The police arrived and took pictures of me exactly where they found me. On the ground, in the corner. Hysterical and crying.
Part of me was relieved, but I was mostly embarrassed. Relieved because I didn’t have to hide the truth anymore.
Pressing charges against him gave me the permission to leave. I know it sounds crazy but it did.
I will never forget the officer who arrived on the scene and how he handled the situation.
When I saw him again in court, I wrote a letter to him on a napkin thanking him for everything he’d done on that day.
He either called or visited to make sure I was OK in the days after the incident and leading up to the court date.
The District Attorney as well as her staff and detectives assigned to where I was staying (restraining order was in place) were all just good at what they did to assure me I would be safe.
I saw a therapist after the divorce and asked her “when will I know that I will be OK after all that I’ve been through?” She said: “when you can look at all of this and not only learn the lesson but thank your ex for the lessons learned“.
I “found” myself on her couch. Literally and figuratively.
For obvious reasons, that marriage had to end. But the woman who married that monster had to die as well.
Once I filed for divorce, I never looked back. I had money saved. A good job. Already paid off a significant amount of debt and would move on to pay off $30k in 8 months. But as a personal finance blogger, I never made that fact a part of my narrative because of the shame attached to the story.
Sure, paying off debt was great. But more importantly it allowed me to chunk the deuces to my job and take off the better part of a year. No boss. No clients.
Just time for myself.
I needed the time to reflect on the previous year.
I’d convinced myself that by hiding the truth, I was focusing on the good in the marriage. So I pretended not to see the truth.
I disguised the real me from my loved ones.
But by leaving him, I know now that I am a fighter. There was no turning back.
Finding the strength to leave that situation made me stronger. It made me work harder to increase and maintain the value of who I am to myself today.
I’m smarter. Tougher. Skin’s even a bit thicker.
So today I can say:
No more hiding. No more pretending. That chapter of my life is over.
“After all you put me through, I wanna thank you. ‘Cause you make me that much stronger. Thank you for making me a fighter.”
My message to the woman reading this and wondering whether she should leave – you can and I pray you find the strength to do so.
Know the signs.
Emotional and verbal abuse hurt just as much because while the physical scars heal, the emotional scars stay with you much longer.
There should never be a question as to who you choose in the end. Your life. Everything about who you are is far more valuable than perhaps who you can see in the mirror today. Those of us who have left are on the other side waiting on you. And if you need help, reach out. If you need someone to talk to or just hold your hand during this time, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY). You can also find a live chat feature here.