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I feel like I need to clarify the title of my piece; I am not in any way diminishing physical abuse. I've seen what it can do to individuals and families, and it is no less than terrifying. I am so fortunate to never have experienced that kind of suffering.
There were times in my marriage, to my now ex-husband, that I wished he had punched me in the face. I wish he had left some kind of physical evidence to show what he was doing to me. That way something could have been done sooner or someone could have helped me quicker. Don't get me wrong, I don't blame anyone for not helping me sooner. No one really understood. I would call my mother and tell her these awful stories or recall some event that put me into a catatonic state, hoping she could hear through my lies of, "but we're fine now," and come rescue me. It's unfair to expect that from anyone, let alone my mother who wanted nothing but my rocky marriage to succeed. Had I come to see her with a black eye or a broken nose, well, this would be a different story altogether.
But emotional abuse leaves invisible scars. Little hairline fractures across the brain and heart that only the most talented eyes can detect. There are no real outward symptoms or signs. Hell, I hid it so well that when I told people why I left they would respond with, "I had no idea. You guys seemed like the perfect couple."
I wanted it to be. More than anything, I wanted us to be the perfect couple. We started out that way. He had been one of my best friends for about three years, having been in love with him from the very beginning. Granted, we lived two hours apart and only talked on the phone—but hey, I loved him and he loved me so that's all that mattered, right? He had been damaged by several bad relationships (one of which was my cousin) and I was a young, misunderstood 19-year-old kid looking for her place in the world. The fact that he was 10 years older than I was and in the military only meant happily ever after with a best friend who'd take care of me. How was I supposed to know what was coming? In the summer of 2009, we secretly eloped in Virginia where he was stationed and that September I moved in with him.
Several people warned me. My aunt warned me. My best friend said in whispered fear the day before the big family ceremony, "You don't have to stay with him. It's not too late." But as it goes with most 19-year olds, once they make up their mind, it's hard to change them. The warnings fell on deaf ears. He was my best friend for crying out loud! He knew everything about me and I knew everything about him (or so I thought). None of these naysayers were going to break the bond that we had with each other.
It would only take a few weeks for me to realize that how right they were.
I thought about going into detail about the specific incident that changed how I viewed my husband, but the list of events and their details would take more time than they really deserve. In other words, the list is extensive. That first month we were together was filled with such misery and fear, it's hard to even fully describe. I felt like I was in a horror movie, watching the monster take off his mask and reveal the true face underneath. My husband was turning into this person I didn't recognize. He was mean, hateful, controlling, would regularly yell and throw things at me, would beat our dog just for being a puppy, made me believe I was lazy and selfish, and was supposed to be completely submissive to him in every way. I became so afraid of what he might do to me, I lost my voice. I stopped standing up for myself. I think in a way, I became blind. Surely he was right about me. I was an over-emotional, lazy, selfish little girl that need to be guided into being a grownup. This is what love was, right?
As I stated before, I would call my mother, quite often in hysterics, begging her to let me leave and come home. She would console me as best as she could and then softly remind me that I made the decision to get married and that I needed to stick it out. How could I argue with that? It had been my decision. I chose to leave home and live with this man. It could be worked out and I was going to everything I could to make it work.
And so I did.
For six years.
Six years of horrible fights, major anxiety, panic attacks (which followed with the inability to speak, pulling out my own hair and short-term memory loss), gaslighting, loss of friendships, isolation, marriage counselor after marriage counselor, and eventually, becoming the shell of the person I once was. The happy, silly, creative, go-with-the-flow girl was gone; squashed and mentally beaten down until I was this scared, submissive little monster child that he wanted me to be all along. From the outside, we were a happy couple in a cute house with two adorable kids. On the inside, however, was a level of hell that I still have nightmares about. I hated everything about myself and my life. I was angry, exhausted, snapping at my kids and hiding in the bathroom so they couldn't see how crazy their mother had become. There were open wounds that only I could feel, and every time I tried to explain to someone, it was like I was speaking a different language. I can clearly remember a woman from my church saying ever so sweetly, "Maybe you should take a look inside yourself and see that what you think is emotional abuse is really just misunderstanding and lack of communication."
Lack of communication? Is my husband selling our second car so that he would have to drive me everywhere and keep tabs on me a lack of communication? Or maybe him losing his temper and beating in the dashboard because I got lost on a trip is a misunderstanding. I just didn't understand when he messaged a good guy friend of mine to never speak to me again or he would get a restraining order or spied on my social media pages without my permission.
It's all in my head, right?
Again, I digress. This woman had no idea what she was talking about and even if she did, her upbringing wouldn't allow her to admit that I was right. I felt like Kate Winslet in the Titanic: Standing in a crowded room, screaming at the top of my lungs, but no one can hear me. That's a waking nightmare and I was living it. The fear was so real and I didn't have any idea how to get out or where to even go. I had been threatening to separate for awhile and he kept it from happening by stating that he would make sure I never got to see my children again. What's more important? Being with my children or my sanity?
I love my children. They are my world and I would die for them. But I could feel my mind slipping away into very dark places and I had to do something; for their sake and mine. So I filed for divorce. It was messy and traumatic. The kids and I had to live in an abused women's shelter for a few weeks because we didn't have anywhere else to go, despite my parents immense help. Life was surreal. I felt like I was living someone else's life with someone else's face. I barely recognized myself some days. On top of everything else, I lost my job, my home, my friends and my own self worth. Even worse, however, my husband became the main custodian of the children due to some poor planning by my lawyer and my ex's lawyer making it seem like I was an unstable, neglectful mother. I would get to see them on specific weekends, sure, but other than that I was alone.
I was alone, but I was free. I was out from under his thumb and his control. I wasn't suffocating anymore. He couldn't tell me what to do, what to eat, how to think or make me afraid anymore.
That last part took awhile to get control of, if I'm going to be honest. Sadly, this is part of the trauma of emotional abuse. The attacker is gone, but the paranoia stays. To this day, three years later, I still have nightmares about him being in my life. My relationships with other people (even my family) and thought processes flow through this filter of invisible scar tissue that will probably follow me for the rest of my life.
The difference is, I have an amazing support system that has helped me along the way.
During the whole custody fiasco, my family got to see behind the monster's mask just enough to know who he really was. I'll never forget the night I filed for divorce. I had to go home to collect my kids and some clothes before going to stay at a hotel with my parents for a few nights while things got sorted out. I'm barely looking at my ex because I'm so scared and trying to pack as fast as I can. My dad, who is my hero and kindred spirit, looked him right in the eyes and said, "I know exactly who you are now."
My eyes filled up with tears, and for the first time in six years, I felt safe. They finally saw the scars.