Just 8 years ago, life as I knew it erupted in a nightmarish mental volcano. The floor of the house that I worked feverishly to build using delicate cards of pain, tears, scars, anxiety, band-aids and cover-ups imploded.
Living with domestic violence is a condition that develops from a subtle, gradual seedling. It is not a sudden, bam-in-your-face situation. The abuser leads you into a knight-in-shining-armor scene, using charm and implied, inflated self-importance of themselves and their family. They build up your trust, so you share all your darkest secrets and deepest fears. They are grooming you. They celebrate, honor and laugh with you. They put you on a pedestal. They make their move with the “L” word, jumping into swift commitment, and you are whisked away in this whirlwind of euphoria.
Now that you feel this is the best person on earth for you, and you for them, you declare love. Your partner uses the words ‘soul mate’ and ‘forever’ quite a bit, overstating how nobody else could ever have a relationship so uniquely perfect; and you can finish each other’s sentences. You feel so connected, bonded, like this person is the answer to your dreams of everything you wanted in a partner.
The hooks of love have been set. You’re smitten. A bright light is blinding you, or at least is distracting you, while the biggest transformation in your life is about to take place. It’s not a good one, and you have no idea. You’re smiling, looking the other way, in love.
In comes subtle hints that they don’t care for your choice of friends.. they make up things that you would look really awkward fact-checking which seeps to your family, your hobbies, your habits, your personality, your character and oh those dark secrets. In comes a “knee-jerk” slap..
In comes a pregnancy. I was terrified to move out and live alone with him, but, I felt that I had no choice and that it was the ‘right thing to do.’ I was too .. ?? proud ???? of my seemingly solid love relationship to admit how it was dangerously wrong, to anybody.
I was terrified of him and obeyed him out of fear. I left the first time when our first born was 6 months old. I believed his cunning setup, and desperately wanted the portrait he painted in my mind, of a loving happy family. I could see it. I wanted it, I went back.
Naturally once I came back it was a celebration, up on the pedestal, lovey lovey and all that jazz. We decided to give our first born a playmate and so I got pregnant. And it only got worse after that blissful ‘honeymoon phase.’ I left again, two more times.. before coming back and then marrying him. I was so removed and disillusioned that I turned against my own mother, not inviting her to my wedding and not letting her near when our last child was born another 10 years later.
Each time I left, he used intimidation like phone calls with certain songs playing. He would make radio requests when he knew I was listening. He would follow and stalk me. He would call, write and use every opportunity to create a situation in which I felt the need to respond, naturally including affair rumors, or that I am making a fool of myself and the whole town was laughing at me. The illusion that I could never fend for myself, survive on my own, or have any success without him.
I remember one time after a honeymoon phase, he was flipping out on me. He inflated himself up, hovered over me as I was seated at the kitchen table, and he was scowling. He skewered me with his steel blue eyes and froze me with his stone cold face. He kept on jabbing his pointer finger in my eye sockets. Through a tight jaw and gritted teeth, he let drool ooze down onto my face, and he visually trembled with rage as he impaled my soul with: “If you EVER leave me again, I will KILL your family, and then I will kill YOU!”
If you EVER leave me again, I will KILL your family, and then I will kill YOU!
I never shared that until a couple of years after the breakup. It took a long time to sort through the mental rubble, to really look AT it, and identify all the behaviors that I tolerated and how I feared him continually. I can now see how brainwashed I was .. like an elephant tethered to a fence with a single rope. I could have walked and snapped it .. but I was so conditioned and scared that I stayed. What’s worse, perhaps, is that I was defending him by my silence.
And heaven help me if he hurt himself while hurting me.. such as the time he punched me in the mouth, and cut his middle knuckle on my tooth. He became more mad when he saw he was bleeding. (“Oh I’m sorry, was I supposed to pose a certain way for you to deck me so you don’t injure your hard working hands?”) Ugh.
My family had given up hope for me, but never turned their back. They did what they could. They had to protect themselves from the toxicity, and I had to bottom out for myself. You see, when someone is being victimized, nobody else can do anything to force them out of the relationship.
For example, for a long time I can say if our tenant would have called the police, I would have defended my husband, I would have blamed my clumsiness and made up a whole story of how I got such injuries. Ask any of my coworkers or tenants over the years; I’ve come up with some doozies to explain away black eyes, a blown out voice box, grab marks, cuts, scratches and bruises.
I was scared of a worse beating if I allowed the truth to be known.. and I didn’t see a healthy, safe way out. At a Thanksgiving dinner at his parent’s house, I was very badly bruised all over. I had layers upon layers of makeup on. When I wiped my mouth during the meal some of the makeup wiped off, onto the napkin, revealing some black bruising. I took a beating for that later that night, for not staying on top of it.
What if the police were called and they knew each other, or if they laughed it off and did nothing?
Thankfully our daughter saved my life. She was my wake up call. One weekday morning, she confronted me square in the face and said, “Mom, I can’t take living like this anymore. It’s him or me.”
We made an agreement that next time it was happening and I had enough evidence, that she would call 911. Within 2 week’s time, that’s what happened.
What was different this time?
This time, I hadn’t run away and moved out. This time, he was plucked from the home, by police. There was now a written report.
The most excruciating challenges that followed ended up being some of my most empowering strengths.
I had promised the kids that I would not go back again. Now I had something firm to hinge on. I gave my children my word, and there was no way I would violate that.
I wasn’t going to go back. I wasn’t going to accept him back. This time it was final.
In fact, I was so prepared from leaving 3 times prior that I was able to predict all the tactics he would use. I wouldn’t tune in when he made himself cry, or when he said he’d “just let me leave if it ever happened again,” or that he “wanted to be a family man” or how WE “would get counseling if it happened again,” how he loves me inside and out and bla bla bla.
I told his brother, who helped us move, how he would hint at threatening suicide if I didn’t take him back, and that he’d claim to have chest pain or a pain running up his arm’ .. suggesting he was on the verge of a heart attack. Yep he tried ’em again.
Now, I was better prepared.
Instead of letting my heart strings be pulled again, or letting my compassion take over, I came back with “then go to the hospital.”
Tell Mom I know where she lives
The kids and I had moved to a different house the following spring. He spoke to our eldest on the phone, threatening “Tell Mom I know where she lives.”
I responded with “So does everybody else because I’m in the phone book.”
That was when I began to feel empowered. I was no longer hiding, afraid of being found. Not this time, and not ever again.
When you separate from an abuser, it’s like a huge old dying tree in a windstorm. It creeks for a long time, losing a few branches. It wobbles with the fiercest winds, larger branches break off, before it finally falls.
When it does fall, there’s a huge backlash. And you need to take cover to protect yourself from the dust and debris flying everywhere.
Since getting out, I have heard from hundreds of former victims, men and women, grandparents, parents and children. Many felt nobody else would understand what they were going through .. that they couldn’t share what happened behind closed doors.. that nobody would be able to relate or help bring validation for their situation.
When I speak, I am powered by a sea of faces who shared their stories with me. Some have lost their voice. My mission is to talk about domestic violence, raising public awareness because 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are directly impacted… The public needs a voice. Some have asked that I be their voice and in their honor I will never be silenced, ever again.
I share how I made it, and how I am on top of my game, loving life, and doing everything I ever wanted to do, and actually a heck of a lot more!
I started a local support group (in Orchard Park NY), and offer speaking engagements anywhere in the world. I’ve created several helpful, healing workshops and am happy to serve on panels as a SME (topic expert) in domestic violence and abuse.
Nobody will ever take this smile away, or break my stride, ever again.
Founder of Love Shouldn’t Hurt Inc.
Survivor of a 22 year violent marriage, founder of Love Shouldn’t Hurt Inc., Suzanne is an award-winning mentor and a powerful inspirational speaker. She exudes excitement and enthusiasm that creates a feeling of welcomeness, of ‘I can do it, too’ and one of overcoming any obstacle in an open, accessible way.