My Moment of Awakening

To someone who has never experienced an abusive relationship, I’m sure it seems like common sense to be aware that a relationship is abusive. For me, that wasn’t the case. Despite fading bruises and healed fractures, four years ago I could not have said that I was in an abusive relationship.

From the very beginning of our relationship Joe had an edge to him.  I had this thing I would say to myself (and sometimes to others) that I could take the 10% jerk because 90% of the time he was fantastic.  By the end of our marriage, those numbers had completely flipped.  The most drastic flip was in my own mindset.  I remember in the second year of my marriage, before any of my children were born, I had a constant thought, “I wish he would just hit me, then it would be an outward sign and I could leave.” What Joe was putting me through psychologically and emotionally was intense, but I wasn’t sure it was a valid reason to break my marriage vows.  The ups and downs of approval and disdain were hard to manage.  I fell into believing that his unhappiness was solely my fault, which was exactly what he told me day in and day out. I thought I was worthy of the treatment that I was getting and I was always working and trying to become what he demanded. I was losing myself to his whims and in an internal battle that I had been dealing with my entire life, that I needed to be more and do more to be worthy of love.

It would be 10 years after wishing he would hit me, so that I would have visible evidence to leave, before he did.  By that time, my emotional state and my self-confidence were completely depleted. I was barely treading water anymore. I didn’t see it. I was ashamed that he would “have to” resort to that to correct me.  It took me a couple of months after he was removed from our home to be able to articulate that he had been physically abusive. At that time, I had only been aware that our relationship was abusive for six months.

At Joe’s request, I entered beauty school.  He said that I needed to work and he thought that would be good for me.  However, it came under the stipulation that he and the kids always took complete priority to it and that I was not to work on any male clients. I looked at it as an opportunity to turn a hobby into something that I could have for myself, so I enrolled.  I relished my time there.  It was a group of amazingly unique, accepting, and loving individuals.  I started to gain a little bit of myself back. As part of our curriculum, the local women’s shelter came and talked with us about domestic abuse.  Not only was there a chance of someone sitting in our chair and opening up about abuse, but people in our profession have a high chance of being in one ourselves.  Before the talk began, they took all of our cell phones away so that we wouldn’t be distracted.  They started discussing personal stories of abuse and certain scenarios that are labeled as abusive. My heart was pouring out to my fellow students who were being overcome with emotion as they listened and thought back to their own experiences. Then, I had my own moment of awakening.  The speaker started discussing harassment and abuse through texting.  She asked, “if you get a call from your significant other and you don’t respond immediately, how is that handled? Do they begin to text repeatedly, do they become angry that you aren’t responding….” There was a list of things.  I sat there and thought to the many times that I didn’t answer a phone call or a text at the very moment it was happening.  I thought back to my time working for the county recorder’s office when Joe had called when I was helping a customer and became irate when I told him I would need to call him back.  He was always the priority, I should be grateful that he wanted to talk to me.  I’m not sure what the next 30 minutes of discussion was because my mind was starting to scramble.  Then it happened.  Joe texted.  I did not have my phone, but I could see on my watch what he was texting.  It was not anything that I could reply to on my watch.  He was asking a question.  A minute later he sent another text repeating the question.  My heart felt like it stopped.  I was panicking that I couldn’t get to my phone, which quickly switched over to, “Wait, this is me.  The woman at the front of the room is talking about women in my situation.  This isn’t right….” I began to hyperventilate and ran up the stairs and out of the school.  From that moment, I realized that maybe it wasn’t  just my lack of being good enough, maybe Joe was abusing me.  It was 6 more months of scrambling, trying to figure out how to survive and what to do in this new state of awareness, before Joe was taken from our home.

My marriage lasted 6,519 days.  It took me 6,337 days to realize that Joe was drowning me in the deep water. It took an additional 182 days for me to gather the courage to make my way to the beach.   Getting out of an abusive relationship is incredibly difficult. The first hurdle is to realize that you are in one.

How Can You Help

“I have a loved one that I fear is stuck in this situation, what can I do, how can I help?” That is a tough position and I will do my best to answer it from my own experience in the matter, as a survivor. While there are striking similarities in abusers’ patterns, each situation is markedly unique.

For loved ones, the most frustrating part can be that no one can simply drag a person out of the deep water. Even if you see signs of abuse, you are literally looking at a tiny fraction of what is happening. Physical and verbal abuse are generally the most prominent outward signs. (I will also note that physical abuse, especially in the case of children, should be addressed immediately with protective services.) However, the emotional abuse is mostly silent to the public and where the most complicated facets come into play.

When I was in my period of drowning from the abuse, I had one certainty.  As strange as it may seem, the instability of finding the next foothold to get my head above water, was also a sense of security.  I didn’t fully understand the situation that I was in.  It wouldn’t be until my 18th year of marriage that my eyes started to open to the fact that this wasn’t “normal” in a relationship and that it was abusive.  My security came from the fact that, even though I was drowning, Joe was a constant.  He was there, right beside me.  Over the years I had come to believe that it was my fault for my precarious situation: I wasn’t a good enough wife, a good enough mom, I couldn’t clean correctly, I couldn’t interact with others correctly, I wasn’t intelligent, the list goes on.  Furthermore, he made me believe that he was keeping me in this deep water out of love for me.  He “put up” with my complete lack of worthiness and I would never be accepted or loved by anyone else. He even went as far as to twist real events with family and friends to show how little I was cared for.  It was the most isolating time in my life.  I couldn’t see a beach anywhere. I had friends, family and had people I interacted with, but I hid most of my life. I hid it in shame.  I didn’t want anyone to know how awful of a human I had come to believe I was.   There were a couple of fears in that.  The first being my own insecurities.  The second being that Joe was still pulling me out of the water from time to time, giving me glimpses of respite when I was meeting his criteria. If anyone knew and could get past how I was, it could either make Joe leave me or increase his disdain for how I was.  I wasn’t there. I fully believed I needed him, that I needed the methods of correction to be the wife and mom that I’d always dreamed of.

This leads to the question, what could anyone do to help me?  Directly, not much.  I was firmly planted in my reality of the deep water, struggling to figure out how to alter myself to become worthy of not drowning. What I needed was support, love and acceptance. As I withdrew to focus on not drowning, I isolated more and more.  My family of five did EVERYTHING together.  It was priority, control, and survival.  What I really needed is what eventually happened; to find some self-worth.  What others could have done is to quietly support me.  Not leave me to swirl in the water.  I needed someone to look past the survival skills that I was building and help me find myself. I needed to not feel alone.  By speaking poorly of Joe, that drove me further into isolation. I couldn’t risk the one source of security that I had.  Getting someone out of an abusive situation is a lot like fishing.  You have to cast your line (support) and wait patiently. Sometimes you need to refresh your bait, check your line and recast, but you have to keep casting it out. It makes a difference.

If someone you love is drowning in an abusive cycle, the number one thing is to not give up on them.  Please, do not take away your support.  It might be frustrating and may seem so obvious to you as to how it should be handled, but the situation is incredibly complex.  Be patient, keep reaching out just to offer simple support.  Try not to judge because you cannot fully understand the reasons as to why they are in the deep water.  Let them know they are not alone. If they start to tell you some of what is happening, listen.  For as much as they tell you, it is most likely a drop of water compared to the ocean that is really there. That one small drop could be a test to see if they can open up even more. Try not to force solutions. Be empathetic.  Above all, let them know they are worthy and they are loved without any disclaimers. The real battle is within themselves to accept it. The key factor to getting out of the deep end of the water is for the person being abused to have enough self-worth to know that they deserve better; that there is better waiting for them.  When they start to ask for resources, provide them, but still give them time.  That first swim towards the beach takes a lot of courage and strength.

Hook, Line and Sinker

Joe and I had a week of getting to know each other and start our relationship before he returned to his army base. It was a fun week of long conversations, movies, and lots of laughter. It was a week of wading in the water and basking in the newly found sunshine. I was smitten. As the next cloud rolled in, I was not at all worried. I enjoyed it. It was one of those clouds that you look up at and try to see a shape in it, watch it form and move peacefully through the sky. It wasn’t until this last year, after seeing a similar cloud form in a different relationship,  that I could see the form that it would actually take.

This next piece can be seen as part of the human existence. We all have a story and most of us have one that is littered with tragedy and pain. In getting to know Joe, he told me about his past. He had an unhealthy relationship with his parents, volatile relationship with his only brother and never really was accepted or “heard” by anyone. In me he was finding someone that was accepting and that he could trust.  He could tell that I would be different. I would be the one to make him happy. In having a difficult personal history myself, I had evolved into a person that was a care taker. I never wanted anyone to feel lost or unloved. Emotionally, this had put me at a handicap. I felt like I could be the one to redeem his life for him. What felt like a buoy, holding me above the water, would actually become an anchor. Dragging me deeper and keeping me in the water.

Is this part of abuse? No. Not at all. It’s looking for that person that you can relate to to help you on your journey. Where it became an issue is when I put it on myself that I could not let him down. I became responsible for his emotions and well being. I saw no problem in that at the time. Even two years ago as I started a new relationship with the same cloud, I missed my own fault in it.  Once this cycle started, Joe would put little guilt trips in here and there to let me know I was failing him.  Whether it be that I wasn’t available for a call or that I wasn’t writing him letters everyday, I wasn’t doing enough. He would question if I would end up being like everyone else. The broken part of my heart had no intention of hurting him or making him feel pain.  That led me to try harder. I made myself available at almost every whim. I was entrenched in proving my worth and proving to him that he was lovable. In trying to help him, I started to lose myself. My own desires and opinions became secondary to his and how he was feeling.

This entire mindset is unhealthy.  After going through it a second time, I finally realize that each person has to be responsible for their own happiness. Someone can add to it, but no one person can be an overall fix. No one has that kind of power nor should have that kind of responsibility.  In every survivor that I’ve discussed this with, there is a similar dynamic. Generally an abuser will find a care giver and latch onto that energy and compassion. This completely encompasses the survivor in taking care of them and ‘fixing’ past hurts.  It could be family, relationships, addictions, or work.  The hook, line and sinker is not the problems, but the responsibility given to and taken by the survivor.  I don’t believe this to be a purposeful act of abuse, but rather a broken part that has a need and later manifests into abusive behaviors.

For me, the water was getting deeper.  I was blissfully unaware. I felt needed and wanted. I thought my fairytale was about to start. I forgot that, for most of my life, I had been scared of the deep water.


Before I continue to take you through my journey, it is important to note how imperative the gift of hindsight is in my being able to articulate what happened.  By themselves, the clouds that arose could be seen as harmless.  Wanting someone not to smoke is in itself harmless and a preference.  What makes it a warning cloud is the immediate flip from acceptance to demand.  Not only that, but also in the manner it was demanded instead of requested.  It was a power play.  That being said, even demanded could be seen as harmless and simply a strong opinion.  However, when you look at is as the first cloud at the start of a storm, it becomes more ominous.  In having the opportunity to talk with survivors and current victims alike, almost all can recall seemingly small instances such as this at the start of their journey.  Abusers rarely start you in the deep water. If they did, many more would leave earlier. To ensure that you stay, they have to ease you in, with little tests along the way to see how compliant you will be.  They need to tear you down mentally and emotionally to make you depend on them.  I was someone that said I would never be in a relationship like that.  As strong willed as I am, the shock was all the more for those closest to me when I finally admitted how I had been living.  It was when I was sitting in my lawyer’s office as a shell of a human, waterlogged and gasping for breath, that I was able to start the process of looking back.  Even I was bewildered as to how I ended up there.  I was not yet out of the undertow, but I was closer to the edge of it.  The more I processed and worked through what had happened, the more I could see the beach.  It was impossibly far away, but I was catching glimpses of it.  I reached a place that I no longer had interest in the deep water.  I was heading to that beach. My processing and desperation to survive for my children and myself  became my life vest.