I had a great childhood. I was raised by a single mom. I felt loved, but there was inconsistency, and I felt things were not necessarily done with my best interests in mind. When I was 16, she remarried and we had to move from a small town in Oregon, where I had lived my whole life, to Salt Lake City, where we knew no one. I had to leave behind all my friends, one year away from graduating high school. As a mom now, I would never do that to my girls. It’s the thing that I think put me on the wrong foot.
I met my first husband at 17. There were immediate warning signs, but I didn’t see them at the time. He was older. He’d never graduated high school. He lived in a rehab center for alcoholics, but I didn’t fully understand what that meant. I just thought he had gotten into a little trouble. He’s still an alcoholic to this day.
He was incredibly verbally abusive, but I didn’t recognize it as abuse at the time. I had zero education on any type of domestic abuse. He belittled me all the time. He was mouthy to others when he had been drinking, including his family. I still married him, and we had two children together.
I remember standing at the altar thinking, “What are you doing?” I have no idea why I married him. I was a driven teenager. I had my head on my shoulders.
The hardest part for me was recognizing the abuse. Being young, I didn’t understand what a toxic relationship this was. My mindset became about just surviving every day. I got to the point where I hated him. And I am still not OK with his behavior. He’s still verbally abusive, sometimes to my girls, and that’s what bothers me the most.
When our second daughter was 1, I divorced him. We had gotten into an argument in the car. I wanted him to pull over, but he wouldn’t, so I tried to grab the steering wheel. In the scuffle, his elbow hit my cheek, breaking the bone just below my eye. That was it for me. I knew our relationship was never going to be the same.
When I made the decision to walk away, it was easier than I expected. When you’re young, you think, “This is the life I was meant for.” Then, one day, it clicks: You can change it.
From Bad to Worse
I met my second husband two years later through a mutual friend who introduced us. My friend seemed hesitant—he knew this guy had temper problems and anger issues in relationships, but I didn’t know to what extent. I found out later he’d been abusive in his two previous marriages. I still wonder why my friend would set us up but I think, in general, people believe the person won’t be like that in their next relationship.
He didn’t show any signs of aggression for the first few months. But one night, he didn’t come home. This was before everyone was texting. He didn’t answer his phone, so I started calling every hospital, worried sick. He came through the door at 8 the next morning. I was mad and asked him, “Where the hell have you been?” He didn’t say anything, he just hit me, giving me an instant black eye. I was in complete shock—I’d never been hit before.
After he apologized, I tried to justify what he did. I told myself it was just a one-time thing. I didn’t know this was a red flag. It didn’t occur to me that he was a dangerous person when he was angry. Within two days, I moved past it.
He didn’t get physically violent again for about a year. He was a difficult person to live with. He had OCD and was bipolar, but the signs of things being abusive were so subtle. I kept thinking, “I can fix him.” I learned how to deal with his temper—when he would freak out and get mad at something, I’d just keep my distance.
Without even realizing, I molded myself to him and only did the things he liked to do. I stopped watching sports because he didn’t like them. We went and saw the movies he wanted to see, and I learned to love the music he wanted to listen to.
Occasionally, he would use steroids because he thought they’d help him get into shape. One day, he got really pissed off because I took too long coming home from the store and we got into a fight. He lost control and kicked me in the ribs and punched me in the arms and legs. Again, I found a reason to forgive him.
For the next few years, his abuse was like a roller coaster. I never knew when it would happen. Looking back, all the times he hit me just kind of blend together. He became physically violent two to three times a year. My girls, who were in elementary school and junior high at this point, would mostly just stay hidden in their rooms. Except for one incident.
He came home drunk and angry. He said something really rude to my oldest daughter and I jumped up in his face and said he owed her an apology. I knew the potential of this turning into a physical assault was high. I handed my daughter the phone and told her to call 911, but he took the phone from her before she could. Then he attacked me, hitting me, strangling me and dragging me outside. I ran into the street and tried to flag down someone to help me but no one stopped.
He grabbed me by my hair and pulled me onto the grass where he strangled me until I passed out. I don’t remember anything after that. It was years later that my girls recounted that terrifying night. They said he put me in the bathtub and poured cold water over me to try and wake me up, but I was unconscious. He was so angry, he freaked out and broke the toilet, and then he left.
The next memory I have is getting in my car and driving to his mom’s house. I was done. That was enough, or so I thought. We separated for about about six months. I thought this time he had really learned his lesson, that he didn’t want to lose me and that it would be different. I thought I could love the abuse out of him.
In time, he started doing harder drugs, and I started doing them with him. I was so fortunate I didn’t end up becoming addicted, but I used so much during that time it put a big dent in my life. He wasn’t so lucky—he suffered drug-induced paranoid schizophrenia. I told myself I couldn’t leave him; he was bound to kill himself or hurt someone else.
During all the chaos, I got pregnant and we had a son. My husband’s condition got worse. He started believing I was trying to kill him and my son, poison him, or that I was part of the FBI. It was a long few years where I felt alone, scared and had no idea what to do. I felt no one would ever understand the nightmare my kids and I were living in.
One night when we were out, he was drinking and taking Xanax and he began throwing up in the car. I pulled over and tried to open his door for him, and he thought the car was still moving, and that I was trying to push him out. So he went ballistic.
When he hit my left eye, I could feel the bones shatter. He kept swinging, breaking all the bones on the left side of my face around my eye and cheek. He had me upside down in the backseat of the car, strangling me. I was able to kick him in the chest to get him off of me, and I screamed out the window for help. People heard and pulled me out of the car. I was in the hospital for a week. They had to put my face back together. That was the end of that. He went to prison for seven years.
My Life Now
It’s been 10 years since that night. I’m 43 now. I’ve rebuilt my life and my ex-husband is now out of prison. I learned to forgive years ago. He still sees his son; we co-parent well. It’s important to me that my son still has a father. He’s always been a very good dad, I’m going to give him that credit. He is one of the few who learned that physical abuse is not a way to handle his anger, but that does not mean he isn’t still capable. A lot of people find that hard to understand.
I work for a local television station now and I speak at local high schools and around the community about abuse. I went back to school and I’ll graduate in May with a degree in criminal justice. I want to be a court advocate for victims going through the system. When you go from being a victim to a survivor, your progress is stalled going through the court system. It’s the defense attorney’s job to discredit you and make you feel like it wasn’t as bad as it was. Without someone there to tell you why they’re doing what they’re doing, you think it’s your fault. They embarrass you and it’s easier sometimes to not show up for court, and some go back to their abusers.
My son is 12 now. He did not grow up around abuse, but ended up with severe anger issues. It’s a work in progress, but he has learned over the years how to deal with his anger.
I worry about my daughters dating someone abusive. It’s whole different type of worry. My oldest daughter is, by far, the most damaged. While it was happening, she felt like she was old enough where she should have done something, but she couldn’t. She hated how he treated her and me. More than anything, she wanted me to leave him and got angry at me because I wouldn’t. She has trust issues.
All I can do is have hope for our future. I don’t know if I have any idea what a normal relationship is. It’s affected me in the sense that attempting to share my life with someone else is the last thing I want to do. I wonder, “Will I ever get it right?”
This article originally posted on domesticshelters.org
Sunday Survivor Series is a bi-weekly blog series highlighting survivors of domestic violence and their success after abuse.