The #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft topics have exploded in the last week and a half, since the video of Ray Rice brutalizing his now-wife in an elevator surfaced. Articles like this one have brought domestic violence out into the open, forced those who have never encountered it to face survivors’ truths…and for some survivors, provided the first opportunity to truly realize that the abuse they went through was not their fault.
I had my wakeup moment a long time ago, but this still hits home for me because for everyone in my life now who knows what happened there are so many who don’t – even people who were there ten years ago. As a good friend of mine pointed out, “abuse is isolating.” While attitudes are changing there is still an aura attached to going through and surviving relationship abuse of any kind. For some it’s a stigma, for others it’s just the pity and confusion of those who don’t really know what else to say or do. Even now I feel like that part of my story is like a dirty secret and I clam up before proclaiming it to all who would hear.
But not today.
I am a survivor of domestic violence. My father, a drunk with unmedicated bipolar disorder and a crippling victim complex, spent most of our childhood cycling from the funny, carefree guy who loved Looney Tunes to the angry monster who would yell and rage and threaten suicide whenever he sensed that things weren’t going his way. He never hit my brother and me, though he did occasionally hit my mom – almost never in front of us, all the easier to pretend it didn’t happen I suppose. His preferred manipulation was to wave a gun and claim that the world would be a better place without him in it.
He shot the gun in our stairwell once, two days before Christmas, and threatened to leave to finish the job. The police never came, because we lived in the kind of neighborhood where gunshots weren’t altogether uncommon.
There were other times that he would just hold the gun and gesticulate wildly, and even one time that he went into the front yard and held it to his head because his mistress had introduced herself to my mom. (Yeah.)
One night when I was sixteen, I came home to the aftermath of a blowout. I saw firsthand what it was like to have your spouse, your partner, rip away your inner strength when I told my mom I was leaving for the night and she told me I had to ask my father for permission. I don’t blame her – I was angry at the time but since then I’ve realized that it was her attempt to maintain the uneasy equilibrium that asserted itself once the fighting was over.
I stayed – that is, I didn’t tell anyone – because as always the cycle turned and things were better for awhile. I thought it wasn’t my place to tell, because even though I was being terrorized as much as anyone else in the house he hadn’t actually been violent with me physically. I followed my mom’s lead and sought a quiet balance whenever it was there to be found.
Why I Left
A year later, it was a different story. This time, the tables were turned – my brother was the one out of the house and instead I was home when everything blew up. It was the middle of the night and I was once again terrorized, this time caught (literally) between my father and mother when he grabbed for her and I jumped in the way to defend her.
I left because never again did I want to cower next to my mother, the strongest woman I know, as he threatened to kill her.
I left because the first time I opened the door, he pointed a gun at me…and then asked if I honestly thought he would hurt me.
I left because I didn’t want to see what would happen when he came back down the stairs.
And I felt weak for leaving, for running out of the house and down the driveway even as my mother begged me to come back in the house. I was even more scared outside than I had been inside – after all, he might have stopped short of seriously injuring her while I was there to witness it but once I was gone I had no way to protect her. I wondered if I would see her alive again.
I was even too scared to go to the police station a few hundred feet away, because I’ve seen how he reacts to the police and I thought it would surely drive him over the edge. So I spent over an hour outside, trying to avoid discovery while I slowly made my way over where I knew I needed to go.
That was ten years ago.
Why I Left, again
I spent several months avoiding my father, wanting nothing to do with him. But even after leaving physically I wasn’t free of the cycle. None of us were. We gradually allowed him, step by step, back into our lives. He became a fixture at family holiday celebrations and I would make the trip out (or up from school) to see him. The cycle wasn’t as noticeable without him there 24/7, but it still existed. He would get snappish because nobody was talking to him at dinner or immediately head off any commentary from my mom when he was late or broke a commitment. He skipped celebrating Easter with me one year because my mom was going to be there and he was churlish over an offhand joke she made the month before. My grandmother was enlisted as an accomplice in the manipulation, calling to complain that nobody reached out often enough and he was sad and depressed.
The final breaking point for me was becoming a parent myself. Finally there was this person who relied on me completely, for whom I would say or do anything, sacrifice everything, give up my last breath to protect – how could I be a good mother to him and knowingly bring him into this poisonous relationship? I didn’t want him to learn to expect promises to be broken, or to tiptoe around bad tempers, or to ever see the deliberate inflicting of pain on another human being as something to be shrugged off or accepted…or worst of all, aspired to.
So I left emotionally, more than nine years after I physically walked out the door. In a letter I told him why I left, and to this day I neither know nor care whether he understands or even if he read the letter at all.
Why I Stayed
I’ve thought about why I stayed – or went back – and for me it was a desperate yearning for a real father-daughter relationship. I know some absolutely wonderful fathers and have even been blessed through the years to have some of them take me under their wing for seasons of my life. But even the happy times that I remember are tainted by the memory of everything else that happened. Some of my friends are incredibly fortunate to have fathers with whom they continue to make new memories, and others who lost their fathers too soon cherish the memories they keep. I wanted that.
But it wasn’t worth poisoning the other rich and full relationships I have and will have. There is a father-shaped hole in my heart, but to fill it I turn to God and the other amazing people He has brought into my life to show me that love should never hurt that way.
As DV survivors go I consider myself extremely lucky. My scars are emotional, and while some may consider that worse I consider them easier to cover. Moreover, I know that my experiences pale in comparison to many others. If I don’t think about it for awhile, I don’t even call myself a survivor because I feel like others have fought far harder battles than I ever had to. But I am a survivor, and if adding my voice to the groundswell will help others understand the many faces that domestic violence and relationship abuse can wear then I will shout it to all who will listen.
Until the end of time, or until abusers are no more, I will pray for the deliverance of their victims and I will work to make it happen.
One more thing…
I am awed and humbled by the response I’ve already received from my community about this post. It is instinct to shake my head when someone calls me strong in this context, because I felt weak for so long and do not want to be lauded for doing the right thing.
My eyes have also been opened more by sharing this story. Despite understanding and pointing out that abuse is isolating, I failed to realize that sometimes it even isolates the people who go through it in the very same house. Abuse truly does not look the same even between siblings, and I am heartbroken to know that there are parts of the story that I don’t know, because those parts of the story aren’t mine. But I am also so, so grateful that God gave us each other so we could believe we were strong enough…and then be strong enough. I do have a male role model in my life who has always been there and always will be, and that my friends is my brother.