“You think your so-called friends care about you. But they don’t. None of them give a god damn about you. If they did, don’t you think you’d know it?” He said with a sneer disguised as a smirk. Of course I knew better. I knew this was emotional manipulation, I was starting to see it finally, but this man in my house, a man I thought I had loved at one point, was nearly triumphant in his tone. Because he knew better than anyone who he had crafted me to be in his imagination. Who he saw me as to feel superior.
I would tiredly insist that, yes, they did care about me, that he didn’t know what he was talking about, but he was drunk. Not loud, belligerent drunkedness, that’s how he had hidden his alcoholism from me and others for so long. His intoxication was a hushed festering, a slow roll that, after the first few drinks or so would collide with his narcissism and turn him into the monster. A laughable monster, even at his worst, but still a monster. Or at least a man who behaved monstrously. At this point I saw it. It took long enough. And, in the meantime, my life had, yet again, become an exhausting cliché. At least that’s how I felt.
The fact that I, a strong woman, a smart woman, couldn’t see right away that the man who was my post-divorce rebound, the “savior friend” who had organically evolved into more after we spent so much time together, was indicative of everything else I had missed going in. It was indicative of every flaming red flag, every siren of warning that I would have seen – wouldn’t I have? – if I wasn’t coming out of a decade-long marriage to a man very similar in many ways but oh so different, a marriage that was wrought with turmoil, abuse and a violent finale. I couldn’t see the monster disguised as savior because I was too busy fighting his predecessor. I had jumped out of the frying pan into to fire so to speak. And I couldn’t even tell I was aflame. And I would have easily called someone else foolish for landing where I had.
Jared, not his real name but let’s go with that, was a loving, affectionate man who showered me with attention. So different than my ex-husband, I thought, it was unreal. I couldn’t believe it, and I was over the moon. I deserved to be loved. I knew this, and, now that I had it, I bathed in it. It was heavenly decadence, this love I had tripped over, that I had been yearning for. When he told me he was in love with me so early on, I melted.
He was, along with other friends of mine who were previously unaware of what went on behind my closed doors and that I worked diligently to shield my children from, witness to the chaos that was my painful divorce, my once “normal existence”, from the outside anyway, devolving into what I could only equate to a live-action Lifetime Movie of the Week about an abused wife, with an estranged husband who had gone off the rails when I ended our marriage. My life, which was unpleasant, filled with emotional abuse and manipulation, suddenly included receiving threats of harm followed by apologies and denials that those threats had been made, calls to the police, and one special night where the man who I had been married to since I was twenty years old showed up at a gathering he wasn’t supposed to be a part of and abruptly connected the heel of his hand to my left cheekbone loud enough for people in the next room to hear while in a fit of anger, lashing out because I had “taken his wife from him, I had no right”.
Jared had been there, as many friends had been, as no one was wanting to leave me alone at my house during this time, to lend me comfort, to be my rock, to be, among all that, a witness to it. And to love me.
Learning what I have learned over the years in my journey as a human being, I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at that time. When I was handed this belated diagnosis, I was floored. I honestly thought that was something that only happened to combat veterans, and I actually felt guilty about it. What had I endured but general nastiness at the hands of my spouse? Of course, I downplayed it. I downplayed it for self-preservation. I had downplayed the treatment I was on the receiving of from the time we were first together until the time I gained the courage to leave and, in turn, endured the threats, promises that I would be harmed if I came to the house because he was “that angry”. It was but an inconvenience, I thought, if not just garden-variety awful. I was too strong to be taken down, not by this man, and not by anyone else. And clearly all of this was due to my own poor choices. I would do better next time, I’m not one of those dim weaklings who hops from one jerk to another. I had a decent self-esteem, I thought. And I knew that I didn’t want to be like my mother and wake up at age of fifty thankful that my husband had died, meaning that, finally, the pain would come to an end, never to date again out of fear that the next man would be even worse.
No, that would not be me. I was smarter than that.
As it turns out, when you are affected by PTSD, especially if you are in the full throws of it, you are prone to making terrible decisions and are often unable to see problematic nonsense happening right in front of your face that you might otherwise cry foul to if you were in a healthier state.
I had ended up with a man who adored me, but his adoration, as our friendship transformed into a romantic relationship, became steeped in his possession of me. He was a fiercely jealous man who would become agitated if a man spoke to me too long, or rather, I had given that man my attention. I found this out early in our relationship when I lingered at the doorway to the restroom at the bar we were at with mutual friends to speak to a man I had known for years. “You better think about your priorities if you choose to embarrass me like this in front of our friends” he warned as I came back to our table. I was floored by that warning, more confused than anything. It seemed to blow over quickly enough as he was smiling and joking around within seconds. Until the next incident, that is, which was far enough after that that it didn’t yet feel like a pattern. Hindsight being what it is, his tone that night was a red flag as was the look in his eyes.
It got worse and more frequent. As months went by, if I left the house to go grocery shopping without my children, I would be met with questions because who was I meeting up with? Why wouldn’t I take my 9 year old son with me for a quick trip to the store if that’s all it really was. Mommy needed a break wasn’t good enough.
You’re going to a doctor appointment? That’s interesting, he’d say with that slight smirk, you didn’t mention you were ill. I’ll come with you, you don’t mind, right?
If I made a change to a website I hosted for an online community of friends and the change didn’t involve mentioning him, he would call me within minutes of the change, as if he spent the entire day hitting refresh on the web address. “I notice you didn’t say anything about me” or “So my picture is still a smaller photo than so and so’s…hmmm that’s interesting, what do you think that says to our friends?” I ultimately abandoned upkeep of that website. It wasn’t worth the grief, and I didn’t want to play the “whose picture is biggest” game. I was willing to make that sacrifice if it gave him some sort of piece of mind, even if I found it ridiculous.
I better goddamn well pick up if he called my cell while I was out of the house. Oh, you were on the phone with your mom and didn’t want to hang up? Let me see your phone when you get home, you can show me proof of that if you have nothing to hide.
I was automatically held suspect if I wasn’t readily reachable at work. If I didn’t answer my desk phone, he’d call my cell phone, and when I didn’t answer that, and he’d email me asking where I was. He wouldn’t believe that I was actually just, you know, away from my desk. Working. In a meeting. Using the bathroom. Being an adult without a monitor. Where had I gone really?
I came home from work one Friday with the flowers that a woman received for her 40th wedding anniversary and then gave to me so they wouldn’t go to waste as she was leaving immediately after work for a cruise. But obviously those flowers had come from a secret lover. And there was no point in telling him that, if I WERE to get flowers from someone I was banging on the side, that I wouldn’t be stupid enough to bring them home, because that would “prove” that I had run that scenario through my head because I must be cheating on him.
While I recognize these signs of abuse now, I didn’t then. I knew I didn’t like what was going on, but zero idea how it was shaping my psyche, how manipulative it ultimately was, how it would affect my relationships for years after I thought I had left it behind right along with what I was on the receiving end of in my first marriage would.
Things became progressively more tenuous, arguments over nothing at friends’ social gatherings with me trying to deescalate, and my friends finally becoming privy to what I dealt with at home. I was embarrassed as, just like with my prior relationship, I wanted to keep that side of my life hidden. I was horrified. He would lecture our friends about how I needed him to protect me from myself. That I needed him to “fix” me. My friends would inform him that I did not need his constant surveillance, and that I certainly didn’t need fixing. He insisted that he knew me better than they ever would – even though I had known these people for years longer than I had known him. That was irrelevant. He had started stating on a regular basis that he was of a superior intellect to others, and that’s why people didn’t understand his actions. He couldn’t be reasoned with, and these people who he also considered friends were people that he’d decry as worthless, not good enough to be in his company anyway. In that way, he was very much like my ex-husband, and in that way, he attempted to distance me from outside support and was becoming successful in that endeavor because this type of behavior pushes people away.
One night, it everything culminated with him becoming angry at something I couldn’t quantify and neither could anyone else while at a camping gathering with these friends. I calmly informed him after realizing that there was no discussing anything with him as he had reached a level of intoxication – again, slowly and quietly as he was skilled at doing- and that he needed to sleep it off. I turned to walk away from him, hoping to end the day on a happier note with friends before heading back to the tent.
But he didn’t appreciate that, and instead growled, “You don’t walk away from me,” and grabbed a handful of my long, dark hair and yanked what had to be as hard as he could. I came around swinging and broke his nose. Nice solid shot. Ironically, I had learned how to land that punch at the instruction of my ex-husband. Would he be proud?
This would be the first of two times I broke this man’s nose in self-defense.
With my bleeding scalp evidence enough of what happened even if people hadn’t seen the whole thing go down and come running, he was not-so-gently asked to immediately get the hell off of the property and walk home. We were thirty miles up into the hills southeast of Portland, near a town named Colton, but at the encouragement of the property’s owner, a very large, very convincing biker friend of mine, he made the walk home. As I sat there wondering how my life had gotten so crazy. How had I let this happen? Again?
Did I let this happen?
People who know me, especially the woman I am today, are flummoxed that I would “put up with that”, but when you are coming out of one abusive situation, it’s hard to see how jacked up the new one is. You can be the strongest woman in the world and exude confidence, but a toxic relationship is no freaking joke.
And, once I did see it (just prior to the first nose break), I realized that I wasn’t in the financial position to just…leave, so I had to work THAT part out before I could do anything about it, and I had to make the best of where I was. For now. Try to keep him happy, to avoid the blow-ups. I had become good at managing volatile men, as good as one can get at that type of thing. Until I had the resources to get out.
This is a position women find themselves in a lot of the time, and he had designed it that way, encouraging me to just hang back and collect unemployment instead of going right back to work after the place I was working for went under. I thought at the time, you know what? That’s a great idea. I made enough to cover everything if I cut a few costs here and there.
I had no idea I would essentially be holding myself hostage. Until I did. I was trapped and I couldn’t just leave that day. Once I realized the situation I was in, I started my job search that day (probably that hour). And, fortunately, the job market was such that I was able to attain viable employment that would look a whole lot better than “collecting unemployment” on apartment applications.
At the very end of this nightmare of a coupling, as it circled the drain and I was able to tell him he needed to move out or that I would be moving on, it was almost comical the things that would come out of his mouth, including but not limited to the abuser’s greatest hits of “No one is ever going to love you the way I do,” (good?) and “If I can’t have you, no one can.” Bravo, way to be an unoriginal textbook example of an abuser. Way to be a cliché.
There was something about my state of mind at that point, the realization that I was getting out and that I was going in the right direction – finally – that led to the sudden clarity to the embarrassing cliché of an abuser I was living with. There was one point where I actually laughed and said, “Holy crap, Jared, did you buy the domestic abuse handbook and memorize every line? Because that was amazing.” He became enraged at that – he may have been drunk, at this point, it was a given, which, of course, was my fault because I “drove him to drink” (never mind that he already had a longer relationship than ours with booze) – and pushed me up against the wall. I reached over to the desk and grabbed the phone to call his brother, for him to pick him up now instead of the following day, as he was planning on moving back in with family. He grabbed the handset from my grasp and shattered it against the wall next to my head. I pretended not to be terrified and told him he’d have to do better than that. I took my cell phone, ducked under his arm that had been blocking my way, and went into and locked the bathroom, calling his brother, a recovering alcoholic himself who knew all too well of his brother’s issues, who very apologetically scooped Jared up right away, literally dragging him to the car.
I’d say that was the end of it, and it mostly was. Later that night, unfortunately, once Jared was at his brother’s and I had started to wind down for the night, his brother phoned me and, while laughing but sounding apologetic and a bit defeated by his brother’s antics, said that Jared had left a note saying he was walking back to my house and was clearly out of his mind. He had looked for him, but it was dark and had no idea where he was. Also, I lived a good fifteen miles away. So the danger wasn’t…imminent.
I shook my head and sighed, thanked him for calling, packed a bag and headed to a friend’s for the night since my kids were at their grandmother’s for a visit, locking the door behind me.
When I woke up the next morning, there were over two dozen voicemails on my phone, starting with him saying he was “coming home” to work things out with me, that if I wasn’t overreacting, I’d give him one more chance, come on, be smart about this, and a variety of other odd messages that included heavy breathing as he was walking, telling me how dark it was, and how he thought he was lost. I later referred to those phone calls the “Mount St Helens calls” because he sounded a lot like the man who tragically lost his life on the mountain when it erupted in 1981 and the audio of his escape attempt was caught on tape before he succumbed to the ash and heat. He also, in his second to last message to me, seemed legitimately surprised I wasn’t there waiting for him to arrive. “Hey…you’re not home. Why?”
His brother came to retrieve him yet again, he informed me in the last of the messages he had left earlier that morning when he finally arrived to my empty home. He said that maybe it was a good idea that he stay away for a while. We finally agreed.
Fast forward a few months, and Jared had been sober, so he said, this whole time. He asked if I wanted to get together maybe, nothing serious, just lunch. Oh, and, if it sounded like a good idea, no pressure, maybe I could attend his company Christmas party with him. Just as friends, it would be fun. His coworkers missed me.
I missed them, too, and, against better judgment – was still a problem for me I guess – I thought, sure, why not. Sober Jared, cool work friends who I enjoyed? Holiday party at the swanky hotel ballroom they went to every year? What could go wrong?
The answer to that was that Jared was never sober, Jared started drinking at the party, and, towards the end of the evening, Jared grabbed me by the collar of my jacket and jerked back, causing me to stumble and nearly fall as I had started to walk away from his being jealous that I was speaking to a co-worker’s husband in a busy hallway and “embarrassing him”.
This lead to: Nosebreak II: Electric Boogaloo. Another deadly accurate shot. I don’t know what happened afterward, I didn’t stick around to find out. I didn’t see him on purpose again.
The next day, I told a friend that I was concerned that I was becoming a violent person. She asked me if I hit him unprovoked. I said no. She asked if I had hit other people, I said no. She said, “We all want to hit Jared, you’re fine.” There was something reassuring about that at the time.
That was the end of that point in my life. And it’s a point in my life that, while I won’t say needed to happen, god no, no one needs that nonsense, it was a great clarifier for me. Having a succession of one miserable relationship with a miserable man followed by a second act with another man led me to go, “Ok, Lisa, what the hell are you doing to attract this?” And not so much in a self-blame, what terrible things was I doing to bring this on myself, but how was I looking for love and affection and getting jealousy and possession? How was I looking for strength and intelligence but getting cruel arrogance and narcissism? What flaws in men was I interpreting as qualities? How would I unwire whatever wiring that was installed incorrectly in my brain?
This was a conversation with myself that was more of a process, one that took me a few years to get through with a few more “training wheels” relationships where I didn’t jump all in but gave myself space to just….see. To evaluate. Those years were vital. Painful at times. But lifesaving. What was I willing to put up with? What was I willing to overlook? What was healthy for me?
Again, I never said much before about what was going on in my life at that time and prior, not to friends, not to family, because I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed when my first marriage was loveless and had turned toxic and demeaning, and I was horrified when it ended up what felt like the domestic abuse cliché that involved calls for law enforcement to step in, the crap you see on television but doesn’t actually happen to you. I spent an exhaustive amount of time hiding it all from everyone.
I was even more embarrassed when my next stab at an adult relationship was just as bad and wrought with more cliché than the previous one. What kind of person was I?
I was a strong person, not someone who would “let herself” be abused. That’s what I had always thought. I would not spend my whole life “waiting for it to end” on it’s own.
I’m not that person anymore. I never was “that person” in my mind, but I played that role until something shook me awake. I still can’t tell you exactly what that ‘something’ was, and I don’t think it can be narrowed down to one incident.
I’m not embarrassed anymore.
And the reason I talk about it is because we need to understand, as women, as human beings, that our abuse isn’t our fault. When we’re the victim of mental, emotional, or physical abuse, all the gas-lighting in the world doesn’t make it our fault. That lies with the abuser. You are not unworthy of being treated with respect.
We need to be able to talk about it, to tell these stories that feel like such a cliché without feeling like we did something to bring it on ourselves and feeling shame that we were “stupid enough to let it continue for so long. We need to have these conversations. We need to speak up when we’re in danger, or preferably before. For ourselves and for others out there who might read your words and be shaken awake. We deserve better.
Artwork by Russ Mills