He threatened to blow his brains out if I left him. I was 20. I didn’t want his blood on my hands. I married him at age 23. The day before and the day after our wedding day, I knew it was all a mistake.
We bought a dog a year later. I would wrap my arms around all 80 pounds of her body when he would scream at me. When the hair on her back would rise, I would plead for him not to yell because the dog was so scared. He told me I cared more about the “damn dog’s feelings” than his.
Isolation and manipulation were his game. He kept me away from my family and friends, or spoke badly of them before and after we saw them. I went along with keeping the distance he put between them and me because it was easier to do that than to face his wrath. I knew they would always love me, but him? I didn’t want to imagine how I could ever be alone.
He controlled the money, what I bought, where I went, how long I was gone and whom I spoke with on the phone. He was a compulsive liar. He told me stories all the time, stories of things he had done before we met, and I convinced myself that they were all true, even though the pieces never seemed to fit together.
When I had a miscarriage at 26, I could have taken it as a message from God. I mourned the loss of that baby. I thought he or she would have made everything better and would have changed him. When I took too long to grieve, he shamed me for not getting over it sooner.
There was only one time when he left a mark on my body. I was eight months pregnant with our daughter, and on the way home after eating dinner at my parents’ house, he started ranting and driving like a maniac. As we got on the highway, I cried and begged him to please stop. He took hold of my sleeve, twisting and pulling it toward him screaming for me to shut up. The sound of tearing fabric filled the SUV. Then he reached across my swollen belly to open my door and threatened that he would push me out of the car if I didn’t stop crying. I shut up.
When we got home, I took that maternity shirt off of my pregnant body, and with tears running down my cheeks, I examined the torn threads. I crumpled the evidence of his abuse into a tight ball and buried it in the bottom of the trash can.
Our daughter was born a month later, and four whole years after that we had a son—a rich man’s family. He must have felt rich all right, because I caught him buying gifts for other women a couple months after our son’s birth. At the first hint of it all, I became a detective. I hunted down information to catch him in his lies. It felt fulfilling and good to finally have evidence.
A manipulator and liar always covers their tracks, but in this case, I had credit card statements, spa receptionists, and florist, popcorn tin and edible fruit service reps who were happy to help me remember what message I wrote last time or to tell me what service was paid for with my card. The spa receptionist was my prize phone call when I pretended to be “her.” She actually said, “I remember your boyfriend! He was the sweetest when he called that day to set up that appointment for you!” He thought I was too stupid to figure it out. Then, for the first time in 11 years, I had the control.
I remember texting my best friend since high school, the maid of honor in our wedding: “I saw a lawyer and filed for divorce. I can’t talk now, but we will talk soon. Love you.” Later, she told me it was the best text she had ever gotten. I remember my parents’ faces when I showed up at their house to tell them I had filed for divorce. The looks in their eyes might have been from happiness, but I think relief describes them better.
I remember the first thing I bought after I made him leave. It was a new mascara from CVS. I had been using the same one for three years. I remember the feeling of walking on eggshells slowly disappearing. Sometimes I look back on that “life” and think he and I were the poster children for emotional abuser and victim, a Lifetime movie in real time.
Sometimes I look back and cannot understand why I waited until the gift-giving started, why that was the impetus for action when there were so many other moments that were worthy of leaving. I worry for my children. I want them to know that leaving is always an option, even the day before or the day after the wedding, that the shame of returning boxes of champagne flutes and s’more-making sets is much easier to work through than years of living with an emotional abuser. There will never be a day when I can share the “unlove” story of me and their father. They will never know what it was like, because I must protect them from their own father’s history.
I have it all planned out, though. I will tell them about a relationship that was “before their dad” and tell them what I went through. I will cry real tears as I tell them about a man named “Frank” whom I dated, and how it started off with made-to-order breakfasts and small gifts with handmade cards.
I won’t spare any details. They need to know what Frank did and how I got away. They need to know that there is always a way out. Always. They need to know that they don’t have to wait for physical abuse or cheating to have a reason to leave, that thrown curse words, lies that punch you in the gut, control and manipulation are enough. They need to know that “only one time” is one time too many.