This Holiday Photo Doesn't Tell You About The Hidden Abuse

This Holiday Photo Doesn’t Tell You About The Hidden Abuse

January 2, 2020 Updated March 16, 2021

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Trigger warning: abuse

Domestic violence doesn’t always look like you’d think. Let me tell you a story.

This picture of my ex-husband and me was taken on Christmas night of 2013. That same morning, we had gotten up early to open presents from Santa with my son, at the time only a few months old, and my daughter, who was two. I made a pot of coffee and cinnamon rolls; I remember the house smelled so good, and the kids had lots of fun things to open. We had a fire going in the fireplace. The mood of that morning quickly shifted, starting out as a normal, seemingly happy family memory, turning into a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from.

Like the countless other times over the course of our tumultuous marriage, he became enraged with me that morning, before we had even opened all of the gifts. I don’t even remember why he became so angry with me. I never quite knew what exactly I had done wrong to deserve his rages; I only knew I was never quite good enough in his eyes. During his tirades, he would rant that I never showed enough respect or appreciation for him, that I never kept our house clean enough, that I never cooked acceptable meals. He would tell me I was “a fat, gross, lazy, uneducated, piss-poor wife.” My body, which had changed immensely from having two babies in two years, was no longer attractive, and he often made sure I was aware of that. He would tell me I should feel lucky to have a man like him, and that no one else would ever want to put up with me.

That Christmas morning, I was holding my our infant son in my arms when he slapped me across the face as hard as he could. My glasses broke, flying off my face and across the room. I remember quite literally seeing stars after the impact of the blow, like they do in the cartoons. Only it wasn’t funny. I had bruising and swelling near my eye.

He stormed around the house, yelling nonsensical threats and breaking things that belonged to me. He threw a homemade Christmas gift I had made for him into the garbage can, mocking me as he did it. He threw a glass candle, which shattered, and put a hole in the kitchen wall, which I later covered up with a picture frame. The kids were both screaming and crying. I remember looking into my toddler’s terrified eyes as she sucked her thumb in the corner, and I remember my heart breaking at the sight. She didn’t deserve to see her daddy, who she loved, like this. I pleaded with him to stop, to think of the kids, to remember that it was Christmas, but he was already too far gone. During his rages, he would get a blank, distant, glassy look in his eyes, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get through to him.

Courtesy of Ann Marie Wiley

The only thing I knew to do to make it stop was to remove myself from the situation. This wasn’t the first time. I gathered up the kids and put them in my car. We were all crying hysterically as I drove all the way to my parents’ house, an hour away. When we got there, I pulled into the driveway, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go inside and tell them what had happened. I wasn’t ready, I guess. I wanted desperately to save my family, and I wanted to protect his reputation. I knew if I revealed this secret, my family would become protective of the kids and me, and nothing would ever be the same. There would be no going back.

At the time, I couldn’t bear the thought of my marriage failing. All I had ever wanted most was a family, to be a wife and mom. Maybe those aren’t very ambitious goals, but those were my desires. I didn’t want to give up yet; I believed he was a broken person who needed my help, and that eventually he would get better, if only I tried hard enough. I wanted to believe in the good I saw in him.

Looking back on it now, it seems ridiculous that I wanted to protect him from judgment, while he had so little regard for me and our children, but that’s the tricky thing about an abusive relationship. It isn’t just physical, it’s mental. Abuse changes the victim’s thought patterns. It causes the victim to doubt themselves, to blame themselves, and to walk on eggshells, desperately trying to avoid another episode. My vision was warped; I wasn’t seeing clearly after years of being made to question my own sanity. At the time, I truly believed I deserved every bit of his fury and abuse, because he told me so daily. When you are told you are weak, stupid, and worthless every day by the person who had promised to love, cherish and protect you, eventually, you start to believe it’s the truth. I absolutely believed that I was nothing, that I was not worthy of kindness, love, or even basic human decency.

Instead of seeking help from my family that Christmas morning, I drove back to my house with my kids. He apologized and I forgave him; the same familiar song and dance, performed so many times before and after this incident. We had grown accustomed to this routine. He would act remorseful and promise to change; he would say all the right things. He always did, when it suited him. He would dangle in my face the illusion of who I thought he was at the beginning of our relationship: that kind, funny, caring, rough-around-the-edges but still somehow endearing man I thought I loved. The person I thought I was marrying. I couldn’t figure out what had changed, but abusers don’t change after the wedding, they stop pretending. That’s when the mask begins to slip off.

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That night, all four of us went back to my parents’ house to celebrate Christmas with the family. I put makeup on to hide the bruise on my face, and I acted like everything was fine. I smiled in all the pictures that were taken that night, and I posted a few cute family photos on social media. No one had a clue what was truly going on. No one knew how my home felt like a war zone; no one knew how I cried at night after everyone was asleep, feeling trapped and scared for my babies and myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so isolated, so small, and so powerless. I’ll never forget that awful Christmas day.

It took another two and a half years before something clicked in my mind, and I finally felt strong enough to leave for good. If you haven’t been there, you can’t possibly understand what it’s like. I hear so much judgment about women and mothers who end up in these situations. About how they should “just leave,” as if it is a simple thing to do. It isn’t. In fact, research tells us it takes an average of seven attempts to leave, before finally getting out for good. And the truth is, unless you are in a situation, you have no idea how you’d react.

There are so many horrific incidents I could write about. Some were even worse than what I’ve already described. I used to make up lies often about how I had gotten injured. Busted lip? Oh, the baby had “accidentally head-butted me.” Bruises on my legs? “Oh, it’s so silly. I slipped and fell in the shower, clumsy me!” I lived my life in a haze of fear, knowing how unpredictable his moods were. Over the years, he choked me, slapped me, punched me while I was driving, backhanded me while he was driving because I messed up the navigation, and threw me to the floor (this actually happened a couple times when I was pregnant, in fact). Sometimes I would try to fight back, other times I would just cower and wait for it to end. He was half a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than me. He was strong.

The worst injury I can think of is the morning he shoved me, hard, into a corner. I had a huge, painful bruise across my upper back that ached for weeks. I fell to the ground, and then he kicked me a few times as I tried to shield myself. I took the kids to daycare and called in sick to work, and went to my best friend’s house. While assessing the damage on my broken body, my best friend took my hands in hers and she sobbed. She told me how terrified she was for my safety, and she begged me to get out. She said he very well could have killed me if I had hit that corner with my neck or head. I knew she was right.

The day the kids and I left for good wasn’t long after that. It was a hot summer day in August of 2016. He busted into the shower while I was in there, breaking the shower door off the hinges. He screamed in my face, calling me crazy, a stupid bitch, and a cunt; when I got out of the shower, he threw an office chair at me and missed, putting yet another hole in the drywall. By then, the kids were three and five. I remember standing there in nothing but a towel as he raged and the kids clung to me, begging their daddy to stop. I remember seeing their innocent faces, their eyes wide with fear. That was the moment I somehow knew I had finally had enough. I knew he would never stop, and I feared he would eventually kill me in front of our children if I stayed any longer.

I’ve been out for a long time now. But there are some wounds I carry that will never heal. I will never be the same. To this day, I feel that “fight or flight” response in my body if a man so much as raises his voice in my presence. If my current husband, who treats me so well, is ever in a quiet mood, I inwardly panic, wondering what I’ve done wrong. My kids will likely struggle with things they’ve witnessed for their entire lives.

The wounds have now been reopened, because I’ve very recently found out my worst fears have come true: The abuse and violent behavior has never really stopped, it has continued to happen, but now, his main target is his current girlfriend. Worst of all, just a few days before Christmas this year, I learned that he has even stooped so low as to physically harm my eight-year-old daughter when he was supposed to be caring for her. He then told her she needed to keep it a secret. Physically, my daughter is okay now, but this has obviously caused a lot of emotional harm to both her and her brother.

I’ve taken all the steps I can to keep my kids safe moving forward, I’ve left no stone unturned, and I will protect them from him with everything I have, no matter what it takes or costs. He will never be allowed to hurt them again, and I’ll go to the ends of the earth to make sure of that if I have to. I can’t even explain how devastating it has been to learn that these things have occurred. I feel foolish for allowing him to be involved in the kids’ lives after I left him; I mistakenly believed he would not hurt them, because he had only ever hurt me. I thought he had learned from his mistakes. But, people who are abusive are not capable of reflection or change or growth, at least not without intensive professional help. Unfortunately, most abusers see no problem with their behavior, and they don’t want help, they only want control. They are masters at manipulation and twisting the facts in their favor.

I’m angry that my beautiful children have been dealt such a crappy hand. I’m angry with myself, for not preventing this. I ache for my kids, who are so confused, and who have been through way too much in their short lives. I miss the outgoing and fun-loving person I used to be, before any of this happened, before my spirit was broken and I became an empty shell, living in survival mode.

Sometimes I wonder how one person can be so incredibly cruel, destructive, and selfish.

Sometimes I get angry that he will never be held accountable for the way he terrorized me for years. To this day, he denies any wrongdoing or abuse. It is truly delusional.

Sometimes I wonder why life has to be so damn painful.

Odds are, there are women reading this now who are in dangerous situations of their own. Abuse is heartbreakingly common in this broken world of ours. If you need help, I beg you to seek it before it’s too late. Talk to me, and I promise I will help you. Talk to a trusted family member or friend, talk to a crisis center. Anyone. You are not meant to live in fear.

I’m not sharing my story for sympathy, or back-pats, or attention. I’m sharing this because this is real life, and this is my truth, as ugly as it may be. This subject needs to be discussed with brutal honesty. Abuse is happening behind closed doors all around the world, and something needs to be done. People need to be aware of the signs. I don’t know what the solution is. But I know the solution is not to ignore it or pretend it isn’t there. If I’ve learned anything at all from this, it’s that I have to use my voice to speak up to protect my children, even if it makes some people uncomfortable. There are so many vulnerable people out there who need someone to be their voice. To be their advocate. To be a friend. Not to judge them, not to shame them, but simply to love them and support them. To help make them believe they are worthy.

Domestic violence doesn’t always look like you’d think. It’s not always outwardly obvious. Sometimes it looks like this picture. Sometimes it’s an awful secret hidden by a smile and excuses. I no longer carry shame that isn’t mine, and I have no qualms about telling my story, because it’s the truth. I’m no longer embarrassed or ashamed; my past doesn’t define me. I was a victim for a long time, but today I’m a survivor, and so are my kids. These horrific experiences were not my fault. Stories like mine need to be heard. No one deserves abuse, no matter what.