Since October is domestic violence awareness month, I thought I would share my story. Most people who know me personally or through my various newspaper and magazine columns would consider me an intelligent woman. I’m well educated, but I’m also very naïve in the ways of the world and did not realize I was stepping into a relationship that outwardly appeared perfect, but inwardly would tear me apart.
Eighteen years ago I met my abuser. I thought he was the perfect man. He was handsome in a rugged sort of way. Extra weight, Walmart eyeglasses, and K-Mart clothes gave him the appearance of a “regular joe.” He was four times divorced and praised his former wives saying he was the stink hole. This is a tactic common among some abusers. They blame themselves which makes them appear vulnerable, a characteristic that appeals to many women.
One look at “Tony” and I was smitten. I had been divorced for 13 years and didn’t realize I was lonely until I met him. He was charming and his humor was contagious. Little did I realize he was feeding me the same old lines he had been using for 40 years.
He lived in a different state, so a long distance relationship was perfect. I didn’t have to see him every day or change my lifestyle. When we visited on the phone, I did all the talking. He said he liked the sound of my voice. I believed him, unaware this is another tactic abusers use. As the woman tells her story, the abuser is taking notes. Every word you say is being locked in his memory if not actually written down. Each little detail you consider innocent, he considers future ammunition.
The abuse I received didn’t happen right away. Well, maybe it did, but I didn’t notice. I knew Tony was always angry, but I knew his anger couldn’t be directed at me because he barely knew me. I overlooked his white hot rage, the foul names he called me, and his sarcasm. All I wanted to do was heal this man who was obviously in so much emotional pain it was hard to look at him without feeling pity.
It took me a long time to realize Tony was a predator. The longer he was part of my life, the more I began to loathe myself. I knew he was no good for me, yet I couldn’t break free. Every time I tried, he charmed his way back into my life. In 2008 he relocated to Michigan. Although we never lived together, I had to answer for my every move. I was like a dog on a short chain.
What kept me in an abusive relationship? Fear. No matter how intelligent or well educated you are, you won’t leave your man because you fear him. There, I’ve said it. I’ve said the “f” word most women refuse to admit, thinking it makes them look stupid. Why, people ask, would anyone stay with someone they’re afraid of? I used to ask the same question. It didn’t make sense to me, but now I understand.
Tony frightened me in 2002 with a few words that became ingrained in my mind: “If I ever hear you’ve been seen with another man, I won’t kill you, but I’ll make you wish you were dead.” I thought I could heal him with my love. After all, anyone who meets him thinks he’s a real catch, a keeper, a super great guy. It took me years to realize when a man is as emotionally damaged as Tony, there’s no such thing as healing without professional help.
What finally gave me the strength to tell him to get out of my life and stay out? Sheer exhaustion. I could no longer allow him to mentally, verbally, and sexually abuse me, but my experience helped me understand why women stay with their abusers. The notion we are loved is enough to keep us silent, but when self-hatred consumes us, it’s time to move on. It’s not easy. Leaving takes strength, but staying with an abuser will kill you. If not physically, it will eat away at your self-respect until your spirit is broken and you cannot stand the sight of yourself.
Domestic abuse occurs regardless of education, financial status, age, or anything else. Do not keep silent. Tell someone. Dig deep and find the inner strength you need to free yourself. There are agencies that will help you. My situation may be different from many. I’m 70 years old. It took me a long time to make the final decision, and it will take time to recover, but I want my last years to be my best. There’s one thing worse than being alone and that’s being with someone who abuses you.
So if you think you’re in an abusive relationship, you are. Get out as fast as you can. Don’t let fear or shame stop you. Try not to look back. Look forward. If after all these years I can do it, so can you.
NOTE: The Bay Mills Journey to Healing program is an excellent resource. You can reach domestic and sexual assault counselor Anna Rogers-Stott at 906-248-8311. If you are in immediate physical danger, contact the Diane Peppler Shelter in Sault Ste. Marie at 906-635-0566.