“It was the beginning of discovering a level of deception and evil that had been simmering under the “Golden Couple” since day one of our relationship”
Life was good- really good. As I entered my 40’s, I had a secure job and I excelled within my sales role. I traveled for work and was often gone two to three nights a week. I was working on a dual master’s degree and my kids were thriving with school and friends. Love? Love came in the form of a relationship that began as friends in the early years, and turned romantic over time.
The slow development of my relationship was filled with fun, excitement, travel and adventure. We integrated families, took vacations with the kids in tow, and merged our parents and siblings into one unit, attending joint holiday celebrations. It was hard work, not without compromise, to create a family that was supportive of each other. We often traveled far to ensure all the kid’s activities were attended. We worked hard to include our former spouses to ensure the kids had great role models and that all parents could be present without animosity.
There was dancing in the kitchen, huge dinners with music and laughter, patio parties with friends, and guitar playing. There were promises made with forever in mind and nights where we drank wine and discussed long term plans; often precipitated by him holding my hands, looking into my eyes and saying the words, “Dream with me, sweet pea. Let’s make all our dreams come true.” I received flowers, love notes, jewelry, and travel arrangements where every detail was attended to and perfect. He would look directly into my eyes, hold my hands and tell me how much I was loved. Oftentimes tears would flow as he professed his love and devotion to me and our family.
I was questioned by friends about us being a “Golden Couple”. How did we do it all? How did we ensure we had such love and devotion for each other? How did we work to overcome challenges and blend our children to establish a great family? My answers were honest- sometimes it was really hard. Sometimes there were moments of frustration. However, my partner and I were completely devoted to each other and committed to honesty and love for a lifetime. I would have staked my life on his devotion to me and my children. I believed every word he told me and I knew our love would carry us into old age with grandchildren and adventures for our blended family.
One evening, as I was climbing into bed, he said: “Love, I think I’ve done something that is going to make you mad.” BOOM! That was the moment my life changed forever, it took only 13 words and less than 6 seconds.
It was the beginning of discovering a level of deception and evil that had been simmering under the “Golden Couple” surface since day one of our relationship. Suddenly, the previous years came into a focus far different than my current perception. Although, to be very, very clear, this perspective was years in the making.
My love, my dearest, my soulmate had a nasty habit of exposing me to danger and abusive situations. Suffice it to say, the abuse included the following:
Physical abuse (which I had habitually come to excuse, because he was a “really good man, with just a huge amount of stress”).
Mental abuse (which I had habitually come to excuse, because he was a “really good man, with just a few flaws”).
Unsafe living conditions (inviting strangers into our home and our life, without my knowledge or consent).
Drug use (while packing to escape our home, I found his drug paraphernalia hidden in the house).
While I had been faithful and monogamous, he had sought sex from strangers for the entirety of our relationship.
The abuse was significant and had spanned every moment of our relationship over the course of many years. What I uncovered was so alarming and filled with such a significant amount of danger, that I feared he would kill me. If he knew what I had discovered, what would he do to me? To my children? My discovery would crack his perfect facade. The facade he worked so hard to create for me. I feared he would kill me to protect his reputation- I was now the sole person who knew the real him. So, I chose silence.
I remained silent about what I had discovered and left him within a week. While he stayed in our 4,000+ square foot home, I was homeless for almost 6 weeks. I crashed in hotel rooms, couches, house sat, and often changed clothes in gas station restrooms or the storage unit where all my belongings were stored. I brushed my teeth and put on makeup in hotel restrooms near where I worked when there was no place to stay. (Side note, I hope no one else has to live like this, but hotel lobby restrooms are the cleanest stops to make.)
My kids suddenly didn’t have a home. Clothes were stored in cars and they moved in with their friends and father. I went from a beautiful 4,000+ square foot home to worrying every night where I would sleep. I stayed away from my children because I feared he would kill me and them. I lived in constant fear of him finding me. I lived in constant fear of all his “relationships” with people from secret sex sites. Strangers had been in my home. Seen our pictures and knew our address. They all had access to my home without my knowledge or consent. How much did these random strangers know about me and my children? These questions haunt me to this day.
I have two master's degrees- how could I not know how evil and horrible he was to me? To other women? To other men? I have life-long friends and excel at my job- how could I have let such a horrible man into my life and involved my children? I trust and love fully, with a commitment to monogamy- how could I have had zero idea that when I traveled, he had other people in our home, and in our bed. All strangers whom he randomly sought out on sites. Our home? Our home! These strangers, he sought, could have come back to our home and harmed me, my kids, and my life.
Are Red Wine and Jalapeno Crunchers a Food Group? How Do I Survive on THAT?
I spiraled into a deep depression filled with anxiety and alcohol. My last stop before heading to any hotel or couch, for the night included a bottle (or two or three) of red wine and a big bag of chips. I was losing my grip on life and becoming a shell of the woman I once was. Friends worked hard to keep me sane and family stepped in with love and support. However, I was still filled with fear- what if by being around me, I endangered their lives too? It was too much to comprehend and only isolated me further.
I removed myself from all social media and LinkedIn. I didn’t know who knew me from his various activities. I didn’t know who had been watching or following me based on him exposing me without my knowledge to so many strangers.
The worry and sadness was overwhelming. I often felt like I was dying and couldn’t breathe. There were days I couldn’t complete sentences and stared blankly into space at stoplights, accepting the car horns and finger salutes that accompanied my sitting through green lights.
It was only when I stumbled upon an article by Brene Brown about vulnerability, that I decided to share my story. This moment was key. The retreat and hiding only isolated me further and made me more fearful. The drinking and horrible eating only made my depression worse. I took very specific actions to begin addressing my new life situation: relationships, affirmations, gratitude, and therapy.
Relationships: First up was a process of using my sales skills to refocus my relationships and fill my head with new thoughts. I began by picking out the smartest people I knew who could offer me guidance and perspective. I reached out to those people and took down their every word of encouragement and direction. By telling my story, it gave me the courage to act on their advice.
My former husband stepped in and helped me secure a restraining order. He talked me through some of the worst nights. He reminded me who I was and encouraged me to claw my way back. Fear was not serving me well and I was better than my situation, he declared in words I couldn’t even repeat out loud myself. My boss, a young, former Army sergeant, gave me concrete examples on how to keep my new home (from 4,000+ square feet to 800 square feet) safe, plus put me in contact with every available resource our worldwide company offered. The remaining people texted daily, sent me books and resources, went with me to doctor appointments, and are still a vital part of my world today.
I also invited my kids into the process. I needed to allow them to see that courage could be had in the most horrible of circumstances. I put them in touch with my people, and our family conversations allowed them to voice their concerns and for all of us to participate in solving them together. My adult children and their partners experienced situations and extremes from abuse fall out, that no child should ever endure. Honestly, I will forever be haunted by what they witnessed and the resulting sadness and embarrassment. I also know one significant truth.Without the help and guidance of my very smart and amazing kids (and their significant others), life would not have evolved as fast as it did on my path to wellness, and now advocating on behalf of abuse survivors.
Relationships - not isolation, started to bring me back to the world again.
Affirmations: I took all the wonderful words people voiced about me and put them into daily and timed reminders on my Outlook calendar and iPhone. They still go off daily today.
Imagine a sea of blue calendar entries implemented in 15 minute increments, throughout my calendar. It is filled 24/7 with affirmations and prayers from the people I love. I even have prayers from my grade school friends, college era sorority sisters, and former boyfriends. Almost 30 years later, their words ping me on a random Thursday as a reminder of my worth and my focus that was growing as each day passed.
Affirmations - your thoughts dictate your direction and attitude, choose them wisely. Affirmations started to bring me back to the world again.
Gratitude: Can you sense my righteous indignation of leaving a huge home and falling into a tiny, tiny living space? It was there, like a huge spotlight that needed my best sunglasses and 75 SPF sunscreen. Can you imagine finding out I had spent my salary and bonus on our living situation while he made a higher salary and hid secret accounts? Yes, that was there, too. Can you imagine living in such intense and paralyzing fear, that one Father’s Day was spent with my Dad cutting wide wooden pegs to bar the windows shut in my new home? My last Father’s Day was spent with me crying in his lap and him unable to offer any words of encouragement to fix it. There was no way to fix this huge amount of loss and deceptive evil, except to cut wood and bar the windows.
One of my affirmations, sent to me by a woman who reached out randomly to me when she noticed I disappeared from Facebook and LinkedIn, (and goes off every day at 5:00 PM, CST) wrote this, “There’s a fragility to you. And also great strength. Life WILL scrape your bones. Maybe nobody can understand your exact challenges. However, there are helpful hearts. Emotions consume even the most courageous and grounded; you will overcome. More important than your triumph, is possibly becoming a light in someone’s despair. Victory really is spreading kindness and warmth.” This simple reminder to me set me on the path to gratitude.
I began to say “thank you” to every new experience and situation. What did this sound like?
“Thank you for letting me find out about his evil before I married him.”
“Thank you for allowing me to escape him and still be alive.”
“Thank you for the 71 steps it takes me to walk from my parking space to my new front door.”
“Thank you for letting me be HIV negative.”
“Thank you for having a super tiny home where I don’t fear people hiding.”
“Thank you for my new neighbors who have the make and model of his car and my restraining order to make sure I’m safe.”
“Thank you for not allowing him to be around my future grandchildren.”
This evolution of gratitude has infused every cell within my body. I now can tell when I’m stressed before I actually feel stressed. How? I start saying “thank you” for every single moment I am currently experiencing. It’s autopilot for me now.
Gratitude- being present and offering gratitude for everything experienced forces the brain to create a new reality and the body to follow the newly created path. Gratitude started to bring me back to the world again.
Therapy: Holy cow! Talking out loud about what is circulating inside your brain is a huge relief. Being heard, justifies your feelings and puts you on a path to wellness. Therapy is readily available via Employee Assistance Programs, sliding scale payments, and FREE at group therapy situations available at domestic violence shelters. I took advantage of them all.
Guidance on eating and sobriety also came from therapy.
Therapy lead to journaling which led me to writing more and more. What evolved over the course of relationships, affirmations, gratitude, and therapy was a clear focus for my future.
Therapy - the simple act of being heard allows for growth beyond belief.
PATHWAY TO ADVOCACY
My new favorite affirmation comes from my high school alumnae newsletter. I am alerted every day at 5:45 AM CST. “I belong to God and that makes me quite good enough for anything. I am smart enough and clever enough that I can make meaningful contributions, even if I am not an expert quite yet. I am here not just for me, but far beyond me - to build up others as individuals and as members of the local and world community.”
I will change the world. I will take my experiences and speak honestly about my pathway to advocating for survivors of domestic violence. I will have patience to work with the truth to hold perpetrators of abuse accountable both personally and professionally (regardless of any lies an abuser utters).
I began writing about the entire experience, continued individual and group therapy, informed my employer (who worked very hard to protect me from his stalking and harassment), and slowly but surely began to heal. Now? I am determined to assist other survivors and work on myself for the rest of my very long life. I am determined to share my story with others, in the hope that other men and women might see themselves in my experiences, and realize they are living something similar and can escape the abuse.
I still fight fear. I still fight anxiety. I still fight panic attacks over what could have been done to me without my knowledge. But I also face that fear every day and work hard on my continued healing and mental health by building relationships, reading my affirmations, offering gratitude, and attending therapy. It can be done.
A person facing extreme abuse and deprivation from someone who claimed to love them can thrive. You can learn to trust again. You can rekindle old friendships, create new friendships and fall in love. Life will get better when you do the work to thrive after abuse.
Watch. Join. It’s worth the trip to the other side. Promise.