An anonymous survivor from the US shares her story
I was in my 20s. We met at a work training seminar. On location with dozens of other new hires from all over the country, what were the odds that this guy lived in the next town over from me?! What I remember most is how we laughed and laughed…and laughed. The click; it was palpable.
I’m not going to get into the details of how it started, how all of my good judgment was deceived in one fell swoop. That story is for another time.
Every morning meeting that week, he arrived before me and made me a coffee just the way I liked it. All I could think was “Wow, he is so thoughtful and attentive! Who pays attention to how someone they just met makes their coffee?” He made an effort to always take a seat right next to me. To whisper the funniest one-liners out the corner of his mouth to make me giggle. It’s like he just knew that humour was my love language. Every day after work, he swept me away from the rest of the training group to sightsee in our temporary city. He didn’t even ask me what I wanted to do! How refreshing that I didn’t have to do any of the planning.
I quickly put my trust in him, telling him all about the doubts I had in my current failing relationship. How at a loss I was to save it, and all of the things that I felt were missing. He was quick to console and relate, and for the next several months, even after returning home, he consistently made sure to prove that he could fill all of the missing pieces I desired. My committed relationship started to crumble beyond repair. Although we had not been physically intimate (we had only ever hugged), this work guy was all I could think about. He even told me that he loved me. The confusion set in. My judgement was clouded. I was alone with a choice to stay with an amazing human being with whom I had stability, love & commitment, but also felt something like boredom…or risk it all for a guy who just seemed to “get me like no one else”.
The bliss didn’t last long. The transition in his behaviour was both abrupt & gradual. Anyone that has been through a similar experience with a covert narcissist will understand. We were married about a year later and for the most part, it seemed everything up until then was loving & trusting. I was blind & my vision took over a decade to return.
I was told most of my life that I would not be able to have children. I had, of course, communicated this with my then husband. He had a daughter already and was completely content in not having any more children. One minor problem: all I wanted was to be a mom, and I started to research adoption. He wanted to hear nothing of the idea. His daughter should be enough for me. I was her parent now too. He would tell me “I’m perfectly content with just having my daughter”, and that was the end of that conversation…for good. Much to everyone’s surprise, a few months later, I was pregnant. I took a test on a whim while home alone one day, and as soon as it showed positive, I called him immediately.
He did not answer his phone.
I was overwhelmed with emotion and quickly called my mom. After all, she was the one there with me through the doctor appointments. She was my confidant through the sadness in finding out so young that infertility would likely by my reality. As I sobbed the news to her through the phone, my husband, that guy that swept me off my feet & promised to fill all the cracks in my heart, walked through the door. He gathered enough information from the scene to figure out what was going on, and he was stone faced. He sat on the edge of the bed facing away from me and started to change out of his business clothes as I blubbered out the amazing, miraculous news. I’m pregnant!
He didn’t even look at me. I asked, “Aren’t you going to say anything?!” expecting him to give me the picture perfect hugging spin in a circle and kiss me with happiness that I had always pictured growing up. Instead, he scowled at me and said, “Can I at least change my clothes first?”. I stared wide-eyed in shock. When he finally spoke, his words to me were, “I thought you couldn’t get pregnant”.
I will never forget it. The exact words. The tone. The look on his face. How quick the person that I loved, the person who was going to be the father of this miraculous baby, sucked the joy out of my soul & replaced it with fear & sadness. This was the first strobe-light-flashing-alarm-sounding-in-your-face red flag of many. To cover them all would take far too long.
It did not get better. Sure, there were moments of what I now know to be “love bombing”. Moments of normalcy between the gaslighting and constant criticism. Between the silent treatments and the “0 to 60” temper tantrums. I would try to think back to how he cried to me before we were married, begging me to help him be a better person.
“I want to be a better person. Really, I do. Will you help me?”
Was this really that same person in front of me? It has only been a little over a year, yet so much had changed.
By the time my sweet baby was born, I was nursing him to sleep at night whispering prayers through my tears to God “Please don’t let him turn out like his dad. Please.”
There was another miracle baby soon after, as well as more of the same spiralling behaviour from him. I would cry on the kitchen floor often. I still have difficulty stomaching the memories of crying in the shower while I choked back vomit after he would guilt me into sex that I desperately did not want to participate in (and then shame me for not acting like I liked it) just trying to wash the disgust I felt off of my body. I slept most nights (eventually all nights) in my children’s shared bedroom. Many nights all three of us snuggled in the same bed while I cried and whispered the same prayers of rescue and grace over their sweet sleeping bodies that I had been repeating for years. “Please don’t let them turn out like him”.
Eventually, I started my own business. This proved to be the key to my awakening and gradual release from my abusive prison. Venturing out into the world of entrepreneurship loosened my invisible leash. I was often traveling & surrounded by other people with similar goals and aspirations. And the common theme? Everyone was constantly telling me what a shining star I was. How promising my future looked. It didn’t take long for me to start to question the constant criticisms, humiliations and poor treatment from the person that was supposed to love me the most. I started to question the behaviour out loud.
This did not go down well.
On Thanksgiving, after hosting, cooking, and housing his entire family for the tenth year in a row, he absolutely tore into me. After two days of cooking, cleaning, decorating (whilst working and caring for the children), he launched into a tirade about how everything I did and said embarrassed him and humiliated him in front of his family. How I didn’t appreciate anything he did for me. I stood, leaning patiently in the doorway of our bedroom starting at him as he lay in bed and screaming at me. I said nothing and waited until he came to a full stop.
I asked, “Are you done?”. He replied, “Yeah, I’m done.”
And then I said, “I’m done too. I’m done with all of this. I’m done with you.”.
Four months of living separately in the same home passed before “The Incident”.
It was early April, and we were headed to a fundraiser for a youth organisation in our community. My only friend that knew about the issues at home would be there with her husband as well, so I was feeling ok about the evening. There was a lot of alcohol consumption, but I was not a big drinker and remained completely sober. This particular organisation was defined by toxic masculinity – I usually deployed with and sarcasm to manage it. I didn’t feel very witty this time, however. One of his friends sauntered over to where I was standing and talking to my friend and her husband and began to, quite literally, hump the side of my thigh and hip. My husband stood three feet away watching and said nothing. I don’t think I said much either. Later that night, my friend and her husband headed home but a group of my then-husband’s friends and their wives wanted to stop at a bar before making it back to our respective homes. I am not a bar person, but I had little choice in the matter. I got out of the car and started walking through the parking lot with another woman when out of nowhere, her husband ran up behind me and grabbed both of my ass cheeks, one in each hand, laughed and continued into the front door of the bar. I yelped. His wife laughed it off with an eye roll. My husband said nothing.
I walked toward the juke box and dart machines in the rear of the building with two of the ladies and tried to have a good time. I caught my husband glaring at me from across the bar. We were about the farthest we could be away from each other. I looked away, continued picking out music and soon after we headed home. The five minute car ride was in complete silence. “Here we go again”, I thought.
The baby sitter left and I started back to get ready for bed. He stepped into my path. No immediate words were spoken until I said, “Please, I just want to go to bed”. He exploded. Screaming at me, spit flying, he pressed his forehead against mine in sort of a head butt with continued pressure. He was pushing me backward with his forehead while he screamed at me about what a bitch I am. I pushed back with my forehead and yelled back questioning him about his friends who had sexually assaulted me earlier. He screamed and pushed louder.
“It’s the vibe you’re putting out. The energy you’re putting out there is asking for it”.
I tried to side-step him to make my way to bed again. He grabbed both my wrists, one in each hand, and held them down at my sides while he returned to pushing me forehead to forehead. I instinctively pushed back. We made it through the French doors into the next room while he screamed. I hoped the neighbours could see through the wall of windows and call the police.
He continued at the top of his lungs. “You’re such a f*cking c*nt! Whore!”
I had never hit anyone before in my life. But in that instant, without ever thinking, I ripped my arm away from his grip and slapped him across the face. Twice. He begged me to hit him again. I did not. Instead, I ran. I lunged for my phone on the other side of the room. With the dining room table now separating us, he looked at me and very quietly said, “Don’t you fucking dare.”
I didn’t call.
Through the French doors, past the stairs, through the kitchen, down the hall toward where my babies slept, and into my bedroom at the end of the hall. I closed the door as fast as I could and locked it. He was close behind. I held the doorknob and pushed my whole weight against the door. I pleaded, “please, you’re scaring me. Just walk away. You’ll wake up the kids. You’re scaring me. Please stop”.
He unlocked the door (I’m not sure how). He pushed the door open easily against my body weight. I ran to the bathroom and tried to close the door behind me, but he was too quick. I was cornered in a small bathroom with a small window. Like a caged animal, I paced quickly between the sink, toilet and the linen closet. All I could think was, “He is going to bash my head into the toilet and kill me. This is how I am going to die. Right here on the bathroom floor. My kids are asleep in the next room over. Will he kill them next?”
I was starting to hyperventilate when he suddenly became very calm. He looked at me and in an eerily peaceful voice said, “It’s ok, just calm down. Calm down and we can go back in the other room and talk about this. Please, just calm down.” It took some convincing, but I did go back through the French doors to where, what I refer to as “The Incident”, had just occurred. Wrists still red from his grip, he preceded to try to tell me that he never laid a hand on me. That I had slapped him for no reason. He did not call me a cunt or a whore. None of that had happened.
Something clicked inside of me. I didn’t learn the word “gaslighting” for another six weeks, but I knew that he had used this tactic on me before. I refused to let him continue. I demanded that he admit to what just happened. I told him that I thought he was going to kill me. I showed him the handprints on my wrists. I recalled every detail of “The Incident” that had only happened minutes before.
He admitted to it all.
I made my way to my kids’ room where I barricaded us in with a toy box. We slept like that every night for another three months. That’s how long it took us to find a way out of the house.
The next morning, he sat on the other side of the closed French doors on the phone with someone unknown to me. I would later find out he had called a crisis counsellor and, according to him, communicated the whole story to her. “I messed up. Will you go to marriage counselling with me?”.
Let us remember, I declared our marriage done in the conventional sense on Thanksgiving, more than four months earlier. We had barely spoken since. “The Incident” finally made him come to grips with what I had already accepted. I agreed to counselling because there was no way that I was going to let him set the narrative that I refused to “try”, therefore, the blame of failure lied only with me. I told him to pick the counsellor and set it up, and he did.
Surprising to me then, he chose a woman. She and I connected immediately. I believe we were four sessions in when I got the overwhelming feeling that she wanted to speak with me one on one. At the end of that session, I asked if it would be appropriate to meet with her for individual sessions or if that would be a conflict of interest. She turned to him and asked if he had any objections and upon his approval, pulled out her calendar and booked me for a few days later.
I entered the room that warm Spring day and sat on the couch across from her. A shin-high coffee table separated us, on which a box of tissues sat. After very brief pleasantries, she very gently slid a packet across the table toward me. It was stapled in the upper left corner and the black print was staggered with blue subheadings. Across the top of the page, in big blue letters it read:
‘Confronting Domestic Violence Information You Need to Know’
In that moment, my entire world shattered. For good or for bad, the life I had lived up until that point was destroyed in a fiery explosion of emotion, disbelief, distress and, for the first time…understanding.
She went through each page with me and warned me to be “very careful”. This was the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship, the escape. She instructed me to always have a packed bag for the kids and myself ready in case of a necessary quick escape. The word “escape” was being used a lot. She promised to continue meeting with me one on one along with our joint counselling, to plan my safe escape and support me through the transition. When the hour was up, she asked me if I thought I would be safe to take the packet of information with me, or if I thought I would be in danger if he found it. I placed it into my black zip up bag and headed to my car. That bag did not leave my side for months. I brought it to the bathroom. I slept with it right next to me in the barricaded bedroom I shared with my kids. I sat at the table with the handle casually wrapped around my leg so it couldn’t be taken from me. Eventually, that bag would be thrown in my face as the obvious hiding spot for all the “evidence” for the real reason I was divorcing him. Whatever, or whoever, I was hiding from him was obviously being housed in the bag that I carried with me everywhere.
In a way he was right. Only it wasn’t sexy photos, private text messages or love letters from a stranger in that bag. It was the county-distributed packet on domestic violence that the counsellor he chose gave to me. It was all the information that I needed to start my new education, and take my life back.
It has been over three years and an awfully long, twisting road so far. I won’t say that I was able to find the old me and start again. I have created a new me. I am free to be my true self and forge a new path. The new me is not recognisable to those that knew me before. The new me is much better and shines an even brighter light than any past version.