Let me tell you about the first time someone mentioned domestic violence and me in the same sentence. Over ten years ago during what I thought was an innocent conversation with an acquaintance from my kids’ school she dropped the bomb. She missed my son’s birthday party but not the gossip that followed. My husband had not been on his best behavior though it was something that seemed normal to me. It was normal for him to verbally abuse me though usually he was more careful when people were around. Not this day. Funny thing is that the incident wasn’t among the worst when it came to his abuse but I still remember it today with such clarity. Maybe because it was the beginning of the end.
She told me she had worked with women like me, domestic violence victims, and I turned around to see who she was speaking to. Surely she didn’t mean me. I turned around sure that there was someone behind me but there wasn’t. We were alone. I turned back around and stared at her, dropped jaw. Me?!
I extricated myself from the conversation as quickly as possible and went home lost in thought about my son’s birthday party. Rather than feel horror about his behavior, I was instead horrified that I was the subject of gossip and I spent my energy wondering which mom was the gossip and the best way to do damage control. It was crushing to think that people were talking about me and that their talk implied that I was weak. It never dawned on me that the talk was sympathetic or supportive. Abusers have a way of building paranoia and my own paranoia set in.
I wish I could say that was the day things changed. I wish I could say that that was all it took to make me leave. But it wasn’t. There were many more years of abuse, abuse that escalated. By the time I did leave I was afraid for my life. I was afraid that he would kill me and that he would get away with it. I was sure that if he killed me he would get away with it.
What still saddens me when I think back to that awful time is how much blame I put on myself for his actions. I look back at myself and wish that I could give me a hug. I wish I could wrap my arms around that girl I was and tell her that it wasn’t her fault and that she didn’t deserve this. But there’s no going back. Only forward.
There was a long time that I couldn’t look back. It was too painful. I felt dumb. I was ashamed. But then it dawned on me that by not dealing with it I was sending a terrible message to my kids. I looked at my sons and imagined the future. I never wanted a daughter-in-law looking at my son the way I looked at my husband. I never wanted any woman to fear my sons or to hate them. I looked at my daughter and knew that it would kill me to ever see her in a relationship that was abusive. I loved my kids and I knew that the best way to love them was to break the cycle of abuse.
I had to look at the past and understand what happened. It was no longer about blaming me but trying to understand why I missed so many red flags. They were easy to see in hindsight but why did I miss them at all? Looking back I can tell you there were many red flags not just for me but for my family. We all saw them yet we found ways to excuse or justify his behavior. Why did we do that? All of us?
As I sit here and write this I still have questions though I’m much stronger. I still want to go back and hug that girl that I was and I want to hug that woman who was afraid to leave for so many reasons. I want to share my story because there are many others out there who think they are alone or that nobody will believe them or understand or they are just too fearful to leave. And there are others who don’t think they are victims. When confronted they will turn around, like I did, and look to see who is there. I want to be there. I want them to turn around and see me or at least me through my story and know that there is help and there is hope.
Peggy is a mom and student at The CUNY School of Professional Studies. Peggy hopes to change the perceptions about what a victim looks like as well as raise awareness about domestic violence. Peggy believes it is possible to break the cycle.