Leaving. Living.

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It started to go off the rails quite soon after I told him I was leaving.  Gradually, as the reality of the magnitude of what I was doing sunk in for him, the angrier he became.  When I told him I’d hired a lawyer and wanted to discuss what it would look like to divide our finances he got angry.  When I explained how child support might work and that I’d been informed about my rights he got angry.

He tried to convince me that we could put the money for the children into an account that we’d both have access to.  That I could buy the things they needed from there.  I explained calmly that child support didn’t work that way, that he’d have to pay me and that I could legally use the money for anything related to caring for the children.  He was furious.  I tried to explain that child support wasn’t just for the children’s clothes and activities, but for anything related to their care.  That I could use it for things like utilities bills (so they had heat and electricity) or repairs to the car (if the brakes were broken and it was unsafe for them) etc.   He got angrier.  We fought.  I was so hurt because I felt like he didn’t trust me to manage money, even though I’d been paying our bills and managing household finances for our entire marriage.  I didn’t understand at that point, that the issue was power and control.  I wanted him to trust me.  I kept trying to explain.  He got very angry.  I thought he might hit me, but he just yelled at me to drop it, to walk away.  We were in the basement of our house, near the stairs.  He wanted me to go upstairs to let him calm down (he’d been sleeping in the basement as we were separated within the same house).   A part of me knew I should go upstairs, but I was so hurt and so upset and I needed him to understand.   He was full of rage and I was afraid and crying.

When I didn’t go upstairs he got angrier.  He smashed his head through the drywall of the basement wall.  I didn’t understand why he would destroy his own property.   I was the one leaving, this would soon be his house, not ours.  Why damage it?

I was really scared at this point and I wanted to leave.  I told him I wanted to take the children to my parents’ house until he calmed down.  I needed to calm down as well.  I couldn’t stop crying and shaking.   I went up to the main floor, but he blocked my way to the upstairs, blocking me from the kids.  He told me I could go to my parents’ but I couldn’t take the kids.  I kept trying to get by him and he kept holding me back.  I told him I was going to call the police.  At this point we were upstairs, near my older daughter’s bedroom.   He snarled at me “if  you call the police I will tell them you are mentally ill and hysterical and they won’t believe you.  They will believe me.”

Defeated, I knew he was right.  I was too afraid to call.  I grabbed my medication and some things and ran out to my car, locked myself in and sobbed.  It was late.  Maybe midnight.  I cried and cried.  I called a friend who’d told me that I could call him if I had to leave in an emergency.  He didn’t pick up.  I was too afraid to tell my parents.  I wasn’t willing to leave my kids.

I remember him coming out to the car.  Asking me, through the glass, to come into the house.  Eventually he went back inside the house.  I cried in the car for a long time before realizing I was out of options.  I went back into the house, went upstairs and went to sleep.

I could have run with the kids while he was sleeping.  But I was too afraid.  We lived together, separately for a few more weeks after that night.    More recently, I learned that my daughter heard us fighting and me crying and she was afraid.   She never told me at the time.

He took the kids to visit his mother.  I packed my belongings and moved them to my parents garage.   I tried to make the house look as nice as possible before the children returned, so they wouldn’t be afraid.  I finished staining the new fence.  I  hung pictures of his family in place of the ones I took down.  I spent hours looking through my photo albums, taking out all the ones of his family that I thought he’d want to keep before packing the albums.  I left our wedding album on the bookshelf.  I spent 10 days mostly alone, slowly taking apart my life and putting it into boxes.

When he came back from the trip he was cold.  He was a white hot, cold rage.  His eyes were changed.  I knew on some level he was dangerous, but I still wanted to believe it would be okay.  I wanted to believe we could separate, and co-parent peacefully in two separate houses.

When he came back there were 3 nights until the day I took possession of my new place.  He told me he would be sleeping in our bedroom now and I could sleep downstairs.  I didn’t argue.  I slept on the couch and lying numb and afraid in my daughter’s bed.  I remember having a terrible nightmare on the last night I spent in that house.  It was 4 years ago tonight.  I dreamed that one of my friends died.  It was horrible and sad and I woke up crying.

I woke up and he was gone.  The kids had a medical appointment and then we were supposed to go to my parents’ house for the night.  I packed up some last things, the children’s clothing and left them by the front door for my Dad to pick up while we were at the appointment.   I got an email from him telling me that the plan had changed, that he wouldn’t allow me to take the children.  He insisted he would come to get them later in the day, that he didn’t want them exposed to the move and my new house empty.  He said the kids would stay with him most of the time until school started.  I didn’t agree, I tried to negotiate with him. I remember lying curled up on the floor of my childhood bedroom, crying, sobbing on the phone with him trying to convince him to allow the children to stay with me that night.  I’d already been away from them 10 days and they were confused and upset.

My Dad tried to pick up the kids things and he wouldn’t allow him into the house.  He was angry and like an animal.  My Dad asked him to calm down but he wouldn’t listen.  He allowed my Dad to take the things that belonged to me, but not the children’s clothing.

Before dinner, he showed up at my parents’ house.  He wanted the kids.  We were standing on the front porch and I was asking him to let the kids stay with me.  He dragged them away from me.  They were crying, especially my older child.  He took them anyway.  Took them out to dinner to try to bribe them into being okay with what had happened.

I remember lying on the floor of the bedroom, sobbing.  Trying to reach my lawyer.  Trying to get advice about what to do.  Feeling defeated, less than 12 hours after leaving him.  It already felt like too much.  I was scared and I knew that I’d been living in a dream world for the past 6 weeks, thinking we could live separately and co-parent.

But it would take me another few months, until October of that year, before I truly realized the depths he would go to to take my kids away.  It would be a few more months until I  realized it was hopeless and there was no chance of a reconciliation, common ground, shared parenting or co-operation.

I spent a few more months telling people that it was “just sexual abuse” and that he was basically a good guy.  I spent a few more months believing that it was about sex.  I spent a few more months believing before someone told me that abuse was about power and control, and that I had to stop making excuses for him and acknowledge the severity of what was happening.

Every year since then I’ve spent the last few days of August re-living every moment of those last few weeks I spent in my old life.  I might have already written this exact blog post last year.  Every year I struggle.   Every year I feel hopeless.  Every year I’m forced to confront the reality that my marriage was abusive, that my ex-husband was very definitely NOT “basically a good guy.”

This year, I received the verdict of the four year long custody battle and family law trial only a few weeks before the anniversary of the leaving.

It took me a year to plan to leave and to execute that plan.  It took me 4 more years to get custody of my children.

It took 5 years to leave him.  5 years.

I feel like a chapter in my life has closed.  The court verdict drew a line after the last sentence on the final page of the book of my leaving.   The book closed.  I got free.  For a moment I breathed out and my entire body has almost collapsed with the exhaustion of the fight finally ending.  I had to hold it together for 5 years.  I had to be sane for 5 years.  I had to cope.  I had to go to work.  I had to act normally, when inside I felt like I was being torn apart with the grief of knowing my children were being abused and I couldn’t stop it.  I felt like my brain shattered into a million pieces during the last few days of court when my children’s psychological records were disclosed, against their wishes and the wishes of their psychologist, to their father. I felt like I would not survive the anxiety of waiting over 8 months for the verdict of the trial.

But I did survive.  I’m not the same person I was 5 years ago.  I’m not the same person I was a year ago.  This has changed me.  It has fundamentally shifted any belief I had in the world being a fair and just place.  It has created a dark, sad, hopeless place inside of me that I don’t know how to soothe.

And almost as soon as I breathed out.  Almost as soon as the chapter book closed, with the verdict in my favour…before I had a chance to rest or come to a full stop…while I was still almost immobile with exhaustion…

It carried on.  A new book opened.  A book full of empty blank pages.  I have no idea what the future holds.  I know that it contains more struggles and more fear.  I know that my kids are still not safe, that he will still emotionally abuse them when he has access to them.  I know that I will continue to have to fight for my trans daughter’s right to exist safely.  I know that I will need to fight every day to hold onto hope and to see the good in the world.

The leaving has ended.

I just don’t know what the living has in store for us.

4 years out…still trapped

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Photo credit: http://www.katewmak.com/

This week marks the 4 year anniversary of the separation from my ex.  Four years since the night I told him it was over and I was leaving.  Four years since I made the biggest and most difficult decision of my life.  6 weeks later, I moved into my own home and started my new life as a single mother of two.

If I had known back then how difficult leaving would be, I would probably be dead.  If I had known 4 years ago that the court process would still be ongoing.  If I had known he was going to abuse my children and I would be helpless to prevent it.  If I had known that after four years, I would still be caught, living my life trying to prevent him from hurting us.

If I had known these things I would have stayed.  If I had known that leaving would become a marathon of epic proportions, with no end in sight, I would have ended my life.

In the past four years I have endured all of my worst fears.  I have had to face the fact that my absolute worst fear (my own children experiencing abuse) has not only occurred, but is ongoing and society refuses to step in to stop it.  I live with things I thought I could not survive and I live with them daily.

I’ve had to survive things that no person should have to survive and so have my children.  Leaving didn’t save me.  It didn’t save them.  It didn’t cure my PTSD because I’m still being abused by him.

Some days, even recently, I have wanted to give up.  When I started to feel as suicidal, as hopeless, as trapped and as depressed as when I was living with him, it felt unbearable.  Many days feel unbearable, but each day I survive.  I have to survive to create a safe home for my children.

It’s crucial to help people and support them in exiting abusive situations, but we have to stop perpetuating the destructive myth that “just leaving” is the solution.  We have to stop perpetuating the myth that “just leaving” will solve all the problems.  If your abuser is the parent of your children, you can never “just leave” because you are forced to interact with them on a regular basis until your children are adults and possibly longer.

Of course I had to leave.  I wouldn’t have survived there much longer.

Of course it’s better for my children to have a happy, healthy mother 50% of the time rather than a dead mother 100% of the time.

Of course I made the right decision, the only decision.

Of course there are a number of things in my life that have improved since leaving and I’m grateful for them.

But that doesn’t make it any less painful to look back over 4 years of struggling to fully extricate myself from narcissistic abuse.  4 years of betrayals and incompetence by every major social program I’ve interacted with (CAS, legal, court, police, hospital, school).

So let’s support domestic abuse survivors to leave, but let’s also support them for as long as it takes after.  Let’s recognize and acknowledge that the abuse does not end the moment she walks out the door.  Let’s support survivors who regularly doubt whether or not they should have left, because the legal process is so traumatic and inaccessible.  Let’s support survivors who have to co-parent with narcissits.

Create a community of support circling the survivor and keep it in place for as long as she needs it.  Because she will need it, especially at the times she feels as bad, or worse than she did in the relationship.

So this week I mark 4 years down, a life time of healing to go!

Why Women Don’t Leave

If I knew  what leaving meant, I probably would have stayed.

I was naive, and I’m glad.  I’m glad that I left and that I’ve been forced to fight, but nobody should have to fight this hard to be believed.

As I walked into the court house yesterday, over three years after leaving, my first step was to check with the information desk to find out what court room my matter was being heard in.   I checked the list and realized that we were scheduled in a small motions room, rather than a full sized court room.

Why does that matter?  Why does the size of the court room matter so much that I’m writing a blog post about it?

I rode the elevator, arrived at the correct floor and met my lawyer.  My anxiety grew and grew as I thought about the room.  I could feel panic starting, my body was tensing, all the preparations I’d done for the day were quickly flying out the window.

I opened the door of the courtroom just a crack and peered inside.

It was as I’d feared.  A small motions room, a large conference table filled the room, with the judge’s dias at one end and a small witness box to the side.  The whole room was not much bigger than an average sized dining room.   A conference table, with 3 chairs along each side, spoke of mediation, settlement, concord, agreement and discussion.

All I could think about was this:

This is the reason why women don’t leave.  Women don’t leave because they don’t want to spend two days, trapped in a tiny court room, sitting face to face with their abuser, unable to speak or move, except on the judge’s schedule.

What could be more triggering for a survivor of violence?  Not only do I have to sit in the room with him, I have to sit in an assigned chair (no choice), I have to sit quietly (I can’t speak),  I can’t stand, move or stretch to ground myself and I have to listen to various people speak about traumatic experiences in my life as if I was not there.   If I react emotionally in any way, he will see me and he will have power over me.  If I cry, he will have power over me.  If I get angry, he will have power over me.   It’s a situation of power and control and lack of options and I have no choice but to stay in it.

Luckily today I have support person with me, otherwise I feel like I wouldn’t even be able to sit in that room.  Every part of me screams NO!  I don’t want to go in there.  I want to rebel!  I want to fight! I want to yell at everyone that this system is unfair, unjust, unhealthy and re-traumatizing.

But that isn’t an option.  Instead, I sit in the room.  I clench my hands together as tightly as I can underneath the table.  My whole body is shaking, as it does as I’m trying desperately to process trauma that is overwhelming me.  I try to tremble in a way that is not noticeable, or could be interpreted as shivering from the cold.  I try to breathe.  I write notes and doodle continuously.    I try to tune out and disassociate enough to be able to stay sitting in the room, but not so much that it’s obvious, or that I can’t stay focused.   I listen to what is being said, but I try to detach myself emotionally from it.  I try to put myself into a frame of mind where I’m observing someone else’s life.  But it doesn’t really work.

As the day wears on, the oxygen in the room starts to disappear.  I feel like I can’t breathe.  I have a harder time sitting still.  My leg starts to shake,.  my body trembles again, almost imperceptibly.   I try to fidget just a little, but in a way that doesn’t come across as anxious.   I start to feel panicky, like I need to run out of the room.  All my muscles start to hurt from holding them tense, from shaking, from sitting still, from being unnatural and on edge for hours at a time.   The time that goes too slowly.  I feel like I’m in a place where I will never escape back to reality.    I’m stuck in court world, no windows, no escape, it’s own set of rules and rituals.  I’m a stranger in a strange land.

And right across the table from me.   Emotionally nonreactive, as if this whole ordeal is uneventful and ordinary, sits my abuser.  Calm and collected and emotionally blunted.   And I feel a sense of confusion.   Who is this stranger?

How did we get here?   It’s a blur of months and years.  It’s a blur of “just get through this next few months.”  It’s a blur of “just keep going for the kids.”  It’s a blur of coping and surviving.

This is why women don’t leave.

Because the process of leaving doesn’t end the day she walks out the door.

Survivors need compassion when they can’t leave because it’s too hard.

They need help to leave because it’s too hard to do alone.

And they need help, patience, compassion and validation long after they leave.  Because the process of leaving can be as traumatic as the relationship itself.   Because it’s too hard to do alone.

It was “just” sexual abuse…

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I’ve been thinking about the barriers I faced in coming forward about being sexually abused, as a child and as an adult.  For people who have not experience sexual abuse, the most immediate response to someone disclosing is often: “why didn’t you tell someone?”  or “why didn’t you tell someone sooner?” or my personal favourite “why didn’t you fight back/scream/run?”

The reality is I didn’t even realize I was being abused until long after the abusers had intertwined their lives with mine.

The reality is that abuse in relationships does always not look the way you might expect it to.

The reality is that I spent a long time, as an adult, in counseling, volunteering at a women’s centre etc…stating to other reasonable adults “it was ‘just’ sexual abuse.”  I made all sorts of excuses for why it didn’t count, why it wasn’t important, why it wasn’t real abuse, why I didn’t deserve help, why other people had it worse off, why I was making a big deal over nothing, why I didn’t want to tell anyone and ruin his life etc.

Because they never hit me, it wasn’t abuse.  Because they didn’t threaten to kill me, it wasn’t abuse.  Because I said yes some of the time, it wasn’t abuse.

I was (and am) pretty mean to myself and a lot of my perceptions were just plain wrong.

I think it takes a lot of strength and courage to really come face to face with the fact that your romantic relationship is unhealthy, abusive and actively making you sick.  It’s not something that comes easily, turning your back on the father of your children.

I told myself the abuse didn’t count.  I knew I felt uncomfortable, I knew it very early on in both relationships.  I saw the red flags, but somehow I interpreted them differently.  I wanted to believe that things weren’t really that bad.  I wanted to believe I could help the abusers change.  That they were depressed, that they needed me.  That their needs were more important than my own.  I wanted to believe that love would be enough.

I did start to talk about the abuse.  I did tell people.  In some ways, I wasn’t really challenged by those people.  I think many of them instinctively knew I wasn’t ready to leave.  They knew I needed time to come to the realization that it was abuse and that I needed to get out.  For the most part they didn’t push me.  I was still ambivalent about the abuser and I still wanted things to “work out.”

One day someone I volunteered with called me out.  I mentioned something about it being “just” sexual abuse.  She challenged me.  She sat there and said “what you are saying doesn’t make sense.  It’s not ‘just’ sexual abuse.”  I think it was the first time someone had openly called me out on my own denial.  This was in the month or 2 leading up to my decision to leave.

At the time I left him I still believed it was “just” sexual abuse.  I told almost nobody why I was leaving.  I thought that moving would solve the problem, because since it was “just” sexual abuse I would be safe.

I was wrong.  Sexual assault is not about sex.   It’s about power and control.  It’s about a level of narcissism that exists in this world that allows one person to disregard the consent of another person.  Within any type of relationship it’s about manipulation, it’s about gaslighting, it’s about making the victim feel crazy, worthless, broken, damaged, and most of all dependent on the abuser.   The sex is a tool of control.  It rarely happens in isolation.  Emotional abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, threats, coercion…it’s all part of the same package.  Even if the package is wrapped in a disguise that makes you believe that sex is the only issue and that otherwise the person is “basically a good guy.”

At the end of the day, if someone doesn’t respect your consent sexually, they don’t respect you.  They aren’t “basically a good person.”  They are a person who does not value your basic right to say yes or no in a given situation.  They are a person who puts their own needs before yours, and possibly even denies your needs are real, valid or even exist.

It’s a long road back from that place.  The place where you question whether your needs are reasonable, valid or even exist.  It’s a long way back from the place where you believe that your consent is not relevant, where your needs are not relevant.  Where you are blamed for not wanting to consent, even in a situation where there is no trust, no safety and almost no relationship left.

I’m writing this to tell you:

  1. if you have been abused, it’s never “just” anything.  Your experience is valid and real.  If you are uncomfortable, afraid, hurt, feeling crazy then trust yourself.  It’s abuse.
  2.  if you have been abused and even if you have not, please remember that there is no specific way an abuse survivor looks, copes or experiences violence.  There may be no physical marks, there may be denial, there may be almost no signs at all.  Trust yourself, if you have the feeling something isn’t right in your relationship or in the relationship of someone you care about, reach out.  Get help, talk it over, ask gentle questions, be there to support yourself or the person you care about.
  3. believe the survivor.  If you are the survivor, believe yourself
  4. if you still blame yourself, or the person you care about is blaming themselves, tell them it is not their fault.  Repeat step 3.  Repeat step 3 again.  Repeat it again and again and again.

I believe you.  It’s not your fault.  It counts.  It’s is real.  You deserve support.

 

The moment you know…

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I think for every person who experiences ongoing abuse there is a moment:  a moment when the person knows it is over.  They know they are not willing to take even one more minute of lying, gaslighting, physical violence, sexual assault or devaluing of their humanity.  At that  moment the survivor becomes empowered and powerful.

Some survivors are forced to stay with their abuser after this point.  Do not equate what I’m describing as “just leave” or “why didn’t you just leave?”   Leaving is complicated.  There are lots of reasons why someone is not able to leave.  Never judge a survivor for how long it takes them to walk away from violence.  Everyone has access to different options at different points in their lives.  Even if they are still living in violence, do not judge, for at that time they need your support more than ever.

I’m not talking just about leaving.  I’m talking about the moment of realization “enough is enough!”  After that point the survivor begins to take her power back, even if it is just internally.  She realizes she is worth more than the abuse and that a good portion, if not everything, the abuser tells her is untrue and designed to control and confuse.

Everyone has a breaking point, and after that point they begin to grow stronger in the broken places.

I remember the moment I decided that I couldn’t stay married any longer.   I’d played around with the idea of leaving for about a year, seriously for about 13 months.  I tried to leave 6 months before, but was lured back with promises of him attending counseling.

The sexual assault followed a predictable pattern.  It always involved me saying no when I was awake, or saying nothing when I was awake.  Later in the marriage I wrote my “no” in letters, emails and discussed it verbally during the day.  I explicitly spelled out in numerous ways that I did not consent to sex or sexual touching when I was asleep.   During the majority of the marriage I took varying doses of psychiatric medications that made me tired, sleepy, drugged, slower to respond, and quicker to fall back asleep.  I would fall asleep and wake up 45-60 minutes later (at the time when the medication was at it’s peak strength) to him touching me sexually or initiating sex.  I won’t get into all the details here, but it was non-consenting by definition, since I was asleep and drugged.  He knew I would say no if he asked me when I was fully conscious, so he just waited until I was asleep and impaired.  The medication also can make it harder for me to form thoughts or speak clearly and quickly, it delays my reaction times, especially around speaking.

When I did wake up I sometimes said no again, I sometimes froze and he eventually stopped, sometimes I moved his hand away, sometimes silently went along with it, and rarely I said yes once I was awake.  Even when I said yes when I woke up, I still experienced it as assault, because my body was already reacting physiologically by the time I was conscious.  Then it sometimes felt easier to go along with it because it bought me more time before he would ask or take again.

The last time we had sex was the end of our marriage.  Yes, ironically I can say that the sex was so awful I left him because of it.

I’d already been thinking about leaving, many times when he assaulted me I lay there thinking “This will be the last time”  or “I could just get up and walk out”  but I stayed because I had kids and I was afraid.

The last time was in early July, around July 7.  It was one of the times where he started touching me while I was asleep and when I woke up I decided to say yes.   We had sex.  I felt awful.  I knew it was over.  I realized that if I felt violated even when I said  yes, then there was no hope.  And I still felt upset that he couldn’t understand that if the sex started while I was asleep I didn’t have the chance to consent.

The next few days I spoke to my counselor at the abused women’s centre.  I spoke to one of my best friends, who had consistently been giving me the advice to tell my parents, get help, consider leaving.  Everything just clicked and a few days later I told him it was over.

From then on I never really looked back.  It took me 7 weeks to move out into a place of my own.  Those weeks were a living hell.  But I was never confused again.  I never wondered if I was doing the right thing or not.   I felt empowered to take some action to reclaim my life.

Sadly, in my story moving did not completely stop the abuse, and this week almost 3 years later, I watched someone else hit that breaking point.  Someone very close to me.  My own child.  I’m not sure whether or not to be absolutely devastated at what she’s been going through, or glowing with pride and inspiration at how empowered and strong she is.  At such a young age she is more self assured, confident and has better self esteem that I do as an adult.  She’s learned things as a child that I was taught in therapy as an adult.

At the same time I feel like the world’s worst and best parent.  I feel like the worst parent because I feel responsible for what they’ve gone through, and I feel like the best parent because I have, on my own, created empathetic, strong, caring and brave children who care about social justice and equality.  Sometimes I feel we are good people in spite of, despite and almost to spite him.  Being a kind person is one thing he can never take away and that empower us.

I’m not sure whether I’m triggered or inspired.  It’s been an emotional, upside down week.  I feel like I’ve been fighting to justify my entire existence for 3 years, probably longer.  I’m tired.  I’m so tired.  I sometimes feel I don’t have the strength to carry on, but I also don’t have the option to stop.  It’s a marathon.  Sometimes the decision to leave can happen in a split second, but the leaving can take a life time.