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The Wedding

The Wedding

I was in crisis. It was the night before the big day and my family was just a half-hour away, checking into their hotel and beginning their weekend celebration. No one called me. No one texted. I sat in the dark wondering whether anyone worried about my well-being or safety. Would someone decide to come over and check on me? Would anyone send me a message saying they missed me? The answer was no.

I sat in silence staring at the clock. Then I glanced up at my loft. I stared at the railing blankly. I closed my eyes and imagined grabbing my sheets, or a belt, wrapping it around my neck and jumping over the railing. I imagined the sensation of feeling my neck snap and I imagined the release from all of the built-up pain. I wondered if the railing would hold and I wondered how long it would take for someone to find me. 

Then I thought about my abuser’s suicide threats and how often I’d lectured him about the damage that would do to his kids. I felt ashamed and I started to cry. What had happened to me? How did I get here? How could I survive this? I cried myself to sleep that night, hoping I’d never wake up again. I was sure I didn’t have the strength to face the next day.

And when the next morning arrived on schedule, I realized nothing was going to change and I would have to spend this excruciating day in solitude. I told one of my brothers that I had made extravagant weekend plans, but the truth was I had no idea what I could do to ease the pain. So I made no plans at all. 

I drove to a mall that morning just to get out of my apartment. I texted the bride on the way in, saying “I love you, I hope you feel me today because I WILL be there.” There were only a few stores in this mall situated in a depressed central Pennsylvania town. Retail had been decimated by Walmart and it was obvious that the mall was nothing more than a hangout for old people to get together and walk in circles. I followed their cue and trudged aimlessly for about a half-hour. I could feel my heart in my throat as I choked back tears. This was a waste of time, and I decided to just go home. 

As I was driving, the bride texted me a reply. It simply said, “I love you.” There was no, “I want you there after all”, no last-minute second thoughts or invitation. She destroyed me and I sobbed.

Back at home, I closed the shades and laid in the dark on the couch. I stayed there in fetal position all afternoon in a state of dissociation. A few minutes before the ceremony, I texted my younger brother and asked him to send me some photos. He agreed to do it but never did, not even one. At 4 pm, the scheduled start of the ceremony, I grabbed a bottle of wine, climbed back on the couch and cried. I loved her so much and I fucking hated her.

A half-hour later, my oldest brother sent a text asking if I was alone. When I replied, “yes”, he told me he was on his way. He stayed at the wedding long enough to see the ceremony, but he couldn’t stay knowing I was sitting at home by myself. So he left the reception, grabbed some beer and came to hang out with me. When he got there, he put his arms around me, said he was sorry and held me while I cried. Then he started to cry and said he felt sick for me.

My brother was genuinely upset for me and I was grateful that he was there. But at the same time, I thought, “Why now? It’s too late. You should have protested BEFORE she did this to me”. Nevertheless, he kept me company for hours that night. He kept me from contemplating jumping over that goddamn railing and he has continued to watch over me with every step of my recovery. He was the only member of my family concerned enough to reach out while the rest of them gathered and ate and celebrated their pseudomutuality at my expense. 

Big Brother

Big Brother

I had three brothers.

One was much older than me and when I was growing up he was rarely around. I thought he was cool. He was a drummer, then an actor. He moved to NYC and I watched him on TV commercials, soap operas and even in a few movies. Our lives were polar opposites. He was the oldest boy and I was the youngest girl. He was graduating high school and entering adulthood when I was graduating from kindergarten.

In a way, we were virtual strangers because of our age difference. But we also had a few things in common. While everyone else had dark brown eyes and hair, our eyes were more green and our hair more auburn. We also shared similar tastes in music and a passion for theater and the arts. And finally, we shared the disdain of our mother who was more openly antagonistic towards us than our siblings.

The second brother was closest to me in age, being just over two years older. He made a daily practice of bullying me verbally and physically. He’d pin me down and punch me in the stomach repeatedly until I couldn’t breathe. If I cried, mom would tell me to shut up and my brother would say “we’re just playing!” The only weapon I had was my teeth, so I’d bite him to get him off me. And mom would shove a bar of soap in my mouth and hold my mouth closed. This brother would defend me from the neighborhood bullies and then say “You’re MY punching bag”.

My third brother was three years younger than me. He was the golden child, easygoing and adorable. Everyone loved him, including me. I dressed him, played with him and took care of him like he was my very own baby. We shared interests and friends growing up and we never fought. He was my best friend for most of my life.

Then the unthinkable happened and I discovered my brothers’ true characters. When my ex-husband tried to murder me, my oldest brother acted as my liaison with law enforcement which pissed off my ex-husband and his family. He stuck by my side even when the victim-blaming began which caused friction between him and the rest of my family.

When my ex-husband launched a smear campaign that resulted in absolute rejection by my children, my oldest brother refused to let me suffer alone. While the rest of my family celebrated the wedding that I was banned from, he came to sit with me so I wouldn’t be alone. He listened to me, held me in his arms while I cried and even cried with me.

When I acted out on social media and displayed my hysterical mental state in all its ugliness, my big brother remained in touch to make sure I was okay. While he shared his opinion about my activities, he never once condemned me. My two other brothers told me I was depraved and said they didn’t want to see me again.

My oldest brother remained in contact with the detective on my case. He accompanied me to court. He and his wife went to the domestic violence center and sat in on a session with my therapist. He called me when he knew I was suicidal. He never gave up on me when I shut him out because I was full of grief and anger and despair.

My other brothers backed my ex-husband in court when he was negotiating a plea bargain and they visited him when he needed moral support. They also slut-shamed me when they didn’t have all the facts. My number one brother didn’t have all the facts either, but he believed in me and his support was unconditional.

I wrote a blog called Amnesiac Shadows which is about the day I left Boston to begin my new life in Seattle. I sent a copy to my big brother because he is a main character in my story.

He replied “Isn’t it cathartic when we capture through art, writing or music, our deepest and most personal experiences, first for ourselves, to better comprehend important events in our lives, and then to share, so others may see and understand more deeply. I still regret that I was unable to grasp your situation earlier and provide more help. However, I am eternally grateful to you for providing me with the chance to act, finally, as a brother should.  Your ability to literally rise from the ashes has been and continues to be, most inspiring. You are amazing.”

I love my big brother. He took a lot of shit from my family for supporting me, but he never wavered. And ironically, he apologized to me for not doing enough. He never hurt me, but he was sorry because he thought he didn’t help me as much as he could have. I admire and respect my brother. And I know my dad would have been proud of the way he cared for me when no one else would.

Digital Abuse

Digital Abuse

Being in a relationship does not mean your partner should have complete control over your every move. It’s not okay for anyone to force you to lose your individuality or autonomy to prove your faithfulness and commitment to the relationship.

It sounds logical and obvious to most, but to some of us, standing up for our rights is easier said than done. We are all too familiar with our partners’ toxic outbursts, silent treatment, or physical retaliation or threats (with or without weapons). We take on the burden of not setting our abusers off in order to protect ourselves and our children. We walk on eggshells and aim to please until we’re embedded deeply into the web of coercive control and we lose our sense of self.

Among the many facets of domestic violence is digital abuse, a form of verbal and/or emotional abuse that can include unwanted, repeated calls or text messages, pressure to send nudes and using social networking sites to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate an intimate partner. This type of abuse is particularly widespread among teens in dating relationships. But it can happen to anyone and it did happen to me.

In my experience, my ex-husband stalked my on-line activities, policed who I interacted with and coerced me to send nudes. We had been together since I was 16 and he intimidated and controlled me from the start, so this was what I knew. And I stayed in that web of coercive control for years because I thought our relationship was normal.

But when his jealousy over my social media friendships started escalating, I became angry about his irrational behavior, and I finally decided to stand up for my rights. So he lit my house on fire. I had invested my life enabling him to control me at such a high level that he felt justified to kill me when I stepped out of line. I almost died because I decided that I had the right to my own digital autonomy, regardless of his demands.

Know the warning signs of digital abuse. Protect yourself. Teach your children that these behaviors are unacceptable BEFORE they start dating. Spread the word about digital abuse in relationships by drawing a clear line in the sand about unacceptable behaviors. Don’t become so deeply embedded in the web of control that you end up in a situation like mine.

You are being abused if your partner:

  • Tells you who you can or can’t be friends with on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Facebook, etc.
  • Uses sites like Facebook, Twitter, and others to keep constant tabs on you.
  • Sends you negative, insulting or even threatening emails, messages, tweets, etc.
  • Puts you down in their status updates.
  • Sends you unwanted, explicit pictures or video and/or demands you send some in return.
  • Steals or insists to be given your passwords.
  • Constantly texts you and makes you feel like you can’t be separated from your phone.
  • Looks through your phone frequently, checks up on your pictures, texts and outgoing calls.

Together, we can break the silence about every form of domestic violence.

A Letter to Angus

A Letter to Angus

To Angus

Dear Angus,

I don’t think there has been one day since the fire that I haven’t thought about you. I can still picture you snoring on your little bed on the floor right beside me, your paws twitching as if you were running in your dreams.

You hadn’t run in a very long time. You were old, blind, somewhat deaf and your little legs could barely carry you upstairs. So I carried you up to our bedroom every night and we snuggled. You’d lick my face and make grunting sounds and your tail would wag furiously before we’d both settle down for the evening. It was our nightly ritual, cuddles, kisses and then your loud snores would mingle with whatever book I was reading. I’d laugh because you were so damn adorable and so very loveable. You were my little boy.

When I heard those frightening sounds coming from downstairs, I should have grabbed you. I should have carried you downstairs and out the front door to safety. But I didn’t know, Angus. It all happened so fast. I didn’t smell smoke. I knew something was terribly wrong because of the loud pop and then his screams. I should have taken you with me and I’m so sorry.

When I saw him in flames, I ran toward the source instead of back upstairs to you. I forgot about you, Angus. I forgot and I failed you. When I did remember, I tried to save you. I got halfway upstairs, but the smoke was thick and I began choking. So I went outside and screamed. The neighbors started showing and I ran back in the house because I was determined to reach you. I tried crawling on my hands and knees, but I only made it inside the bedroom doorway. You were about 6 feet from me, but I had to leave you behind. I am so very sorry.

A firefighter told me you were probably gone quickly because the smoke would have instantly suffocated your little lungs. He said he was sure you died peacefully. But I know you died violently. I know you fell through the floor to the living room below. I know you died alone in a violent blaze.

For months after the fire, I kept thinking I heard your little grunts. Sometimes you’d appear in the corner of my eye and I’d turn toward you, but it was all my imagination. I’m haunted by your memory, Angus. I loved you like one of my children and sometimes I feel like I should have given my life for you, as I would for them. I raised you from infancy to old man. You were my family, the only family who loved me unconditionally.

You will always be my little Angly Pangly, my piggly wiggly, my little boy. You will always have a special place in my heart.

Love,

Mummy

Angus
Coercive Control

Coercive Control

What is your first thought when you hear the words domestic violence? Most people imagine an abuser beating, kicking, choking, using a weapon on their victim, etc. But beyond physical violence, there are other methods of abuse used on victims such as financial, sexual and emotional abuse. Coercive control, a concept developed by Dr. Evan Stark, is an act or a pattern of acts or tactics consisting of threats, humiliation, and intimidation which, in Stark’s own words, demonstrate “how men entrap women in everyday life.”

It’s not a one-time event. It is a pattern of behavior used to take away the victim’s freedom and sense of self. It’s a violation of a victim’s autonomy and human rights. Over time, the abuser strips the victim of their civil liberties and establishes control. Victims are isolated, degraded, gaslighted through mind-games and micromanagement of their lives. Their whereabouts, phone calls, and social activity are constantly monitored and condemned. The abuser maintains a perpetual watch on their victim and the rules are always changing, which leaves the victim guessing what’s deemed acceptable.

The abuser establishes his rules based on his own idea of how the victim should behave. This includes financial control, expectations of her domestic duties, parenting, sexual performance, work and social life. The victim of coercive control becomes a hostage in an existence dictated by their abuser. The constant monitoring and punishment for not living up to extreme standards leave victims confused and afraid. The omnipotence of the abuser and their ever-changing expectations erode the victim’s sense of stability and every day is spent walking on eggshells.

Coercive control is a sort of brainwashing where a victim internalizes the expectations and tries to adapt in order to survive. It’s always lurking in the background of her everyday life; enduring and ever-threatening.  Coercive control eats away at a victim’s strength to function daily and to survive.

If you suspect coercive control is happening to you, then chances are it is. The good news is that there are people who can and want to help you. There are local domestic violence centers available nationwide. Or you can call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for assistance. You don’t have to live like this.

Secrets

Secrets

Dear Elaine,

Do you remember the time we were at a breakfast buffet in Virginia Beach? You were chatting with us about the breakfast offerings and detailing what you could and couldn’t eat because of your medical condition. That’s when Jim cut you off with a humiliating tirade about your “goddamn bitching” and then told you to “shut the fuck up”. I remember the awkward silence as we sat around the table staring straight down at our plates. I was embarrassed and angry for you.

John told me that Jim used to park the station wagon in front of his favorite bar and leave your babies there while he went inside and indulged in a few drinks. He claimed that you told Jim you’d leave him if he didn’t stop drinking and that Jim never touched another drink after that.

Knowing what I know about your son, I have a feeling that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Did Jim hide bottles of liquor all over the house and in the car? Did he sneak down to the basement every half-hour so he could indulge when you weren’t looking? Did you know, but stay willfully ignorant, like me? Or did you confront him every once in a while about his behavior, also like me?

If he was toxic enough to verbally assault and humiliate you in public that one time, how many other times did he vent his rage on you? Did he ever push you? Restrain you from leaving? Kick down a door? Did he throw things at you? Did he threaten to kill himself or you?

I know the Catholic narrative all too well. Suffer in silence like a good girl. Don’t set him off. Be submissive and you’ll be safe. You survived, Elaine, but I wonder if you would do it over again. I wonder if you know that I knew your secret. I wonder if you knew mine.

You were a good mother-in-law. I’m sorry it had to be like this. I am sorry that you have to spend the rest of your days carrying the burden of toxic masculinity. I think about you every day and wonder how you remain so stoic. I think about the night before my wedding, when you got the call that your best friend was shot and killed by her husband, my teacher, in the library parking lot. You handled the shock and trauma with such grace and dignity, but you must have been dying inside.

Your close friend was a domestic violence victim. And I believe you are a survivor.

I Didn’t Call You

I Didn’t Call You

Dear Mom,

It was Monday, but I didn’t call you. I knew if I did call, we would have that same old conversation. You would tell me about your wonderful children, the ones who cater to you every day while you sit with your kitty on your lap. Then you’d tell me that’s what happens when you get old. You’d chuckle and say “You’ll see” while I’d hold my breath and choke on the pain. After that, you’d ask me if I still lived in Seattle and when I would be back to visit, just like your wonderful children do. I’d explain my circumstances to you once again, fight back the tears and say goodbye.

I decided that I’ve been feeling too good to risk making that phone call. I understand that guilt will begin to eat away at me, but it’s far less damaging than the pain of having that recurring conversation with you. I’ve worked very hard to reach this point in my recovery and I realize I’m fragile right now. I am cautiously trying out this peaceful attitude like a new pair of shoes. I need to sort of break myself in and make sure I stay as comfortable as I felt when I first tried on the “new me” shoes.

I’m sorry that you don’t hear from me as often as others and I hope you understand why. But honestly, I think it’s too late for us to have this conversation because I think your failing cognitive skills would leave us both frustrated anyway.

I’ll try to call you next Monday, or maybe the one after that. So many things are happening in my life and there is so much I’d like to say to you. But most of all, I’d just love to say that I would have believed you when you were traumatized. I would have held you, comforted you and told you that no matter what I would always love and be there for you.

But for now, I will leave you in the capable care of your children.

Traumatic Memory Loss

Traumatic Memory Loss

A couple of days ago, I had the opportunity to share my domestic violence story. As I talked about the history of my abusive relationship, the escalation of the violence and the devastating fire, I had no problem describing specific details that I remembered so well. But, as always, once I talked about the horror of watching my abuser run past me engulfed in flames and the guilt of failing to rescue my dog, my recollections became sketchy.

I can only remember fragmented conversations with the police, medical personnel, and even my family. There are also huge chunks of time that are devoid of any memories at all. People have told me that I said this or did that, but I can’t fit the patchy bits of memory together to form a complete timeline of events. It’s frustrating and sometimes scary. But most of all, it hurts knowing people choose to believe it’s nothing more than a convenient excuse for why I wasn’t acting like myself anymore. I’ve apologized for anything I may have said or done to offend, but always with the caveat that I don’t remember because that is the truth.

To judge someone in the midst of a traumatic crisis because you don’t like their behavior causes secondary victimization and says a lot more about you than it does about them. I can’t change how people reacted after the violence and I’ve accepted that and moved on.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged by one of my listeners when she made a comment validating my memory loss. When I stated that I felt foolish because I had amnesia, she said “It’s proven neuroscience.” She explained that traumatic events rewire our brains in order to help us cope. I’ve read a lot about the subject and I know it’s true, but I was relieved to know that she believed me. I needed that approval to feel safe and secure.

Memory loss is nature’s way of providing a built-in survival skill and defense mechanism so we can protect ourselves from psychological damage. Emotionally traumatic events can lead to dissociative amnesia and I have no doubt that it happened to me. When posttraumatic me was met with disapproval, I lost what little security I had left. That undermined my view of myself and increased my self-doubt.

Now I feel prepared to treat myself with greater empathy. I understand the damage that trauma causes the brain because I’ve experienced it firsthand. I am grateful to those who believe in and support me and I am ready to pay it forward by supporting other domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. Victim-blaming is never acceptable. I choose to believe and support survivors and I hope that by telling my story I am empowering others to speak out.

Creating

Creating

I always loved music and art when I was growing up. I played flute and guitar, I sang and acted in community theater. And I loved to draw. Unfortunately, I lost myself for years because my abuser was jealous.

But out of the tragedy, I realized I have been given a gift. My new spouse not only encourages my creativity but has been the catalyst for so much of it. I’ve written graphic short stories and poetry and I’ve drawn and learned to paint. Some of my work has even been published in literary magazines. I’ve also learned how to produce electronic music and I’ve been able to sing again. We have produced 7 albums so far. The first one was rough because we were on opposite coasts and the vocals consisted of me screaming into my phone in a bathroom. I was a hysterical, hot mess and you can hear it in my shrill voice. It’s not very good. But it cataloged my feelings so soon after the trauma.

I think we’ve gotten a little better over time. I’m certainly no Lady Gaga and there’s only so much mixing and production we can do with the equipment we have. But there are a few songs that are personal to me because they are about domestic violence and how it feels to be in an abusive relationship. I’m proud of these songs because I was able to express myself creatively which was cathartic for someone who never had a chance to nurture their creativity. Some of my favorites are She Doesn’t Know, Tinderbox, How Would You Feel and Again Begin.

But the song that I’m proudest of is But I Love You, which I wrote about my relationship with my abuser. He always said he would be with me forever and I believe he meant in death too.

The Bond

The Bond

I met her a few years ago. I had only been in Seattle for two weeks when she arrived at my door. We spent some awkward alone time chatting about mundane things and I didn’t think she liked me. At the time, I didn’t think anyone really liked me and I was fiercely protective of the shredded remnants of my heart.

She was so smart and talented and lovely and I just knew I’d never measure up to her or the other people in her life. Nevertheless, we embarked on a mutually cautious journey of getting to know each other. I wasn’t her mother, her sister or her aunt, but I hoped that someday I could be her friend and she’d be mine.

Over the past few years, our paths have continued to cross. I’ve spent time with her over the holidays in LA, here in Seattle when she visited for a couple of weeks and also on a trip to Paris. We’ve played music together, cooked together, walked, talked, shopped and laughed. And after a slow and steady process of getting to know each other, we began to develop a mutual sense of trust between us.

This morning, she texted me about a situation and I offered my opinion and advice. I never expected the conversation to take the turn that it did, which left me crying like a baby. I cry virtually every day ever since the trauma, but rarely tears of joy.

She told me “I always feel like I’m venting to you. I hope this isn’t too much of a one-sided relationship.”

I replied, “Actually if I can be honest, I love our friendship. I appreciate that you even want to hear my opinions.”

That’s when she said, “You are an empathy queen!”. She sent me a drawing that she made of figures sitting around a table with names over their heads. I was surprised to see that I was sitting next to her at the table. She said, “That’s my table. When I make big decisions, I usually consult these people.”

The tears flowed and I thanked her for having a place for me at her table. When I told her she was exceptional and that I admired her, she told me the feeling was mutual.

It may sound insignificant to most, but this is another step toward recovery and regrowth. I was sure I had failed life a few years ago. But it turns out I was just in the wrong life with the wrong people.