Thursday, January 13, 2011

I Know Where I've Been. . . But do You?

1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 
I want to start a hard conversation today. I have a rough past. While I haven't been quiet or secretive about it, I think maybe I've still been too reserved. I haven't been vocal enough about my past when my story is a story that needs to be told. Domestic abuse is ignored- especially the hard to define emotional and verbal breeds of abuse. Sure, there are programs to help the abused, there are support groups and other resources. The problem is, once a woman (or a man- I'm not trying to be sexist, but look at the statistics on this one) has come out of an abusive situation, she doesn't share her story. We're constantly hearing about drug addicts, gang members, women who have had abortions, sex or pornography addicts, homeless folks and so many more who have turned their lives around and broken out of their hurtful patterns, but when it comes to spousal abuse, we get out and clam up. I'm not clamming up any more. I'm sharing my story. You need to hear it. And I hope that soon, you will hear another story of escaping abuse in an upcoming Monday Morning Interview with my best friend, Barbi. I would like to corner Jodie (who is mentioned in the narrative below) for an MMI as well to talk about this. 
The story below is an adaptation from something I wrote that was totally unrelated to the blog.  After editing, rereading and sending this off for it's intended use, I realized that God had more than just that purpose in mind for this piece of writing.  This was a healing process for me as well and made me really think about how I'm telling my story. How many people REALLY know my story?

I was 16 when my family fell apart. I was pissed off at the world, insecure and pretty sure that the world was so messed up, it just wasn't worth it. We were completely cut off from the church we'd grown up in, which was basically our extended family because we lived so far from our family. We were told we had 2 weeks to pack up and move back across the country to be with the extended family my sister and I barely knew. The guy I'd been dating before I moved cheated on me after I moved. I felt like nobody cared at all and that I just wasn't worth a whole lot. I felt alone and worthless.
When he started paying attention to me, it felt really nice. Here was someone who said he wanted to make me his whole world. The problem was, he wanted me to make him my whole world too. I didn't see it at the time, but he slowly started to cut me off from my friends and family. He'd treat people badly so they wouldn't come around. He would twist a situation to make it sound like they were a bad person and it was in my best interest that I wasn't around them anymore.
He also knew how to play on my insecurities. The more insecure I felt, the more secure he was that I wasn't going to leave or stop doing things the way he wanted. The worse I felt about myself as a person, the more power he had in the relationship. It started off with just little things like teasing me sarcastically about being smart. I scored really high on the SAT and he barely got a college-entrance score on it- so he made fun of me, telling me I was book smart, but I was still stupid. He convinced me that if we ever split up, my world would fall apart. He's the reason I didn't take one of several full-ride college scholarships for musical theater. He told me I'd never succeed and I'd just wind up jobless with a worthless degree. This was all before we were ever married.
Even though everyone around me saw that I had lost who I was and sacrificed myself for this unhealthy relationship, I kept telling myself they didn't know him like I did. He kept telling me they didn't know me like he did. I knew they were wrong and I loved him. So I married him and things went from “bad news” to “rock bottom.”
I only had friends that he had made first. I didn't talk to my family because I just “knew” they were a bunch of selfish idiots who didn't really care about my well being. (Despite the fact that they'd helped us with security deposits, car loans and more) I was alone and very isolated. It got worse when I got pregnant a few months after we got married. He, and several members of his family, took to telling me all the time how fat I was. “You big cow. . . mooooooo!” I was lucky that he loved me, he'd tell me, because noone else would want a stupid heifer like me.
It wasn't until after my daughter was born that the physical abuse started and by then I sort of believed that I deserved it. If he'd started getting physical early in our relationship, I'd still have been strong enough to get out. It didn't happen until he was comfortable enough that I wasn't going anywhere. At first, he'd just push me, slap me, something “little” like that. Gradually, it escalated.
December 10, 2002, we were driving down our hill to go to a doctor's appointment for him. I was driving. He said something nasty to me and something in me riled up and got strong for a minute. I turned to him and said, “You know what?! I'm sorry you have a crummy life, but I'm tired of being your punching bag whenever anything else in the world pisses you off!”
I'll never forget his reaction. He turned bright red and started screaming, “YOU WANT TO SEE WHAT A PUNCHING BAG IS?! I'LL SHOW YOU A *#&$ing PUNCHING BAG!” And then he started punching me. I stopped the car, got out and started walking home. He got in the driver's seat and started following me in the car, saying nasty things out the window at me the whole way. I knew that moment I had let it go way too far. I had no idea what I was going to do- remember, I was feeling like I had absolutely noone else in my life- but I knew I had to get out. If not for myself, I had to do it for my daughter.
Two months later, my close friend, Jodie said to me the only thing that anyone had said to me that stuck. Everyone else either told me I had to leave or they just didn't say anything and they worried about me silently. One day, I was talking to Jodie on the phone and told her a little more about what was going on than I'd ever told her before. I'd just been so embarrassed. Jodie lovingly said to me, “Sweetie, if you don't get out right now, you're never going to be any more than a statistic.” I knew she was right. And I knew I deserved more than to just be a statistic. I left that night. February 28, 2003.
Being the single mom of a toddler sucks. It's hard. It's thankless. You want the best for your child, but sometimes, there's just no telling how you're going to be able to afford to even put food on the table. I remember one time, I walked to the Kuhn's down the street and bought milk, eggs, bread and a tiny $0.99 bag of kitten chow (Dr. Pepper and Coca Cola have seen me through some really hard times) and I had to pay with a few dollars worth of change I'd scraped up out of jars and piggy banks and the car. I had no idea how we were going to eat for the rest of the week, but at least we'd have something for a day or two.
Obviously, we all survived. I still have ghosts though. Sometimes I can still hear in my head, “Don't bother. You're not smart enough or good enough to succeed.” Sometimes, I do something dumb and I'm convinced that Tim's going to figure out he's way too good for me and leave me for someone more worthwhile. Right now, I'm working through Beth Moore's “Breaking Free” Bible study and you know what my chains I have to break free from are? You guessed it: Insecurity and lack of self worth.
It doesn't have to be physical to be abuse. In fact, verbal and emotional abuse generally leave deeper, longer lasting scars. Abuse is any time someone is regularly treating you in a hurtful or demeaning way. Any time someone is using you to get ahead in a way that leaves you behind- that's abuse. Classic abusive patterns include: when the other person doesn't get their way and says hurtful things to you that leave you upset and unsure of the relationship. When a person consistently threatens to leave any time they get angry, that's a manipulative, abusive pattern. When you feel like you're walking on eggshells to please a person and are constantly worried about upsetting them- you're stuck in an abusive pattern. If you find yourself growing farther and farther from friends and family because of the relationship, there is probably some control or abuse of some sort going on. We all slip up sometimes and say things we don't mean: hurtful things. We all lose our cool from time to time. The worry lies when it becomes a regular way of talking to and treating the people around us. No one deserves to be talked to like that on a regular basis, no matter the excuse.
After I left my abusive marriage, I found out that several of the neighbors where we lived, who went to our church and called themselves my friends, as well as the pastor, had witnessed what was going on. They heard or saw the emotional, verbal and physical abuse going on and never said a word to me or to my abuser. Love doesn't just sit by and watch someone get treated badly. If you know someone who you think is in an unhealthy or abusive marriage, the most loving thing you can do is gently talk to them about it. Everyone deserves to have a friend who is willing to speak up and tell them they are better than “just a statistic.”
I don't advocate divorce as a first course of action in a marital situation. Obviously, there are occasions when it's in the best interest and safety of a person, but overall I think the biggest danger to the “sanctity of marriage” is our country's shamefully high divorce rate. I say this as a divorced woman who has also counseled a friend to seek divorce. I don't say this to judge anyone who's been divorced for other reasons. I say this to communicate that I truly believe that healing can happen. I believe that even the most unhealthy of relationships can be turned around and be wonderful if both parties are willing to seek help. There are resources for free counseling. There are support groups for people who have had any sort of traumatic past. There are churches who are willing to surround a family and provide support as they work through issues. Either way, ignoring it is just asking for trouble.
If you are in an abusive situation- either as the abuser or the abused- and you want to talk to me, I will gladly have a conversation with you. Please feel free to use the “email me” link in my sidebar. If you have a story of breaking free from abuse (again: either as the abused or abuser) and you want to share your story here, email me. If you know someone who you think is in a bad situation and you want to have a conversation with me about how to approach it, email me. I don't have all the answers. But I do have experience and talking to someone who's been where we are is sometimes exactly the first step we need to take to get to where we need to be.
Let's start telling our stories.  Let's break the taboo that covers the topic of abuse.


  1. Charissa- I do not have an abusive marriage, but I grew up with a verbally and emotionally abusive father. Like your ex, my father would tell me that I was worthless, that I would never amount to anything. He once told me (when I was a size 10) that if I didn't graduate from college, all I would be able to do was be a hooker, but I'd better lose 10 lbs first (this from a man who weighed 350 lbs). He told me that I had to be able to support myself because if I was lucky enough to get married, I had to be ready to support myself WHEN (not if) my husband left me. He refused to tell people that I was a nurse because to him, that was an embarrassing career (should have been a doctor...). I been nearsighted since age six, but he would make me take my glasses off whenever he was around because they offended him and because I was too dependent on them.

    He was evil to my mom and brothers, too. My mom would wake up (and who looks good when they wake up?) and he would call her "the vision of loveliness." My youngest brother had cystic acne and my dad would tell him that he had a face like a "bag full of a$$holes."

    The good news is that when I became a Christian, I found a heavenly Father who healed all that up. When I became a mother, so much of what my father did to me haunted me, and I knew I had to seek counseling if I was to get past it. I had wonderful Christian counseling plus the privilege of a wise, loving hubby who grew up with supportive, loving parents.

    Even so, I still hear the echoes of my father and they can still hurt. Thank you for sharing your story. We need to remember that this is a life-long process, and that we CAN and MUST stop the cycle with our own children. I have always been supportive of my kids and would never do to them what my dad did to me. My father did not have Jesus in his life, but I do and raised my children in a home that was immersed in Jesus. It made all the difference.

    Donna W.

  2. Charissa, I'm going to have my daughters read this. When you were describing the beginning of this relationship, I was struck at how much it sounded like my boyfriend in high school. I've always thought of him as manipulative -- never thought of it as abuse. I'm more grateful than every now that God shut the door on that before it went too far. Thank you for sharing this!

  3. I have a very similar story, well the beginning of it anyway:

    I completely agree that more of us need to share, thank you.