Ten Years of Unpacking

March 21, 2008:  I knew the call would come. I’d been bracing myself for it all morning. Tense and rigid, as if that would somehow protect me.

“You sent the police to the house?! You BITCH! Like you haven’t caused enough of a shit storm already?!”

I lost track of what else was said and how long it went on. It was my husband – I’ll call him ‘T’ – responding to the divorce complaint I had told him would be delivered by the Sheriff’s department, because that’s how all such notices were delivered. But he, in complete denial and believing himself to be a special sort of victim, was convinced I sent the police to deliver it simply because I was evil.

He continued his rant as he usually did, reading from the document out loud into my phone’s voice mail. I had long ago stopped answering his calls. Imagine the following being shouted at the top of his lungs. He shouted them like they were questions:

Comes now the Plaintiff and respectfully represents unto this Court as follows: 

That during the marriage of the parties, the Defendant treated the Plaintiff in a manner which was both cruel and abusive, and the Plaintiff, because of the Defendant’s behavior, feared for her safety and well-being?

That as a result of the Defendant’s mistreatment and cruelty, the Plaintiff on the 30th day of July, 2007, was forced to leave the marital abode and has since that date lived separate and apart from the Defendant without and cohabitation and without interruption?

That on various times and on numerous occasions during the marriage of the parties, the Defendant did verbally and emotionally assault and abuse the Plaintiff? These actions have caused the Plaintiff severe mental anguish, emotional distress, and psychological harm, and the Plaintiff, because of the Defendant’s behavior, feared for her safety and well-being?

In December 2005, Defendant locked Plaintiff out of the house at 11:30 pm on a cold evening by standing at the front door holding the deadbolt in the locked position with his hands?

He has refused to contribute financially to the marriage, despite the Plaintiff’s requests that he do so?

In July 2006, Defendant became angry with the Plaintiff, intimidating her by physically backing her into a corner, arguing with her and exhibiting irrational behavior? Defendant told Plaintiff that “maybe you needed a bullet in your head”? Then Plaintiff told Defendant she was frightened, and wanted to leave the home, Defendant physically blocked her, violently grabbed her arms, inflicting bruises upon her arms, and threw her to the bed shouting that she “wasn’t leaving this house”?

During the past year, Defendant has become increasingly critical and insulting towards the Plaintiff. He has told the Plaintiff that he hated her “fucking guts,” called her “selfish, “greedy,” “stupid,” and “naïve” on many occasions?

That the Defendant has by his actions placed the Complainant in fear of mental and physical harm?

The Defendant’s continuous course of mental and physical abuse have completely subverted the marital relationship, and rendered it intolerable?

“What is your fucking problem?! You know I would never hurt you (long pause) unless I lost it! And what is this shit about ‘threw her onto the bed shouting that she wasn’t leaving this house’? I only did that because you had no business leaving the house!”

Yes, he said those things on a recorded message. I still have it on tape after transferring all of the voice mails in preparation for potential court hearings. He said these things as if I was his property.

Ten years ago today, I moved out of my own home with three hired private security guards, armed with handguns and ready to use them if they had to. That sunny Monday morning, I left the house dressed in a suit, kissed T goodbye to maintain a sense of normalcy, drove to my parents’ house not too far away, changed my mailing address and clothes, emailed my boss and my client that I would be out for two days due to a family emergency, waited for the private detective / security agency to call me with the okay to meet, and drove back down to the house to gather whatever belongings I could. I knew that would be the last time for a long time that I could go anywhere near that townhouse.

On Tuesday, I made an appointment with a therapist and spent the rest of the day having a pity party for myself and ignoring call after call from T.

On Wednesday I went back to work and presented the results of an actuarial report to my client’s CFO and a room full of VPs as if nothing ever happened. By the time I got out of that meeting, I had close to 15 voice mails shouting, among other things, “You are MY wife and you WILL come home!”

He had possession of the house, furniture, a plethora of kitchen appliances and my entire jewelry collection, accidentally left behind in the chaos, but he no longer had possession of me, and that threw him into a tailspin that would last for two and a half years.

I had everything that mattered to me: photography equipment; art portfolios; financial records; computer; every negative for every photo I’d ever taken; journals; enough clothes to get by; my grandma’s paintings and other family heirlooms. What becomes important to you in a time of crisis will tell you something about yourself if you pay attention. I had gradually moved most of these things out during the ongoing renovation of the townhouse and stashed them in what would be my new living arrangement at my friend’s condo. Some of them were housed in the tiny storage unit I had rented with cash using my newly established PO box as my address.

I had left once before. Most women attempt to leave more than once before leaving for good, or before losing their life at the hands of the abuser. T had threatened my life many times, overtly and by insinuation. The incidents listed in the divorce complaint were a small example of what had transpired over the last couple years before I left. Omitted from the list is an incident that happened on Christmas Eve, 2006.

T had known all day that we were going to my parents’ house that Christmas Eve, as we did most years. Instead of getting ready, he had chosen to stay on the couch watching TV. We were chronically late for everything due to this behavior and I decided today would be different. When the time came, I matter-of-factly said I was heading out and that he could join us later if he wanted to. This triggered a reaction that would lead to a three-day crisis. A tantrum ensued. I maintained my composure and headed to my parents’ house. He never did show up or call and I was determined to have a “normal” evening with my family. I made up a story that he had gone to his mom’s. I made up cover stories frequently to avoid telling anyone what was really going on.

After we opened gifts, I headed over to a local pool hall and bar with my brother and his girlfriend for a few drinks, as had become our custom. Finally, after holding my secret for so long, I sat down with deliberation, hung my purse under the bar with my phone inside, and decided to reveal my secret. Little by little, I told them some things that were happening. I told them I was scared and that T’s irrational behavior was escalating. I told them I knew I needed to leave but I had no idea how to do it. Neither did they.

When I got in my car to go home, I checked my phone and saw message after message from T. My heart was pounding. The messages, with voice and temper escalating, indicated that T’s van had been broken down on the DC beltway and he ended up calling AAA. I wasn’t sure I believed him, as I didn’t believe much of anything that he said those days, but I knew what I would find when I arrived home. The house was completely dark. I suspected I would find T sitting in the dark basement, as had happened many times before. But this time was different. The house was dark, yes. But this time I could not open the basement door. This confused me since that door didn’t have a lock. I knocked, yelled “hello” and tried to call his cell phone. No answer at all. Passive aggressive behavior had become the new normal, so I went upstairs and got in bed. A few minutes later, I heard an unidentifiable ripping noise that I later learned was T pulling duct tape from the perimeter of the basement door. He had duct taped it shut to keep me out. For what purpose, I’ll never know. But that action, while not violent, was the creepiest thing that he’d done to date. It was more than anger. It was simply irrational, and it made me wonder just how irrational he could become.

I was almost asleep when I heard feet pounding up the stairs. Jumping out of bed, I saw him come stomping into the bedroom already yelling before I could even see his face. I looked at the clock and noted the time. He berated me for what seemed like hours, only stopping to catch his breath. I stood in the middle of the room pinching my leg, a technique I had read about that interrogation victims used: self-inflicted pain to distract themselves from externally inflicted discomfort. I waited and waited for the yelling to stop, and when it did, I looked at the clock to find an hour and twenty minutes had passed. He stomped downstairs and went to sleep on the couch. I went back to bed with a plan. I would get up early (if I was still alive), grab a toothbrush, run out the door and head to my parents’ house. I thought no further than that.

I showed up at my parents’ front door on Christmas Day in jeans and a flannel shirt, with my purse and a toothbrush… in tears. The next two days were spent trying to convince T that we needed to be apart for a bit while he got help. I drove back to my neighborhood to get a few of my things, calling him first from the local grocery store parking lot:

  • Call #1: “Go ahead and come here. I’ll be waiting for you.” (hang-up)
  • Call #2: “Go ahead; I’ll have your shit packed for you.” (hang-up)
  • Call #3: “Go ahead; I’ll throw all your shit on the curb.” (hang-up)
  • Call #4: “Don’t bother; I’m having the locks changed. I’m taking your shit to the dump. (hang-up)

The 5th call was to the Sheriff’s department, who told me they could send out a car, and that someone could escort me while I picked up some bare necessities. Or I could file a restraining order, which, they informed, usually just pissed off the abuser and caused the abuse to escalate.

By the 6th call, to my mom, I was sobbing like a child. We agreed it wasn’t safe for me to go home so I went back to my parents’ house and cried some more. I realized I had no idea what my rights were. Everything I owned was in my house, including my work laptop. According to the Sheriff’s department, my things were T’s things under Virginia law, and if he wanted to take all my stuff to the dump and change the locks, there wasn’t much I could do about it except change the locks again. We had joint accounts and if he wanted to, he could empty those as well.

Two days after Christmas he finally agreed to my terms: get psychological counseling and get a job. I would come home, and he would do those two things. I did come home. He never did those things. I knew he wouldn’t. I gradually began consulting with attorneys and moving what little money we had (all of which I had earned) into accounts that were in my name only.

I spent the next six months talking with my lawyer, planning to get out and disappear. Payments to my lawyer were made in cash. I set up a PO Box, a storage unit, made arrangements to move in with a high school friend who agreed to let me live there rent-free (I still had a mortgage to pay). I sought advice from a family friend who had already escaped an abusive situation, and from her son, a police officer who had been called to many domestic abuse situations. I kept a spare set of car keys in a magnetic box near the front door so I could grab it and run to my car if needed.

The most painful moment came when, after being referred to The Women’s Center in Vienna, VA for their domestic abuse advocacy services, I found an online checklist titled, “Are You Being Abused?” I read down the list and answered “yes” to almost every question. One might assume that after the above experiences and planning, I would have already acknowledged I was being abused. But I had never thought of myself as “that woman” before. That woman who I used to judge. That woman who I thought was weak or stupid. That women who I would silently ask, why don’t you just fucking leave? Surely I was not “that woman.” I was the bread-winner with the strong personality. I was not “that woman.” Except I was that woman. And until I accepted it, I don’t think I could have fully escaped the situation. I had never felt so ashamed and alone before that moment. How could I have let myself become that woman?

On July 30, 2007, when I finally moved out, I began to leave that woman behind and take the first step toward the woman I could become. It was like something straight out of a movie. The security team came in three separate vehicles. I’d asked for a low-key operation, and when I met with the first guy on the team up the street from my townhouse, it seemed my request had been honored. But when we got to the house, there was a black Escalade parked in front with “XYZ SECURITY” (I can’t remember the exact name) in bold letters on the side, and a license plate that read “BOND 007.” Seriously? One guy would stay near me while the second moved my stuff into my car, and the third would keep an eye on T. They insisted that if, at any time, they determined T’s behavior to be irrational, one of the guys would grab my arm and pull me out of the house. I was instructed not to resist if I wanted to stay alive.

T was always home, having become obsessed with multi-level marketing schemes but making zero money. He also owned a gun and had threatened to use it. We entered the house and one of the guys announced our presence and explained what we were going to do. They told T to maintain a safe distance. He did not. They warned him again, at which point T left and drove away. Most of my things were loaded into the car quickly. I had strategically arranged them in order of priority. But around 15 minutes later, T came back. Claiming this was extremely unusual behavior (abusers in this situation usually left and did not come back until much later), I got the arm pull and out we went. They seemed more shaken than I did in that moment. I had not done this before, but they had, and they knew enough to see that T’s behavior was potentially dangerous.

Two of the guys followed me in my packed-to-the-gills car up to the main intersection, flanking me on either side. The red light seemed to last forever. Some new-age chanting music was playing on a CD in my car. I hadn’t planned it that way, but the effect was surreal. It all hit me then. I was 40 years old. This car and everything in it was pretty much all that I owned. The man I had married – the man who was supposed to love and protect me – had instead threatened to kill me and was having an affair with the next-door neighbor to boot. I broke down. Tears flowed freely, my sobs drowning out the new-age chanting music. I know the security team must have seen me crying but I didn’t look at them.

They escorted me down five miles of local roadways to I95 to ensure I wasn’t followed. I headed north to my new “room” in Arlington and the two guards veered off in opposite directions like an air combat formation disbanding after battle.

When I finally told the rest of my friends and family, they weren’t surprised about the breakup. They had seen us growing apart for years, noting T’s pie in the sky attitude about the multi-level marketing schemes while I pragmatically worked my way through college and the CPA exam. But everyone was surprised about the abuse. Some had a hard time believing it until I let them read the email rants and listen to the voice mails that went on for so long the recordings cut off while he was still talking. The rants went on for two and a half years until the final property settlement hearing in early 2010. T has since dropped off the grid. But it took until a few weeks ago to fully unwind the financial ramifications of the divorce, the townhouse having gone “under water” financially after the 2008 collapse. It was sold in 2016 and my tax return just recently filed.

My attorney, who had specialized in family law for decades with a focus on domestic abuse cases, said T was one of the most difficult people she had ever tried to reason with.

My therapist, who had also practiced for decades, said if it wasn’t such a conflict of interest, and if T had been willing to undergo counseling, she would have taken him on as a patient purely from the standpoint of professional curiosity, as this was the most pronounced case of “projection” that she had ever come across. In his eyes, right to the last day of court, everything was my fault. His anger was laser-focused directly at me.

I think the only thing that spared me from being seriously stalked was that T thought the security guards were off-duty police, and that I was having an affair with one of them. I did nothing to deny it, thinking that might keep T from trying to find me.

I am not someone who is easily unsettled. I have a high tolerance for discomfort and I’ve been described as that person who is calm in a crisis. But this took its toll. Abuse takes many forms. I had no broken bones, no broken skin; only bruises and a broken spirit. The word “only” would seem to imply the abuse had less impact than intense physical violence but that is not the case. Over the past 10 years, I’ve struggled with PTSD and autoimmune issues – not unusual for survivors of domestic abuse. Federal officials estimate that the United States spends over $4 billion on the medical and mental health costs stemming from domestic abuse. And according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
  • 1 in 7 women and 1 in 18 men have been stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetime to the point in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.
  • The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%.
  • Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime.
  • 19% of domestic violence involves a weapon.
  • 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner; 94% of the victims of these murder suicides are female.

A couple years ago, I went to see a different attorney in the same law firm to draft estate planning documents. It was the first time being there since the last court date in early 2010. Just being there again brought be to the brink of panic. I quickly noticed the feeling and told myself I was safe now. My attorney was running late, so I struck up a conversation with the receptionist, noting that I had been to their firm before for my divorce case. The conversation was interrupted by a phone call, during which the receptionist began tearing up, saying, “I can’t believe it. She was just here in the office yesterday.” After hanging up, she explained to me that one of their clients who was scheduled for her final divorce hearing the next week, had been found stabbed to death in her kitchen. Noticing her three and five-year-old kids playing unsupervised in the front yard, a neighbor had called the police. Her name was Bonnie Black and her husband has been convicted of the murder and is now facing two life sentences. I sat there, waiting, thinking that could have been me.

I can’t believe how blessed I am now, 10 years later. I’m in a healthy, loving relationship, living in a beautiful home, financially able to work just part-time while starting an MA program in Creative Writing and moving in the direction of my dreams. I’ve made references to the abuse I felt trapped in so long ago – I’ve not been shy in talking about it, thinking it may help someone else to get out – but I have never written about it in detail until now. It’s taken that long to unpack the baggage.

I don’t write this to disparage T. He had his own fears and demons to conquer. I forgave him long ago. It took me much longer to forgive myself. I write this to face my own fear. To look back on what I did to get away and stay away. To recognize my own strength. I write this for all those who are still trapped and don’t see a way out. I write this hoping just one person reads it and decides to take the first step.

Resources:

The Women’s Center

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

 


“The Troubles” -U2

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Little by little they robbed and stole

Till someone else was in control

You think it’s easier

To put your finger on the trouble

When the trouble is you

And you think it’s easier

To know your own tricks

Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do

I have a will for survival

So you can hurt me and hurt me some more

I can live with denial

But you’re not my troubles anymore

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Little by little they robbed and stole

Till somebody else was in control

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Little by little they robbed and stole

Till someone else was in control

You think it’s easier

To give up on the trouble

If the trouble is destroying you

You think it’s easier

But before you threw me a rope

It was the one thing I could hold on to

I have a will for survival

So you can hurt me then hurt me some more

I can live with denial

But you’re not my troubles anymore

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Little by little they robbed and stole

Till someone else was in control

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Little by little they robbed and stole

Till someone else was in control

God knows it’s not easy

Taking on the shape of someone else’s pain

God now you can see me

I’m naked and I’m not afraid

My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Little by little they robbed and stole

Till someone else was in control

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Somebody stepped inside your soul

Little by little they robbed and stole

Till someone else was in control

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