Disclaimer: This post is based on real events. Certain names and details have been changed.
When I landed in the women’s shelter two years ago, I was afraid they’d send me home, straight back into the welcoming arms of my f**ked up, suicidal, psycho husband. My story of abuse, up to that point, lacked the epic Hollywood-style physical assault needed to prove I’d been abused. I didn’t have a single shred of physical evidence to prove anything. I had nothing that could be photographed, analyzed or measured. No gaping wounds, bruises, stitches, missing teeth, broken bones. Nothing!…except my journal—not my pastel Mary Engelbreit decoy diary—my white 3-ring binder. Hiding my heartfelt writings behind legal papers in a binder was the safest place to keep secrets from my ever-watchful husband.
The intake case worker, Alison, handed me a questionnaire on an old brown clip board. I held it on my lap as I struggled to answer each question. Just weeks before, friends, associates and my doctor convinced me that I was in an abusive marriage. Why could they see it but I couldn’t? I was grappling with the idea that it was true. If I didn’t believe it, how would anyone else believe it? And yet, deep down, I knew it was true.
My hands shook as I attempted to write my answers. The little boxes required yes and no answers. How could I possibly present the entirety of my situation in a twenty question survey? I put the pen down and attempted to explain my story. Alison listened politely for a while, then pointed to the clipboard and asked me to complete the remaining questions.
Each question seemed to taunt me, accusing me of overreacting, even though I was miserable. Privately, I wanted to die. Suicide had been on my mind for months, though I never would’ve followed through with it. Having cleaned up brain matter, bone shards and blood after three of my in-law’s deaths by gunshot, I knew, all too well, the pain it causes loved ones. Assholes! Hurting anyone, least of all my children, eliminated suicide as an option. I had, however, fantasized about a natural or possibly a natural-looking demise. I was almost fifty years old and my doctor had advised me to have a colonoscopy. I’d ignored her recommendation and had prayed, instead, for cancer. I own the book, Darwin Awards, and had read it cover to cover in search of ideas. A man died from an alcoholic enema and that seemed rather painless. But then I imagined what it would be like for my kids to explain my bizarre death to their curious friends and rejected the idea. A woman died after masturbating with a carrot; that visual image was even more disturbing.
Halfway through the survey, I gave up trying to complete it and handed it back to Alison, along with my binder. “Just read this.” I said, my voice quivering, “Everything you need to know is in there.”
She smiled kindly as she placed the binder and questionnaire back in my hands. “I know this is hard to do but we’re required to follow procedures. You’ll be fine. Just answer the questions to the best of your ability.”
I finally finished filling out the questionnaire and was given a packet of information, a pillow, sheets, blankets, toiletries, and a key to my room. I wandered into the common area and tried to acquaint myself with the place I’d call home for the next thirty days. As though in a trance, I opened and shut kitchen cabinets and drawers, looking but not really seeing anything inside of them. A woman sat at a large dining table watching me. I didn’t notice her until she spoke. “It gets easier with time,” she said.
Her words were comforting. And yet, I wondered if this heavyset woman, with stitches alongside her eye, would eventually hate me because I was slender, well-dressed, and claimed to be abused even though I bore no scars. I wondered if there was a pecking order in shelters similar to those in prisons. I wondered if all the women in the shelter would come to hate me. Afraid of their opinions, I decided to keep to myself as much as possible. Living at the shelter had its challenges–stories for another time–but my primary challenge was the events unfolding outside the shelter as I dealt with the destruction of my family unity. My husband left text messages and voicemails for me. I listened to them, but adhered to the rules of shelter and never responded. This didn’t keep his words from circling in my head. They haunted me day and night:
“If you leave me, YOU’RE to blame, not ME! I’m not the one running around claiming to be abused when you know I’ve never laid a hand on you.”
“You’re being dramatic…just like your mother.”
“You’re hell-bent on destroying our eternal family. For what, Lucy? Why would you do this to me…to us? How can you be so callous? How can you break the covenants of marriage? …the covenants you made at the alter of the temple…before God, angels, and witnesses!”
“Your decision will echo in eternity.”
“Do you see what you’re doing to us? You’re selfishness is killing me. It’s devastating the kids! Why would you do that to them? How can you be so unfeeling? You’re not the woman I thought you were. The woman I fell in love with would never put her own happiness before her children. Who are you? What happened to the Lucy I knew?”
A week after arriving at the shelter, I sat at the dining room table, dropped my head down and silently wept. My roommate, Chaliese, observed this quiet, almost imperceptible moment, and admonished me, “Don’t do it little Missy. Don’t you do it!”
Her response answered the main question I’d had about abuse:
An abuser can slap you around, punch you in the gut and kick you while you’re down without even being in the room. He can beat you down from miles away.
Chaliese knew what was happening. She knew that secret door to my soul was wide open and my perpetrator had walked right in and was whipping my ass with a cat o’ nine tails metal-spiked whip. Chaliese was a large, black, powerful woman who scared me shitless. I knew not to mess with her. I’d bought my safety with cigarettes–another interesting story because Mormons don’t smoke–new clothes for her to wear to court hearings, transportation in my car anywhere she wanted me to take her, and one prescription sleeping pill every night before bed. But at that moment, we connected heart to heart as friends. I felt her love. I knew I wasn’t hated by the women in the shelter as I’d once feared–quite the opposite. We’d all come to love each other as we’d helped each other in our fight for agency. Our beaten souls united us. As I got to know these women, I’d learned that almost every one of them had purposely pushed her abuser toward physical violence. “Why’d you do it?” I’d asked Cheliese—who, by then, I’d come to call my homie, a name she insisted I use after deciding I was useful to her and her kin. “Cuz he done make me think I’s crazy. I ain’t crazy. He’s the crazy one. He twists and turn the truth to where I start ta wondrin’ if he’s right. But he ain’t. No f**king way he gonna make me buy in ta his cockamamie bullshit. F**k yeah, I’m smarter than that. When he do that, sumthin ugly builds up inside o’ me ‘til I can’t take it no more. I gotta fight back. And, God Almighty, he’s a big man. I knew it when I started in on ‘im that I’s gonna get the shit kicked outta me. It was worth it tho’. Them bruises tell me it ain’t all in m’ head. He’s a Goddamn cunt-sucking mother f**ker.”
She paused. A smile crept across her face as she added, “An I love ‘im. Mmmm…mmm…mmm…. Damn it girlfriend, that man is goooood in bed! That’s why I’m thinkin a goin back to ‘im. Mmmm…mmm…mmm.”
Today, the cruelties my ex put into my head for all those years still sucker punch me. He taught me to take it in the gut and then turn a blind eye to it. Now, I’m fighting back, just like my homie taught me to do. I’m learning to turn a deaf ear to the words that echo within me. Some of the words are my ex’s words but sometimes the words are mine. Everyone, at times, has their own internal batterer. Mine can be f**king brutal when I open that secret door to my soul and allow it in. For me, turning a deaf ear to destructive thoughts is a thousand times harder than turning a blind eye to an abuser. It takes courage, time, and patience–and probably years of therapy–to kick the crazy shit outta yer own head. But, as Cheliese says, “It worth it.”
Note: Though this post was a memory of my experience at the women’s shelter, it actually has more to do with the shaming and shunning that was taking due to my disaffection with the Mormon church. I knew what members of the church were saying behind my back because I, too, had once voiced their same words about other dissenters. Members are trained to think and speak ill of anyone who leaves the fold. It’s how they deal with their cognitive dissonance.