Survivors Share Their Stories
The following letter was written to a women's group of which I am honored to be a part - Ladies of the Heart. It touched my soul, as I've been there, done that, and felt the author was telling my story but with different details. As an alcoholic in recovery for nearly 12 years, I have sponsored many women on the path to recovery and healing. With the exception of only one, each woman's story contained physical, sexual or emotional abuse. My own story contains all three, and although I have yet to put my personal story on the web (I will when I can figure out how to write it without too many family repercussions), I yearned to share CatNipped's story with all those I sponsor and all those who may need it. I asked permission and it was graciously given with only the request that we retain CatNipped's anonymity. I thank her from the bottom of my heart for having the courage and strength to share her story with us so that just maybe one woman somewhere will have the strength to save herself. It took me 13 years to get out of my own abusive relationship back in the days before the term "battered woman" was coined. Please, if you are now or ever have been in an abusive relationship - read this story - GET OUT! - there is help for you and you ARE strong enough to do it, no matter what you are being told. And remember, you ARE worth saving - save yourself. There is a link at the bottom which will take you to many more links where you can find help.
A LETTER TO YOUNG WOMEN IN TROUBLE
Dear Ladies of the Heart,
I have been reading the letters from some of our Sisters about the horrible things they are going through in their lives right now. Some of them sound like they are despairing and this frightens me. I can empathize with these Sisters, maybe somewhat better than most. You see I am an "older" Sister who has been in the exact same place. I know what it feels like, and I know how quickly you can consider ending the pain and the struggle. I know all this because I tried to commit suicide when I was younger.
I can't write down all of the terrible things I went through - that would fill a book. But I have to go into some detail to make others understand exactly what happened, and what I learned from it. So, here are just some of the things that have happened to me in the past - I've left out the worst. Please bear with me and be warned that this account is gritty and blunt.
I have two older brothers. When each was born my dad was disappointed. He was one of those rare men who dearly wanted a daughter. When I was born, he was overjoyed! He spoiled me unconscionably, and my every waking minute was spent on his lap. He taught me to read and write by the time I was two and a half, by the time I was four I could play Chess, Canasta, Go, and almost any card game. He didn't teach me anything after that, however. You see, my dad died when I was four and a half years old. From then on I grew up without the support of a father. I was, vaguely, resented by my mother - when she emerged from her grief and self-pity long enough to notice me. I was definitely resented by my brothers (who were both brighter and more able than I was but had never had even the four years of attention that I had). I felt very much alone within the remainder of my family.
Starting school was a nightmare. I was able to write in script, but I was forced to print, painfully slowly, by a teacher who didn't know what else to do with a bright kid. The principal of the school had convinced my mother that it was best not to skip me any grades, so that I could be "socialized" with the correct age group. My one vivid memory of that "socialization" was when the teacher asked the class who could spell cat. I jumped up and said, "I can spell antidisestablishmentarianism - A N T I D I.
." "SIT DOWN NOW!" the teacher screamed, "You're getting an F for the day for speaking out of turn and being a show-off!" Every face in the classroom was turned to me with a smirk, a few with tongues sticking out. Things quickly went downhill from there on out. The fact that I had (undiagnosed) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder didn't help.
For four years I kept tight rein on my excess of energy and was a "good" girl. I sat quietly in class, daydreaming, while the teacher and students droned on in their rote learning. I didn't bother the teachers with hard-to-answer questions, I didn't "show-off" the fact that I was years ahead of the current curriculum. But by the time I got to the fifth grade, I had had enough of the hypocrisy and boredom. I started to goof off with the one friend I'd ever made. Dee, herself, was as much of an outcast as I was. Her father was an alcoholic and extremely abusive to her. She often came to school with bruises and "strap marks" all over her body (which the teachers studiously ignored). We became the "Terrible Two". I no longer even pretended to pay attention in class. I was perfecting, instead, the subtle techniques of 'torturing teachers by creative distraction'. Throughout the rest of our school years Dee and I (though wisely kept separated by the teachers), assuaged our individual hurts with acts of defiance. Suffice it to say that this unscholarly behavior did not prepare me in any way for "further education". Besides which, I really didn't think I was smart enough for college! Teachers, back then, had been taught to keep secret from a child his or her IQ. They were especially careful not to give a child a "swelled head" by letting on, in any way, that that child might be "special". This went against the doctrine of conformity that was the McCarthy era. My mother helped promulgate this low self-image by always pointing out every negative thing she could about me.
As a teenager I suffered from extreme, gross acne. I had huge cysts all over my face almost all of the time. Between that, and my reputation as the weird smartass, I had no chance in hell of getting a date. I would be graduating from high school in 1969. In those days, still, girls were supposed to be engaged by their senior prom, or planning to go to college to catch a good husband. I panicked! My mother had gone beyond hinting that she couldn't support me for the rest of my life, and was stating outright that I had to get out of the house soon after graduation. I said yes to the first guy who actually asked the geek out. He was a friend of Dee. Turns out he was looking for someone just like me a 17 year-old with no self esteem, no hope of a "normal" life, easily cowed. I was conditioned into thinking that I was too stupid to go to college and make something of myself, and too stupid to find a decent job. It seemed that my only out was to marry him. I didn't know, then, that he was an alcoholic looking for a co-dependent.
I tried to cope by being the "perfect wife". I scrubbed and cleaned and washed and ironed until I couldn't stand up any more. I baked bread, I cooked everything from scratch. But it wasn't enough. According to my husband, I was a pitiful excuse for a wife, and that's why he had to go out drinking every night to forget his "problem" - me. Nothing I did was good enough to keep him home and satisfied with me. I was so ugly it was no wonder he had to find other women to bed.
When the first child came, I tried harder. My husband was even more disgusted with me than ever. Besides being a rotten wife, I was also a lousy mother. That's why he had to increase his drinking in order to forget his, now multiplied, "problems". One night, when I was pregnant with my second child, I was being a bad wife by not being "responsive" enough to his drunken pawing in bed. He raped me so brutally that I spent the next three days in the hospital and almost lost the baby.
By the time my children were 2 and 3, things were getting so bad that I figured the only solution was to get rid of the "problem" - me. I was convinced that I was such a bad wife and mother that my husband and children would be much better off if I were out of the picture. One night I took 30 Placadils (sleeping pills) and 50 Valiums (nerve pills). I woke up the next day in the emergency room, to doctors who were extremely surprised that I had come out of the coma. My husband went that same day to the county medical examiner and had the papers drawn up to commit me to a mental institution. The medical officer did not even examine me - he just signed the papers. (This was still back in the good-ole-boys days when legality meant little when a man was helping another man with a "difficult" woman.)
I'm really glad he did this though. Oh, not because of the wonderful treatment (their only therapy was drugs and shock treatment, which, after exhibiting a quite subdued demeanor, I was allowed to forgo - thank God!). No, it was because of the other patients that I met there. I met people who were really dysfunctional, and not just proclaimed so by a gibbering alcoholic. It was quite a wake-up call. The most profound meeting I had, however, was with another girl who had also tried to commit suicide. She traced all of her problems back to the fact that her mother had committed suicide when the girl was the age of my daughter. She felt that she was the one to blame for this. She thought that she was so bad that her mother had to kill herself just to get away from her. This really made me sit up and start thinking about what my kids were going through instead of just focusing on my own problems.
Since I wasn't eligible for drugs or shock treatment therapy, I was allowed to go home after just a month's confinement. I was remanded to a counselor who I was ordered to see regularly for the next year. This "counselor", a man, tried to teach me ways to please my husband so that he wouldn't be so "displeased" with me all the time. He did not once imply that the problem might be my husband! So I tried even harder, but this time for the kids' sakes, not his. I was determined that their father's drinking and their mother's faults would not interfere with their well being. I tried harder, and harder, and harder.
Every dollar I spent was questioned and I was castigated for wasting all of my husband's hard-earned money. Even though my husband earned the equivalent of $100,000 in today's dollars, my children and I wore rags. I suggested that I get a job to add to the income, but I was told I was too stupid to hold down a job. He said that nobody would want an uneducated, middle-aged housewife (I was under 30 at the time) and that I shouldn't even waste my time looking for work. He also said that only a scumbag would "abandon" her children to work outside the home. No, the only solution was for me to spend less!
Why was I was willing to put up with this all those the years? It was because he had convinced me that I had no other alternative. My mother wouldn't take me back home (her reply, when I asked, was, "You made your bed, now you lie in it"). I had no money. I was too stupid to find work. In other words, I was convinced that if I tried to leave, my kids and I would starve to death on the street. However, when the abuse started to turn to my children, I knew that I had to get out of the situation, for their sakes. Starving would be better than watching one of my children hurt.
Since I had no job and no money, and my mother wouldn't let me stay with her for even a night, there was no place for me to go (there weren't any women's shelters back then). So I told my husband that he had to leave. Of course he didn't think I was serious. He wouldn't leave, but I started acting as if he weren't there. I wouldn't talk to him; I wouldn't have sex with him. I didn't react in any way at all, even to his most abusive behavior. All those years of practicing passive, creative distraction on teachers was coming into play. You would be amazed at what "passive resistance", along with small, psychological tortures, can accomplish it can drive someone mad. I just had to be careful not to push him over the edge; he was at the stage of alcoholism where he was having "blackouts". But I succeeded! After six months he slammed out of the door saying that he expected to see me starving and begging on the streets in a month. I knew I had waited too long when I saw the kids jumping up and down on the sofa and shouting with joy at his departure. He left me with the house note, the car note, the $5,000 Sears bill, the $10,000 Visa bill, the $13,000 in medical bills, and every other bill that we had had a hard time paying - even with his salary (he drank most of it). He left me with something worse no self-esteem.
I took an application test at Shell Oil Company and was astonished when they seemed willing, even eager, to hire me. I started out making $11,000 gross pay, that came to about $8,000 net pay each year. But, because I was working, I didn't qualify for welfare, food stamps, or legal aid. Back then they didn't have effective agencies for collecting back child support. Of course, my husband was not going to "pay for the cow when he was no longer getting any milk!" There were times when weeks went by and the kids and I had nothing to eat but peanut butter on stale bread with no jelly (but we were infinitely happier than when we were eating steaks with him at the table)! I knew that I had to make more money and that I couldn't do it on a high school diploma alone. But I was much too stupid to go to college! Well, Dee had gotten tired of hearing this from me. She convinced me to take the "trial" test for Mensa that we found in an issue of OMNI magazine. I was flabbergasted when they invited me to take the official test, and even more surprised when I scored in the 99th percentile!
I still didn't get to college right away, there were too many bills that needed paying before I could squander precious money on classes. As soon as I started seeing a little financial daylight, I would get another "blow" from my, now, ex-husband. Once, I had to take my son to the hospital for stitches. I found out that my ex had cancelled all insurance on the kids! I had to take out insurance on them, and had one more emergency room visit to add to the stack of already mountainous medical bills (my children, like me, have ADHD, and were even more accident-prone than I was). This was more money that had to come out of my meager check now. I was constantly worried about my job because creditors would call and harass me at work. My ex and his drunken friends would also call constantly, day and night. I tried so hard to do well to compensate for this that, instead of getting fired, I got promotions. I'd gone from a geophysical clerk (coloring contour maps) to a geophysical data processor II. Shell was great about training their employees, and I soaked up the computer courses.
I finally got the car paid off and decided to spend all that "extra money" on some college courses so that I could move up and start making more money. The second night of class I emerged from the college to find that my car had been stolen. It turned out that my ex had taken it and left a broken down heap that he had been driving. We still hadn't done a property settlement (I couldn't afford the lawyer), so I had no legal recourse but to let him have it.
Well, I had finally had enough. My car was a brand new Dodge Colt that I had gone without eating to pay for. The car he had left me was a 20-year-old Grand Torino. It's windshield was cracked, the driver's side door wouldn't stay latched and swung open every time you made a turn, it had no brakes, and it smoked so badly I couldn't see out of the rear view mirror. And I had 30 miles to drive to work every day he lived two blocks from his work! I drove this clunker over to his house with the intention of stealing my car back. I parked it and went over to my car, got the kids in, and got in it myself. Nothing happened when I turned the key. I looked up and there on the porch stood my ex with the sparkplug wires in his hand. He leaned over drunkenly and yelled, "Ha, ha, it's community property and I can steal it and there's not a damn thing you can do about it bitch!"
I got back in the old heap and drove next door to the Stop 'n Go. There was a large grassy field between the store and the house where my ex was staying. The Colt was sitting in the drive way about a hundred yards away. I told the kids to get out of the car and to stand right in front of the door and NOT MOVE. I then got in the old clunker (which was as heavy as a tank) and turned the car so that it was facing the side of the Colt, across the field. I slammed my foot down on the accelerator as hard as I could. That old clunker shot across the field with a vengeance! I smashed into the side of the Colt so hard that my head hit the steering wheel and my lip started bleeding. I put the car in reverse and went all the way back across the field, shoved it back into drive, and shot across the field again. After doing this three times, the Colt was actually bent in two. Then I stuck my head out of the window and yelled at my astonished ex, "Ha, ha, it's community property and I can wreck it and there's not a damn thing you can do about it asshole!" He then did the stupidest thing I've ever seen anyone do. He started to come down off the porch towards me! I shoved the car back into drive and slammed the accelerator down, heading straight for him. He could have set the world record in sprinting as he ran back up to the porch! I yelled at him that he'd better run every time he saw me because I would kill him if he ever showed his face around me again. I yelled that when I wasn't packing a two-ton car I'd be packing a .45! Needless to say, he left the crazy woman alone after that. My kids still tease me and laugh about that story even today!
It sounds really silly, but that one incident really empowered me. I felt that I could stand up for myself now. I could yell back at the world that I was worth something. I was smart, and a fantastic mother (you've never seen such well-adjusted kids of an alcoholic!).
From then on nothing could stop me. Once I started to value myself, I found that other people valued me even more. I had the strength of a survivor. I had faced abuse and fought back against the abuser. I had faced financial ruin and found that happiness does not come from a fat bank account. I had faced hunger and found ways to find food. I had faced the fear of being alone and found that I liked myself enough to be alone and be at peace; and with this self-assurance, perversely, came more friends than ever. And, most important of all, I found that I could take care of myself and my children all on my own without needing anyone else, without having to "put up with" cruelty for the sake of a meal. I had the right to be happy and the right to be respected. I did not deserve to be abused nobody does! I learned that I didn't have to depend on anyone but myself. Then I was free to allow only the people I wanted into my life. It's a wonderful thing to not need anyone, because then you can become very choosy about who you want.
Today I am a Mensan, very happily married to another Mensan who values and respects me. My children are grown now. One is a handsome, successful model. The other is a very happy, beautiful housewife and the mother of my two beautiful granddaughters. Neither are scarred or traumatized by having had an alcoholic for a father and a co-dependent, neurotic for a mother. ; ) I have a successful career as a computer analyst. I have wonderful friends, great hobbies, and good health. I am ecstatically happy with my life at age 46. I would not trade places with my 25 year-old self for all the riches of the world.
What's the point of this long, long missive? It wasn't just to whine about what a hard life I had, or to brag about how heroic I was to get through it all. I wanted to make the younger ladies understand this one thing. Even if you are in what you think is a hopeless situation - even if you see no way out of the deep, dark depression that overwhelms you - even though nobody is there to lend you a hand or a spare dime - THINGS WILL GET BETTER! "This, too, shall pass." Nothing lasts forever, though some things seem to. Do you have absolutely no money to pay bills? Let them cut off the phone, let them take back the TV - man survived long before we had those things, they are not essential to survival. Is your husband abusing you? GET OUT NOW! There are places to go, and even if there weren't, being a street person is better than being a punching bag. Are you being evicted from your home? Find a cheaper place to live immediately - there is low-cost housing out there, and roaches and rats won't eat more of your food than you do. Man survived living in caves with saber-toothed tigers roaming the land - you can face a rodent or two. Do you have no money for food? I can tell you from experience that the body can survive on almost nothing. And that is the main point - YOU CAN SURVIVE IT. Eventually things will get better. And if you work hard at it they can get much better. You just have to grit your teeth and stop thinking in near-future terms only. If you take the easy way out, if you give up all hope and kill yourself, then there is no chance for things to get better. As long as you're alive there is some hope that your life will improve. And take it from someone who was in the deepest pits of hell and is now on the highest peaks of cloud nine - it does get better. I would never have believed, back then, what wonderful things I would have missed (a grandbaby's smile!) had I been successful in killing myself.
If you still think that not even a miracle could improve your lot, then I'd like you to think about this before you pick up that bottle of pills. What will you be leaving behind? Statistics show that many families of a suicide soon have another member do the same. The surviving family members are angry, not sympathetic, towards the suicide. And with the suicide no longer around, that anger gets directed inwards and becomes depression. A single suicide in a family can start a chain reaction. Children of suicides bear a burden of guilt like no other. Think about how lousy a person you would feel like if even your own mother had to kill herself to get away from you! Think about how low a child must feel to realize that the one person who is supposed to be their most trusted, loving support, does not love them enough to stick around and take care of them. And outside of the havoc you'll wreak on your own family, what will others think about you? Will they feel sorry for all the slights they made you while you were alive? Will they feel pity at all the torment you suffered that only death could ease? Will they say, "Oh if only I could have done something to help - been nicer to her
."? NO, THEY WILL NOT. They will tsk-tsk and remark about how unstable you always were. They will sneer in contempt at the cowardice of taking the easy way out. They will brag about how, unlike you, they've always been able to cope with their troubles. They will tell crude jokes about death and suicide to ease the vague fear they feel about it. BUT THEY WILL FORGET YOU EVER EXISTED IN LESS THAN TWO WEEKS TIME!
Do you still feel like swallowing those pills or picking up that razorblade? Well, think about just one more thing. I think that there was a reason for my "miraculous" recovery from my self-induced drug coma. I know there was still work for me to do rearing my children and making them independent and secure in their lives, but there is still something more than even that. I need to pass on what it took so long and so hard for me to learn. It's simply this: nobody can do anything TO you. They may be directing words or actions AT you, but they can't really touch the "you" inside. You are free to react in any way you choose. You can (and probably do, from habit) choose to feel depressed, sad, victimized, hurt, betrayed, ignored, or whatever else it is you are feeling when someone says or does something mean to you. But understand: YOU ARE DOING THIS TO YOURSELF! Only you have the power over what you are feeling at any given time. No one else can "impose" a feeling on you from the outside. For example, say someone says to you, "You are a lazy, worthless bitch". You think that they are making you feel bad or angry by saying this. But they aren't - they can't possibly control what you feel, only you can do that. They can only try to make you feel bad. You could just as well choose to be amused by what is said, laughing, and thinking to yourself, 'What a stupid person he is to have such a WRONG opinion of me.' I know that it is very hard take control of your emotions and DECIDE what you're going to feel. All our lives we are taught that people have power over our emotions - but that's wrong! Don't say, "He made me mad." The truth is that you decided to react with anger to what he said or did. Remember that control is power. If you just keep trying, if you keep using positive "self talk", it will become a habit, and you will be able to react in any way you choose in any given situation. This self-possession commands a great deal of respect from others. Once you learn how to control your emotions, the change in your life will be amazing. Because, then, YOU CAN CHOOSE TO BE HAPPY - NO MATTER WHAT LIFE THROWS AT YOU! This isn't just a platitude; it's a hard won lesson in reality. I always sum it up as, "When bad things happen in life, you can either laugh about it, or you can cry about it. Neither reaction will change what has happened, but it is so much more fun to laugh than it is to cry - and your nose won't get red!" And remember that LAUGHTER IS POWER. Laughter can banish fear, laughter can conquer bullies, and laughter can give you the strength to face things you never thought you could face.
There are a few small things you can do for immediate help when you are feeling overwhelmed with depression, helplessness, and fear. First of all DO something. Rearrange the furniture, clean out a closet, and if you don't like housework, just pack up the kids and take a walk. This accomplishes two things. First of all, the physical exertion will help wash out of your bloodstream the hormones and chemicals that are associated with depression. Secondly, just the act of doing something, anything, helps get rid of that feeling of helplessness. You are taking charge of something, no matter how small, and this leads to confidence that you can take charge of the larger things. Then, find a friend to talk to. Even if there is nothing they can do to help you out of your situation, it will at least keep you in contact with a "saner" perspective on things (providing you pick a sane friend, that is ; ). Next, find the courage to take your problems to a professional. Look in the phonebook for agencies that can help you find what you need in the way of physical, psychological, financial, or legal assistance. I would have given anything, 20 years ago, to have had the resources available to me that are available to women today!
Please, take a moment to think about the things I've written - before you make any "final" decisions about your life. If I have helped you to get through a crisis, then please repay the favor by passing on this lesson to others who need to learn it. Remember, too, the old saying, "The man with no shoes felt pity for himself until he met the man with no feet". The best therapy of all is to trivialize your troubles by helping those with even bigger troubles.
Love, and hope, and happiness to you all,