Why I Stayed

I’ve been trying to decide for a long time how to tell this story. It’s a difficult story to tell but it needs to be told.

I met my ex when I was a senior in high school a month before I turned 18. He seemed perfect in those beginning days. He was thoughtful and sweet. He was everything I needed at the time. The relationship really shouldn’t have lasted more than 5 years but by that point I was so far in and so convinced that I had to see this through to the end that I couldn’t back out of it. I had the weight of expectations on my shoulders and I’d never ended a long term relationship before. I didn’t know who I was without him.

On the outside, he is the perfect type of man. Sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent, and kind. But inside is a much darker man. People ask me why I stayed so long. Why didn’t I leave? They think that surely I must have known well before the end what type of man I had tied myself to. It’s easy from the outside looking in to see the signs. But when you’re in the middle of it, it’s so easy to convince yourself that you’re overreacting. It sneaks up on you.

Abuse has many faces. Mental abuse is easy to disregard and yet can be some of the most damaging abuse. By the time I realized what was happening, he had isolated me.

It starts small. Simple things that are easy to explain or disregard. He’d alternate between insulting me and complimenting me. One moment, he’d tell me I was stupid for having an opinion and then the next he would be telling me how much smarter I was than him. First I was fat and he wished I’d lose weight, then I was beautiful and he never wanted me to change. Your brain will alert you at first. It’ll throw up red flags because you know the man you love shouldn’t be speaking to you that way but he’d apologize or belittle you for being too serious. For taking things too personally or being too sensitive and you’d think well maybe I am being too sensitive. After a while, those red flags are gone and you just accept it as normal.

The isolation happens in increments. He started by talking about how much he missed me when I was gone with friends or family. He would act mopey when I was back and give me a hard time about how I “left him all alone” even though he was more than welcome to come spend time with me and my friends and family. He never wanted that though. I did everything short of flat out begging him to spend time with me and the people important to me and he always refused. I went out of town with family for a week, an event he was more than welcome to participate in, and he spent the entire time texting me about how sad a lonely he was. He started fight after fight until eventually I just wouldn’t talk to him while I was gone. I didn’t post anything on social media because the moment it appeared I was having fun, he would text me and try to start a fight. Whenever I called him on it he would claim he wasn’t trying to fight with me. He was just telling me how he felt. He was just stating his opinion. Nevermind that his opinion and feelings were hurtful to me. After a while, I was conditioned to avoid situations I knew would upset him. So I stopped spending time with friends. Eventually they stopped calling. Then they stopped texting. Then they stopped inviting me. I’d go weeks without seeing family. Finally, my father would call me and ask me where the hell I was and I’d stopped by to see them.

The silent treatment was his favorite weapon. It wasn’t an easy silence. It was a heavy kind of silence filled with trepidation and red flags. I could feel the weight of this silence on my chest while I counted minutes until he left for work. All the while, he would slam doors or walk heavily through the house. It was just the smallest threat of violence that kept me glued to my seat until the obligatory goodbye kiss. And kiss him I must or it wouldn’t be silence I’d get.

When it wasn’t silence, it was screaming. He would yell, sometimes for hours. He would call me every name he could think of. I was a bitch, I was a whore. I was unworthy. To hear him speak, you would think I was sleeping with every man who ever crossed my path. I won’t sugarcoat my wrong doing. I cheated during our time together. To be frank, I’d make the same decision if I had to go back to that time. I don’t condone cheating but I will say that sometimes I can understand. In my case, cheating made me feel like myself again. I didn’t know what I needed at the time. But it was at the point in the relationship where I had sex with him only to stave off abuse. Saying no meant enduring the name calling and the screaming. It meant risking physical abuse. Sex had lost most of it’s meaning. I was an object. I was a possession. So when I met a man who made me feel human again, a man who reminded me that my body was my own to do with it what I wished, I didn’t hesitate. I knew it was wrong the entire time I was doing it but those memories got me through very tough times. I wanted to take back possession of myself. And so I did. I regret nothing. He went through my things and eventually found out and used that as the basis for most of his ire. He said he could get beyond it but he wasn’t being entirely honest with himself.

One night, while I waited for him to leave for work, he started a fight. I have no idea what the fight was about. There were so many times he did this that they all kind of blur together. And even when he wasn’t losing his mind on me there was always the threat of it to keep me in line. In any case, he was yelling. I had fallen back on my normal strategy of not responding. In these times, no matter what he said, I would not react. This was the best strategy because if I didn’t react then the situation couldn’t escalate. Usually I wouldn’t move from my location on the couch but this time I got up. On my way back to my spot, to my phone, he decided he’d had enough of me not responding. He got in my face and started to yell at me. I still didn’t react. So he grabbed my wrists, held them above my head, and slammed me against the wall. He continued to scream in my face. I’m not sure what caused him to let go of me. I asked if he planned to hit me and told him that if so, I’d prefer he get it over with. That may have shocked him enough for him to release me. He left for work and pretended it never happened.

A little over a year before I left, we got a dog. Well, I got a dog. It was my decision. I picked him. I named him. I paid for his food and vet appointments. Zombie was my dog. He merely tolerated the man in my life. Once I got Zombie, I started to really notice the darkness in my relationship. The only time I ever got so angry that I threatened to harm him, was over my dog. Zombie knew something was wrong with this man. He would stand protectively in front of me and growl and bark any time he began to yell or get angry with me. He was seeing the warning signs I couldn’t. It was business as usual one night, Zombie was at least a year old at this point, and the screaming started. Zombie did his protector thing and was posted up in front of me, scruff standing up, barking and growling a warning. He kept yelling at Zombie to be quiet but the yelling did nothing but make Zombie bark louder. Zombie has never been one to back down. Especially not if his human might be in danger. He grabbed my dog by the collar and yanked him so hard across the room I could hear him choking. He was screaming with this crazy eyed look and Zombie, terrified from not being able to breathe and from all the yelling, peed on the floor. He immediately stopped yelling and released him and that’s when I started. I think I went a little crazy. I told him if I ever saw him lay another hand on my dog they’d never find his body. It was in that moment that he began to realize he was losing control of me.

It got worse and better from there. By this point, I’d made a few friends. Well, other than the man I was sleeping with. I didn’t intend to make friends. Frankly, they didn’t give me a choice. They just decided I needed them and that was that. I’d tell them bits and pieces about my life. The look on their faces usually gave me all the clues I needed to realize I was living in some kind of hellish Lifetime drama.

It took me a very long time to find the courage to leave. I made up my mind to go a thousand times but something always came up. I always found some excuse. I realize that now. Waiting for the right time never works. The time will never be right to take action. We just fool ourselves into thinking there is a right time.

I had plans to leave but he changed my plans rather abruptly. He was yelling again. I refused to have sex with him. I just couldn’t stomach it in those days. I didn’t want him to touch me. I didn’t want to touch him. So when he asked if I wanted to have sex (how romantic) I hesitated. The hesitation was all he needed. He began to scream. The countdown began. Just don’t react. Zombie was barking. I was texting a blow by blow to my friends and the man I’d been seeing. Then in the middle of this he says, “If I didn’t tell you all the things you do wrong to make me angry, eventually it’d all build up until I just ended up murdering you. Maybe that’s what you want. Maybe that’s your way out.” Now my brain hadn’t been throwing flags in a while but there was a bit of a flutter at these words. He leaves for work and I decide maybe I should ask for a second opinion. Am I overreacting? Is this worrisome or something people scream in anger and don’t mean? Of course they did not think I was overreacting.

My brothers wanted me to leave that night. I couldn’t wrap my head around leaving that night. My world was changing in a matter of seconds and I didn’t know what to do. I put it off. I would leave tomorrow. Only problem was, in my panic, I had forgotten what day of the week it was. He wouldn’t be going to work again for another two days. Those two days were difficult. I had to pretend nothing was wrong. I have never been a better actor. I even managed to make it through sex. The final day, I was ready. Just a few more hours and I’d be free. Oh how I wish it turned out that way.

He cornered me while I was taking a shower. That was his favorite place to confront me. When I was most vulnerable. He locked Zombie outside the bathroom door. He had gone through some Facebook messages on my tablet. I didn’t expect him to go snooping that day. He couldn’t get into my phone but my tablet was never locked. How do you answer the question, “So you’re leaving me, huh?” without escalating the situation? Misdirection and avoidance. My old friends. I asked him where he heard that. Focused on anything other than the truth long enough for me to get out of the shower, grab my phone off the sink, and get out of the bathroom. I texted everyone. Code Red. This was happening now.

What a terrifying couple of hours that was. My youngest brother and my father headed over as fast as they could. I was throwing things into bags while he was alternating between insulting me and begging me to stay. He was crying, screaming, yelling profanities, begging. At one point, he was laying in the floor sobbing so hard I thought he might pass out from lack of oxygen. But I remained strong. No reactions. No remorse. I would not console him. He tried to tell me that he wasn’t letting my family in the house. I had Zombie to protect me but there was no way I was going to let him isolate me again. I had to threaten to call the police if he didn’t let them in. When they arrived, he hid in the bathroom and refused to come out. I took my dog and my cat and as much as I could pack and carry in such a short time and I left.

I’d love to say I’m healed and I’ve moved on completely but healing is a long road. I still dream about being back there sometimes. Cornered and alone with no one to protect me, I wake up breathing heavily and trying to remember I’m safe. I’m finally filing for divorce soon. A whole 11 months later. I finally feel safe enough. He says he doesn’t want me back. He seems calm. When I mentioned divorce, he didn’t freak out. I still have to retrieve my things from his house. I won’t be alone with him. Soon this will all be just a bad memory. Freedom is in my view.


I Still Have A Secret

Update: I removed this from my blog a while back because it is painful. Because I worried that those who knew me would read it and I didn’t want to to face that. But with last night’s election results, I feel like I should share my story again. I am terrified. Facing the future as a black female terrifies me. I kid you not I had a panic attack after the results came out. And I’m afraid I’m going to be living my life on the edge of a panic attack for a long time. 

I almost died before I even had a chance at life. I was born a little after midnight on January 25, 1987. The cord was wrapped around my neck and I was blue. They couldn’t get me to cry. If you believe my father, who swore at first such a pretty white baby with blue eyes couldn’t possibly be his, I didn’t cry for the first 6 months of my life. Eventually my color returned but my eyes wouldn’t change for the first few years.

He always says I never cried.

I remember very little about those early years. There are many stories about how I learned to read very early and my parent’s were astounded by my ability to pronounce and use words far beyond my years. I read a lot. I still read a lot.

I know that I started puberty at 6.

You read that correctly. I started puberty at 6.

I know this because I remember the doctor’s appointments. I remember waking up in, what seemed to me like the middle of the night, and driving hours to the children’s hospital. I remember my mother putting my shoes on me in the car of that hospital parking lot while I was half asleep and desperately wanted to be left alone to sleep more. I remember vials and vials of blood. I remember “Terry Too-Soon.” I remember Disney movies and IVs. I remember awkwardly undressing in front of male doctors while they poked and prodded parts of my body I didn’t even want them looking at while my parents sat there stone faced and looking distraught. I remember.

But there is so much I don’t remember. I remember objects better than events or people. I remember things. My brothers will say, “Remember when…” and the answer is always no. I don’t remember.

But I remember him.

My parents met in the 80s. My father was a child of the Civil Right’s Movement. My mother was a single mother of two who left an abusive ex and was making it on her own. They knew, of course, that their relationship would be difficult. My father is black and my mother is white. Things were never easy. I know but I don’t quite remember that my father worked for the steel mill in the area and they laid him off a lot. I do remember falling asleep to the sound of them fighting about money.

They lived paycheck to paycheck. There were 4 children in our house. There were 6 mouths to feed.

Sometimes I feel like my life was meant for a Lifetime drama.

We lived in Ironton, Ohio. That’s where I went to preschool but my father had different ideas. He saw quite clearly the paths that were open to me if I continued school there. He saw the crowd I would be apart of since the first several years of my life were spent in the Projects. He knew that crowd and he knew those schools since my brothers had been through them and he wanted better for me. As a result, I was enrolled in South Point schools which was just about 15 minutes away. My mother worked at WalMart there. My father eventually found work for CSX and that provided us with much more steady income. They still lived paycheck to paycheck but no more lay offs.

Because I was going to school in a town I didn’t live in, it was always explained to me that I must not tell anyone where I really lived. I took this to heart. I had no friends. I was very shy. I was terribly afraid of what would happen if we were found out but I was tough. I was always the tough one.

I didn’t cry.

My parents were very clever. I had a babysitter that we lovingly called Nan-Nan. In the mornings before my mother had to work, she would drop us off at Nan-Nan’s house and we would sleep until it was time to go to school. We would get off the bus there and mom would pick us up after school when she got off work. This is where we pretended to live. It worked though it was very unorthodox.

You might say, “why didn’t your parent’s just move to South Point?” They were trying. My older brothers were in high school in Ironton. My younger brother and I were in elementary school in South Point. It was very complicated. After my brothers went off to college, we moved to South Point but we’re not to that point of my story yet.

Nan-Nan eventually moved away to be closer to family. This took place around the time I was in 3rd grade. We had to find another babysitter who was willing to lie for us. Enter his mother.

His mother was a sweet woman. She was a single mother of two boys and she ran a day care out of her home. She was great. Really she was.

He was her oldest son and he was very troubled. He was 6 or 7 years older than me. I’ve never really been sure and I’ve never bothered to find out. He had a host of problems in school and possibly with the law. I don’t know. I don’t remember that.

I remember him.

I was 9 when I first met him but I don’t remember very much about that time. I remember his mother’s house burnt down and she got a new house. A bigger house.

When my mother dropped us off at his mother’s house, we would sleep on the couch until it was time to go to school. He was always up before us wandering around, getting ready for school.

I started puberty at 6. My body and my age didn’t match up.

I don’t remember how it started.

I remember he said that it was a secret. That we would get in trouble.

So, I had another secret. And I was terrified of getting in trouble. I was terrified of disappointing my parents. I had to be a good girl. I had to be as little of a problem as possible. I didn’t want to be a burden. Somehow I knew, even as young as I was, that my parents were struggling. Sometimes I thought they would get a divorce. I just remember being afraid they would break up and who would I live with? If I lived with mom, would I ever see my dad? If I lived with dad, would I ever see my mom? Would my little brother and I live together or would they split us up? What would happen to my older brothers? If I tell, they’ll find out where we live. They can’t find out where we live. No no. There were too many things my child’s mind was already worried about.

So, I had another secret.

I was always the tough one. I didn’t cry.

There is so little I remember about it, that sometimes I laugh at myself and tell myself it wasn’t that bad. Sometimes I trivialize my own pain. I tell myself others had it worse and who are you to play the victim. I tell myself I was stupid. I should have told someone. I am the worst victim blamer of all.

There were things he would whisper to me when no one was around to hear that I can’t even stand to repeat. The worst memory I have is of waking up to his fingers inside me while I was asleep on the couch and being so afraid that I pretended to be asleep until he went away. I knew he wanted a reaction so I gave him nothing. I don’t know how old I was. But by the time I realized that we both wouldn’t get in trouble, by the time I realized that he was protecting himself because what he was doing was wrong, I already believed him when he said no one would believe me.

I looked at him, this pretty, troubled white boy, and I looked at myself, this tom boy with brown skin and a body that was too old for her, and somehow I knew that I would be blamed.

I hate myself for that. I hate myself for believing that.

But I didn’t cry.

My silence made for a shy child. I wasn’t angry. I never remember being angry but I remember feeling so alone and that even later when I had friends, I could never open up to them. I was a liar. I was so good at spinning half truths into reality that I don’t think anyone ever knew who I really was. I didn’t even know myself.

I wasn’t angry until I was around him. After I got over my fear of him, I know I told my parents I didn’t like him. I know I gave him the dirtiest looks I could manage whenever he was around. I tried to never be alone with him but he would follow me. He would try to bribe me or to hold things over my head to keep me silent.

“You let me do what I like to do and I’ll let you do whatever you want.”

I remember that attempt at compromise so vividly because there were smaller children around to hear it. He was trying to bribe me in front of innocent children and the thing he was asking of me was so awful I wanted to cry right there. Eventually I was full of expletives and venom and he thought if he threatened to tell my parents I was cursing that I’d let him do whatever he wanted. He thought he could continue to control me using fear but by that point I was angry at him. At that point I wanted to hurt him, so I told him exactly what he could do with his offer. He was persistent.

It’s like I was never a child.

He couldn’t touch me very often because I would never let myself be alone with him. Sometimes I think his mother knew. At some point, I didn’t sleep on the couch any longer but in the spare bedroom. It had a door that locked. I remember that door knob. I would stare at it sometimes for hours listening for footsteps. I remember holding my breath while the door knob turned. She didn’t leave us alone as often but they had a pool. I tried to avoid the pool if he was home but sometimes he would come around unexpectedly. I can still feel the the way my skin crawled as he watched me in the pool. I can still feel my panic when I replay the things he said to me. I saw him doing some of the same things to another girl. Unlike me, she looked her age and she was younger than I was by at least 3 or 4 years. I knew it was happening though I never actually saw him touching her. I felt it but I couldn’t prove anything. I remember very vividly that she was sitting on his lap looking very uncomfortable and his hands were under her bottom. I could feel how uncomfortable she was. I could feel it as if I was the one sitting there. I kept wondering why no one thought it odd that this small child was sitting on this teenager’s lap. Why was no one wondering where his hand were? And still I kept my mouth shut. I was so relieved that he wasn’t after me that I kept my mouth shut.

I hate myself for that too.

Eventually we moved to South Point and I was considered old enough to watch after myself and my younger brother.

I was in 6th grade. But the damage was done.

I had always been a very melancholy child. I gained friends in Middle School but I spent very little time with them outside of school. They were kind of like place fillers. I couldn’t be a complete loner so I latched onto a few kids in my accelerated classes. Mostly I stayed in my room.

I wanted to be a writer. I wrote depressing poetry and I’m certain it must have scared the shit out of my parents. I slept a lot. I stayed up very late. Late enough that my parents were never sure if I was just not sleeping or sleeping all the time. As I got older, the poetry got more depressing, the stories more dark, and I slept a lot more.

I became a master at hiding the obvious. I constantly felt alone. I was so lonely and so empty that I wasn’t even sure how to feel anymore. I knew what was expected though. So, the poetry, the writing, I pushed that away. I stopped writing. I told myself that it was stupid. Cliche angsty poetry and dark stories meant nothing.

“You’re no Edgar Allan Poe. Grow up. Stop wasting your time. You have not suffered. Stop playing the victim.”

So I played sports. And everyone liked me. And I pretended for all the world that I was happy and well adjusted. I was intelligent. I was athletic. I was humble. I was kind. I was just the right amount of loud and boisterous to pass for a normal teen but I was empty inside. It was exhausting, the charade, the keeping up of appearances. I was so tired.

I cannot count the times I heard the phrase “teenage angst” or how many times I was told I was lazy or I needed to just get up. I couldn’t be depressed. I had a good life. I would sleep from the time I got out of school until my mother or father made me come to the dinner table. After dinner, it was back to bed until it was time for school. Eventually I realized that I could not continue in that fashion. Too much concern. Too many questions. I couldn’t stand the pain in my mother’s voice as she asked me if I was okay and begged me to eat. So, I started spending my spare time with my younger brother and my cousin at the public park playing basketball with guys two feet taller than me and schooling them on the 3 point line.

Eventually too much sleep turned into not enough sleep. And I was doubly exhausted.

I didn’t even recognize it as depression. My family probably did but black people don’t go to therapy. Mental illness has such a negative stigma. I had friends on anti-depressants but I was still convinced I was just being a stubborn lazy teenager. And I was still afraid that if I really tried to seek help they would ask my why I was depressed. This followed me well into college until I finally realized that I needed help. I had to get help.

I was failing classes because I couldn’t be bothered getting out of bed to attend those classes. I was still telling myself I was just lazy. I could see myself destroying the hope my parents had for me and I could see myself disappointing them but I could not physically get out of bed. I’d love to tell you that I got on medication and everything worked out but though I took that medication for years I still couldn’t finish school. The medication worked just enough to get me out of bed most days. Getting out of bed was still too hard sometimes. It’s still too hard a lot of the time. Most people would consider this a warning sign that they needed different medication. I know I needed different medication. I know I need to start taking it again. But I cannot find the energy to try to get better. I am still too often convinced that I am worthless or I am just being lazy. Logically I know that I am broken and I can’t do this on my own but those lucid moments are few and far between. This is a lucid moment. In a week, I’ll be telling myself I’m fine and to suck it up. So, mostly I feel worthless. Mostly I want to die.

How terrible is depression that I can’t find the energy to want to get better? I can’t find the energy to take a pill every day. And then I worry. Who am I without depression? I don’t know that girl. She has never existed. Not in my memory. I am afraid that I will somehow lose myself because all I am is a broken, lonely girl and without that I am nothing.

I remember him.

I’m still the tough one. No one sees me cry.

And I still have a secret.