Wednesday, April 11, 2018
A Bigger Cage
I wrote this non-fiction piece a while ago as a way of documenting a portion of my friend's journey through domestic abuse. Watching her go through this painful journey opened my eyes to all we never see behind closed doors. If you know someone who is suffering from domestic abuse, get them the help they need before it's too late.
A BIGGER CAGE
It all seemed so normal until it wasn’t. Her life personified by the two beautiful boys she had always aimed to keep safe, to love without conditions or expectations. She did everything for them and for him. Him, now a monster in her rearview mirror, wasn’t always a monster. She loved him; loves him. How did she become so blind? How did she allow him to take so much?
“You need to get out of the house,” he said. “I’m having an open house, and you and the boys can’t be here.” His face bore only satisfaction as the words left his mouth. The utterance of those words was the first large rug to be pulled out from under me since I learned of his affair.
“Our house is for sale?” I said.
“Get out or I will throw you out.”
I didn’t understand. We were working things out. I was willing to forgive him for having a long-term relationship with another woman. I was willing to do anything to keep our family together, to keep the boys from the pain of a broken home. I did everything he wanted. All those hours making the house spotless, homeschooling the boys, making appearances with a beaming smile on my face. I endured his swinging moods, his stinging words, his leaded hands and his need for control. Every day, when the garage door would make its grinding noise, I could feel my heart beat faster as I scanned the house one last time to ensure it was perfect—for him.
But it was never perfect enough.
“Why isn’t dinner ready?” he would snap. “What in the hell did you do all day? You’re a worthless piece of shit.”
“I’m sorry. I was schooling the boys and lost track of time.”
“I’m so sick and tired of your excuses.”
Our dialogue was predictable, my apologies discarded like table scraps.
The day I discovered he was still having an affair, my heart broke into a million bloody pieces. Each piece seeped with sadness and despair. Everything I had done to prove to him how much I loved him was rejected along with my apologies. He lied to me; told me it was over with that woman; told me he wanted to make our marriage work. I didn’t understand. But rage soon overcame me, and when I confronted him in the kitchen, while the boys were still nestled in my bed after a night of movies and popcorn, he smirked and told me I had no right to look at his computer, the one he left open to that woman’s Facebook page. I snapped. I could feel something physically break inside of me. I took a swing and hit him, and he hit back. The small scratch on his chest was nothing compared to my swollen eye and bloody nose and lip. I ran upstairs. “Call your aunt and have her pick you up,” I said while I packed them a bag. Moments later, I heard him on the phone telling 911 I was running after him with a knife. What followed seemed like a nightmare I couldn’t shake. My beautiful boys’ wide eyes watched as the flashing lights approached, as they handcuffed me and patted me down, as they rested their hand on top of my head and guided me into back of the squad car. They were too young to see this, but he let them watch as if it was a warning. His face wore that same look of satisfaction and maybe a glint of evil flashed in his eyes as he watched me being loaded into the squad car.
I was broken.
I was weak.
I was lost.
I had no idea. My friend with long locks of blonde hair and a perpetual sweeping smile always seemed so happy, especially when she was with her boys. Our kids performed in musicals together, and she had a golden touch, making whatever she worked on, beautiful. She could make a few sad flowers look like a masterpiece, and she could decorate a table or an entire room with a flair that came from only the most gifted decorators. And she loved doing all of it; always with a smile; always with a sense that she was that perfect wife and mother many aspire to be.
It wasn’t until she announced she had separated from her husband, that I saw the cracks. She had covered them up for years, never letting on to the nightmare she lived. That’s why it was such a shock to hear the news. And then, through the ever expanding cracks, the painful truth began to leak out like thick tar that stuck to everyone it touched.
“You know that movie, Sleeping with the Enemy?” she said. “That was my life.”
“How could that be? You seemed so happy?”
What could she say to that? All she could do was tell me each painful, poignant event in her marriage. Like the time he dropped her off at the hospital for a hysterectomy and forgot to pick her up. Instead of staying at the hospital like normal, loving spouses would do, he went and spent the day with his lover and never answered the phone when the hospital called multiple times. Or the time when they were all supposed to go to Hawaii for their anniversary, but at the last minute, he told her she couldn’t go and left her at home while he and the boys enjoyed a week on the beach. As she recounted these stories to me and let go of some of the baggage she had carried secretly for years, her face straddled between fear and embarrassment for the truth she never saw.
I was forced to find a place to live. The house was sold right out from under me, and when we handed over the keys he leaned over and said, “Does it hurt yet?” In the middle of the night, my car disappeared, and there wasn’t a dime in our bank accounts. He had taken it all; stripped me bare of any support. All those years I sacrificed, all of what I brought to the marriage and gave over to him was now in his pocket, and I had nothing.
It was God’s grace; His light that guided me out of my darkest moments. Who else could deliver such gifts when you have nothing to give? A condo, vacant next to the very school my older son, would now be attending. Cash from my father, who for years didn’t offer any support, was like manna from heaven. It was enough to rent the condo. From this day forward, it was always just enough.
Once I moved what little belongings I had into my new home, I searched out jobs. Friends, who were shocked to learn that my life was anything but perfect, stepped up to the plate and hired me. I thanked God for the opportunities He placed before me, however big or small. I didn’t mind cleaning my friend's houses, pulling weeds, or stocking shelves and decorating offices in the middle of the night. I know my friends felt awkward that I was cleaning their homes, but I actually enjoyed seeing their faces when they came home to a clean, organized home. And the fact that they truly appreciated my efforts was worth more than any monetary payment. Each dollar I made and each friend placed in my path was a blessing and a promise that God would provide.
The Funny thing was, there was a strange feeling growing inside of me that, at times, made me giddy. I was free. I no longer had to fear the sound of the garage door at the end of the day. I didn’t worry that the dishes were still in the sink or that the laundry wasn’t folded and put away. I didn’t have to call him to meet me at the gas station so I could fill up my car, because now, I had the money to fill it up myself.
But he still played the game, like a twisted chess match. The boys were his pawns and the rules of how he moved the pawns were modified to meet his own needs; to cheat. It was something he excelled at, removing boundaries for himself while imposing stronger ones to the pieces he controlled. Those around her could hear the game being played when she couldn’t.
I remember the day he texted her, shortly after telling her what a fucking bitch she was. They shared joint custody of the boys, alternating weeks. She would work extra hours on the weeks she didn’t have them so she could spend more time with them when they were staying with her. She stood in my kitchen, wiping down my stove with a hopeful face.
“He wants to help me with the boys. Says we should go over my work schedule to see where he can help.”
“Really?” I shook my head and watched her diligently scrub off last night’s dinner. What was he up to now? “I’m not so sure he really wants to help.”
“He sounds sincere. I think he feels bad.”
“For what? For having an affair? For kicking you out of your house? For hiding and selling your car? For leaving you with nothing?”
She stopped scrubbing and turned to me. “I think he misses what we had.”
The thought crossed my mind that he probably did miss what he had, but it wasn’t that he missed them as much as he missed controlling them; he missed being their puppet master.
“I’m just not sure his intentions are pure. Don’t let him know you’re too busy with work to take care of the boys. Something tells me, he’s playing a game with you.”
She shook her head at my analysis. “I don’t think he’d do that.”
“All I’m saying is, don’t give him anything he can use against you. If he gets confirmation that you can’t take care of the boys because you work, he could use it against you.”
I was certain I hadn’t convinced her that there was something amiss until a few hours later when she sent me a text: YOU WERE RIGHT!
Denial followed me. It dragged behind me like a course, heavy blanket, picking up and holding on to the dirt he threw at me. The relentless, brutal text messages that filled my phone were sadistic and cruel. Those aren’t your friends, they are only pretending because they feel sorry for you—no one would possibly want you for a friend. You’re worthless. You’re no one. You’re a pathetic bitch.
His threats still held me captive; still had me trying to please him so he wouldn’t follow through, but he did anyway. He’d often refused to return the boys to me, keeping them a full twenty-four hours past his court appointed time. Or he would send me on a wild goose chase, changing his location just before I arrived. I never fought back because I didn’t want the boys to think less of me. I wanted them to know I would do everything in my power to keep the peace.
When I would occasionally break down and show my friends some of the messages he had sent, they wanted me to fight back. I could see the anger in their eyes, but they didn’t understand. They didn’t understand him the way I did. They didn’t know what he was capable of and how fighting back would only mean more punishment for me and the boys. So, instead, I cleaned off the soiled blanket that trailed behind me and carried on, making myself believe he didn’t really mean it; that it was only a matter of time before he realized how wrong he was and make everything right again. And, just to make sure, on the heels of his painful texts, I would text back with only kind words and affirmations.
The text messages he sent her were horrific. As she shared some of the rants he sent her, my mouth shot open, and the blood coursing through my body began to boil. I couldn’t imagine my husband saying such horrible things to me, and I began to realize that her husband was either really stupid or a psychopath. His words were calculating and vindictive, but she just brushed it off as though she were trying to prove the “sticks and stones” theory.
I tried to offer counsel, but it appeared she didn’t always agree. I was becoming afraid for hers and the boys’ safety, but again, she didn’t share that fear. So, for a while, we would chat briefly, but rarely about her situation with him. It felt like there was a physical fault line between us, neither of us wanting to cross to the other side. There were bits and pieces she would throw over to me, but they were modified, as was my advice.
When she announced, after two years of his relentless verbal abuse that they were reconciling, I thought I would truly lose it in front of her. After all she had been through, after the hate and lack of empathy he had shown her for countless years, she was entertaining a reconciliation.
“You’re what?” I said.
“We’re going to try and work things out.” There was a smile on her face; she seemed happy. I was still trying to lift my jaw off the floor.
“He’s changed. I think he understands now.”
“Has he gotten professional help?”
“No, but he’s finally seeing his mistakes.”
It was all I could do to not grab her by the shoulders and shake her from this spell she was under. But, even as her friend, I didn’t know if it was my place to protest.
“Do me a favor. Sign the divorce papers,” I said.
She narrowed her eyes and twisted her lips but didn’t say anything.
“If you are truly starting over with him, clean the slate first. Make him recommit with nothing on the table but you.”
“Hmmm. That’s an interesting idea,” she said.
“Whatever you do, do not get rid of your condo and protect your savings.”
My fear that this was another move in his ongoing game had me on edge.
I was excited at the prospect of our family being back together, all under the same roof. The boys ran through the vast house he had found, where we would all move into, together. This house was larger than the one he had sold. The floors were covered with warm, rich wood and the kitchen gleamed with stainless steel appliances and maple cabinets. Each boy would have his own room again, and there would be plenty of space for friends to gather. I saw myself preparing chili and cupcakes in the chefs kitchen on Halloween, made a note of where the couch would be best placed in the family room, and envisioned my colorful planters livening up the back yard.
But as I wandered the expansive halls, my stomach began to squeeze, and my chest began to hurt. And then, I understood. This was just a bigger cage.
In the back of my head, I could hear my friend’s voice, “Whatever you do, don’t give up your condo.” It was as though the cloud that grew thick and dark around my head during our marriage was now burning off, allowing me to see for the first time in years. This house was a ruse, a way to lure me into yet another cage where he could lock the door and control me. He knew how important it was to me to be a family again and for the boys to no longer be pushed back and forth on the swing of separated parents. And he knew, up until this very moment, it had always been my goal. But what he didn’t know was that I wasn’t the same woman he threw out of our house with barely more than the clothes on my back. I was more; so much more and I would never be locked in a cage again.
I told him I wasn’t ready to move. We still had a lot of repair work to do before moving back in together. And, in all honesty, I liked my little home that I had spent my hard earned dollars to renovate and make into my very own sanctuary. I wasn’t ready to give up the one place that showed me how far I had come. He didn’t like my answer.
She didn’t show up to clean my house. I shot her a text wondering if she was going to come and she apologized that she couldn’t make it. I didn’t think anything of it, she was busy trying to balance everything. But two weeks later, when she did come, it was obvious why she had avoided me.
When I arrived home, I searched for her, eager to catch up on life’s happenings. I found her in my daughter’s room, dusting. The moment she saw me tears filled her eyes, and she lifted up her long bangs. Just above her eye was a large, red scar. She looked at me with such sadness and regret, as though her whole world had crashed down upon her, again.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He slammed my head into the door frame.”
“Why?” Not that there ever needed to be a reason for someone having their head slammed into anything, but I wanted to know what had happened.
“He got angry, and when I turned away from him, he grabbed my head and threw me into the door.”
“Oh, God!” was all I could say.
“He did it in front of our son. Told me to get the fuck up.”
It pained me to hear the details of how he ranted at her without an ounce of empathy or regret as her head gushed with blood and her brain struggled to process what had happened. She eventually grabbed her phone and called our mutual friend, who knew something was up when she couldn’t put a coherent sentence together. Our friend came to the door and when she saw the blood said, “Oh my God, what happened?”
And, as if out of some horror movie, a voice from behind our friend said, “she fell.” Him.
She continued to dust as she finished her story. “I didn’t understand until they put the wristband on me in the hospital. It read: VOV.”
I looked at her, unaware of what VOV meant.
“Victim of Violence.”
It was my wake-up call. I never considered myself to be a victim of violence. The abuse he directed at me throughout our marriage I often blamed on myself. I needed to be a better wife; I needed to please him more. When I covered myself with the bed sheets to protect myself from the onslaught of what he threw at me or when I huddled in the closet and prayed for God to get me through his next rage and spare the boys, I never thought I was a victim of violence.
The strange thing is, everyone knew except for me. I had accepted my life as it was while others watched on, hoping I would open my eyes. Friends would send me notes saying they were sorry I was going through this, or they would leave an envelope of cash or a bag of groceries on my doorstep, yet I didn’t understand. And when I still couldn’t see through the thick fog or maybe just refused to open my eyes, they protected me as though God instructed them to be sentinels and witnesses to the grace He provides.
My journey is not over. While I am now officially divorced from my tormentor, I am still tethered to him by our two sons. But now, I am fully awake and stronger than I’ve ever been. I know now that keeping our family together was the last thing our boys needed. What they needed, and still need, is for me to fight for them and to fight for myself. They need to see their mother as a strong woman, and they need to know that their father’s behavior was and will never be okay. They also need to know that I will never allow them to suffer at the hands or the mouth of their father again, and I will never live in another cage, no matter its beauty or size.