One month after our 18th wedding anniversary my husband and I separated. That’s not what this story is about though. He was who he had always been. I wanted to believe it could have been something different and we both kept trying to be something we weren’t for far too long. However, the near-constant infidelity instilled in me the idea that I was not enough. He left me for a woman in her twenties who he worked with. He was her team leader. She was also married but she later told me that “your heart wants what it wants.” They moved in together almost immediately.
One month later and it was my 42nd birthday. The music was shaking the floor but the drinks were not penetrating my grief. I had decided to leave. Then I saw him. Standing at the bar. He looked happy. He was handing drinks back to people behind him and then he saw me. He stopped what he was doing and smiled. He put down the drinks and crossed the floor to hug me. It was a hug that felt like it was just for me. That was something I hadn’t felt in a while. We chatted. I said I was leaving. We promised to keep in touch.
The weeks that followed unfolded into some of the most painful of my life. I came to terms with all of the realities I had ignored about my ex-husband. Surprisingly, it hurt that he so easily moved on.
I saw the message on Facebook many weeks later. He had written it the night we had seen one another at the bar. He thought I looked great. Had always had a crush on me in high school. Hoped we could see each other again.
I messaged back.
There were two dates. He readily dropped what he was doing to meet with me. He doted on my every word but I wasn’t entertaining the idea of a new relationship. So when a friend invited me to go to a Halloween party I said yes. I mentioned it in passing and he told me it was a stupid idea and that I should come to his place. I hadn’t met his kids yet. It was far too early and this was his weekend with them. He texted me every 10 minutes while I was at that party to let me know that he was happy to put his kids in the car and come and pick me up from this “awful” party. It felt wrong. I could sense it. But my 18 years of a dysfunctional marriage hadn’t set me up with a good frame of reference. He invited me for dinner the next day to meet the kids. It was too early and I said yes.
The first two months were nice. He wanted to see me all the time. I hadn’t ever had anyone want to see me all the time. It was getting harder to keep up with my other obligations. He would pout and feign a tantrum if I had other plans. It was off-putting and still, I said nothing. One night I had to drop off divorce papers to my ex-husband and then I was going to go over to his house. It took longer than anticipated. Go figure. But when I got to his house he seemed off. He was quiet and I knew something wasn’t right with him but I assumed the responsibility for this and overcompensated by making small talk. My phone buzzed and I picked it up to check and he said it. “Are you checking your beloved Facebook to see who has sent you a message” His tone of voice was accusatory and his face was something between scorn and contempt. It was the first time I saw this blatantly abusive behavior.
From then on it was a string of really, REALLY bad days with a few good days interspersed to keep me confused. He asked me never to speak of my previous marriage because it made him “too jealous”. When my work sent me to a conference in Belfast he rushed a passport to come with me. Any time I left the hotel he was with me. On the final night at the beautiful Titanic museum ballroom dinner, he whispered into my ear how insensitive I was not to include him more in conversations with people I had worked with that week. I should note that I was there at that dinner as an interpreter. I was there to interpret conversations not be a part of them. I cried all the way back to the hotel in the taxi. At 3 in the morning when I still couldn’t sleep my brain whirring and I wanted to walk across the street to get something to drink and some junk food he said: “isn’t is odd how you always talk about wanting to lose weight and yet now you want to go out at 3:00 AM to get chocolate.”
On my 43rd birthday, I got wrist tattoos. That read INHALE on my left wrist and EXHALE on my right wrist. They were a gift to me from me. He saw them. Turned around and left my house. He wouldn’t answer my calls or texts and said only that tattoos were trashy. I thought about all of the tattoos that I had and I was certain that this was the end. But this was the leverage he was looking for because I had hidden this from him. It wasn’t the tattoos per se. It was because I hadn’t asked him for permission. Weeks after this we traveled to Wales. I had purchased the tickets months earlier. From the beginning he found fault. It was too late in the year and the weather would be unpredictable. He wanted to rent a sports car and drive the Devil’s Pass. He was annoyed that we “had” to visit with my family for so much of our vacation. One night while chatting with my cousins at a party they had thrown for us I realized I hadn’t checked in with him for over an hour. The fear/panic reaction was instant. When I found him at the party I apologized. I could see that he hadn’t noted the time but instead of letting is go he ran with it telling me how insensitive I was to forget about him. “You pretend to be so introverted but I see you for who you are.” I was with my family. But he hated that I had people who loved me. I was not able to visit with everyone I had hoped to see. He had had enough. So we drove. In a tin can to the northernmost part of Wales. Until the very last moment even timing it so that we had to cancel one last visit with my cousin near London before flying home. From there it got worse. I sprained my ankle. He insisted I go into the grocery store with him. When he interrupted my conversation with his son I snapped at him saying that I didn’t care which hamburger patties we bought for dinner. The same look of contempt clouded his face and he looked around and said loudly “your St. Thomas is showing.”
These aren’t even the worst of the things that he said to me. I found myself lying about where I had been even sneaking out to have breakfast with my brother because I knew if I told him he would make my life so difficult that I would cancel plans. On the rare occasion that I would invite my family to have dinner-always at his house-he would initially agree and then the day of the dinner he would whine and complain or give me the cold shoulder or tell me the food that I had prepared wasn’t very good. He could not allow me to have any joy from any other source as that was a betrayal. At one point I found emails that he wrote to a woman he met on Plenty of Fish and he convinced me that it was my fault for making him feel lonely. I gave up everything and everyone that I loved because I was afraid of him. While I have shared with friends and family a little of what I went through there are things I still hold back out of shame. I shouldn’t be the one to feel ashamed. Why am I the stupid one for staying? That’s a much deeper sociological question. Therapy is helping me resolve that shame.
Three years in a friend messaged me out of the blue. And I hid it from him and looked forward to every chance to chat with the outside world. I left two weeks later. I waited until he went out to run an errand. I quickly threw my belongings into a garbage bag and left a note. My heart racing wondering if he would catch me in the act of leaving. I knew he could gaslight me into staying and then I would have to wait out the silent treatment until things were “normal” again before I could try to leave again. But he didn’t catch me and I finally got away.
For two months I would either endure stunts like hearing In Your Eyes blaring from a ghetto blaster outside my door and finding him standing there in a trench coat begging to come in or alternately he would text me to call me every manner of derogatory name and that I smelled bad. Yep, he said I smelled bad. He would drive by my house at 2:00 and if he couldn’t see my car he would call repeatedly leaving the most horrible messages. But since he hadn’t broken the law I couldn’t do anything about it. Thankfully, my workplace at the time took this seriously and the office was instructed to call the police if he should show up asking for me. He eventually dumped the rest of my things on my front steps. Broken champagne glasses that I had taken over for New Year’s Eve stuffed with opened packages of my birth control with my steak knives stuck through them.
But I was free. I remember the first Sunday afternoon browsing through Chapter’s bookstore just for fun. I went to a movie by myself. I took tennis lessons. I bought a bicycle. I reconnected with friends. It was liberating. But there were still those moments of panic when my brain would forget that I didn’t have to check in with anyone, that I didn’t have to explain my every move or dime spent. I could do the things I loved again. I watched football again. I drank coffee. I got another tattoo. All things he would not tolerate. I was even able to reclaim my name. Jude. Not Judith. Just Jude.
A while later I met a wonderful human. Early on I knew he was the one. And I knew that I had been scarred by that previous relationship and I didn’t want it clouding this new and healthy relationship. I knew I needed to go for some therapy. I went to the London Abused Women’s Centre. In my first session, I shared how stupid I felt for putting up with that person for so long. And then the therapist asked me a question that changed my thinking. She asked “Did you enter that relationship disingenuously? Did you lie about what you wanted or who you were?” The answer was no.
I still need to remind myself from time to time that not everyone is annoyed with me. Not everyone wants me to fail. I am not stupid and ridiculous and pointless and thoughtless and rude and cheap and tacky and so on. I never was. Through continued EMDR therapy, I can remind myself that it was awful and it is in the past. I can set boundaries with people and I can choose to cut people out of my life if needed. I can be kind but not at my expense.
I feel genuinely happy now. I have a supportive, smart, funny, thoughtful, kind, open-minded, caring partner. I launched a new business that brings me so much joy and I have family and friends that are really something quite spectacular. Life can begin again after an abusive relationship. I didn’t reach out for help because I knew people would just tell me to leave or I thought they would judge me for not being “strong enough”. Sometimes it is dangerous to leave without a plan in place. If you are in an abusive relationship and you aren’t ready to leave yet that’s ok. There is help out there. Just keep going.
“I don’t necessarily want to be a ‘strong’ person. I just kept going. You just keep going, and you hope that something will come.”