The summer between my first and second years of college, I lived at home while working full-time at a domestic violence shelter in Cleveland.
That summer, my mom and I had shared her car, the same beat-up Mazda I’d abused as a teen. I’d drop her off early at her job at the racetrack and drive from our sprawlish suburb without sidewalks and into the city, to East 77th Street, a notoriously bad neighborhood I would know only from the view of my car windows, rolled up.
At the shelter I worked as an assistant to the children’s advocate. I held the babies and watched the older children on the porch while the residents had “group” -- a peer-led therapy where the women shared their stories. From the porch with the children, I imagined what went on inside.
That summer, I came to understand that my parent’s marriage had its own forms of violence.
Growing up, not enough money meant not enough food. No health insurance meant we weren’t allowed to get sick. For my parents, not enough money meant debt. Binges on credit cards followed by piles of bills, my mother on a Saturday morning bent over a calculator at the kitchen table, in tears of guilt and remorse.
While my mother struggled to make ends meet, my father preserved a part of himself that did not belong to his family. He had drawers-- literally one in every room -- full of things belonging only to him. A drawer of toiletries in the bathroom. Vitamins in the kitchen. Food in the fridge only he was permitted to eat. As a little girl, I would sneak into my father’s bureau and fondle his silk ties. While the rest of us scrabbled over resources so limited it seemed as if everything in the house was broken, dirty or used up, my father’s belongings were ample and nice and totally off-limits.
For nearly 20 years my mother fought for her marriage, trying to control the uncontrollable, finding herself disappointed again and again. My father had a gambling addiction and was, most probably, a sex addict, engaging in extramarital affair after affair that no one made any attempt to hide from us kids. Never mind that for all practical purposes, my father seemed pretty darn useless, my mother depended on him in ways I could not then understand.
I watched my mother struggle all her life to make ends meet but the ends never met and, by the time I went to college, I was sick of being poor. I loved my mom, but I was angry and, with no one else around to blame, I blamed her.
* * *
I met Mike on my sixth day of sobriety. He was good-looking in a rugged, manly sort of way, with an Irish face, sandy blonde crew cut and blue eyes with a look that suggested he’d seen a lot. And he was charismatic. He could get along with anyone, engaging as easily in conversation with a celebrity as he could the bag boy at the grocery store.
He got my family. He got me.
We were both in recovery. He was working on himself, just like I was. And, unlike my father, he was loyal. We tumbled into living with each other, exchanging I love yous, the works.
Mike was -- is -- a good man, but he is also imperfect in ways that, for a long time, I refused to see. I don’t know who he’d be if not for his struggles with alcohol and drug use, but being with the man he was (rather than the potential I so admired) made for a far-less-than-perfect relationship.
Mike’s issues with substances meant he was chronically unemployed, a circumstance that left him feeling emasculated and me footing most bills. He also had a temper, just like my dad. I spent a lot of energy soothing Mike’s bruised ego. When his temper was out of control, it reminded me of being a child, living in a house where one man’s mood dictated everything.
Growing up in my father’s home, I had learned to make myself small. When Mike was drinking, there was no making myself small enough.
And here’s where I say, “He never hit me,” that old cliche. But it’s true -- he never hit me. Instead, there’d be nights when he wouldn’t come home and not answer his phone, only to stumble in at three, four in the morning, sometimes beaten up, sometimes missing a wallet, watch or phone.
And he’d be angry. Angry enough to break down doors, yell insults into my face for hours that would spill into drunken mutterings, sometimes senseless confessions, all the while, refusing to let me sleep. These nights -- from the waiting for him to come home, listening to phantom sirens, fearing he might be dead, to when he’d finally show up, and then waiting for that to be over -- were terrorizing.
With the daylight came quiet. He’d sleep late into the afternoon, when he’d finally awaken, sick and full of remorse. It was the alcohol, not him. Yes, it was a relapse. Yes, he needed help.
The next couple weeks would feel like a honeymoon, just like they say -- all of a sudden, he was grateful for me, for us. We’d have dinner like a family, he’d go to meetings, there’d be sex. Then, his attendance at meetings would stop, his mood would sour. Physical intimacy would dry up. And so it went, on and off, for six years.
The average woman attempts to leave seven times. Housing is the primary reason most women stay. According to one recent study, about one in three women who own the house and have children at home, when they divorce, lose their homes. One in five women fall into poverty as a result of divorce.
Even though Mike was, more often than not, unemployed, there were times that he wasn’t. And there was the promise that so long as we stayed together, he’d pay me back. Like my mother, I was responsible for the finances and kept precise records of exactly what I was owed. Together, we were in thousands of dollars of debt. It was all in my name. I didn’t want to shoulder it all alone.
The first time I asked him to leave -- it was my apartment, after all -- I believed him when he told me that I was abandoning him. That I didn’t know what love was. That I only thought of myself.
The next time, some months later, I stuck to my guns. He took it better than expected. His face was calm. He’d leave, all right. When he was good and ready. In the meantime, he’d stop paying rent. It could take months. I was welcome to go, he said, but as we both knew, the apartment was in my name. So long as he lived there, I’d be stuck paying two rents.
“Go to the cops,” he suggested. “Ask them. You’ll see. There’s nothing they can do.”
He was right. Laws are different in different places but in New York City, where we lived, the laws are pretty strict in protecting the tenant -- which was, legally, what he’d become. I could file for a protection order if I felt physically unsafe, the cop explained later that afternoon, but then I would have to find another pace to live until he vacated the apartment.
It was easier to stay. Easier to pretend everything was OK than to admit I was in a situation I couldn’t control. It was easier to believe the Twelve Step program would stick this time, like he promised it would -- after all, it had worked for me -- than to admit I was in an emotionally abusive and potentially dangerous situation.
Because I should have known better, anyway, from in the beginning. I should have seen this coming. I’d been a domestic violence counselor, for chrissakes. How could I be so stupid? So weak and insecure. So desperate and dependent.
Or, maybe our love was different, special. Maybe this was true. Maybe no one else would want me. I was a whore. I was a bad dog owner. I didn’t do the laundry or the dishes right. I was constantly ruining his favorite shirts. My Google footprint would make it impossible to meet anyone else. He was embarrassed of me. He was my number one fan. No one could love me like he did. He would never stop loving me. He would never leave me, not like everyone else had and would.
I left him this past December. This time for good. I moved out, couch surfed until he vacated my apartment, paying the rent on his behalf for about three months. By leaving the apartment, I risked losing possession (it’s a rent controlled unit). I left all my belongings -- my clothes, my furniture, my beloved books. Our dog, Spud. I took the risk of losing it all, the pain of staying finally greater than the pain it took to let go.
My stuff was all there when I came back, including Spud. Mike was gone, finally. And yet, sometimes -- out of nowhere and for seemingly no reason -- I miss him.
My senior year of high school, I came home from school one day and my mother told me that my father was gone. Just like that, he had moved out for good. I haven’t seen him since. No matter how hard I try I cannot remember the last time I saw my father. Instead, I remember the evening I told my parents I had begun thinking of going to college.
They were sitting together in the dark on the couch in the living room in front of the TV. I remember the sound of the canned laughter and my parent’s faces illuminated by the flashing screen. I’d been awarded a $200 scholarship by the local chapter of the Veterans for Foreign Wars for second place in an essay contest, the theme: what freedom means to me. I don’t remember what I wrote, only that it was important I win.
The memory of this moment merges with a memory of another day, just before going off to college, when I came across my mother in the spare bedroom, crying.
“I’m scared you’re going to go away and you’ll never come back,” she said.
I was surprised my mother would admit such a fear, and ashamed. Her fear was my fantasy, and it was coming true.
I thought if only I worked hard enough -- if I were smart enough -- I could make up for the privileges I lacked. I could become someone different, someone better than I was.
I learned that no matter how far we go, we cannot escape ourselves and the truth of our experience. In telling their stories, the women in shelter learned to trust their voice and their truth. Only after witnessing them do so could I begin to take such risks.
We never discussed my father leaving, or all that we went through as a family before he did. I believe my mother has done work privately to recover, but we’ve never done any work together. She’s never acknowledged the pain this man caused her children -- my brother, in particular, who was the target of my father’s physical abuse. She’ll say that never happened. She’ll tell me I’m exaggerating and anyway it’s over now, get over it, move on. She’ll tell me I’m making a big deal over nothing and when she says these things I’ll feel just like a child again.
But I’m not a child today. I’m an adult. And it’s my responsibility to keep myself safe.