Sixteen years old and I had all the answers to Life (my life, at least); I quit school and got married. I didn’t “have to” – I wasn’t pregnant – I just wanted to be a wife. I thought that was all I needed to make my life complete.
I knew the “man” I married (he was only 19) had abused his former girlfriend. But I also knew why. She cheated on him – she deserved it – end of story. And since I would never do anything like that, of course he would never hit me, right?
And so began seven long years of physical, verbal and emotional abuse. My new husband slapped me for the first time on our first wedding anniversary - that was the beginning. It got worse – so much worse - but it took me nearly three years to truly understand that it was never going to get better. By that time, I had become an emotional zombie. It was safer that way – feelings made me vulnerable; feelings gave him a weapon against me; feelings hurt . . .
My husband also would not let me do anything that would make me “better” than him. In his eyes, that meant that I could not go back to school, get my GED, or get a job. Since he didn’t much care for working either, our financial state was pretty pathetic . . . We were evicted from more places than I care to remember. We lived with my family. We lived with his family. We lived with friends. And there was even one night – when nobody wanted to deal with the bull**** anymore – that we were actually homeless.
From time to time, my husband would leave and I would get a chance to take control of the situation. I would find a job, pay some bills, and start to get on my feet. But then he would come back and take it all away. Within a short time we would be back to Square One. The cycle would continue and he would leave again. After awhile I started to hope that he wouldn’t come back . . . but he always did.
I know people wondered why it took me so long to get out of such a sorry situation. What they didn’t know is that I tried for almost four years – and more than once I almost died for my efforts. The man I married didn’t like being rejected. When he returned from a two-week jaunt to Chicago and wanted to “come home” – I refused. He persuaded me to change my mind by slamming me on the floor hard enough to knock me unconscious; just one example of the many arguments I could never win . . .
But ultimately he did leave for the last time – he went far enough away that I knew he wasn’t coming back any time soon. I wasted no time – I filed for divorce the very next day and then started to think about rebuilding my life. I wasn’t sure I could do it. As bad as the physical abuse was, the emotional assaults had been even worse. By the time of my divorce at the young/old age of 23, I knew I was worthless; believed I was useless; and I totally accepted the fact that I was undeserving of even the slightest attention.
However, I also had two young children to support and I realized I couldn’t do it on minimum wage; so I decided to go back to school. I worked at a fast food restaurant during the day and enrolled in an evening study class to get my GED. A few months later, I felt incredibly proud when I held that little certificate in my hands. Like a small child, I felt like I had something I could show to the world and say, “See what I did?” And then I realized . . . I actually could “feel”!
But it wasn’t enough. My next step was to find a local trade school designed for people like me – people who needed to learn a skill in a hurry. I enrolled in the secretarial program and spent the next six months learning to type, file and do basic computing. It was rough at first because typing was supposed to be a prerequisite for the course – but they made an exception for me and I was determined to succeed. And succeed I did; at the end of the course, I not only graduated - I did so with the Outstanding Student Award for that class.
In addition to getting an education, something else significant happened while attending that school – one day another student talked to me! I was stupefied – and confused. Didn’t she know that I was nobody anyone would want to be friends with? It wasn’t possible! And yet it was happening! I finally realized what it meant . . . I was on my way to becoming a real human being. And I was pretty sure it felt good!
About a year later, another new chapter in my life began. I started dating again, painfully and awkwardly. One night I ran into a man I had met several years before, during one of my brief periods of employment. We began dating. Our relationship would last for several years, but the first six months were . . . well, a little rocky . . . One night we had a quarrel and the argument triggered something inside me. I literally went crazy; I physically attacked him, screaming and punching, scratching and kicking – I was totally out of my mind. I had never done anything like that before!
Much to my amazement, he didn’t hit me back. Instead, he simply left and the next day calmly “suggested” that perhaps I should seek some counseling. I took his advice and spent the next eight months seeing a wonderful therapist. After explaining what had brought me there, I was a little surprised when the therapist insisted that we dig through all the drama in my childhood. Drama? To me, it was just “life” - didn’t everyone have branches of alcoholism, obsessive behavior, and child molestation in their family tree?
Eventually we progressed to the subject of my marriage. By that time, I understood that I had married so young because I was searching for the love and nurturing that I had not received at home. I realized that my self-esteem had already been low because of the misuse and neglect I had suffered as a child, as well as because of the financial side effects that often accompany alcoholism. Following that kind of childhood with an abusive marriage was – to use a very stale analogy – like pouring gasoline on an already raging fire. The resulting inferno threatened to consume everything in its path – most especially me!
Next, she taught me to look deep inside myself and find that tiny, sheltered core where I still believed I was a wonderful, worthy person. I learned to nurture that tiny core and help it to grow, little by little, until one day it flourished and I realized that I liked myself; I respected myself. Soon I became strong enough to tell anybody who felt differently that his or her opinion had no bearing on my life or my self-image. I felt different on the inside – and it showed on the outside. I stood up straighter, I looked people in the eye, and I even became able to walk into a room full of people without cringing. Simple things that might sound trifling to a normal person – and yet mean the world to someone like me, who had once considered herself to be one degree less than nothing.
Little did I know that it would get better still . . . Two years later, I decided to upgrade my skills, so once again I went back to school. This time I chose a business college with a one-year course in accounting. I also took computer classes in spreadsheets and word processing; the end result was a highly marketable combination when I started looking for a job. My confidence soared when I discovered that my skills and knowledge gave me my choice of jobs! I didn’t have a degree and I would probably never be rich - but I would never have to work for minimum wage again!
Now, I look back at the life I lived before – this story I am telling - and it seems like it was another person. In a way, it was. I remember the person who lived that life, but I have not seen her in a very long time. She is not who I see in the mirror today. The person I see today – 23 years after this story began – is young and free inside. I look forward to “Life” and “Tomorrow” and “The Future” . . . all words that once upon a time had lost all meaning for me.
And looking at what I have accomplished, I see that it is monumental, and yet not incredible. There is nothing that I have done that is not within the reach to anyone who wants it. Although it is never easy to get out of an abusive relationship (remember – it took me several years), once you are out, the sky is the limit! There are therapists and counseling programs that operate on a sliding scale fee; support groups that don’t cost anything at all; programs that pay for childcare while you attend school (and even after you go to work); monetary aid to help support you while you go to school; student grants and loans to pay for tuition and books.
Whatever your situation – whatever you need - there is some kind of helping hand - all you have to do is reach out for it! This is my rags to riches story . . . are you ready to write your own?