Survivor Story: Breaking My Silence Twice

Written by: Shelley, Survivor

Trigger Warning: This story contains descriptions of physical and sexual violence that some survivors may find particularly upsetting. Please consider your triggers and well-being before reading past this point. 

Shelley’s story describes what it was like living with emotional and financial abuse. Often survivors in these situations don’t feel like their abuse is ‘real’ abuse and stay silent for much longer. Read more to learn how Shelley finally understood her abuse, how she was both supported and ignored by those around her, and the lengths she had to go through to ensure safety for herself and for her children. 

My Story

Hi, I’m Shelley and I would like to share this quote with you. It speaks to me and perfectly describes what I felt like when I lived with domestic violence.

“Domestic violence is like drowning in your own home.”

It was like water being poured over me, over and over, by the one person whom I loved and trusted the most. I could not breathe.

I was married to an abusive man for 17 years. 

I was 24 years old and a teacher in a private school. I had a child in my class whose parents were divorced. The father was a very involved, very caring, and devoted parent. Throughout the school year he would call and ask how his child was doing as he had partial custody and did not see him as often as he would like. At our tight knit school this was normal. As the school year continued our friendship blossomed as we worked together to help his child, who had some behavior challenges. 

When the school year ended he invited me out for a frozen yogurt, then to a party, and began calling me daily. He was attentive, charismatic, and charming.

He would tell me how his ex-wife and the mother of his child was mistreating him, and I believed him. Our relationship quickly escalated into a romantic relationship, yet he was very respectful. I thought that he was the most wonderful man. I saw no red flags towards me; yet, he did speak terribly about his ex-wife and did seem a little too angry. I chose to ignore this, believing that he was responding to his maltreatment by her. 

After a year of dating, he asked me to marry him. I accepted, and the following year we were married in a beautiful ceremony. There was one incident in which he got mad at me and started screaming and throwing things in my apartment parking lot, but I did not do anything about it or really know what to do. His family all seemed to have tempers and yelled a lot, so I just accepted that he was brought up that way, and that was his way of communicating. 

I was pregnant shortly after that. There were times when months would pass by and things were great. He definitely liked to have things in his particular way. He was controlling, yet loving, and he took care of me and my son. We bought a home and lived a ‘normal’ life. I had my daughter a few years later. During these years there were times when he would scream, yell, and throw things. There were also many times when he was a caring, loving, parent and husband. However, I began noticing that I was living on eggshells waiting and wondering when he would snap. I was afraid of him. When he did snap, he would always come home from work the next day with flowers, and apologised. Yet, he also told me that if I had not said or did whatever I had done to provoke him, that he would not have had to behave that way.  

Years later, flowers are a trigger.

Stock photo – WordPress

Escalation

His blow ups were usually about finances or things around the house that were not done to his standard or liking. If something broke in the home, that would set him off. It always ended with him berating me. He would tell me how to shop at the grocery store, what to buy, including which brands. He would tell me I had to go to different stores to buy different items. If I would buy butter and we already had butter at home, that would send him in a rage. He would tell me that I was stupid to buy things we already had, and that I didn’t understand finances or money. He would go through the refrigerator throwing things out if there were duplicates to further illustrate how stupid I was. When I planned the kids’ birthday parties, I had to get it verified and approved by him before I could purchase anything. However, when the day of the party arrived, he would still blow up and scream at me for spending money. This happened for every single party. 

He would also check the thermostat constantly and if I changed it, that would enrage him. Again, he would tell me how stupid I was and berate me about expensive bills. I did my best to ignore this and keep quiet, as my children were always there and I didn’t want them to hear this.

You see, having a family, and being a mother were the most important things to me. I wanted a happy home with happy children. 

I was brought up in an upper-middle class family. We were all very close, and very loving. I grew up in a beautiful neighborhood where our neighbors were not only friends, but family as well. I wanted to replicate that for my children, and to the outside world we had that. My kids played outside with their neighborhood friends, we had many family outings, and did fun things with our neighbors. 

Sometimes our neighbors would hear him yelling and see evidence of his temper. He would follow me outside as I was leaving for the grocery store, asking me how I was going to pay for things, and he would make fun of my driving in front of our neighbors. I was so embarrassed. One time my older neighbor who was a role model to me, told me to just deal with it. Men yell, and I married him and made vows; therefore, I needed to keep the peace. He would put me down in front of people but in a way that seemed half joking and therefore harmless. So I would just cringe inside. Life continued. My children were extremely active in sports so I became a sports mom, room mom for school, and continued teaching. He was their coach. To the outside world we seemed normal, or so I thought. 

His temper seemed to get worse, he would throw things at me, barely missing my head, yelling, cussing at me constantly, putting me down, making me feel wrong and crazy, and my kids started to come crying to me. I felt afraid in my own home; yet, I told no one. He became more and more financially abusive. I overheard him telling a friend of ours that he bought a business. I had never heard him mention this before, and when I asked, he yelled at me, telling me he had told me and that I was stupid for not remembering. He then closed our joint checking account leaving me with no money except what I made as a preschool teacher working thirty hours a week. My children were crying nightly, and I was living in fear of his blow ups because they began occurring more frequently. I finally broke.

Photo by Alexandro David from Pexels

Breaking my silence

I broke the silence and told my parents. My children were 4 and 7 at this time. My parents listened and were supportive. They had seen his temper a few times, but they obviously did not know the extent of it. 

My parents found a lawyer for me. He was removed from my home with a court order and I was given a restraining order. 

This was a terrifying time. My children were a wreck, and they were having trouble at school. He moved in with his parents and the kids would call me crying hysterically when they had to spend the night there. He started apologizing to me, telling me how much he loved me, offering to go to therapy and offering to do anything he could to have his family back. I gave in and allowed him back. I felt I had to do anything to get my family back, seeing my children so sad was killing me inside, and I was terrified about how I could continue financially. 

The honeymoon period began. He was the perfect husband and father once again, until he wasn’t, and the cycle continued. It went on like this for another ten years, with periods of bliss, followed by periods of living and walking on eggshells. These periods were as long as three months, and then became shorter, one month cycles. He was nice for about one month, which would end in an explosion of anger. I also had an internal cycle, fighting with myself. I remember thinking, maybe if I would just listen to him, do things as he wanted, not argue back; maybe then things would be okay. Then I would think – no this is wrong, I do not deserve to be treated this way. 

Around this time, the internet started to become more mainstream. I researched domestic violence. I remember reading an article to find out how to tell if someone was living with an abusive person. I checked almost every statement in that article. I was afraid and living on eggshells. I was belittled and controlled. I felt helpless. I wondered if I was going crazy. I felt numb. My partner humiliated me, he criticized me and put me down. He embarrassed me. He blamed me for his abusive behavior. He had a bad temper, was jealous, and was unpredictable. He threatened to take my kids away. He destroyed my belongings. He limited access to money. The only thing he didn’t do was hit me. For some reason, many people, including me, believed that if you are not being hit that you are not truly being abused. I did not realize at the time that verbal, emotional, sexual and financial abuse were just as damaging as physical violence. At that time I did not know that throwing things, kicking, and pushing was considered physical violence.  

Things began escalating. There were more temper flares-up, more belittling words. He once again controlled my access to money. He began controlling my interactions with friends, often screaming at me and following me into the bathroom and shower accusing me of cheating. He began telling our friends this as well. He kicked me out of our bed, saying it was the marital bed and if I did not have sex with him, I was not allowed in the bed. He broke a lamp over my hand, threw things at me, began pushing me, and kicking me – all in front of my children. At some point, something clicked for me and I just knew I could not live this way any more. I once again broke the silence, talked to my parents, my aunt- who was extremely supportive – and my grandmothers.

The Plan

This time we made a plan so I could leave. I did not want a scene in front of neighbors or a scene for my children. In retrospect, I’m not sure it was the right way to leave. I should have told him to leave, but I just wanted to get away because I was so scared of him by this point and so worried for my children. This time I would be leaving ten years after the first time, and my children were now 11 and 14.

The plan was made and I rented a home from a friend. I had financial help from my family, and emotional support from my friends. I slowly started taking my things from my old house. I purchased my own cell phone and made plans for my children to stay at a friend’s house on the day I planned to actually leave. That morning, I took my children to a park and explained the situation and then took them to my friends. It was the hardest talk I have ever had to have with my children. I will never forget the look in their eyes. I tried my best to reassure them and answer their questions.

I then went home and told him I was leaving. He went into a rage. Screaming, yelling, throwing things and he came at me with an intense look of hatred in his eyes. I ran outside to my friends who were waiting for me. He barricaded himself in the house, so I was unable to get my things or things for the children.

He started throwing my things outside as the police arrived. They only allowed me to take enough clothing for myself and my children to last three days. He was also allowed to follow me as I gathered our belongings, yelling and cussing the whole time.

After this, we decided (through our attorneys) that the children would go back and forth every two days. My daughter was worried that she would not see both of her parents, and I wanted them together, but I was worried for my children when they were with him. I was hopeful that they were old enough to call me if anything terrible happened.

I once again got a restraining order. He stalked me. He would stalk me at work, and at my house, once he found out where I was living. He made up fake emails with different names, and sent me messages about how I cheated on him. He called and emailed me multiple times a day calling me horrible names. He harassed my parents so much that they also had to get a restraining order. By this time he had told all my friends and family that I was cheating on him and had multiple abortions; which I never did. He was so unstable. I still had to see him at my kids baseball, softball, basketball and soccer games. He would intimidate me, cross over the line of his restraining order guidelines. I was still so terrified of him and he knew it. He also threatened to take my kids from me. He was leaving horrible things on my car. I had ten flat tires in this two year period. During one of the kid’s baseball games, he started screaming at me, so I walked to my car, and he chased me. He didn’t allow me to drive away, and instead hit my car, yelling, and screaming. The park was crowded with people, but not a single person helped me. During this time, he was not paying child support, for the kids health insurance or any other mutual expenses. Additionally, during the many court dates, he would arrive without the necessary paperwork and the judge would then turn us away, to return in three months. This prolonged the situation, and if I didn’t have financial help from my family, I would have been homeless.

Stock photo – WordPress

Court battle

When we finally went back to court again, his demands had increased: he wanted more time with our children, and did not want to pay spousal support. Moreover, he had moved his girlfriend into our home, but was not paying the mortgage, so the house went into foreclosure. He destroyed my credit. He also hid his money and income as he worked for himself. He got a brand new car every six months. At court, he produced documents that showed he made less money than me. Therefore, he did not have to pay spousal support and paid very low child support since the kids stayed with me for the majority of the time. He was allowed to scream at the judge when the custody did not go his way.

He tried to ban me from attending my children’s sporting events when he had them, and he tried to get a court order preventing me from driving on his street. He filed a police report saying that I hacked into his home and work computers, and ruined his business.

The harassment and abuse continued for many years. He continued incessant emails, texts, and stalking, and made my life as difficult as he could. 

I became stronger though. I learned after a while that responding to him only escalated things. There was no reason for me to explain why I left and try to make him understand what he did. He would never see it that way, never see anything as his fault or my leaving as consequences to his behavior. I began using no contact. It was a breath of fresh air. He still tried his best to intimidate and harass me but I ceased responding. I felt less afraid. I still had to see him at the kids’ events – but I was very careful to stay away and not engage with him; focussed on trying to make things as easy as possible for my kids. My life was consumed with trying to make my kids feel happy. 

This lifestyle continued until both kids turned 18 – about 9 years ago. I finally felt him backing off about this time. It was not easy but it was getting easier.

I continued teaching, working more hours, and doing my best to be the best mom I could be. Luckily my children seemingly thrived. They both went to college. My son graduated from Sonoma State University and is currently working in his chosen field. My daughter is currently attending CSUN and working a full time job. I have a boyfriend who I have been with for many years. I am also following my passion by helping other women and men who are survivors of domestic violence. I volunteer at a hotline, talking to clients and offering resources, support, and additional help for those with children. 

Aftermath 

I understand my triggers, and struggles, and have fears about my past; but, I feel strong and empowered by my choices, my decisions and where my life is now. 

One of the biggest reasons why I left was for my children. I did not want my son to believe that men can treat women the way his father treated me and I did not want my daughter to see life through archaic gender-normative stereotypes. When I sit back and observe my children and their relationships with others, I see that they are kind and respectful adults and that warms my heart. I feel very successful as a parent. I can say they are my greatest accomplishments and I will say I am so proud of my strength as well. 

I started with a quote to describe what it was like for me to live with domestic violence. I would like to end with another to describe what it felt for me to have a life after.

“She believed she could, so she did.” 

Stock photo – WordPress

I hope that I have conveyed to you that domestic violence can and does happen to anyone. It doesn’t know racial, religious, or economic boundaries. It is all about control, about power, and when dealing with an abusive person I felt I could not win. I understood that feeling invalidated, disrespected, afraid, silenced, and abused was not a healthy relationship and needed to leave. I left for myself, for my children, and for my life. 

**If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org, chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777, or send a private message through our Facebook page. For crisis services, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

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