I put the car in park, turned off the engine and stared straight ahead. I was dreading tonight and debating if I wanted to stay or just go home. As the wind swayed the car, I peered to my right into the pitch black. My eyes followed a poorly lit path that leads to the bright lights of our meeting room. They were shining like a beacon. I wasn’t sure if the beacon was a warning to stay away like that of a lighthouse or an invitation to join like that of a church. Usually, I looked forward to the meetings, well maybe not looked forward to them, but I didn’t dread them. “None of my family live around me, why am I here?” I asked myself. The assignment this week involved our families. Normally families weren’t allowed because it hinders open participation. Tonight, however, if we had family that wanted to come they were welcome. As the car temperature dropped, I knew I’d rather suffer an uncomfortable evening than go home to an anxiety-filled house. Wrapping my coat as tight as possible I opened the door and started down the path. When I reached the double doors, I pulled on one side as the wind pushed it closed. Once it was open, the wind pushed against it not allowing me to close it. An older man came over and helped me pull the door close. Turning to thank him, I noticed his dark eyes that sparkled, a touch of gray in his black hair and a grin that said “Hi! I’m a charmer.”
It was a chore finding a seat in the meeting room which overflowed with parents, children, and siblings. Finally, I discovered one across from a mom by the name of Thelma. After introducing ourselves, we made small talk. A few minutes later Karen entered with two women dressed in fun costumes; she announced that the playroom would be down the hallway. Excited children followed the women with smiles and curiosity. Karen welcomed the guests and talked about the struggles of reuniting a family and a victim of either physical or mental abuse. Stopping about 20 minutes later she opened the floor up for discussion. There was no response, so she approached it by asking questions at first everyone sat around looking at each other. Gradually a conversation began and the atmosphere of the room shifted from reserved to agitated. The separation of the victim and family caused a wide range of emotions, either at the changes in their daughter’s personality or by the secrecy created by what is perceived to be her protecting him. Two families from that evening stuck with me Mr. Charmer’s and Thelma’s.
At one point Karen asked, “Do any of you feel your daughter’s abuser is still present?” This question seemed to spark something in Mr. Charmer who spoke up, “Like a ghost standing in the corner!” The sparkle had left his eyes, “He might as well be around. Corey makes choices based on what would make him happy and second guesses everything. Why is deciding so hard? She is intelligent and capable of making smart decisions. Doing something new scares her.” The eyes now seemed to plead for answers, “When she was a little girl she was independent and adventurous no one told her what to do. She never needed someone’s approval for anything. Now something as insignificant at picking out clothes or deciding what to have for supper can paralyze her.”
As Karen offered encouragement to Cory and Mr. Charmer I became distracted by Thelma’s fidgeting; wringing her hands laying them in her lap and then repeating the process all the while tapping one foot on the floor. When our eyes met, I smiled, her eyes would dart away. The conversation stalled, and the room became deafening quiet when Thelma practically shrieked, “She protects him,” then in a quieter voice “he can’t do anything right and Tina just makes excuses for him. One job, two jobs, a dozen jobs and later no jobs. He throws a tantrum and the next thing you knew they’re on their way out the door. When the pouting starts, she will move heaven and earth to make him happy which only happens when he gets his way. It doesn’t matter what we are doing she will always put him first. If she wouldn’t always bend to his will, then he wouldn’t be such a baby.“ I stared at the lady across from me examining her face. “If Tina was just tougher with him, he would’ve straightened up.”
As the group talked about women protecting their abuser, my brain pounded, “She’s not protecting him!” Glancing around the room I shrugged my shoulders, “She’s not, she’s protecting herself! Hellfire could down on him if it didn’t always land in her lap. I want to scream every time I hear someone says ‘she keeps protecting him’. She is struggling to exist with as little fallout as possible.” Looking straight at Thelma I continue, “Tantrum! It’s not an outburst it’s planned to get her to respond in a way that benefits him. He will raise the stakes. His actions will become sneakier, meaner, more manipulative until he gets what he wants and then there will be consequences for making him wait. What you truly don’t understand is that he will not lose. To him there is no line that cannot be crossed; there is nothing he won’t do. He will destroy her, the children and anything else that gets in his way. There is one goal: self-satisfaction. I am sorry but there is nothing she can do to make him do the right thing.”
That was my sole contribution; the rest of the night I watched and listened.
After cookies and coffee, everyone ventured back into the dark windy night. Looking out the window while my car warmed I notice Cory and her father walking down the path. Cory’s children climbing all over Mr. Charmer whose sparkle had returned to his eyes. Tina and her mother also strolled down the path. I couldn’t help notice a gap between them with no noticeable conversation being made. Snuggling into my coat and grabbing my purse I made my way toward the door. Karen and I walked to our cars together she asked how I was doing. I lied and said “OK”. Truth be told I envy the ladies that have family around: cups of coffee, dinners, game nights, movies, and most of all no lonely holidays. As I left the meeting, my thoughts focused on Cory and Tina and the friction in the family. It seems to me that when a man abuses a woman, it cracks the closeness of a family. I observed in amazement and bewilderment at the divide between parents and their daughter caused by the abuser – an outsider.
My thoughts focused on the “ghost”. My ex is my ghost and the control he still possesses over me frustrates me. Without thinking, I will act in a way I am sure will not irritate him or cause him to pout. With the help of my children, I am starting to catch myself. People assume I protect him, but in all reality, it is me protecting me. There are still days when I feel there is something wrong with me. Daily I fight the emotions that surface caused by the mental abuse. I don’t trust my emotions and am a much weaker version of myself. In the past, I was much stronger and more confident. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if I was the lucky one. How disappointing it must be to have family around and not be able to confide in them, lean on them. How hard to realize they don’t understand.
Cory’s story: She spent the last twenty-five years with a man that slowly and methodically destroyed her autonomy and sense of adventure. He determined where they lived, chose their way of eating, picked out her clothes. He moved her right up the social ladder. Gradually she came to accept that her thoughts really don’t have any worth. She surrendered her individual sense of being; becoming a reflection of his perception of a proper wife. Everything about her reflected him: His status, place in society, and his idea of the perfect marriage. The persona they built crumbled when she stepped out the door. It didn’t take her long to realize there was nothing of her. Now every decision is about trying to rebuild her life and it overwhelms her. The spontaneous teenager with a sense of adventure is no more. In her place stands a 48-year-old woman who cannot afford to make foolish mistakes about her future. I expect eventually Cory will be okay; she has it better than most. She is well-educated, earns a six-figure income and has the support of family.
Tina’s story: Tina married about 20 years ago. She expected everything would be similar to her parents and grandparents. The physical abuse was recognizable but the mental abuse was a foreign entity. Using subtle lies, confusing accusations, and character insults he confused her until she questioned her memories and her sanity. There was something about him that was off but she couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong. Frequently she found herself second-guessing her abilities and judgment which is why given a choice she chooses to believe the judgment of others. If he gets upset she feels threatened and on-edge and learned quickly life was simpler for her when everything was easier for him. What others couldn’t see is that she didn’t understand that the stuff he was doing was wrong because she didn’t understand what he was doing. One day her stepmother, Mary, sat her down and explained in Mary’s words: “he’s crazy” and “only thinks about himself”. The more they talked, the more the confusion lifted. Today Tina is overly sensitive to how people respond to her. She worries about talking too much or saying something dumb. Without reason, Tina apologizes for her feelings, thoughts, and actions; the feeling that something is terribly wrong is ever present. Amazingly she is dumbfounded when someone wants to be her friend. Slowly, she is finding she can interact with others and have healthy relationships. I have no idea if Tina will make it; every day is a struggle. Financially she is strapped most months don’t end well. There are no hobbies, movies, or eating out; she can’t even go to the doctor when needed. The world moves around her and she watches. Tina is alone and lonesome; she doesn’t feel support from her family. She is the perfect candidate to return.