Abuse can and often does become a way of life.
I always felt that someone was leaving me. My brother left for the service when I was five, and my sister left for college when I was nine. My parents asked a friend of my sister’s who was still in school to watch me after school. He became a surrogate sibling and I loved and trusted him. We will call him “Jon”.
Occasionally he would stay with me in the evening when my parents went out. One night, I couldn’t sleep and Jon was rubbing my back. I was about 12 and pretty naïve (it was 1973). When he pulled up my nightgown, he told me that the warmth from his hands would help my muscles relax. I thought nothing of it. And when he told me to turn over, I did without much thought. Thus began my journey through a world of abuse.
I quickly learned that men and boys found breasts attractive and mine were large at a young age and therefore seemed to invite touching. However, while my breasts were popular, I was not. Dates were elusive in my teen years and seemed to be about one thing — how long before I let them see and touch my breasts. I let them because I had already come to believe that this was how you love and were loved.
Emotional abuse is the worst. It starts you on a path of seeing yourself as an object put on earth to please others and believing that they have a right to use you as they see fit.
That summer I went away to a Christian summer camp. There were adults there who liked me. They told me I was loved and, what’s more, they showed it. Hugs were just that: hugs. Safe, secure, and totally non-sexual in nature. They told me Jesus loved me just the way I was, but I didn’t truly believe it. I couldn’t.
High school was a challenge. I loved school and my teachers, but my home life was extremely stressful. Jon got married and had the reception in our home. I was jealous, confused and angry. My dad was angry a lot and my mom seemed to believe, “If you don’t talk about it, it isn’t real.” So we didn’t talk. I came home, mowed the lawn, worked in the garden, made dinner, did homework, and escaped through reading.
My mom realized I was unhappy, but she didn’t know I drank almost daily and had attempted suicide more than once. She tried to get me help; she took me to see a psychiatrist, which only made me more certain that there was something wrong with me. She never asked what we talked about in our sessions. She didn’t really want to know.
The few friends I had were the other misfits— the nerds, geeks, or otherwise unpopular students. We formed our own little clique. Many of my friends were upperclassmen and they introduced me to a friend of theirs, Mark. Mark was seven years older than I and they assured me, “A great guy and a deacon in his church.” I had continued to go to the Christian summer camp every summer and had grown to see people involved in church as safe. That illusion was about to be shattered.
My mother tried to make things better but she never actually asked what was wrong. I think the psychiatrist told her I needed a change, so she sent me to boarding school for my senior year. I won’t go into everything that happened to me during that period of my life. Even now, 35 years later, the memories are too painful.
But I continued to see Mark and was eventually date raped (a term that did not even exist at that time). I spent the summer after graduation on a mission team and I confided to the leaders that I was afraid I was pregnant. Thankfully I was not, but I returned home and, after dropping out of college, married Mark because once you had sex with someone you were “supposed” to marry them. You were also supposed to obey your husband, so when he shared me with his friends, I only hated myself more. Mark liked to drink and when he was angry he hit me.
No one seemed to know or care what was going on. I went to our pastor for help; he said he was sure it was a misunderstanding and he would talk to Mark. Of course, that only made things worse.
My grandmother once said to me, in passing, “God does not expect you to live like this.” It was all she said, and of course we didn’t talk about it, but it was as if she had shone a light into my soul. As if someone knew and cared.
I woke up one day after a particularly brutal fight (I had been knocked unconscious). Mark was passed out on the bed. I searched blindly for my glasses and crawled to the door. I left without a coat or shoes and ran three blocks to a friend’s house. I never went back in the apartment when he was there; I moved home and filed for divorce. I felt I was a failure, as a wife, woman and daughter. I was 22.
End of story, right? No, this is where my first statement comes in, that abuse can and does become a way of life. Next, I went out with a man almost twice my age. He “gave” me away to his brother. I went from abusive relationship to abusive relationship. Some people said that I “allowed” these things to happen. I know now that those first patterns of abuse formed the way I viewed myself and my world to the extent that I didn’t even understand the concept of “choice” anymore.
I moved several times and drank a lot. I didn’t care what happened to me. I tried attending various churches but couldn’t find the love and acceptance I had found at camp. I was empty. I worked, slept and drank. Finally, when I hit bottom, I decided to stop drinking, stop “dating” and just spend some time with myself. I think it was the first time I consciously made a decision and it probably saved my life.
Eventually I found stable friends who seemed to like me as I was. Most of them were married, so when they fixed me up on a blind date, I reluctantly agreed to go. This man was different. He wanted to talk, get to know me. About a year and a half later, I married him.
It has not been all roses since then, especially for him. He has had to put up with a lot of ghosts from my past. I was extremely frightened that I would become an abuser when we had children. I worked hard at protecting our daughter and son from the verbal and emotional abuse I had been raised with.
At times, I failed and heard myself saying hurtful things. But the difference was that I realized it and apologized. It didn’t undo the wrong but it helped them to know that it was my problem, not theirs. I tried to teach them how to think and not what to think. I did my best to be as transparent as I could about myself and my past whenever appropriate. As a family, we learned together. They provided the healing I thought I would never find. I went back to school, and my daughter rushed home from her first year of college to see me graduate. This spring, my husband and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.
So, why tell my story now? To let others know that It Does Happen Here, on our campus, and in our small New England towns. It has been happening for a long time. And until we speak out, it will continue.