I don’t understand why victims of domestic violence blame themselves, but we do. Even now a year after leaving, I don’t have feelings of anger or hate for my ex. The hardest emotion to deal with these days is my own shame over having stayed for 12 years, for having enabled him to manipulate me, for having ruthlessly forgiven time and time again, his intimidations, aggressions, and infidelities. But what hurts me the most is having believed that staying was the right thing for my children and in doing so, I exposed them to a concept of home that I would not wish on anyone.
Even early in our relationship he had angry outbursts and would call me names that he would later regret and for which he would apologize. I was young, inexperienced in love and was still suffering the effects of having been socially excluded for much of my childhood. Angry exchanges were also not uncommon between my father and I as an adolescent, so I figured it was part of love and that passion drove people to say things they later regretted.
Then my ex began to use my deep insecurities around belonging, to justify his opinions and manipulations, saying that I could not argue with him because I didn’t have any friends or know many people. As a foreigner without my immediate family or friends nearby, it was difficult to hold my ground in a disagreement, especially when he used cultural difference as a justification. Despite considering myself an intelligent and independent woman, I played his games because I so badly wanted to believe that I had the perfect family. Getting married I now realize, gave me a status in Lima society that I did not have as a young single foreign woman. The fact that an attractive and well-respected man had decided to spend the rest of his life with me, helped me feel worthy of love, as if I had to justify my existence. I had previously been afraid that nobody would want me, despite being attractive and quite successful in my studies and career. I am still struggling to understand this.
Around the time of my first pregnancy he began to develop a drinking problem which grew until he was having a couple liters of beer every evening. His personality would change from depressed and withdrawn to insulted and aggressive, sometimes with words and other times with pushes, shoves, kicks and throwing things. When my first daughter was born, he left me alone in the clinic, reeling in pain from an unnecessary and traumatic c-section. The doctor told me I should not speak after the operation so as not to fill with air, which would cause me great pain, so I said nothing. Today I can’t decide which hurt more, the physical or emotional pain of birth. Both were devastating.
It became hard to ignore that he had serious psychological issues and I begged him to see a psychologist. But because I had already had a few depressive episodes in my life and was now dealing with post-partum depression, he argued that it was in my head and I was the one who had the issues. I wanted to seek help for myself and take antidepressants, which had helped me in the past. He ridiculed me, comparing antidepressants to illegal street drugs. Half believing him in my debilitated state, I took on his problems as my responsibility, to understand and support him as his wife, when I was the one who desperately needed understanding and support.
When I gave birth to my second daughter he reacted the same way, leaving me the next day to go out drinking with his friends and “celebrate.” By this time I vowed not to ignore his serious problem and when I became even more depressed post-partum, I sought help for myself and was able to convince him to do the same. He was diagnosed rather quickly as having bipolar disorder. The diagnosis gave me new hope that there was a way to make things better. It fueled my belief that he would change and that it was my responsibility to heal him with my love. After all, I had taken a vow before God, in sickness and in health. I had my own issues, who was I to throw the first stone? Despite caring for a newborn and a 4 year-old, my whole life revolved around him. More important was how he was feeling and if he was following his treatment, which he was not.
He continued to drink despite being forbidden by his psychiatrist. His medication would make him sleepy but it did not hinder his anger before it took effect every night. Now that I had instructions from the doctor to “help” him follow a routine, avoid alcohol etc. he felt controlled, which made matters worse. I am keenly aware now that I was also trapped in my own addiction, to be his savior, to the disturbing point of self-denigration. I was so deep in my own denial, thinking that I could solve the problem of his out of control behaviors by not reacting, by enduring, by forgiving, by kicking him out for a few days, by giving him lectures etc. Meanwhile I was suffering in silence and shame, lying to my family and friends about my marriage, and tending only to the physical side effects caused my emotional turmoil. I kept telling myself that I was strong, that I could take it, for a better future, for my kids to grow up in a whole family and because he needed me and could not survive without me. This continued cycle after cycle of abuse. Living in survival mode, I was prepared for almost anything, or so I thought.
One year ago this month, I came home from a work trip to find, my then six year old, daughter angry and upset. I thought it was because I had left her for a week but later in a moment of tears she explained to me that she had seen her father with another woman, kissing on the sofa without any clothes. She had run to her bed crying and crying, alone and afraid, she yelled that she did not want another mother. Her daddy later told her not to speak of the event and that it was just a bad dream she had had. Never had I imagined he would go so far. I was left breathless as my denial came crashing down around me. He was never going to change and this time he had deeply hurt his own daughter. I made him leave for good, which was not easy, but he eventually did.
It has now been a year and I am still processing. Some days are actually good and I feel hopeful, while others are a struggle. I have only recently begun to call my marriage abusive. Previously I avoided the term because I felt it was beneath me, that in doing so I was calling myself a victim and therefore weak. Abuse is not supposed to happen to women like me and if it does, at the first sign I’m supposed to get myself out. But shame and so many other ideas and feelings kept me trapped for 12 years. In truth, no one is exempt from being manipulated and abused. It happens, unfortunately, quite frequently and sometimes the more we believe we are invincible, the more vulnerable we actually are.
I share my story now on the other side of disaster because I know I am not the only one out there. Other victims’ stories have inspired me and given me the strength to speak up. I want to do the same. If you are experiencing anything similar to what I have, no matter what gender, age, or sexuality, it’s not worth staying. If you’re not sure what you are experiencing is abuse, inform yourself, talk to someone whose opinion you trust (not someone who will say what you want to hear) or reach out to someone who is objective like a therapist or call a hotline. I spent the first part of my separation trying to forget the awful things I lived through. But the truth is, the emotional pain you don’t give voice to, will erode you from within, as it did me. I am now learning for the first time how to be whole and to love myself for who I am. It’s a wonderful feeling and I hope that you will join me.