“I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself…Many times in romance I have been a victim of my optimism.”
This is the essay I dread writing, because the things I must say, the words I need to plant on paper to honor my grief and tribulations won’t come easy. They’ve been floating in my heart, longing for a home to share their story. But despite their desire for a place to land, they are allusive and cunning in face of my pursuit.
I don’t know how to write about emotional and verbal abuse. I can expound on the horrors I have faced from physical, sexual trauma in my childhood and young adulthood. Those stories flow through and out me without pause, surrendering to the necessity of being told. I can share how those instances and experiences have shaped me physically, mentally and emotionally: the pain that I endured and stuffed inside my body until I grew so large from self-hate I almost burst. But how do you describe the kind of abuse that happens under the table, sly and hidden? How do I write about how the abstraction of words, shuffled concoctions of letters, can do such invisible damage that it makes me long for the assault of the physical?
I hoped after my first marriage I would know and do better. That the battle scars left from my first husband’s more blatant attempts to control and cajole through language would be a constant reminder to never take that shit again. I was smarter than that, and despite his efforts to tear me down, I refused to melt into the nothingness he might have preferred, even though the discomfort lingered and begged for attention.
I can still hear Carlos’s voice wafting into my ear, one of the more memorable moments occurring during his family’s visit to see us in Puerto Vallarta shortly after I had given birth to our preterm twins. His family had a hotel suite, and we lounged in the living area, catching up, his grandfather frying a potent fish that I knew I had no intention of eating. My body still felt like a deflated sac, and I was plagued by anemia, exhausted from the lack of iron circulating through my veins and maintaining my new role as a full-time mother to two tiny babies.
Carlos pulled me away from the small gathering asking if we could talk for a moment, and gently ushered me into the connecting bedroom. He sat me down on the bed, and for a second, I considered eyes I once mistook for soulful, and assumed that what would tumble from his lips would be a declaration of love, something sweet to bolster my confidence as a new mother during this precious moment of privacy. The corners of his eyes crinkled in a slightly critical manner, his glance filled with gravity. He leaned in and said to me, “Amor, I am concerned that you haven’t lost any baby weight yet, and that you seem okay to be heavy. Do you want to be fat?”
My heart dropped to the floor and flat lined, a wave of potent bitterness rising to the back of my throat. I was barely two weeks postpartum. Carrying twins, I had gained roughly 50 pounds, a great deal of which exited my body when the children were ushered into this world. I felt sickly and was barely eating enough to maintain my own needs, let alone the breast milk I was providing for my children. I burst into a wave of tears and sadness, allowing the torment of the pause following his statement wash over us in embarrassed waves. Carlos immediately became defensive, as he usually did, and feebly attempted to justify his questioning. I merely darted my eyes in fury and proceeded to hotel hallway, where I sat alone, bawling, my back leaned against the room door until I felt my spine tingling from the pressure, allowing the physical pain to take the edge of the psychic heartache that kept crashing over me.
And so, it went for the remainder of our relationship: he would often make a callous or offhanded comment, sometimes we would argue, but most times I would crawl into the invisible shell of emotional withdrawal I had created for myself as a protection against his thoughts. I shut down, the metal security walls tumbling around my heart, refusing to budge an inch, often ignoring him until I sensed some form of safety when I could speak. I hate myself for my silence. I hated him even more for the poison of his sentences.
Despite this, I desperately hoped he might become a better man, the man I could see deep down under his insecurities. I also felt that perhaps distance had given him perspective: he had missed a year of his children’s lives when I returned to the United States when they were five months old because I just couldn’t live without the support of my family. It appeared that he had mellowed, and seemed more willing to focus on our relationship moving forward rather than backward once he arrived in the US. But shortly after, the ‘honeymoon’ of our reunion ended, the ugly head of words masked as violence reared once more, and I found myself flung right back into a well of self-doubt, feeling like I was damaged goods, as if I deserved the hatred spewed in fits of anger in frustration. Yet, due to his fiancé Visa status, I found myself standing before the Justice of the Peace, my heart full of gritty reservation, hearing the words ‘I do’ tumble from my lips, like a Hail Mary prayer for my children. It was evident on our wedding night, when he curled in bed with his back ignoring my fingers, leaving me cold and untouched, that he harbored a deep-seated resentment that I was unsure I could ever overcome to make our relationship stable.
He didn’t physically harm me, but his words flew around rooms in clouds of fury and angst. I learned that cowering was the best way to ride out the storms. Often, I would lock myself in our bedroom, him pounding on the door, eventually softening to a quiet knock, willing me to let down my reserve. During these times, I felt torn that my children were in another room. What if they woke? What if they saw their father in a rage?
Eventually, holding all my fear and inaction inside caught up to me, and my gallbladder began failing. I ended up having to go to the emergency room for intense pain, waving across my body as it had for the previous year, coming and going in spurts but without ever pinpointing a cause. It was only functioning at 18%, and I had to have surgery to remove it, giving me a slight reprieve of a five-day hospital stay. But it was nerve wracking, leaving my children in his care, because he could barely take care of himself, his expectations always bearing down on my shoulders to provide meals, housekeeping, childcare, and work a full-time job. Yet, I took that time in the hospital to reflect, peering inside my heart to listen to what it felt I should do next. Without question, it said ‘divorce.’
I had wanted so badly to maintain our relationship for at least a year, at which point Carlos would be eligible to apply for a Visa on his own. If our marriage ended before the designated time, then he might not be eligible to stay in country. But I had run out of adrenaline to sustain me, and I could no longer pretend that this was something that I wanted, or that was healthy. I couldn’t take the yelling, the apologies, the flowers brought the morning after he broke a side table in a fit of rage as I listened in our bedroom to the wood splintering and cracking, thankful it was not my body.
I broached the subject of divorce, and he balked. He became angry and suspicious. He thought I was having an affair. I told him I wanted him to be happy. He told me I was fat and ugly, and that no one else would have me. His verbal diatribes became more threatening, and I finally broke down and went to a consultation with a lawyer on the sly, retaining his services. When Carlos was served with papers, he was so angry I thought we had reached the moment where his fists might finally stroke my face. He kept breaking things around the house, then begging me to stay.
Two weeks after the papers were served, I moved out of our home on a Saturday morning when he was working, rising early to throw as much as I could into boxes for the movers. I didn’t tell him I was leaving. I collected as much as I could, and the movers worked swiftly to empty the house of furniture and its contents, which were driven to storage. I went to my mother’s house, a few blocks away, and waited for the storm I knew would burst when he arrived home and realized I left with our children.
Sure enough, he called that evening, spouting obscenities, detailing how he planned to exact his fury. He told me I was the devil. Then he started driving past my mother’s house, over and over, parking outside and waiting in case I wandered outside. I still felt unsafe, so I transitioned with our children to temporarily live with my grandmother who had a quiet, more rural home twenty minutes away. Amid his increasing threats, I filed for a protection order, and was granted the piece of paper meant to be an invisible shield from his wrath, even though I knew that it contained no real power, and that often those orders left women with even less protection than intended. Hanging over my head, constantly, was a fear that he would take our children and attempt to travel back to his native Mexico, where child custody was not reciprocal. I watched my babies like a hawk every minute of every day, vigilant to exhaustion.
We began to move forward with legal proceedings. I was forced by the court to attend a mediation class with him, which wholly uncomfortable and frightening. He kept his composure in public, as he always did, but I could hear it his voice, the distinct lilt of the bitter tone that he reserved for me when he wanted to scream but was forced to play nice. It was a nauseating experience, and I hated the system for thrusting me into a space that felt so unsafe.
He hired a lawyer, and we met with our counsels to sit and create a custody order and plan. We had no assets, and I wanted nothing from him. But he did want a favor for me. He had missed a window of opportunity to apply for a Visa on his own under special circumstances, so that he could remain in the country. Now, he needed me to vouch for him for the paperwork to be processed. I felt my heart tug in two separate directions: one for my children, and the opportunity to have their father present and in their lives. The other, a glimpse into my future, always worrying if he might attempt to go back with the kids. Having to wonder if he was stalking me, or following me, lying in wait for a moment of vulnerability where he could hurt me physically. The life I could probably never have, the people I could never date, because his shadow would be everywhere, and I would be constantly afraid that choices I might make for my happiness might incite his ire. Despite the sadness I felt from the weight of the decision, and having it rest upon my shoulders, I firmly told him no. He would have to find his path or way that was not dependent on my support.
I received physical custody of our children, and we were both granted legal custody. Carlos was to have supervised visitation, and we arranged to meet on the following Saturday. It was a blistery, January morning, and I bundled the kids against the harsh wind to travel across town on the bus to the center where the supervised meeting was to occur. We arrived early, and were placed in a colorful visitation room, the second hand of the clock emitting a visible click as it circled away time. Jacob and Kudra made their way to the corner, where they investigated the various toys that were placed to captivate and occupy. Five minutes rolled by. Each second seemed to languish. Ten minutes late. The kids became bored, tugging at my jacket and beginning to whine to go home. At the twenty-minute mark, the kids were finished waiting and approached mutiny. As we had stayed for the required time, the woman in charge of overseeing the supervision said we could leave, as it appeared that he would not be attending.
The kids were confused about the visit. I was confused, and frightened as to why Carlos had not appeared. We made our way back to my parents’ house, where they momentarily forgot their father and dug into their piles of games and toys upon our return. I couldn’t ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that he had decided to retreat, and had left our children behind. Two weeks of non-communication followed, my attempts to call him met with vain silence, which was unnerving. It was uneasy, maneuvering day after day without a response or contact with him. I began to be concerned for his well-being, even though my gut instinct told me that he had decided to leave the country. Finally, after two weeks, I got a crackling call from him, informing me had gone home to Puerto Vallarta. He wished to maintain his relationship with the kids via phone. After the conversation, I hung up, and I wept for what felt like hours, all the pent-up fear and frustration finally bursting and releasing in wave after wave. I cried for my children, for the inexplicable hard decision I had to make that I knew would affect them, and I shed tears for all the moments when he had made me feel scared, ugly, and downtrodden. Then, when my eyes could give no more, I inhaled the largest breath I could, exhaling loud and with force. It was as though I was a newborn babe learning to breathe again for the very first time.
During this time, I began service with AmeriCorps, where I met my future husband. On the surface, from what I observed, he was intelligent, comfortable with himself, and a great dancer. When we met, he was involved in a long-term relationship, and I was just creeping out from under the rock of my detrimental marriage. We circled around each other for a few years, seeing each other at poetry readings and clubs, sharing the same social scene. Three years after we initially met, at an anniversary party for the lounge I co-owned, he popped up, single and alone. We reconnected, and there was a very intense attraction from the beginning. Our first date, later that week, was a smashing success, and we found we could talk on the phone for hours. He told me he loved me two weeks after we first met, and I felt the same with every fiber of my being.
But our relationship had some rockiness from the start. He suffered from anxiety, especially in large groups of people. He had been jumped the year before at a club when he defended his sister against members of a college football team, and it had a huge impact on his ability to feel comfortable around in a crowd. He took medication to help ease his symptoms, but he would sometimes get cagey if we were in places where people would multiply, or if he felt someone was looking at him in an off way. In addition, the twins were now five, and could give Mary Poppins a hard run for her money. He struggled with this role in our relationship, and his place in the life of my children. A bit naïve, I truly believed that it part of my responsibility to find someone who could be a father figure, to make up for the loss they had sustained three years prior. It never occurred to me that it was more essential that I found someone who was as good for me as I thought he could be for them.
After six months, he and I hit a major road bump and he broke up with me, saying he just couldn’t do the relationship anymore. Five years younger than me, he was still partying with his friends, and I had voiced my displeasure with his behavior on several occasions. I remember lying in bed, feeling such intense loss that I thought my soul was being torn to shreds. I was crazy in love and the thought of suffering through such heartbreak was unbearable. He stopped by my house to return some music, bringing me a letter. My emotions got the best of me, and I broke down in front of him, and he began pouring out all the reasons why he was scared it wasn’t going to work. Then he broke down, and we sat together and cried. After that, our relationship seemed to gain strength, and four months later, I discovered we would be expecting our first child.
I had hoped that my pregnancy would soften him, and make him want to create change for himself, especially considering his own family dynamic, where his father was a recovered philanderer and drug addict who had two children outside of his marriage. We moved in together, and I hoped for the best for myself and the kids, because he had so many wonderful qualities that I kept hoping they would grow in intensity and outshine the rest. But his behavior gradually began to slide. He yelled at the kids a lot, his anxiety beginning to trickle into his relationship with them, and he would go out with his friends occasionally on the weekend, returning piss ass drunk, sometimes vomiting wherever he lay, leaving me to clean up his mess. It was like having another child I never asked for.
After our son was born, it seemed that maybe that shift had finally taken hold, and that he might be leaning in the direction of wanting to scale back. Although fatherhood still poked at his anxiety, he seemed to manage it with greater control and aplomb. His relationship with the twins seemed to improve as well, his heart opening a bit wider to let them in.
A year later, we moved across the country, losing the community and family support we had leaned on, staking out our possibilities in Denver. He got a position working for the regional transportation company driving a bus, something he had become extremely interested in after we had taken a babymoon trip to Colorado in my 8th month of pregnancy. At first, it seemed like a good fit: an active job that wasn’t social services, and with the potential to advance. But slowly, I began to see him wither away: the odd shifts and long hours took their toll, his mood swings became more frequent, he was more irritable, he lost weight, he wasn’t sleeping enough, and we didn’t see him much. Around this time, he also decided, carte blanche, that he would stop taking his medication for anxiety and depression, because he feel he needed to go without chemicals in his system.
Almost six months in, he unexpectedly quit his job, bowing under pressure and believing he would end up fired, and things went from bad to precarious. He found temporary jobs here and there filling in at apartment complexes for their residential leasing agents. A few months later, I broke my ankle in a severe fall, and was wheelchair bound for two months. We were barely surviving, and it wore us down quickly.
He eventually found a position in social services again, and we slowly began to right our ship, but Denver became more expensive, and it became harder for us to maintain. We were treading water, but barely. We took a road trip to visit a close, college friend of mine who lived in Santa Fe, and I instantly fell in love with the land, people and the culture. I quickly secured a teaching fellowship at a local middle school, and he agreed to move after he got a position as a program manager with a homeless youth organization. I thought that maybe we had finally found the place where we could heal and become the family I longed for.
So, we uprooted once again, and finally had enough income to be able to rent a house, not an apartment, and began building our lives in the City Different. Except the same patterns began to emerge. His hyper reactions to the kids and other situations began to intensify. He was drinking more, getting so intoxicated at one of my work functions that he vomited in the car, and I left him in his clothes on the floor of our family room, I was so disgusted. And then he quit his job, out of the blue, and we were thrown right back into the huge financial stresses we thought we left behind. A few weeks later, I discovered I was pregnant, and that only piled on more.
Three months later, my grandmother died suddenly, and my family opened the door for us to come back to Pittsburgh by offering us her home to live in. I had doubts about returning someplace that I left with great intention, but my husband was sold and determined to be closer to his parents. Reluctantly, I agreed, and in my sixth month of pregnancy, we moved cross country following the route we had traveled to leave. Despite being in my grandmother’s home, which I cherished as a happier part of my childhood, I hated Pennsylvania. The long, drab days with endless gray, and being stuck in a rural home as we only had one car wore down my spirit. There was an undertone of racism that felt nefarious and insufferable, and I didn’t want my children to grow up in a place where they would not be considered for their whole person. My husband bounced from job to job, finally landing something more concrete and stable, but the financial toll was enormous. I had given up my career pursuit to stay home, and after our daughter was born, despite my deep joy of motherhood, I missed working and adult socialization, feeling stuck in isolation.
Then, less than a year after our return, my husband and my uncle had a huge argument, partially incited by his kneejerk style of speaking before thinking, and before I knew it, I was no longer speaking with my family. My mother and I attempted to discuss the issue, created from an incident between my uncle and younger son, and she gave me an ultimatum to leave my husband and stay in the house, or to be on the streets. It was a horrendous choice, and as a new, unemployed mother with no resources who still felt she saw glimpses of what could be in the eyes of a man she loved, I chose him.
We became homeless and were forced to move in with his parents, where his younger sister and her two young children already resided. While I had what I thought was a good a relationship with his parents, I wasn’t interested nor prepared to see them daily in a more intimate light. His father, like him, was hot headed and often spouted off without thinking, and yelled way too much. His mother, the ever-vigilant care taker, was extremely passive aggressive, and did everything that was required for maintaining the house and caring for his sister’s children, but with buried resentment.
I slept in his mother’s bedroom with all four children, and my husband slept on the couch. I worked tirelessly to arrange for the twins to attend the same school to ease the transition, prepared them in the morning, and was present every afternoon. During the day, I made endless phone calls, working on selling my share of my business so that we could have the financial means to move back west, even though it pained me to cash in what I hoped would be my children’s college fund. I did the shopping, and the cooking, breastfed my daughter, played with my four-year-old son and tried not to spend day after day crying in a stupor.
Yet, that apparently was not enough, and one night, as I sat in the living room, I overheard him and his mother in the kitchen, where she relayed that I wasn’t living up to her expectations as his wife, especially because he shouldn’t have to work a full-time job and come home and do the laundry. As I sat, I waited to hear him respond, to tell his mother all the ways I contributed that weren’t obvious: giving him the encouragement to finish his bachelor’s degree, never criticizing him for quitting jobs that weren’t a good fit despite the terror I felt, or just being his confidant and rock who had chosen him when my family gave me no alternative. My ears were greeted with deafening silence as he sat in silent agreement, but I heard the crack in my heart from his betrayal.
Stuck, and again still hopeful that maybe returning to New Mexico would help us regain something we desperately needed, we packed up and moved cross country once more. I regained my previous position but with a part time schedule, and he became a stay at home dad for our youngest. It didn’t sustain him the way it did me, and he began looking for part time work since we could split our days. I relished my work, and looked forward to shifting into a full-time role at the beginning of the next school year.
As part of my job, I was required to travel for a training for a week, and I left for Boston in the middle of a hot New England summer. During that trip, I became close with one of my co-workers, developing a crush that I knew I wouldn’t act on, but that breathed new life in me. My marriage was stagnant, the intimacy slowly falling by the wayside from the trials, tribulations, and physical separation we had sustained, until it felt like a distant memory. Being friends with Will brought me back in touch with a woman I vaguely remembered myself to be, and I liked her.
My husband became incessantly jealous about Will sharing my same social circle, although I encouraged friendship between them. One night, after they went out with another close friend of mine, my husband came home horribly intoxicated, and I was angry. I asked him to sleep on the couch, and he began to refuse with aggression, and kept asking to hold our now one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I locked myself in the bathroom with her as he pounded the door while I sat bellowing in fear. My older son, now 10, attempted to intervene, and was shoved to the ground, expletives shouted in his direction. The kids were all screaming, and I kept debating if I should call the police because the fear that he might hurt me was palpable. It finally ended with him passing out in our bed, where I crawled into bed and slept on the edge, my daughter’s soft body entwined with my own as a protective shell around her.
That night almost ended our marriage. I consulted friends and debated what to do. In the end, though, the thought of parenting alone and giving up on someone in whom I had invested so much was too overwhelming without enough support, and I reluctantly, still with hope, stayed.
Over the next few years, we gradually slid into a deeper pit of miscommunication and avoidance. We moved into a larger space, and he would spend his evenings talking to friends on the telephone, while I sat in our room alone and lonely, hoping he might take interest. When we did engage sexually, it premature and brief, and I finally summoned the courage to ask him to see a physician. He balked, naming an endless array of excuses as to why he couldn’t maintain an erection. Eventually, I became so bored and averse to his touch that our intimacy seemed to stroke and die altogether. I began to fantasize about women, and other men, and the former sense of life I once relished when our sex was syncopated and exciting. I felt sexually dead inside. At the same time, I was struggling with my weight, having endured so much stress that my pregnancy pounds from my daughter wouldn’t budge. I felt shame about my body and who I had become, when I once knew clearly exactly who I wanted to be.
My work at the middle school program ended when the company decided to leave the state, and I returned to school, deciding to pursue a long-standing dream to become a lactation consultant, and immersed myself in science and math. WIC hired me as a peer counselor, and I began rounding on patients in the hospital. My confidence began to grow, and then I made a life changing decision to take a writing class, something I had loved but put to the wayside when my children emerged. At the same time, my husband lost another job, and we were back in the same situation of temporary work and solutions. A year later, he finally found stability again, but the stress felt like a constant cloud of grief. Everything felt like too much and not enough at once.
I grew up in a household where women made endless sacrifices to maintain relationships, because it’s what you would ‘do’. My grandmother suffered through adultery, alcoholism, and depression. My mother divorced my alcoholic, cheating father and remarried someone safe, whom she became platonic roommates with over time. And here I was, in my second marriage, headed down the same path, because I was engulfed with so many fears about what would happen if I were alone, that it overshadowed the possibilities of who I could, and wanted, to be.
The fighting and arguing between us became more heated and intense. But what crushed my heart was watching my husband systematically break down his relationship with my son as he grew into his teenage years, flexing his muscles of defiance. I would watch him lean in physically, yelling in his face, inches away from a situation that could be dangerous in the blink of an eye. I watched my son stare back at him, unafraid and uncompromising, because he was a child crying out for a role model who could show him a better way. At the end of day, my husband couldn’t bring himself to be that man.
We tried couples counseling, but during our first session, the counselor asked what relaxed me, and then played Beethoven’s Fifth, the three of us sitting in awkward silence as the music unleashed its fury upon our ears. Another attempt with a different therapist yielded what I had grown to expect in our family therapy sessions: he would dominate the conversation and it would be hard for me to get a word in edgewise. And I could feel the disconnect immediately when she asked us on a scale of 1 to 10 how committed we were to stay together. He was a solid 8. I was a low hanging 4.
When I began graduate school, the scale tipped. I was originally planning to go to an overseas semester in Italy, until my husband told me he didn’t want me to go because he didn’t think he could manage on his own. I had spent so many years cheerleading his hopes and dreams that I felt devastated. Still, I agreed to postpone, and during my first residency in Kentucky last fall, I was super excited to share something from my day when he called me, except after I spoke to the kids, he abruptly told me he didn’t want to talk and would call me the next day. I sat in my hotel room and wept so much I soaked my pillow. The next day, in his usual method, he called and left a message, apologizing that he wasn’t in a good space to talk. But something had permanently broken, and I knew with a sinking feeling we were heading to the end.
It was always his way to react and then try to pick up the shattered pieces of someone’s heart after. His way of saying sorry would be to come to me and ask for a hug. I couldn’t give them anymore. Everything climaxed on Christmas Eve, when we had not spoken for several days after a blowout argument about his treatment of my son. We stood in our bedroom screaming as our children sat outside the door, crying and frightened. He told me he was done, and that after the holidays we needed to separate. I was shell shocked but not surprised. We were always on the path to exactly this place.
We lived together for three more months, but apart. At first it seemed we could end things amicably, until he was spotted on a date with my daughter’s school therapist, whom she had seen professionally. When confronted, he blew up and so did any tacit trust between us. After we finally moved out into our individual spaces, I once again, as I did with Carlos, had a lightening sensation where I felt in my chest I could finally breathe without fear of suffocation. For the first time in a decade, I could sit in my home and didn’t have to worry about walking on eggshells, or if something I, or our children, said would trigger the yelling and aggression we had become accustomed to receiving.
Now two divorces down, I don’t feel any smarter about love, but I have learned an enormous amount about expectation. A close friend who watched our mutual destruction told me recently that I merely outgrew what he could offer to give. I have ambition, desires, passion and drive, and he was not the partner to meet me in those efforts.
But the most challenging part has been facing, with a good therapist, the acts of abuse that I never recognized as such. The tiny, invisible ways that I was treated like so much less than I deserved. All the moments where my heart was taken for granted, smashed and splintered over and over until it became so disfigured that I didn’t recognize myself anymore. The side comments, the gaslighting, all the instances where I was told that what I was feeling was an overreaction, or not an appropriate response. Or where another’s anger was unleashed on me and I was left to stand and brave the gales of his fury, and accept peace offerings that came without the changes to the repetitious behavior that prompted them in the first place. For me, it is a slow rebuild, tearing down all the worn and weathered sections of my soul, so that I can weave new, stronger, intrepid pieces that will protect me from taking anything less than what I deserve. It is a gradual awakening that I am worthy of so much more than just the optimism of my heart.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...