I wonder sometimes, if he hadn’t been arrested, if I hadn’t survived those harrowing years of his abuse, where would my daughters be today? Would their lives, already turned upside down by that relationship, ever have righted themselves? Would my disappearance have left them exposed to creating their own history of abusive relationships and other crises too scary to imagine?
It was May 2003. They were 16 and 17 and I had been missing for 3 months. For the almost five years leading up to my disappearance, they had watched me slowly disappear before their eyes. And then, in February I disappeared completely.
He was trying to flee the country, or so he said. I had no choice but to go with him, he told me.
I didn’t argue. I knew my life was over. Leaving with him was the only way I believed I could save my daughters. And so, I did what he said. It was what I had grown accustomed to doing. I did not question. I did not fight back. Fighting back was too scary.
That’s how abuse works.
A simple question. A piece of toast too dark. A coffee not hot enough and suddenly, you are the villain, the perpetrator and the reasons why his world is crumbling and you are cowering.
For the abuser in this story, his world had fallen apart because of his lies and manipulations. But I couldn’t see nor think about that. To think that the story he’d told me, the one about my daughters being at risk of abduction and forced into the sex trade by evil men, to think it was a lie was unthinkable. Only a monster would lie about something like that. And he wasn’t a monster. He loved me. He didn’t lie. He promised. And when he showed me the three bullets he’d received and told me about the photos the evil men had sent him of a young girl, who looked a lot like my eldest daughter, doing unthinkable things, I had to believe him. Who would make up a lie like that? Why?
He would. Because he could. Because it served his purpose. Because it was his way. To do whatever he had to to keep me in his web of lies and deceit.
If he’d hit me on our first date or second or third or even fourth date, I’d never have stayed.
But abusers set their traps with care. They prime and preen their victims, waiting until they’re sure you’re under their spell. And then the Prince of Darkness rears up and pounces. Of course, in his wake, Prince Charming rides in on waves of contrition, smoothing over your confusion and pain with his apologies and gifts. And the cycle begins again.
It’s called, ‘intermittent reinforcement.’ With the abuser who was in my life, he sowed seeds of terror first before letting out his anger. The consequences were always the same, confused, frightened, I’d threaten to leave and he would remind me of the ‘evil men’ lurking.
Terrified, and believing him when he said it was all my fault, I froze. I stayed silent. I stayed.
When we first met, I embraced his lies as if they were the truth because he was so charming and convincing, and I wasn’t looking for lies. I was expecting love.
By the end, I knew he was the lie, but I didn’t have anything left within me to fight back. I was his shill, his object. Me, the woman I’d known, the mother who loved her daughters deeply, had a career she loved, a vibrant circle of friends and loving family, no longer existed.
In her stead stood the woman who believed if she could just unhook gravity’s hold on her body, she could fall into the ocean and be washed away. And in that one final act, all memory of her presence would vanish from her daughters’ minds. Erased. Without me, they could go on with their lives forgetting they ever had a mother who had loved them deeply and disappeared.
And then, one day he was arrested and I was given the gift of getting my life back. It was a long journey home, to myself, to my daughters, to my family and friends. It was a long journey. And it was worth every step.
Today, I am a grandmother to two beautiful children. Seven years ago when I married a kind and caring man, my daughters walked me down the aisle. Together. Just as I walked my eldest daughter down the aisle a year later.
And while sometimes I might wonder what might have happened if the police hadn’t walked in that day and arrested him, I do not have to worry about where they are, or what happened to them.
They have taken this journey back into life with me, blessing me with their unfaltering love and support.
Too many women are not so fortunate. Too many women stay trapped in relationships that are killing them because they believe there is no way out. Nowhere to go.
There is always a way out. Always somewhere to go. To get there, you must reach out for help. You must take that first step into naming his hitting you, his calling you names and locking you outside in sub-zero temperatures with no coat or shoes to protect you, what it is. Not Love. Not anger. Not his having a bad day. Not ‘he didn’t mean it’. It’s ABUSE.
And the fact is, you can heal from abuse with every step you take away from the abuser.
If you are in a relationship that feels like it is killing you, there are resources and people who will walk with you as you take those steps back into life without abuse. Please reach out.
This LINK provides a list of resources for every province and territory.
I don’t often write about those days of darkness and terror. Today, in honour of the women and girls who face sexual and physical abuse every day, to support efforts to end family violence, I do.
I believe when we tell our stories of coming through darkness into the light, we shine a light for others to see, there is hope.
That story, the one about me who was so lost and frightened and ashamed of what had become of her she wanted to end her own life, it is no longer my story.
My story today is rich and full of life and love, laughter and joy, creativity and the freedom to be me and to love me, all of me, including the woman who was once so lost, she believed she had to desert her children to save them.
I came home. You can too.