Faith’s Story

I’d like to be able to say that when I first met my husband I knew he was different… but I can’t. I remember thinking he was rude and obnoxious, and didn’t spend a whole lot of time around him. But I’d been taught not to go on first impressions, so that was far from the end of my interaction with him.

I was, and had been going through, rather a rash of lousy boyfriends at that time. Yet for all Blain’s general rudeness and obnoxiousness, I found in him something I hadn’t found anywhere else. He would listen to me. He cared about what I was thinking, what I was feeling, and I found that the perceptible rudeness and obnoxiousness was far more surface level and for the world to see than a deep personality trait. We spent a lot of time on the phone talking, and pretty soon were spending a lot of time together talking about anything and everything either of us could think of. It was a wonderfully refreshing novelty to find myself being listened to, heard, understood… I rapidly cleared my calendar of those who couldn’t see beyond what I looked like so that I could devote my time to this person who cared who I really was.

Well, not having been around people who did care who I really was, it appeared that he did. I suppose I should have seen even then that while he seemed to like me for who I was, there were still things that were unacceptable. I had to be “fixed” to be okay. Well, why not? That had always been an underlying part of my life so it seemed very normal. I just didn’t know enough to run while the running was good. Oddly enough, except for a couple of minor issues, I never even really thought to object to the “fix Faith” project, either. There were always reasonable explanations why I needed to be some other way than I was, so I just went along with it.

Well, it wasn’t long before I was “fixed” enough to be marriageable. It was a short dating period and a short engagement. He’d found a job here in town and for the first part of our marriage he moved into my place. That was GREAT! Just us, both of us within reasonable walking distance to work or whatever else, and there wasn’t anyone we had to arrange our schedules around. I became pregnant within a few months, about the time we’d made arrangements to move out of our studio apartment, and about the time I got laid off from my job.

We both went through a couple of jobs in the next few months, trying to make ends meet while I was pregnant. It wasn’t easy by any means, and we had a few heated arguments about the job issues. I learned then to tell when he was building up to a major blow-up and how to stay out of his way. I remember one time it didn’t work, though… Our son was only a few months old and jobs were scarce. Between the rent being late and both of us being short on sleep we ended up in a roaring argument and he hit me. I was shocked, because that wasn’t what I had grown to expect of him. I managed to stifle the pain and shock enough to tell him that if he ever hit me again that would be the last time he’d see either his child or me again. Fool that I was, I thought that was the end of it. He’d been warned, and was smart enough not to do it again.

Actually, that was far from the end of it. He didn’t hit me again, not for a long time. But everything that “caused” him to lash out and hit me was just driven deeper and surfaced in other ways. We moved in with his parents for a while shortly after that, and that helped to keep me safe in some ways. He wouldn’t hit me while his parents were around, I knew that. But in a thousand subtle ways I found myself getting squashed every time I turned around. The only, only thing I could do and know it was okay was to take phone messages for his parents. Secretarial training paid off there, there was nothing to fault in the way I handled myself on the phone. Anything else I did was subject to criticism or fault from any quarter. I couldn’t be upstairs all the time because then I was perceived as looking down on his parents, but I couldn’t be downstairs either because his father’s office was in the house and I couldn’t be there when he had clients in. I felt like I was constantly walking a tightrope between what Blain thought was okay and what his parents thought was okay, and if I stopped to consider what I wanted or thought was okay I’d be sure to fall!

We lived there for about a year and then, while I was pregnant with our daughter and on bed rest, we moved down the street. In a way it was better, in a way it was worse. The house was bigger so we had the entire upstairs to ourselves there. His parents weren’t there, so there wasn’t the constant feeling of being still a child in the parents’ house (which is inevitable whenever you live with parents). We shared the house instead with his sister, who made no secret at any point that she disliked me. She had the downstairs bedrooms with her boys. That probably would have been bearable had not it been set up that we bore full responsibility for what they did while she was at work but had no say in what they did at any point in time. The only thing we could do was watch them in whatever they chose to do and clean up after them when they were done.

Well, that wasn’t very manageable. I was on bed rest to try to keep our daughter from being born prematurely, and simply couldn’t keep up with her kids. Then when she was born, she required immediate and extensive surgery, so we spent the next month shuttling back and forth from home to the hospital and I still couldn’t keep up with her kids. Blain was so stressed on his own account by what all was going on that I couldn’t even talk to him about how upset I was by what was happening; about how much it hurt to be leaving a child no matter which way I went, about feeling like a failure because I wasn’t pregnant any more but I didn’t have my child, or about how useless I felt because there was my daughter at the hospital where other people could take care of her better than I could…

The only place I had anyone at all to talk to about what was happening in my life was on one of the local BBS’s we called. There, even if no where else in my life, I was accepted at face value and what I had to say was at least worth considering. I didn’t spend a lot of time on the computer, though, because I had the kids to take care of and Blain’s sister’s kids to clean up after… and Blain spent a lot of his time at home on the computer either doing stuff for his dad’s business or on the BBS’s himself. I can’t say that I was really surprised when he wanted to start a part time BBS of his own, but I did have mixed feelings about it. He already spent a lot of time on the computer, and I knew if he had a BBS of his own he’d spend even more time there… I also knew that a lot of the upkeep would fall to me and I already had my hands more than full. I didn’t know what he’d do if I said I didn’t want him to, except that I knew he’d resent me if he didn’t, and I distinctly did not want that. So, I gritted my teeth and said “go ahead.”

Sure enough, evenings found him glued to the computer and sporadic periods during the day found me trying to keep up with the stuff that needed doing there too. The problem with that was that I couldn’t really do anything with his BBS without his approval, but I couldn’t ask him without his getting annoyed and treating me like an idiot child who could barely manage to write her own name, much less manage a computer. I finally resorted to just doing what seemed to me to be the logical thing to do, then leaving him e-mail about what I’d done. At least that way he couldn’t say I hadn’t told him, and I wasn’t treated like an idiot.

Pretty soon that was about the only way we were talking. We’d talk about stuff that happened during the day sometimes when he finally came upstairs at night, but not very often. One of those times I got up the courage to let him know how frustrating it was for me to try to take care of my own kids and have to clean up after our nephews as well, and do whatever other stuff needed to be done for his dad and for the board and anything else that came up that fell to me to do. (Most things did fall to me to do.) He agreed, much to my surprise. That was the only time he ever did support me against the horrendous things his sister had to say about me, but with his support I went on strike and refused to clean up after them. Gad, did I catch hell for it too! No one else seemed to think it was unreasonable that I should be the household drudge for everyone. I cried myself to sleep many a night wondering if that was really all I was worth… was my only value as breeding stock and household drudge?

I certainly didn’t have any value as companion. Long gone were the days of talking about anything and everything… I couldn’t even ask about something I needed to know without Blain spinning around in his chair, hand upraised, snarling “what?!” as if I’d been nagging him constantly for days on end. I knew coldly that that upraised hand was not an empty threat, too. The one time I’d adamantly insisted that he listen to me and answer when I had to have some information we’d gotten into a roaring argument and just as I came out of the bathroom he put his fist through the wall inches from my head. Good thing I froze, if I’d ducked it would have been through my head. He just looked at me and said “I meant to miss. Be glad I did.” and walked off. I never took that upraised hand lightly… I didn’t dare. Nor did I press him to talk to me either. I had to console myself with the thought that, as with our sex life, when he wanted to he’d let me know.

On His Terms. That was rather the underlying theme of our whole marriage. I married him on his terms, we discussed things when he was ready to and not one second sooner, and even our sex life was when he wanted to and only then. I often wondered why he wasn’t out looking for someone more attractive or enjoyable, since I certainly didn’t hold any attraction for him. I got so frustrated with trying to get his attention one night that I stripped completely and walked down to the office, pulled his chair away from the computer and walked between him and the screen stark naked. The only thing he noticed was that I’d moved him away from the computer. All he did was grunt and move his chair back into position. He never noticed. To this day he doesn’t remember it at all. I went to bed feeling totally insignificant and worthless, and cried myself to sleep again.

Well, apparently I was interesting enough. We had a third child. That was one of the most frustrating and terrifying times of my life! No one had been able to explain to me what had caused the problem with our other daughter, and no one could give me any guarantee or even reason to believe that it wouldn’t happen this time too. I lived with a constant litany of “what if”s running through my mind, but with no one to discuss them with. Blain didn’t want to hear it. The doctor had assured me that what had happened was so rare that it was unlikely to happen again, so Blain said there was nothing to worry about and nothing to discuss. But I did worry. Especially when I found myself on bed rest yet again. Worried? I was scared stiff! All appearances were that this pregnancy was repeating the last… but if I showed that I was worried Blain got mad at me because the doctor had said it wouldn’t happen this time. I learned to hide it, but I still felt it.

Blissfully, his sister moved away before our second daughter was born, and even though I was on bed rest it was such a relief to be able to get down there and finally clean up the mess that I knowingly did more than I should have. It was such heaven to finally be able to clean up a mess that I couldn’t be accused of having made… to be able to do something in such a situation that no matter what I did it would be better than nothing, so I couldn’t get in trouble no matter what I did. We finished just days before our daughter was born (healthy!) and set about reclaiming that part of the house.

Having the house to ourselves did a lot to ease the tension, especially now that the kids had room to be normal kids without someone yelling at them for being noisy or yelling at me for not keeping them quiet. But it did nothing to ease the personal tension of my not being able to do anything right, no matter how hard I tried. I still couldn’t talk to Blain about what had happened during the day. I still couldn’t ask him for information on how to handle something that had come up. I still had to make my best guess on how best to handle things, knowing that even in anticipating what he’d want I would miss some factor I didn’t know about and so get it all wrong… but in choosing my fights I tended to choose those for having missed something rather than for having not done something at all. He was never as mad if I’d at least tried as he was if I hadn’t, so trying and failing was the lesser of evils. I got awfully tired of failing no matter what I did, though. It’s terribly demoralizing to know, in your heart, that no matter what you do it won’t be good enough, it won’t be right, and you’ll be disappointing SOMEone no matter what you do. But I couldn’t voice that frustration either, or we’d end up in a major fight over that “unjustified” feeling. I had so many unjustified feelings, it just wasn’t worth fighting about.

There were some things worth fighting about, though. It would be difficult to say exactly what the issues were that we DID fight about, since they varied widely. Mostly it was a matter of timing. If I could see that he was getting tenser and tenser and more and more irritable I’d pick a time when the kids were asleep and safely out of the way, then I’d pick a fight about something — anything– it didn’t matter what. Just to get the fight over with before the tension built to the point that if he blew I didn’t know what he’d do.

I found myself considering everything in the light of what was safer to say or do, and hating myself for doing so. I spent a lot of time hating myself, as a matter of fact. I hated myself for always being wrong, for never being able to get anything right, for being a disappointment no matter what I tried to do. I hated myself for feeling like a fraud — and I did! I felt like a hollow shell, like there was nothing left of me and the only reason I was alive still was that no one else had figured that out yet. That as soon as they figured out that there was nothing left of me they’d kill me. I felt like I had become the mask I wore to keep the peace, and I hated myself for it. But I didn’t know what else to do, either, because it wasn’t safe to not wear the mask.

I started attending the local community college half time, on the premise that if I took the paralegal course there I could help in the business. As we got to looking over the schedule though, it became apparent that I would finish at about the same time as Blain finished law school, so there was little point in my continuing in that course. Rather than just stopping, though, he did allow me to continue at school toward a transfer degree. I admit, I was pleasantly shocked. What I wanted to do got some consideration and had some value. It was a nice feeling.

School brought up a whole different set of tensions, though they felt rather familiar. There were scheduling problems between his classes and mine and what to do with the kids… there were homework clashes when we both needed to be doing stuff on the computer… and there were learning style clashes when he’d try to help me with my homework and I just did not learn the way he did or could explain it. I found solace in the teachers and other students at school, though. Blessed be the math teacher who convinced me I wasn’t stupid, that I had a good mind for math and learned it very well. And blessed be the english teachers who recognized and encouraged my writing.

I took a lot of classes that required papers of one sort or another, and I agonized over every one. It’s never been easy for me to just write down what I think or feel, and knowing I had to turn it in made it even harder. I had Blain look over a lot of my papers before I turned them in, and each one was shredded and sent to re-write. No comment about what was okay. Maybe there wasn’t anything that was okay? I never knew. I only knew that it was heart-rending to do my best and hand it over to him and have to go back and start all over again. But then again, if it really was that bad, hadn’t I better do just that? Wasn’t it better to have him shred it than to have the teachers do so? Except that the few papers that I turned in without having had time for him to go over them… they didn’t get shredded. I got an A- on one instead of an A, but largely there wasn’t a difference in outcome whether I had him look them over or not. Maybe what I had to say was okay without being filtered through his perception of it? I didn’t know.

The only time I did know that what I had to say was okay without being filtered was when I talked with my friends at school between classes. That was the only time what I did or said was totally beyond his control, and totally free of consequences. He’d never know what I dared to say to anyone else, whether it was within what he considered acceptable or not. I still didn’t dare to go “unfiltered” very often. I’d developed a paranoid feeling that no matter where I was, if I said something he’d consider not-okay, there would be someone who would hear and would tell him. And I still felt that it was all my fault. If I could just BE what I was supposed to be, if I could just BE good enough or smart enough or pretty enough or what ever enough then it would be okay… but somehow, I never could. I tried! Oh, how I tried! But I guess I didn’t try hard enough, because I failed at that just as I failed at everything else. Miserably.

I finally met one of my friends in the hall between classes and he stopped me and asked “are you alright?” The honest concern in his face and his voice was just too much to bear on top of everything else, and I completely humiliated myself by standing there crying. I couldn’t even answer him, but I guess he took the tears as “no.” He stayed there with me, bless him, until I had myself back under control and was safe to drive, safe to come home and presentable so that I wouldn’t get in trouble. He stayed until he was late for work, just talking to me until I was okay. He wouldn’t leave until I promised that I’d call the crisis line and get an outside opinion on what was going on in my life… someone else’s assessment of whether I really was as crazy as I thought I was. He wasn’t as convinced as I was that it was all, unconditionally, my fault.

I promised I would, but I didn’t know how I would manage it. I couldn’t hardly call while Blain was there. Neither did I have anyplace else I could call from. So I waited one night until Blain was at work and the kids were in bed asleep and called then. I still feel kind of sorry for the guy who answered the phone, though I suppose he’s trained to handle people who call and preface their comments with “maybe I’m crazy, but…” I didn’t have time to more than sketch out a nutshell version of what was going on that concerned me before he said “sounds like verbal and emotional abuse to me.” I hadn’t even told him that many nights I’d been awakened by Blain elbowing me in the face while he was asleep, or that it didn’t matter where in the bed I slept, I still got hit in the head.

He gave me the number of the local women’s shelter and suggested that I call them because they’d know better than he did what resources were directly available to me and what would be a safe way to handle the situation. I managed, through the tears, to find a piece of paper to write the number on and put it in my wallet so I wouldn’t lose it.

I didn’t call the shelter right away, though. I still felt like it was my fault, my imagination, I was crazy… maybe I’d misrepresented the situation somehow and if the guy I’d talked to at the crisis line could have been there to see for himself what it was like, maybe he wouldn’t have said what he did.

I put off calling, mostly because it was spring break and I never had a chance to. Partly because the feeling that it was all, unconditionally, my fault was still too strong. Partly because I didn’t feel like I’d tried everything I ought to… I must have missed something, somewhere, anything… I spent hours on the phone when my only long-term friend would call long distance… he was the only one who knew any of what was going on, and he spent hours and hours helping me try to figure out what, where, if, something I might have missed or not tried. If I’d said, at any time, that I just wanted to leave he would have accepted that. But because I believed I had not done all I could or should, he helped me examine the whole situation from every angle I could reach trying to find something else to try to make it right. Some way to fix what I’d done wrong, whatever it was. He never once told me what he wished I’d do, which was a relief… I didn’t have to consider what he thought I should do as well! He accepted what I wanted and helped me try to figure out a way to make it work. That acceptance was invaluable, as was his help.

Spring quarter began and I was about out of ideas of what to try. The fights were getting worse, and the silences longer and longer, and I was stretched so tight I felt sometimes like if anyone touched me I’d snap into tiny pieces and no one would ever be able to put me back together… I called the crisis line again one night, just to verify when I had myself well in hand and could “filter” what I said to as objective an outlook as I could manage, what they’d say. The result was the same, and I got the shelter’s number again. A few days after that I came home from school and found the youngest in tears with a horrible scrape all down her side, and my brother absolutely fuming. Apparently she had fallen and yelled loudly enough that he came in from outside to see if she was okay, and Blain had not gone to see what happened or if she was okay — he hadn’t even put the paper down. Not even when she came and climbed into his lap. He never looked at her side, didn’t check to see if anything was broken, didn’t clean the scrape, nothing.

At that point I went completely through the roof, uncaring of consequences. I spent that evening in the doctor’s office with her making sure she was okay, and the rest of the night up writing the paper that I was supposed to have been writing while I was in the doctor’s office. I couldn’t see how Blain could claim he hadn’t heard her or not known anything about it if it had brought my brother in from outside. I asked the other people who were there with him and they all verified it. She was fine, I was anything but.

That was really the last straw, as far as I was concerned. School and everything else went by the wayside; if I couldn’t trust him to take care of the kids while I was gone, then I couldn’t be gone. And if I couldn’t trust him, I certainly couldn’t live with him. I called the shelter from work and arranged to meet them while Blain was at work and would be gone for a definite enough length of time that I could grab the kids’ stuff and some of mine and we could get out safely. I frankly didn’t know what he’d do if he came home and found us leaving. I certainly could not discuss with him my distrust or dissatisfaction. The thought of doing so brought back vivid memories of his fist headed toward my face, and I just couldn’t do it.

Barring a sudden panic attack when the phone started ringing as we were grabbing things and leaving, everything went pretty smoothly. I had managed to get the birth certificates and social security cards a few days before, so I had all the official papers necessary.

We met with the shelter staff and began the intake process. Since it was so late at night we only did the most essential parts then. Some of it had even been done on the phone from work. Some of it could wait and be done over the next couple of days. The whole process was a real eye-opener for me, though. There in black and white, in undeniable terms, was evidence that those stupid niggling little things that had bothered me really were problems. There had never really been anything I could pin down and say “I don’t like this” because if I did I simply sounded hysterical and could be shrugged off as having fits about nothing. It wasn’t nothing. I learned a lot about crazy-making behavior, manipulation and intimidation, the cycle of abuse, and the power of demoralization. I learned that I really could trust my own sense of right and wrong, and whether something really was a problem. I learned to see the beginning of the control issue and how it had always been there in our relationship. And I learned that what I had seen as consequences for my daring to speak up and “buck the system” were really exactly that.

All this time, I hadn’t been imagining it.

It was a shock. It was scary. It was an overwhelming relief. I cried a lot for the first few days. I spent most of my time scared stiff that he’d find us, and not knowing what he’d do if he did. And I learned how to relax and just be for a few minutes at a time.

I knew I’d have to call him. I knew I would. But for several days I just couldn’t… I’d pick up the phone and simply freeze in sheer unreasoning terror. I knew he’d be mad, I knew he’d blame me for everything that had happened, and I didn’t know how to handle that. It took a few days of meetings with the staff and just being to regain my strength and gain the will to refuse to pick up responsibility that wasn’t mine.

Again, I waited until the kids were asleep and I knew I could make the call without distraction, then told one of the staff members that I needed to make this call and would she be there while I did? I called, and he wasn’t there. So I verified when he’d be back and called again. By the second call I’d gotten most of the cold-call jitters worked through and could at least appear somewhat calm.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Was he mad!

Well, that I’d been prepared for. The guilt I’d been prepared for. I still don’t know how I managed to let it roll off me, but I mostly did. He wanted to see the kids, which was a reasonable request. I still didn’t trust him not to try to hurt me or us, though, so I arranged to meet him at the mall where I was pretty sure he’d be on his best behavior, so to speak. I also arranged to meet my little brother (who is anything but little) and have him drive us over there. He was more than willing to be chauffer/bodyguard, so we arranged it that way.

I don’t know if it was because it was in a public place, or it if was because his mom and my brother were there, or if he’d had some time to think, or what… but that meeting went pretty well. I was still a nervous wreck by the time we got in the car to leave, and still paranoid enough that we drove around for a while to make sure we weren’t being followed before we went back to the official shelter pickup/dropoff point and walked back to our temporary “home.”

We met a few more times, each time in a public place and each time with someone else there. He had talked to Dr. Laura and been prompted to contact a program for abusive husbands. He still didn’t really believe he belonged there, but he followed up on it. I was, I confess, skeptical enough to feel like I’d believe it when I saw it.

He started into his program, and the kids and I moved into a security building. We’re still there, and he’s through his program. It’s become easier to talk with him as he’s progressed through his program and as I’ve progressed through mine. Neither of us feels or believes that we’re “done” by any means, but we can deal with each other on terms of basic human equality now.

It’s not been an easy road, by any means! Not for either of us. It’s been very hard for me to consistently stand up for myself, and to guard against overstretching that into other people’s territory. I’ve been shocked, as well, by how many people I considered to be friends who have no patience with my standing up for myself or considering what I need for survival before I consider whether I can do what they want. People who like to be around a door mat are easy to come by. People who value an equal are harder to find.

Blain and I have come now to the point where I can honestly say we make good friends… which is prompting people to ask if we’ll ever get back together. I have a really hard time with that question for several reasons. Firstly, I can’t see where it’s any of anyone else’s business… but barring that and allowing for human curiosity and sometimes some concern, it’s still a hard question to answer.

Could we? Could I? I don’t know. I’ve worked so hard at rebuilding a core of my being that I know is me and totally aside from what anyone else thinks I should be… and the trust issues run so deep and have been so damaged… I know that in order for us to ever get back together again I’d have to be able to risk, to trust him with, that core essense of me that was so nearly destroyed last time. If I can’t do that it simply won’t work. And I don’t know if I can. I know that I can trust him now much more than I could a year ago. I know that I can be in the same space with him without fear now, that I can discuss things with him now that I couldn’t even three months ago. But I also know that if I trust him with that core essense of me again and that trust is violated again, it would very likely destroy everything I am and everything I have worked so hard to regain. I don’t know if I could survive it again.

I guess there’s some fear left.

Rationally, I think I could trust him again… but rational knowledge does nothing in the face of sheer stark terror.

Right now we have a friendship. I value that immensely. I don’t know that I’m willing to sacrifice that to attempt something that I don’t know I could invest enough in to make workable. And I don’t know that I could put the kids through more upheaval, either.

Right now we have what I thought a year ago would be impossible. We have a functioning friendship.

I’m not looking beyond that.

Faith

22 September, 1996

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