When I was growing up, my mother told me there were three things she would never, ever tolerate: “If he lies to me, I’ll leave him. If he cheats on me, I’ll leave him. And if he hits me — if he ever lays a hand on me — I’ll leave him.”
“He” was my father.
I never forgot her words. Perhaps it was because I admired her stance — I admired her willpower and her self-respect. Perhaps it was because, at the time, the conversation seemed so strange. So out of context and out of character. But regardless of why I remembered, when I began dating I vowed to uphold the same ideals in my own relationships. I wanted to uphold the same ideals in my own marriage. But then he hit me.
He punched me in the face over a banana.
I don’t remember much, to be honest. I know we were in our one bedroom apartment, and he had had one too many drinks. I know we weren’t married. (Engaged, yes, but I was still untethered. Essentially, I was single.) And I know that, at one point, he began pulling bananas off our kitchen counter and smashing them, Hulk-style, on our cheap linoleum floor.
I told him to stop; I told him to clean it up, but he continued. He grabbed another banana. When I attempted to take the banana from his hand, a struggle began. Before I knew it, we were wrestling. Before I knew it, his right hand had connected with the left side of my face.
I couldn’t see the damage — or the macerated bits of banana and blood on my orange hoodie — until the swelling went down two days later.
Aside from the throbbing, I don’t remember feeling much that first time. I was stunned and in shock, but I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t afraid, and I wasn’t sad. I was just broken. I felt gutted and numb.
It only took him a few seconds to realize what he had done. He began crying and apologizing and begging me not to leave him. It was a mistake, he said. He would never do it again. And I believed him. I mean, how could someone I loved so much want to hurt me? He was drunk; it was just the whiskey talking.
But I was wrong.
Over the course of the next 10 years he would push me and kick me and strike me — on my back, my face, and my arms. He dragged my body through the streets, pinned it to our bed, and — on one occasion — he tried to drown me, holding my head beneath the waters of our porcelain bathtub. And while my feelings did change about him and the abuse after that first incident (I went through a range of emotions, from sadness and anger to rage sorrow and shame), I never followed through on my promises to leave. I never had the strength to walk away, and l decided if I died, I died.
I deserved it. I must have done something to deserve it.
But there was another reason I stayed — a deeper, and more complicated one — because my fiance (now husband) only hit me while drinking. He was an abusive drunk but a saint when he was sober, and that made things difficult.
That made our cycle of abuse all the more convoluted and confusing, because I knew he was sick. I knew he was an alcoholic, and I knew he was an alcoholic acting out in the only way he knew how.
Acting in the same manner he witnessed and learned growing up.
You see, my husband grew up in an alcoholic home. His father spent his nights working and days passed out in a drunken stupor. When he was up, he was harsh and crude; insulting and condescending. And he was violent.
My husband was beaten. He watched as his mother was degraded and abused, and even though his father eventually got help, the damage was done. The “behavior” had been learned — as it is for most abusers.
That said, years later — after we were married and after the birth of our daughter — I finally got serious about staying safe. About keeping her safe. And shortly after my daughter’s first birthday, I told him I was going to leave him if he didn’t clean up his act. I handed him my wedding ring and said that if he didn’t go to AA and agree to marriage counseling, I was walking out the door.
We were leaving.
That was two years ago now, and for two years we have lived booze and violence-free.
I know I’m lucky; my husband wanted to change. He worked hard to change, and he did. Of course, I would never encourage anyone to stay in a living situation with an abuser — if you even want to stay in the relationship, it’s important to leave and seek safety until they enter treatment, and to learn the signs that indicate an abuser has changed.
But I’m here to tell you that my husband is an abuser reformed, and while many do not believe such people exist (“once an abuser, always an abuser” they say), there are many men and women who confront their demons and face their fears.
There are many people who do “break the cycle.” And for anyone out there who may be suffering just as my husband once did, I write this for you — as a daughter, a mother, a sister, a spouse, a survivor, and a friend.
I know you haven’t had an “easy life.” Maybe you were born into a wounded family; witnessed terrible things and endured unspeakable horrors. Things no child — no person — should ever have to see, let alone experience. Maybe you’ve been forever changed by the fear and shame, by the bitterness, anger, guilt, and rage.
(Oh, the rage.)
I know you are probably doing the best you can. You are getting through days the only way you know how. And who can blame you? Growing up, you had no healthy relationships to follow. You may never have known true love looked like. What it was supposed to look like.
And I know the cycles of addiction, alcoholism, and abuse are inherited. They are the “genetic gifts that keep on giving.” But you are more than your childhood. You are more than your past, and you are more than your father’s fists or your mother’s cruel and callous words.
You can change. You can grow. You can break free, of your past and the pain. You can break the cycle.
Yes, it will be hard, and — more likely than not — you will be forced to face your demons each and every day. But the rewards for your work will be far-reaching, because by breaking the cycle of abuse you’re protecting those you love. You are protecting your lover, or future lover; you are protecting your children, or future children. And you are taking control of your fate; you are changing your future because you deserve to be happy, healthy, and strong.
Whether or not anyone has told you this, you deserve to feel safe and loved.
So stay strong, you can do this. You can make it through. You can break the cycle. From one survivor to another: I believe in you.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive situation, don’t suffer in silence. You can seek help and support by calling Safe Horizon’s 24-hour domestic violence hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE, or learn more at NCADV.org (National Coalition for Domestic Violence).More On