By Teresa G. D’vall
Few women would be brave enough to leave an abusive marriage with six children and no source of income, but I did. There were some days that my husband was not a mean bully, but not many. I spent 15 years living with an enemy who threatened to take my children, have me arrested, ruin my credit, break my neck, set me on fire and, when I was pregnant, gut me like a fish. Once, when we were driving down a highway, he shut the car off in a fit of rage, leaving our children screaming in terror. When I finally managed to get away, he made good on most of the threats within a week; and the legal system seemed to be helping him instead of me.
The day my husband was removed from our home by police was a surreal one. I remember waking in the middle of the night and realizing for the first time that no one would call me lazy for leaving dishes in the sink or demand sex if I went downstairs for a drink of water. I actually skipped through the kitchen that night on my way to the fridge for an uninterrupted glass of juice. Still, things like the sound of the garage door opening gave me chills, even though I knew it was my oldest son and not him coming home in yet another bad mood. I longed for things others took for granted, like a full night’s sleep without being awakened at 3 a.m. and asked why someone left an empty yogurt container on the counter. Even so, I looked forward to getting out of bed the next day for the first time in 15 years.
Respite was replaced with angst when I answered my door the next morning and was greeted by a man from children’s protective services. My husband had reported me for being an unfit mother. A disgruntled looking man half my age told me to wait in another room while he interviewed my five oldest children one by one. My hands were shaking so badly I could barely dial the phone to call Kevin, the friend who’d been helping me through my long ordeal. I wanted to tell him what was happening, but I opened my mouth to speak and could only gasp. I tried to form words choked by tears and wasn’t even able to leave a voicemail. I hung up and sat on the floor crying as I waited for my turn to be questioned.
The social worker asked me to open my fridge and prove there was food in it. Next he inspected all of my children’s bedrooms. I had to deny I was an alcoholic who drank a 750 milliliter bottle of wine every night. I didn’t even know what a 750 ml bottle of wine looked like. I was 42 years old, and I’d never even had a beer. It was humiliating, insulting, and terrifying all at the same time. My greatest fear was unfolding, and I was paralyzed with dread. Years of abuse flashed through my mind as if I were watching a movie on Lifetime television: The night he called me a whore at the dinner table in front of the kids; the mornings he threw toys at them for waking him up as he slept on the couch in the family room. The day he threw a mattress at my 8-year-old daughter and I jumped in between to block her, even though I was six months pregnant. It all came flooding back; my husband always said that if they knew what was going on I’d be in trouble too for not leaving sooner. It was impossible to leave when I was pregnant or caring for a newborn, which was every couple of years. Now the day of reckoning was upon me—and nothing happened.
No one took my children, no one thought I was unfit. I felt like I had just been paroled. I was free. But the feeling was short-lived. We were enjoying a peaceful dinner filled with laughter, when I received a call from the police department. The officer asked if I would come down and talk to them about some charges my husband filed. I assumed it was some kind of retaliation for the restraining order but never expected what happened next. I made my way to the station after the kids were asleep. The sergeant sat me down in a small office and began the conversation by saying;
“I just want you to know that you have the right to remain silent…”
I stopped him right there and said, “It sounds like you’re reading me my rights?! Am I under arrest?”
The walls seemed to close in around me as I thought of all the times my husband threatened to have me “thrown in jail”: If I took the minivan out, because it was in his name; if I used the credit card, also in his name. My mind raced as I tried to think of what I could’ve done to find myself being asked for ‘pictures’ (mug shots!) with pork chop still on my shirt from dinner and my waist-length hair piled in a greasy bun full of coconut oil conditioner atop my head. I was being booked for grand larceny and forgery. I could have had my husband arrested dozens of times, yet I was the one placed in a cell, fingerprinted, and read my rights. I had been signing his name to household checks for 10 years, but now that I had the restraining order, he remembered he never gave me permission to do so.
The charges were eventually dismissed, but only after months of enduring the emotional and financial strain of retaining a criminal attorney and facing the possibility of a grand jury indictment. His message was clear; it was the same one I always heard: If you leave, I’ll make your life a living hell.
My husband was very persuasive. For years he had me convinced I was a lazy housewife, bad mother, and a person of little worth. He spent all his time at our restaurant, even though we were barely breaking even most years. I spent my entire marriage alone; we never even slept in the same bed. He was always angry and constantly reminding me how incompetent I was in every aspect. Over time, I learned that feeling nothing was better than feeling bad about myself every day, and as the years ticked away I shut down.
In 2010, the economic downturn began to affect business, and our $3,200-a-month mortgage was crippling us financially. We listed the house with the same realtor who’d been trying to sell our restaurant. Kevin first started showing us properties in 2007. As the years went by, he became more of a friend than a real estate agent. After nearly 38 months of languishing in real estate purgatory, it became clear we couldn’t sell our house for what we owed, despite having put over $200,000 down when we purchased it.
During 2011, I was able to convince my husband that completing my degree might help our finances. By the time I returned to school, the house was deep into the foreclosure process. Shortly after, I discovered I was pregnant with my sixth child. Still, I managed to graduate in 18 months, after returning with just 49 credits, mostly out of sheer determination because my husband said I’d never do it.
By now it was April of 2013. I had been looking at properties with Kevin almost weekly for over three years, and the pressure to move was mounting. I saw houses with him nearly every day at this point, and we were talking more as time passed.
By father’s day I still hadn’t told my husband I was leaving, so he insisted on seeing the house I was meeting Kevin at. I really liked this particular house, and it was Kevin’s job to convince the owner I was a good buyer. We were standing in the driveway about to leave and I said, “Please help me get me this house.” He leaned over, grabbed my elbow, promised to do his best, and kissed my temple.
My husband stared incredulously and asked, “Did you just kiss my wife?” He insisted Kevin and I were having an affair after that. The more he complained, the more Kevin and I teased each other about meeting at hotels or having forgettable sex. Neither of us took him seriously, but we would find out that he actually believed something more than friendship was going on between us.
About two weeks after “the kiss,” I had a particularly horrible argument with my husband and announced I was leaving. Hours later I found my daughter upstairs packing. I looked around, astonished; her whole room was packed. I realized then that I wasn’t the only one anxious to go. I discovered that he had been bothering her on nights when I went to bed early to avoid him. I’d hear the garage and escape to my room, hoping he wouldn’t touch my chest and feel my racing heart. My daughter would rush to shut off her lamp, then hope he wouldn’t touch it and feel it was warm. When he wasn’t criticizing me, he was doing it to her. She was eventually diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, and her father was cited as the precipitating factor. It would take six months of counseling, but she eventually recovered. Once I realized how my children were being affected by my husband’s constant bouts of anger, I was more determined than ever to get away.
My husband was becoming increasingly jealous of the time I spent with Kevin, and his paranoia reached a boiling point on July 29, 2013. Kevin was carrying the baby as we left a house. Suddenly, he asked me what kind of car my husband drove, but before I could answer it came screeching down the driveway at both of us. He sprang from the car screaming, “You’re dead bitch; I caught you! I want you out of my house.”
Kevin and I scrambled to my car, while my enraged husband took pictures of us, citing it as “proof” of our illicit affair. When he finally left, a cold chill came over me as I remembered the threat I’d heard most from him during our tumultuous marriage: “If I ever think you’re having an affair, I’ll kill you and the guy.”
I went straight to the police and told them my fears. I had been there many times before, and they had been to our house as well over the years, but this time was different. I had a witness. Whenever I had doubts about leaving, he reassured me it was the right thing to do. By September I’d moved out, with Kevin’s help. He went from being my real estate agent to my closest friend and fix-it guy. He put up my clothesline, bought parts for my boys’ closets, repaired them, and changed my light bulbs. I paid him with cookies.
The only thing anyone called me now was bobcat, a nickname Kevin and I gave each other after I saw a scary movie. I was Young Bobcat and he was Old Bobcat. He was also my advice guy, my confidant, and the person who said he believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Despite my husband’s delusions of our elaborate affair, Kevin and I never shared a moment more intimate than a kiss on the cheek.
Women who are emotionally abused are often overlooked, because their scars are not visible. I often wished he’d hit me, because it would be easier to prove and then leave. Broken bones and bruises heal, I still cringe when someone raises their voice.
If you are reading this and looking over your shoulder or worrying about how you’ll delete it from your browsing history, it may be time to do what I did: run for your life and never look back. There is always a way around an impossible situation. For instance, my laptop is broken so I wrote this entire 2,000 word story on my iPhone using a stylus. I leave you with the words I have recited to each of my six children for the last 22 years: If you try; you can do anything.