#WhyIStayed Campaign- Harmful or Helpful?

A few months ago, I was reading the Huffington Post’s latest coverage of #WhyIStayed. For those of you living under a rock, this movement emerged from the NFL’s haphazard PR stunt of blaming the victim of domestic violence through lackluster interviews and “investigations” (obviously my opinion, so read the news and form your own). It may have started there, but the affect snowballed. “Ordinary” and “accomplished” women told their very personal and horrific stories in a seven page compilation. My inner feminist had to ask, is this helpful or harmful? To bring it out in the open as a cultural war, or to crush it in the court system and in policy documents?

I personally applaud the courage of these women. However, at the root of this insipid social disease, we have a culture that sweeps women’s pain under the rug and believes that’s part of our condition. We also have a culture that has a distaste for women whistle blowers. The men who blow the whistle are courageous, but the woman are just overly emotional. There is rarely public outcry until the abuse is physically present in the form of bright red blood and purple bruises. I haven’t even scratched the surface of how sexual violence is handled on our campuses and in our schools. We live in a patriarchal society. That’s just a fact.

Nihilistic as that sounds, these women inspired me to tell my personal story here.

#WhyIStayed: The verbal abuse, isolation from friends and family, and degradation were the first warning signs. I was pregnant and two months along. I was scared then. I was scared of him, but I was also terrified of how the Metro-DC area would perceive me as a single mom. Uneducated. Low income. Low class. Promiscuous. Poor judgement. Weak. Addict. The list goes on. This area is very polarizing. I live among vast wealth and abject poverty. Middle class here is upper class in the midwest. People judge you first on the type of employment, the area you live, and then what Ivy League institution you came from. If you’re not involved in a multitude of political or professional organizations on the side, you aren’t considered worthy of connection. So, imagine the environment seeding the feeling of “never enough” of anything and you’ll better understand why I stayed until I broke.

We barely dated. It was three months and I found out I was pregnant. He moved in. He was an alcoholic, a drug abuser, but came from a upper-middle class family. He was the black-sheep of the family, never going to college, but working for the government. If you work for the government here, the sins of failed education is somewhat forgiven.

I noticed the preoccupation on the past guys I’ve dated and his need for control. Silly Penny, I thought I could change it. But like his drug and alcohol abuse, rage is a powerful addiction. Systematically he overpowered my thoughts, stealing my phone and laptop, purging it of its contents, and holding them ransom. In fights, he would blackmail me.

“I’ve got all your contacts. I’m sending your mom and coworkers an email about who you really are Penny. All your intimate writings will be sent right now,” SH said, pausing over the enter button.

I begged, pleaded. It was pathetic. Losing your job when you’re newly pregnant is terrifying. It meant I’d depend on him. I’m not good at being dependent.

Then the disappearing acts started. He’d leave at 2:00 am to see “a friend.” Supposedly a “guy” friend. He wouldn’t sleep for 48 hours, waking me up in the middle of the night to berate me over a past injustice. He’d google me incessantly in the hopes of uncovering a secret social media site. The attacks of cheating were relentless. I didn’t know it then, but he was methodically depersonalizing my being. I was chattel. His property. If I had feelings, they were to serve him.

And serve him I did. I walked on egg shells and buried my feelings in a moratorium. I let him pace the house like a wild animal, soothing him constantly. I gave him full access to my phone and laptop, phone bills, emails and other accounts on a regular basis. I deactivated Facebook so that no past boyfriend could ever contact me. I deactivated Google+, an account without any personal information other than a picture, to further cut ties. I blocked all the phone numbers I could remember from past boyfriends or old guy friends on my cell account. It was never enough.

Our toxic and frightening relationship escalated. Fed up with having to prove my “love” 24/7, I said no to handing over my phone and laptop. He wrestled it from me five months pregnant and elbowed my stomach. Fear gripped me. He had two guns in the apartment, one with a fully loaded clip neatly placed next to the semi-automatic. Many nights during his rages, with him drugged on a pharmacy of prescription pills and undeniably psychotic, I wondered if he’d load the clip and shoot me dead. The guns, strategically placed on counter tops and beside his desk, were constant reminders to stay in line.

I had to have immediate surgery on a tumor when I was seven months pregnant. The night before he raged at me. Calling my mother a stupid bitch, filling my head with ideas. The truth was, my mother wanted me out of the situation. I ran to her house dozens of times in fear. She heard my cries night after night during his rage and departure from the apartment. She begged me to leave. I always went back.

The day of my surgery, SH tried to play nice. He decorated the house with flowers and cards. He cleaned the house. He fed the dog. He made my bed. When I was settled in bed, vulnerable and aching he raged. The reason is inconsequential. I believe it had to do with his frustrations trying to pawn items on the internet. I tried to help, but it wasn’t good enough. He stormed out of the apartment and disappeared until 8:00 am the next day. He couldn’t understand my stoic face. He was further angry that I didn’t love him enough.

“You have no idea how much I love you, Penny,” he’d say after reducing me to a puddle in my closet.

The last straw was after I had my son. I had an emergency induction after being in the hospital for a week. Moments after giving birth to a baby who wouldn’t breathe, he left me in the hospital for hours. He didn’t want my family witnessing the birth, so I was forced to tell them the next day. Thankfully, Andrew survived. The minute he wasn’t breathing felt like hours.

When we brought the baby home a week later, I wanted to start custody proceedings like adults. I saw a counselor at the court. If we could agree to a plan, one of us would move out and together we’d co-parent. SH knew his days in my life were numbered, so like he always did, he raged. Losing control to an abuser is the ultimate slap in the face. They need you for narcissistic supply, otherwise they must scramble to find it somewhere else.

SH wasn’t going to let me out easily. After begging him to wake up at 1:00pm to help with the baby, or anything for that matter, he stormed around the apartment like a lion searching for prey. Dishes were thrown in the dishwasher, clattering and scaring the dog and baby. He refused to leave and calm down. He got in my face, eye-to-eye, pushing my shoulders and pointing his finger in my nose. I rebuffed him. When he did leave, he took my car keys. I would later find out he tampered with my car’s trunk, stole my tire kit, and punctured my tire with his work knife he always carried. These items would remain inadmissible in court.

I called my mom, begging her to come. I was packing and it was for good. I called SH to return my keys. I did so in the presence of my mother, a witness to his erratic behavior. I packed quickly, a pile of clothes and baby gear parked in front of the door. My mother took some things and promised to meet me at home. She left. And then that’s when he really went off the grid.

If SH was reading, and I’m sure he will eventually track my blog down, he’d protest I was no angel. That maybe so, but I reacted as any scared mother would react. I have a spirit in me that will not be thumbed-down by false authority or control. I have a beating heart that will not sit idly by while an abusive man spits vitriol in my face. I have a momma-bear mentality. I would protect my son, no matter what.

I heard rustling in my son’s room. SH was pulling racks of clothes from the closet. He was trying to dismantle my son’s crib. He announced that everything in his room was his. I called my dad. I described the situation in detail, action-by-action. My dad pleaded with me to call the cops. He was on his way.

SH beat me to the punch. I heard him loudly telling a 911 operator I was pushing him about the apartment. He shouted I was violent. I hung up on my scared father and got on the phone with my own 911 operator.

The next series of events still blow my mind to this day. But why would they? The history is all there. SH started beating his head into walls. Pounding, thumping. I screamed to the operator what I thought was happening in the other rooms. She gave me calm direction to lock myself in my son’s room. I did what I was told. The pounding continued. Thump! Thump! Thump!

“My dog!” I said, breathing heavy into my phone. The thumps had moved from the master bedroom to the living room. I ran into the master, having a feeling my poor dog was crouched under the bed or in a closet. I was right. His tail peaked from beneath the bed frame. Locking the doors was futile — he had removed all the lock mechanisms –as I huddled with Andrew, asleep in my arms.

The door burst open and SH taunted me with a smile. “I called the cops and YOU are going to jail.”

I repeated his taunt to the 911 operator. She calmly responded, “Let me talk to him.”

“The 911 operator wants to talk to you,” I said, and handed him the phone, shaking.

“Yea, ah my girlfriend is being violent towards me,” I heard him say as he meandered through the hallway like he was ordering a pizza.

Boom, boom, boom! The knock rang out in the apartment. It was the cops. I ran to open the door, SH still on the phone.

“They’re here,” he said and hung up on the operator.

“What’s going on?” A male cop asked, followed by a female counterpart.

“He’s beating his head into walls,” I said, pointing with one arm towards the key rack.

“NO!” said SH. “She has been pushing me into walls. Look at all the cuts in my head,” SH said, stretching his neck so the cops could see.

“Okay, okay,” the male cop said, gesturing SH to move farther away from me and Andrew.

“Step outside ma’am,” the female cop said calmly. I stepped into the apartment hallway, greeted by my dad, whom I hugged for comfort. He calmly took sleeping Andrew and cuddled him as I talked to the officer.

“Start from the beginning,” she said.

I began my story from the night before. I told her we separated for the night after a fight about my desire for drawing custody plans. She listened and scribbled notes. I feared they’d believe him and I’d go to jail.

The night ended with me packing the rest of my things and leaving with Andrew and the dog. No one would be arrested because they couldn’t determine the aggressor.

The system failed me. Maybe the cops had seen this before and had gotten it wrong. Maybe SH was convincing. He wouldn’t be so in court however.

The next day, I took out an immediate emergency protective order. It was granted without his presence. He wasn’t served until a week later. The next time I saw him in court, he and I were lawyered-up. I was questioned for half a day- by my own lawyer, by the court-appointed Guardian at litem, and his lawyer. He was questioned for thirty minutes, viewed the photos my lawyer entered into evidence, and confessed that he threw his head into walls. My lawyer looked at him and then the judge incredulously. The judged asked for him to consult his lawyer after her objection. Apparently she was blind-sided. He didn’t tell her the full story. I’ll never know what convinced him to tell the truth. I guess the evidence was too damaging to explain away. He was usually good at explaining his bad behavior.

After closing arguments, the decision of the judge was clear. I was granted the maximum protective order the law allowed. The judge implored us to co-parent, while I wondered how that was possible with a man who was clearly delusional.

I will keep my custody battle as a separate post, if I get that far. The purpose of this post is to share my decent into the dark abyss and the actions that snapped me into reality. My son put everything in perspective. But the message is clear: I will never go back. Eventually, I will have contact with him again to “co-parent.” I rue that day. But I must face it with a clear head and conscious. I did nothing wrong. I will never blame myself for that day or the countless days he raged against me. There’s always so much more to a story. I could write a novel on my experience. For now, I have painted or sketched a picture of why women stay.

Fear. Society. Family. Control. Isolation. Violence. Verbal abuse. Death.

They are all valid reasons #whyIstayed. To my answer my earlier question, campaigns like these are powerful. We must continue to speak out, lest we suffer in silence and affect our children with fear and anxiety. In many ways, this journey has transformed me into the strongest version of myself. I have unapologetic strength, willful disregard for false control, and a staunch supporter for women’s rights in all forms.

The new campaign for me and hopefully thousands of other women is #NeverGoBack.

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