Disclaimer: The events of this story are true, however the names have been changed to protect victim privacy.
I have a friend, we’ll call Mary. We met in the cafe where I love to write my blog. She sat next to me with her own laptop, striking up a conversation about an Arabic soap opera, Forbidden Love. She is Christian Egyptian (she would want me to make that distinction). Her laugh and smile was so infectious that before I knew it, we were watching every episode, struggling to find the English subtitles so that I could watch it along with her. If there were episodes without subtitles, she graciously narrated.
Forbidden Love’s actors reminded me of the silent movies where every emotion was exaggerated and easily understood.
After six hours of binge-watching Forbidden Love, we made plans to see each other again. There was something about Mary that was addictive. She was a wonderful story teller and was as animated as the characters on screen. I liked her instantly and knew a budding friendship was in our future.
The more we met in the cafe, the more she divulged her life’s story. She was once married for seven years, had a son and worked as a nurse’s aid in a retirement community. Long hours and horrible pay forced her to become a waitress full time so that she could pay child support for her son who was living with her ex-husband and his new wife. She told me heart-wrenching stories of abuse at the hands of her former husband. The beatings were so bad that she was in the hospital for a week. He was arrested several times and bailed out by Mary every time. Like the studies affirm, she was a woman without the means to leave, let alone pay for a divorce.
Finally, after the cops had been called for the last time as he dragged her beaten body across the carpet of their living room, her ex-husband went to jail. Stockholm syndrome took full affect and she bailed him out again. Faced with her family turning their backs, she left her child and her husband one night to stay with her family. After a quick divorce (neither had the resources to endure a lengthy divorce proceeding and custody hearing), Mary did the only thing she could without a penny to her name: she agreed to let her son stay with his father.
A few years went by and Mary took several waitress jobs (she only had a few community college credits because her husband disapproved of women in school and was easily angered by the cost). She met a man named Sahib (which I later found, means Lord and Master), a Muslim Egyptian, one night out with her friends. He too was a divorcee, married to a woman he met who was completing a teaching mission in Egypt. Sahib was brought to the states and within five years they were divorced with no children.
The first time I met Sahib, he possessed a quiet charm, attractive and seemed genuinely in love with Mary. By the second meeting at that cafe, the two were like oil and water, airing their dirty laundry in public with Sahib blaming Mary for flirting with every man who walked into the cafe.
First red flag.
To know Mary’s personality, it was clear she was incredibly friendly. She called the waitress “baby” and “honey.” She waved at the regulars in the cafe. That was just who Mary was. To love her was to accept her need to connect with other people. She was never rude and always sweet to anyone who greeted her.
Sahib hated this about Mary. He wanted all eyes on him at all times. The more I knew the couple, the more fearful I was about her relationship with Sahib. He was controlling, showing up unannounced when we were having our “girl” chats at the cafe. He would say “Hi” and territorially sit at our table, silencing our conversation, or if they were fighting, sit a few tables down scrolling through his cell phone.
With time, Mary and I got closer. I created her resume for translator positions (she could speak four languages), and slowly she confided that Sahib was aggressive and emotionally abusive, calling her a whore and a bitch on a daily basis. She worked two jobs while Sahib sat in her apartment, doing a whole lot of nothing. It was clear Sahib enjoyed “his woman” paying for everything. On occasion he’d show up to the cafe and ask for twenty dollars to buy cigarettes or food. He was the quintessential con-artist, lying that he worked part-time as a chef at a nearby hotel. Or that he was looking for full time opportunities. When Sahib went to the restroom, Mary whispered in my ear that he did neither.
One night at around 10:00 pm she called me crying, sitting in her car at a vacant parking lot, telling me that Sahib had slapped her across the face for coming home late after a work shift. This time he hadn’t surprised Mary while she worked (a regular occurrence to verify her whereabouts) and he was incredibly jealous. He accused her of cheating and began verbal assaulting her character. Everything private, including why her ex-husband had custody of her child, was part of his arsenal. I begged her to come stay with me for the night so that we could plan her next steps. I asked her to call the police. She said she would. An hour, then two, went by. I called, texted and called again. Nothing.
I went back to the cafe the next morning hoping she’d be there with her wide smile and air-kiss greeting. The waitress we befriended said she was in the psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital on suicide watch. She had ingested an entire bottle of sleeping pills. Sahib had called 911. Mary must have known I’d be there waiting for her, so she called the restaurant asking the waitress to apologize on her behalf.
Finally, Mary was able to call me (the psychiatric ward allows certain hours for phone calls). She told me the terrible story, that she just wanted to fall into unconsciousness so that Sahib couldn’t continue his tirade. She assured me she didn’t want to die, but saw no other option other than to self-medicate. I immediately went to visit her. When I entered the ward and signed in, a nurse sealed my belongings in a brown paper bag behind the intake counter, letting me take the four tabloid magazines and He’s Just Not That Into You book I brought as gifts. Mary was waiting for me behind the red line, where patients waited for visitors. As we walked down the hallway, I passed a young man in a wheelchair, staring into space, catatonic. When we entered her room, it was devoid of any color with two small, bolted windows by her bed. As I sat in on her bed, the door wide open, a nurse checked every hour, pushing the button of her number clicker.
Amid this bizarre ward, Mary was in great spirits. I asked a million questions, “Are you going back?” “Has he visited?” “Did you try and kill yourself?”
She answered “no” to the first and last question but revealed that Sahib visited regularly. He didn’t know I was coming. Mary confided that Sahib called me poisonous, I was manipulating her, and that I secretly wanted them to split so that I could move in on him. Like most seasoned psychopaths, he was trying to isolate Mary further. She no longer had friends. No one but her mother, myself and Sahib visited.
She promised me she wouldn’t go back, that she was moving in with her mother until she had enough money to find her own place.
In that moment, sitting across from a thirty year old woman, she seemed childlike. She drew a picture in art class with hearts and my name in cursive. “Best Friends Forever!” she wrote.
“It’s so boring in here, Penny,” Mary said. “I hate it. But they won’t let me leave until Friday.”
A boy peaked his head sheepishly into Mary’s room.
“Gavin!” Mary shouted delightedly. “This is my new friend Gavin.”
Gavin entered with both arms in a makeshift casts. He weakly shook my hand. He looked no more than 17.
“Hi,” he said with a broad smile. Gavin sat on a vacant bed opposite us. We talked about the psychiatric ward, how depressing it was and I slowly noticed small, fine cuts all over Gavin’s knees and legs. It occurred to me that his casts were not protecting broken arms, but were masking deep cuts from attempted suicide. He was also a cutter.
Gavin was quiet but talked about his ex-girlfriend with fresh sorrow as our conversation turned to the subject of relationships. Gavin then divulged he had a full ride to a college in Kentucky. He was a track star. He told us that his parents didn’t think he would start college on time. This was his eighth visit to the psychiatric ward.
“They all know my name here,” Gavin chuckled darkly.
Thirty minutes went by and the same nurse made her rounds.
“Gavin!” the nurse said. “You know you can’t be in here.”
“Oh come on, I’m just sitting here, meeting Mary’s friend,” Gavin protested. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
“You know the rules,” the nurse said gently. “You guys can go into the recreational area if you want to chat.”
Mary and I exchanged glances and then looked at Gavin. He slowly got off the bed and extended his cast to shake my hand.
“Nice to meet you,” Gavin said meekly. “Mary. Come find me later.”
“I promise,” Mary smiled.
After visiting hours were over, I hugged Mary and took her artwork with me. I kept emailing her stories of abused women leaving their men to give her strength. She emailed me back, saying, “Keep it coming! This is exactly what I need. To be strong like you.”
Weeks earlier I told Mary my story, hoping it would give her the strength she needed. Unfortunately, she stayed with Sahib and was now in the hospital for attempted suicide.
A week later, Mary was released on new medication. She had revealed she was bipolar during the course of our cafe chats. Mary called to tell me she was in upstate Maryland living with her mother. I was happy for her. Hopeful. She was going to get back on her feet.
Until she didn’t. Probably ashamed, I found out from the same waitress that she was back with Sahib. The waitress had seen them in the cafe together. He lured her back into their small apartment, probably on the realization that his cash cow wasn’t paying his bills anymore. Later, Mary told me Sahib swore he would change. They were on a “probationary” period where Mary was free to leave after a month if he didn’t improve.
If you’re reading this far, you know that abusers rarely, if ever change. Sahib was no exception. The same pattern of abuse resurfaced.
I had to make the hard decision of distancing myself from Mary. Having lived through a year of similar, if not identical abuse, I knew only the abused can make the decision to leave. When he/she does leave for good, a friend is there to emotionally support them.
So, before I stopped taking her calls or answering her texts, I told her that I could not be friends with someone who though so little of themselves that they wanted to be with a confirmed abuser. Mary understood.
I didn’t hear from Mary until Christmas Day. She wished me a Merry Christmas and said she loved me. I responded a short, “Are you still with Sahib?” An hour later she responded “No.” I then asked if she was still living with him. She again responded “No.” I asked her if it was now a permanent separation and she said “yes.” Her mother gave her an ultimatum too: Sahib or her family. Mary chose wisely. Her mother helped her get a new apartment and she was working again.
Today, Mary called me. She understood the reason why I had to cut off all contact for the last six months. Still unconvinced, I said, “Mary, if you go back to Sahib, we will never talk again. I mean it. I love you as a friend, but I can’t keep living in this turmoil with you, worried that one day a slap will escalate to a punch or that he finally might kill you.”
Mary agreed to the pact. We have a coffee planned for Thursday.
I’m not a religious person, but I pray that this time is for good.