“What would you know? You and your ‘Leave it to Beaver’ family.” That’s one of the things my ex-husband used to say to me. He meant it as an insult – he couldn’t understand a family that respected one another.
I grew up in a loving family, spending my teenage years in West Michigan. My parents were a wonderful model of a healthy relationship.
In my early twenties, I met the man who became my husband. He saw me at a neighbor’s house and asked me on a date. We moved in together after a year. There were hints of controlling behavior, but nothing that changed my mind about marrying him.
I always considered myself a strong, independent woman. That changed when I was pregnant with our first child. My husband persuaded me to move away from my family – a typical first step for an abuser to isolate his victim. Alone and insecure about the massive changes taking place with my body, my husband exploited my vulnerability.
He worked hard to alienate me from family and friends. His verbal and emotional abuse increased. He manipulated each situation; undermining me, destroying my self-esteem, and making me question myself. Eventually, he began to physically abuse me.
A neighbor recognized what was going on and offered to help. At first, I declined. Surely, I wasn’t one of those ‘weak’ women who can’t find the strength to either demand better or leave?
When I did leave, it was in the middle of the night. My husband had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Instead of viewing this diagnosis as a reason to change his behavior, he escalated and became dangerously violent.
He told me if he was going to die, he would take me and our three kids with him.
Terrified, I called my neighbor. We left with almost nothing, drove to a seedy motel and called my father. He came to pick us up and we eventually moved in with my brother in Holland.
Despite his health, my husband continued to terrorize us. He set fire to my father’s truck in the middle of the night. He showed mutual friends his stock of guns and made threats about killing us. And he messaged my children through social media.
At first, I tried to work with him on custody. I felt guilty about separating my children from their father, especially after his diagnosis. That changed when he took my middle child on a spring break trip. While driving back, he threatened to dump him on the road outside Chicago unless he gave up the name and address of my employer. I filed for divorce and ex parte custody, along with a no contact order.
My brother suggested I contact Center for Women in Transition. He worked at Gentex, and had the opportunity to meet Center staff and learn more about services. I was resistant – I still didn’t see myself as a victim. But I knew we couldn’t stay at his house forever and I wanted to get my kids some help.
I went to the Center and met with an advocate named Suz. Her intuitive questions helped me understand I was a victim of domestic violence. She walked alongside me as I dealt with the shame and embarrassment of admitting that to myself.
I entered the Center’s Supportive Housing program and successfully applied for a job within the first month. The rental assistance allowed me to concentrate on saving for the future and becoming independent. Suz and I worked on safety planning – my situation was still extremely high risk. And my kids and I started therapy.
Despite the dark times, there were still some highlights. I was able to get my daughter braces. And we were chosen to participate in the Center’s holiday Adopt-a-Family program. I had prepared my kids for a tight Christmas. When we received the huge pile of gifts, we couldn’t believe the generosity. It was truly humbling.
Despite his diagnosis, my ex-husband didn’t pass until very recently; and he continued to threaten us until the end. There’s a lot of conflicting emotions for my children to work through. And it’s time now for me to focus on myself again. I have a steady job that I enjoy. I’m remarried to a caring, respectful, wonderful man. But we live with the impact of my ex-husband’s abuse every day.
My passion for advocacy led me to join the Center’s Board of Directors. I have a unique viewpoint, being a victim and now a survivor. It’s my job to give back to the place and the people who made such a huge difference in my life. So I’m paying it forward in the best way I know how; starting with sharing my story.
When I disclose my history, people are shocked. They tell me how strong I seem and they can’t believe I was a victim of abuse. I don’t hold it against them, because for the longest time I couldn’t believe it either. I’m a strong woman and it took a huge amount of courage for me to leave.
Now, I think about those people who don’t believe they are strong and imagine the kind of courage it takes for them. The services offered by the Center are vital – even the strongest person can’t do this alone, nor should they have to.