No one outside can ever know how hard it is to leave an abusive husband. One day, love. Another day, hate. One minute, heaven. Another minute, hell. There comes a time you know you must go, but learning how to leave comes slowly. For me it started one spring evening in 1975.
Jack came into the kitchen when I was leaning over the dishwasher as if each plate weighed 20 pounds. It was only 8:30 p.m., but work had been draining, and I couldn’t wait to finish up, climb into bed, and disappear into a good book. Jack slid along the counter behind me and pressed against me, his arms around my hips and hands rubbing my belly. Slowly they moved down and stroked between my legs. I gritted my teeth. His hands felt intrusive, foreign, and I had to stifle an urge to scream, “Get your hands off me.”
“I had a crazy day, and I’m so tired I can’t see straight,” I said, trying to sound light. He pulled back sharply. My radar must’ve been off. I hadn’t picked up on the intensity of his need, but it was one of those nights when I simply did not have the option. I was not entitled to say “No” at 8:00, or 10:00 or even midnight.
“You always want whatever you want,” he spit out, “and never think of what I want.”
By then I had stopped asking, “How can you mean that?” because that question was never answered. At some point, just seconds before, what he was saying became the Truth. In questioning the Truth, I became an even bigger sh*t. And if I didn’t go along, I had to be punished.
I froze in place. I knew that look on his face.
He backhanded my cheekbone and nose with his knuckles. It felt like a knife slicing my face, but then came sudden, flaming heat. He bounded out of the room and up the stairs. I only heard, “… selfish bitch.”
I curled in on myself, my clammy hands covering my face. I dropped them only when I could bear looking around me, at my kitchen, my house, my life. The world I lived in with this man.
I shuffled into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, staring as if I were a stranger. Her nose might be broken. There’s blood seeping onto her lip. She needs help.
I grabbed a handful of tissues and stepped back into the kitchen, gathering my purse and keys from the table. I snuck out to my car at the curb and slipped in. Maybe Jack could hear the car start, but if he did, he wouldn’t have enough time to follow me. With one eye half shut and one hand pressing a tissue to my nose, I drove to the emergency entrance of the nearby hospital.
The woman at the desk looked directly at me but showed no alarm. Maybe I shouldn’t be here, I thought. Maybe this is no big deal in an emergency room. But I took the forms she gave me, filled them out, and took a seat. I picked up a magazine and stared at a page, but I jumped when I heard a woman in white call my name—my name doesn’t belong here. She took me to a bright, chilly room and helped me onto the table. She came back with a warmed blanket to wrap around me. I thanked her as if she’d thrown me a lifesaver in the sea.
It seemed like hours, but it was probably 15 minutes until a doctor and nurse came into the room. The doctor stood at my knees and inspected the skin around my cheek and nose. In a quiet voice he asked, “How did this happen?”
“My husband got angry and punched me,” I said. I was about to go on, but I caught myself. Suddenly it was clear to me—that was the beginning and the end of it. What happened before or after didn’t matter. He does this.
The nurse wiped my cheek with a cold antiseptic that stung where Jack’s wedding ring must have scraped and bandaged it. I gasped when the doctor touched my nose. “Nothing’s broken, fortunately,” he said, and the nurse carefully slid cotton into my nostril. “There’s a little bleeding now. Lie here and rest with this cold pack.”
As I lay back, I waited for something else, anything else he could do or say to help me, but he only looked at me. I could feel him wishing he could help more, too, but all he knew to say was, “In a half hour, you can go back home.”
With no such option as a shelter, that night I did go home, but something dramatic had happened inside me. The mirror tells the story. For the first time I looked at myself as a person who deserved my love, as a person who deserved my care.
Why? After four years of living with abuse, I had started talking to a therapist. I broke my silence that was fueled by shame and fear, and I began talking it out, often sobbing it out, to a knowing listener. And most importantly, those words were out in the air surrounding me. I had no choice but to act. That was my first step toward freedom.