“I’m a domestic violence survivor”

I had to speak those words in a courtroom yesterday.

I was called for jury duty for my county. The last time I was called, I didn’t even go through a voir dire process. This time, I did. And there came a point when the judge asked people being considered for a spot on the jury if any of us had ever been the victim of a crime, or if anyone close to us had been.

He said, “Please raise your hand.”

For a split second, I thought about keeping my hand in my lap. But I couldn’t do it. I’d taken an oath.

So I raised my hand.

The rest of the prospective jurors left the room, and one by one, each of us victims had our turn with the judge, in front of the defendant, his lawyer and the prosecutor.

“So, Ms. Johnson, what is your story?” asked the judge.

Wow, what a loaded question.

“I’m a domestic violence survivor,” I said. “My daughter was also sexually molested by the same man, my ex-husband.”

The judge seemed startled, frankly. He didn’t say anything for a couple of beats. A man in his late 50s, slight, with completely gray hair — I figure he’s probably heard everything. His reaction actually startled me.

“Did these events happen simultaneously?”

Odd question.

“Well, they happened while I was married to him, and the sexual abuse continued after I divorced.”

“So you don’t know if these things happened at the same time.”

“They might have, sure. But I don’t know.”

“And did you contact the police?”

“Yes,” I said. It was true that the police got involved in my daughter’s situation. But not mine. I was always too terrified to call the police for what he was doing to me. Too risky.

“And were any charges filed?”

“No, your honor.”

“Why was that.”

“Insufficient evidence.”

And with that, it was over. I was not chosen to serve on the jury.

But the thing is, it’s not over. I did have to go back to the jury room today, but I was not called; I was released. My jury service is over, but my stress about that experience isn’t. I don’t say those words out loud very often — like, never. I don’t talk about that part of my life with many people. Almost no one except my family and my closest friends know the truth about me. Saying it out loud to people I didn’t know — I don’t care what their societal roles ¬†were yesterday — was anxiety producing and horrible. Not to mention the fact that just stepping into a courtroom makes me want to throw up.

I’m going to bed early tonight to sleep off this stress. Hoping I’ll feel better in the morning …

Another woman dies

I’m in an amazing online support group of women who have survived domestic violence. A couple of the women are still in their abusive relationships and are trying to plan their eventual escape. Other survivors in the group have had close female friends murdered in their attempts to leave their abusive partners.

One of the women in the group reported that in her town today, a woman was killed by her husband “even though she had a court order against him,” according to the news reporter.

A piece of paper. Is that really supposed to protect us? Really?

In reading just the few sentences that this woman posted about another woman dying at the hands of her abusive husband, I was jettisoned back to the day I fled my home. I’m choking back tears as I write this, because the horror of that day will never, ever leave me.

I knew, I absolutely knew, that I might die that day. And that my daughter (then just 2 years old) might die that day.

There I was, literally throwing things into my car after he left for work, sweating and praying and sobbing, knowing that if he returned home for any reason — like he forgot a tool he needed to do his job, which happened sometimes — I would probably die.

I imagined him taking out his machete — he was a landscaper — and chopping my head off. Or taking a shovel and bashing me across the face with it. Or rushing toward me and pinning me against the car, with his hands around my throat and our toddler daughter screaming in the back seat.

All of those visions and a hundred more raced through my mind as I tore around the house, gathering the things I knew I needed, leaving most of my beloved personal effects behind. In the end, I knew the most important things to get out of that house were my daughter, and me. If we could drive away without him seeing us, we might — might — escape with our lives.

It’s been 22-1/2 years since I left. My daughter is now 24.

I’m shaking right now. The tears are streaming down my face. I feel like I’m going to be sick.

Trauma never leaves you.



What could I have achieved? What CAN I achieve?

One of the hardest parts of recovery for me has been asking myself the question, What could I have achieved if I hadn’t been a victim of domestic violence?

The answer is: a lot. I know it’s true, because I know how strong the core of my “self” is. Even my therapist, Kris, remarked to me that something within me kept me going at a high level of competence, despite everything that happened to me. She pointed out that I am, by far, the exception, not the norm. I didn’t become an alcoholic or drug addict, I didn’t get depressed or commit suicide, I didn’t become physically disabled due to illness — and all of these are common “side effects” of being a victim of domestic violence.

Especially at the level I experienced, she noted specifically.

I grieve what might have been, every single day.

Some days, like today, it makes it hard to look forward. I feel like my life is already over, and I have nothing to show for it. I’m 51 years old, and I’ve achieved nothing of note except, what, survival? What sort of achievement is that?

As I grapple with trying to make my life meaningful in some way before I die, I continually ask myself this question: What can I do now? Who can I BE now?

Over the past few days, I’ve thought about some possibilities:

  • I could “come out of the closet” about domestic violence and become a speaker on the topic. A scary option, but one that could help people.
  • I could continue writing fiction and hope that, someday, a real publisher will take notice of me. Unlikely, but not impossible.
  • I could start my own online magazine about making life changes quickly, as I’ve had to do.

I could envision myself doing all three of those. But they all pale in comparison to what I believe I could have been had my life not been so derailed by my first husband’s psychosis. I believe I could have been a professor, either in English or music history, and written many, many books. As it is, my daughter is on the professorial path, which makes me both happy and sad. I’m happy that she is finding her way in this life. I’m sad that I didn’t have the chance to live my life. MY life.

The worst part for me right now is that I’ve had to come to all these realizations, as desperate and grief-stricken as they are, without the love and support of my husband. Instead, I’ve also had to deal with his depression, with mood swings that have sent me reeling back into PTSD time and time again. How much could I have achieved even just over the past two or three years if I had had the support of a loving husband?

If all this sounds like a pity party, I don’t mean it to. But here’s the one thing I know for sure: I wouldn’t be sitting here, typing out this message, if it weren’t for a strong personal center, somewhere inside me that I can’t see, that may be more hearty than any high achiever’s. That part of myself is the only thing that makes me proud to be me.

So what can I achieve? I have no idea. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. This is the year I’ll find out.

Today’s word: Choice

Today's word: choiceI chose to marry my ex-husband.

I did not choose for him to hurt me.

I get really, really tired of people — most of whom are uneducated about domestic violence — saying that it was my choice to “let him” hurt me or continue to hurt me.

That is so far from reality, it’s hard to even know how to respond.

Domestic violence is not like alcoholism, for example. There, it does seem to me that certain people “enable” the alcoholic’s behavior by their actions.

DV is completely different. There is no “letting” or “choosing” or “enabling.” The actions of the abuser put the victim into a persistent state of trauma, which then proceeds to get worse over time.

Even if you’ve never been the victim of an abusive person, you’ve most likely experienced something you would label as “traumatic.” Let’s say, you were in a car accident, or you witnessed a crime, or whatever it might be.

How did you feel afterward? Picture that moment, and put yourself back there, right now.

  • How do you feel?
  • Do you feel safe?
  • Do you feel like yourself?
  • How is your mind working? Is it clear or fuzzy?
  • Do you know what you’re doing or saying, for sure?
  • Are you shaking?
  • Do you feel like you’re going to be sick?
  • Do you feel afraid?

Multiply those feelings by 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and you’ll have some idea of what a DV victim experiences with an abuser.

Was it your choice to have that car accident? Using the same logic a lot of people do with DV, they would say, Well, it was your choice to get into the car, even though you were reasonably certain the car was working properly and you knew how to drive it. And you also were pretty sure where you were going; you even had directions.

I made the choice to marry that guy.

I did not choose for him to hurt me.

He hurt me. That was his choice.

After the first incident, the trauma was already in place and doing its thing: clouding my mind, making me shaky, setting my life on a course I did not choose. I left when I felt reasonably sure it was safe to do so, though clearly I risked my life during that process. Every woman (I’m generalizing) does when she finally does leave.

I still struggle with choice, every single hour of every single day. I’m never completely sure if the trauma is behind a choice I’m making, or if my real self is behind the choice. If I’m totally honest, I’d say it’s probably about 60-40 or maybe even 70-30 right now, and the trauma is winning.