Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How This Happens (At Least In My Case)

I am only speaking for me, and me alone. I do not know how women stay in physically abusive situations, but once was enough for me, and it was a clear and easy choice to make, and thank God I had friend and family support to be able to do it. (I have been shamed for asking my friends for help by my soon to be ex-sister-in-law, who told me that I should be "HUMILIATED" for actually asking for small donations during that time of crisis. Never mind that the PayPal "DONATE" button has been on my website and that of nearly every blogger I know for years, as a kind of virtual "tip jar." I never got an answer from her about how SHE would have survived on $20 during those days, had it happened to her, except that of course it wouldn't happen to her, because SHE "married a GOOD man." Oh, well. But the shaming? It's stupid, and it didn't work. All of you who helped out know that if I can't pay it back, I'll pay it forward someday, and I have a post upcoming about all of that.) But now is the time to address the most commonly asked question of me right now: "Why? Why did you stay in this mess for so long?"

Well, I believe that I have an answer for that. I've noticed that in many cases of people hanging on to marriages with actively episodic mentally ill spouses, they profess themselves that they have histories of being co-dependent, and of consistently choosing the "wrong" type of partner for themselves. They speak of growing up amidst chaos, often with rampant untreated mental illness and abuse. There is the tired but necessary (because it's true) cliche of the "endless cycle" of the abuse victim. She/he was abused or witnessed abuse as a child, and grows up to perpetuate that pattern, either as the victim or the abused. And while I was only physically abused once, I can now look back with great clarity and recognize that I have been in an emotionally abusive marriage since...well, almost Day One. I have been controlled, I have been monitored, I have never been allowed to be alone, and I have walked on eggshells so much that I think I might qualify as a deerstalker now. I had even discussed with my husband, many times, just how his behavior was abusive to me. I should not, for example, have to sit in a doctor's office and cry because my husband refuses to leave and go to the waiting room so that I can have a private visit. That right there? ABUSIVE. Controlling. NOT OKAY.

"How?" you ask. "WHY?" you ask. Those of you who've known me for a lifetime have been more blunt: "Belinda-- YOU? Why did you stay?" Listen, it's not just friends and family. On my first visit to my therapist (who had been my husband's and my couples counselor) and was filled in by phone on what was going on, I sat down, he looked at me quietly for a moment, then just asked that famous question: "What took you so long?" He has been asking me, literally for years, what was keeping me in this marriage. And my response to him was always in the form of a question of my own: "If I leave, what will become of him?" He had been through so much, and needed so much help, and someone to fight for him...and by gosh, I had all those qualities, and was up to the task! Also, the thought of my daughter's father (who I loved fiercely, and STILL love, though the quality and nature of that love are evolving into something solid but totally detached) being without medical care, without support--he always insisted that he had "nowhere to go"--possibly even winding up homeless, was just more than I could bear.

So we discussed this a bit, the psychologist and myself, and besides the fact that I AM a habitual "fixer"-- of animals, of problems, of people--always the peacemaker (thanks, Mom! Although I wish I'd pulled it off as well as you have!), I believe that I landed upon a theory, which I would like to share with you. I KNOW that there are many out there in this exact same boat, the ones who never "fit in" at the Al-Anon and Narc-Anon meetings, or the NAMI support groups, or the Bipolar Significant Others online support group (may God rain blessings down on all their souls), so here we go.

I am not damaged goods. Not now, not at any point in my life, and most importantly, not when I met my VERY charming husband. I did not come from a "broken" home, much less an abusive or even mildly dysfunctional one. I grew up my entire life with a living example, in my parents, of what true, selfless, mutual love and respect looked like. They literally loved each other to distraction until death parted them, and shared that perfect love with my sister and me. I was a ridiculously happy child, as was my sister. During our young lives, we were scratching poor at times, but we never knew it. We had everything that we needed, and then some, in our loving, amazing family.

At the time I met my husband, I had never had a relationship with a mentally ill person. Heck, HE didn't even know he was bipolar at the time; how was I supposed to spot it? (I can spot it at least three miles away NOW, so if you are wondering about someone, run it by my MI-dar.) I had never had a relationship with an alcoholic, or even with a drinker. I had never had a relationship with a drug addict or user. My dating history was a GOOD one. And when I didn't find anyone who suited my rigorous demands, I just happily spent time being single. And LOVED it. Didn't get married until I was 34, and up until then was perfectly content with the thought of being forever single. I did want children, but I was prepared to make that happen on my own. Thinking back, I have never had a relationship with ANY man who was not respectful to me and solicitous of my needs. Never. Some of you reading this may BE one of those men, and for this, I thank you.

I never, in my life, went for the "bad boy." (Well, unless you count Nicholas Cage in "Valley Girl," and I think we can all agree that we do.) Never. I wanted a man who held down a job, knew how to save money, loved animals and kids, and opened the darn car doors for me and carried my heavy stuff. That's pretty much it. I never wanted lots of money, or a big house, or fancy cars (*mentally pats her faithful 10-year-old Tahoe, which runs like a dream, and is paid for, so will be run until its wheels fall off*), or anything like that. I wanted love, honesty, and respect. And to be frank, these were not things for which I needed another person. I felt whole and content on my own, and quite comfortable in my own skin.

When my husband came along, he absolutely seemed to fit that bill. He was charming, romantic, dashingly handsome, intensely masculine and strong, funny, smart, and most of all...he just "got" me. We hit if off and were engaged within weeks of meeting. In perfect hindsight, there were warning signs, things that were "off." But I was so happy with him, and so much in love, that it was easy to shoo those nagging little doubts away...especially since I'd never before encountered them. He reminded me of my dad in so many ways in the beginning, and when you had a father as wonderful as mine, that's a huge, huge thing.

As those of you who've followed my 'blog for years know, things went sour fast. They got really bad when I was pregnant, which led to hospitalization, residential rehab, and putting him out and officially separating. But then he did "all the right things," and he had, at long last, a diagnosis. He was bipolar. There were medicines that could keep things in check. It was FIXABLE. Except then it happened again. Florid mania that broke through the medication, then running (a term used among significant others of bipolar people that means just taking off for days, weeks, and in extreme cases even months on end), which in our case usually lasted several days...heck, my husband disappeared for 4 solid days as soon as we got our newborn baby home from the hospital. And then came the second episode that almost ended the marriage: once again, breakthrough mania, followed by drinking, and then heavy drug use, and finally just disappearing, accompanied by extremely risky sexual behavior. There was, ultimately, another hospitalization, followed by inpatient rehab, followed by an Intensive Outpatient Program for alcoholism and drug addiction.

And I took him back. Despite the indignities inflicted upon me by this person who I loved and had trusted, I took him back. And people were confused, baffled, even angry with me for doing so. But here I fall back on my personal history up to that point. THIS SORT OF THING DOES NOT HAPPEN IN MY LIFE, combined with the hubris of, AND I AM IN CONTROL OF MY LIFE, AND I WILL DARN WELL FIX THIS, TOO. I absolutely could not accept that I (I never thought of it as "we," which is sort of telling) would not get this thing in check and keep it stifled, and that things would be OK. And sometimes, it seemed to work, so I would be vindicated for my optimism and hope. Click, click, came the pellets, as I pushed that lever faster and faster.

Some of you are internally screaming, "DENIAL!" Well, yes and no. It wasn't that I was denying the reality of the situation; it was more that I was absolutely refusing to ACCEPT the reality of the situation, because in MY reality, this was alien and would be dealt with Sigourney Weaver-style, accordingly.

But even I have my limits. Some of you may have noticed that in the weeks prior to the domestic assault, I had changed my Facebook status from "married to Alex Miller," to, "it's complicated with Alex Miller," and then simply, "it's complicated." The things I was learning at the time were finally, finally piling up enough straws on this camel's back that I knew the breaking point was coming, and coming soon. When I discovered things like secret P.O. boxes in the next town over, credit card accounts opened fraudulently in my name, having my prescription medication stolen and sold to cover debts I hadn't even known about (on our last bank statement, despite having had $4500 wired into the account from who knows what source, there were STILL over $1700 in bank fees alone, for returned checks, NSF charges, etc. $1700, account completely in the red, and $s4500 wired IN. And nothing to show for it that I could see). It was only later that I discovered his dating history of the last several months (Craigslist "Casual Encounters" FTL, plus multiple subscriptions to "Adult" dating sites), but at the time, I had come to realize that, however much I might love this man (and that was a LOT), I would never, ever be able to trust him...about anything. I had pretty much made up my mind that it was over, barring a miracle, and to be honest was likely within 6 weeks or so of filing anyway. Arkansas is a no-fault state, so I don't even have to have a reason for getting out, beyond "personal indignities."

The way that this is going is SO not the way I wanted it to go. Again, because the way I was brought up, problems were not shoved under a rug, or pandered to so that they'd go away. They were exposed to the harsh light of day, discussed, and DEALT with, and then everyone got to move on. Nothing festered. No one held grudges, or kept score. So it is exceedingly difficult for me to have to deal with my husband as though a stranger, through lawyers and restraining orders and the courts. My desire and instinct is telling me to sit down with my husband, and calmly discuss and end this. To find out what he wants, and do my best to give it to him, within reason, so we can both move on with our lives. I mean, he's already been "dating" for several months, and having a whole other secret life, so why would he NOT want out?

So since once again it's too late to say "long story short," I suppose I'll sum it up: Why did I stay? Well, aside from the fact that I loved him, I felt responsible for him. I was his conduit to the rest of the world for years. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how I fought for him, how I advocated for him, and how I became an activist in the realm of mental illness awareness and support. I fed, clothed, and even bathed him during the months following the ECT when he couldn't care for himself...that was another time that I had one foot out the door, and then this debilitating brain injury happened, and what kind of person turns someone out with no support during a time like that? Well, not I. In all this, I had my daughter to consider. That is the key thing to remember here.

I kept secrets over the years. LOTS of secrets. I did it for my daughter--not just so that she wouldn't know about the Horrible Things I've Never Told Anyone, but so that people would not look at my daughter's father and only see those things. In protecting his image, I was protecting her innocence. I'm really hoping that none of that has to come out in court, for that very reason. Since the day we met until the day I fled the home, I have always been 100% faithful, honest, and trustworthy to my husband. He has not. But I stayed.

I stayed, because I could not accept that these things were happening in MY, up to then, idyllic life and that I couldn't make them stop by sheer force of my own will . I stayed because the three of us as a unit were very important to my daughter. I stayed because I felt responsibility for my husband's care, and could clearly see the burden of guilt I would have to carry for "abandoning" him. I stayed because I loved him. And at long last, finally, when he attacked me physically, I left. Immediately and with extreme prejudice. There won't be a second chance at that kind of thing.

This has been rambling and tangential at times, but I hope that I've answered, somewhat, the question of why "someone like me" would put up with all that's been done to me over the years. In short, it's not because I was "damaged." It's more because I was UNDAMAGED. And you know what? I still am.

P.S. Let me share with you possibly the WORST thing to say to someone in my, or a similar situation, when discussing the sins of the spouse. That would be any variation on how YOU would "NEVER put up with that." Shut your hole. Just shut it. You do not know what you would "put up with" until you are challenged and must answer that for yourself. It is not your job to make someone who's already feeling sad, defeated, betrayed, and foolish aware of just how superior YOU are, since YOU would never get into such a sordid situation in the first place. Bully for you, you win at smug. But you might want to check over your own shoulder every once in a while...just in case.