I was first introduced to Heather's story by her sister-in-law, who is also a dear friend of mine. Susannah had sent out an email to friends to make them aware of a GoFundMe page that had been created for Heather and her two young boys. Weeks prior, Heather's ex-husband had tried to burn down the home she shares with her sons while they were all asleep inside. Thankfully Heather and her boys survived the attack, but she was doing all she could to help them offset legal, counseling and other life expenses.
Heather's story is terrifying, but unfortunately not unique. It made me consider, how did this happen? And, are there women in my own life who are in a similar circumstances? Statistically speaking, most likely.
Heather is open, honest and forthcoming with the details of her abuse. She was gracious enough to speak with me about her relationship in an effort to help anyone who might find themselves in the same situation. Her bravery is inspiring and commendable, and her story is below.
First and foremost, thank you for sharing what I know is a painful story that is still unfolding in your life. I would like to start at the beginning of your relationship. Can you tell us how you and your husband met and when the abuse started? Were there any red flags in the early stages of your relationship?
My ex-husband and I met in college when I was 20 years old. He was two years older than me. There were no signs of abuse early on. At the beginning, he was very attentive, interested and I thought he loved me and I loved him. We dated for years and got married when I was 26. I had no idea, at that point, who he would turn out to be.
In hindsight, there were a red flags. Of course, you don’t see them when you are in the beginning of a relationship and especially at a young age. He was always a partier and drinker, wanted to be the last at the bar. He was not a pleasant drunk. He thought he was invincible and that nothing could hurt him. He did what he wanted and acted as if he was above the law.
This part of his personality never changed. The motto he lived by was, "It is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission." I always thought his partying lifestyle, or desire to drink in excess, would change as we got older, that he would grow up. He never did.
When I was pregnant with our first child, he got his first of two DUIs. I spent my entire pregnancy driving him around because he lost his license for a year. He made me lie to my friends and family. He said if I told others that I wasn’t supporting him, I wasn’t being a good wife and that I wasn’t there for him.
Frankly, it was embarrassing for me as well, so I kept the truth from others for a while. I ended up telling my family about three to four months in, because I needed the support. I never told him that my family knew.
How do you leave a marriage when you are pregnant with your first child? I was scared, so I stayed. I thought he would learn his lesson and grow from that experience, but he never changed.
Was there a cycle of abuse, either physical or verbal?
There was definitely a cycle of abuse. The cycle came and went with his drinking patterns. I addressed the drinking issue with him multiple times over the years. My ex would decide to stop drinking, but that would only last for a short period of time, maybe about 3 months, and then the cycle of drinking would start all over again. He always said he had the willpower to quit on his own, but, to this day, he has not been able to do that.
His abuse was never physical, but definitely verbal. I was called every name in the book. When he was drinking, it was worse. I always thought that at least he wasn’t abusive towards me, physically, but didn’t pay attention to the verbal abuse until it became more frequent toward the end of our marriage. Once I was out of the marriage, I could see what the verbal abuse did to my confidence.
What was your emotional and mental response? Did you tell anyone what was happening at home?
It wasn’t until the last few years of the marriage that I spoke up to family and friends about how he was really treating me and just how bad the drinking and verbal abuse were. I was broken down, didn’t feel worthy of who I was, was passive and quiet with him. I guess, I knew in my heart that I didn’t love this person anymore, but I was afraid of how to go on by myself and raise two boys on my own. And, most importantly, [I was afraid of] what it would do to my boys to break up our family.
For years I thought I could stay for my boys and just create that happy image of a family. It is a scary thought to leave the life you’ve created. I felt ashamed if I couldn’t make the marriage work, and I certainly tried.
I asked him to go to marriage counseling with me, but he wasn’t interested in going. I asked him to get help with his alcoholism. He went to AA for a few months, and then thought he had a handle on it on his own. He clearly did not. He just wouldn’t take any action to better the situation. It only got worse, and he only began to drink more and more.
Over time, I began to realize I had many possible happy years ahead of me and I was wasting my life living in these conditions of abuse and great unhappiness. So, I finally took the boys and left. In the last few years, I have finally found my voice, my strength, my courage.
I came across this quote about being married to a narcissist, which is exactly the personality of my ex. It sums up and defines exactly what my relationship was with my ex-husband: “You will go from being the perfect love of their life to nothing you do is ever good enough. You will give your everything and they will take it all and give you less and less in return. You will end up depleted emotionally, mentally, spiritually and probably financially, and then get blamed for it.”
How did you find the strength to leave? Was there a pivotal moment that changed things for you? And if so, what was it and how did you remove yourself and your children from the situation?
The drinking just did not stop. The pivotal moment was the day I left. He was taunting me and following me around the house, videoing me, because I wouldn’t speak to him. He cornered me in the laundry room, slapped me on my butt and said, “You are so cute when you are being a bitch!” I looked at him and said, “DO not, ever, touch me again!”
I walked past him and continued to put laundry away upstairs. He followed while videoing and taunting me. It was at that point I finally felt scared enough that I didn’t know what he was going to do next. I then walked downstairs, grabbed my keys, phone and purse and left.
That day I drove away was the day I left and didn’t return. I picked up my boys from school that day and moved in with my parents. I left on a Monday, I hired an attorney the next day and he was served divorce papers by Friday.
I just knew I couldn’t go back to that life anymore. It was becoming a toxic environment, not only for me, but for my boys. They didn’t deserve to live in that kind of situation anymore. They didn’t know why we left or that their dad had a problem with alcohol. So, it was really tough on them at first because they couldn’t understand why.
After a few months, we sat down, as a family, and my ex told them about his problem. After that day, I felt my boys were more understanding of why I chose to leave and why we were in the situation we were in. I have found that being honest with my boys has been the best way to help them through this time in their lives. They need someone to be honest with them and have someone that they can trust. Of course I don’t give them all the details, I keep it brief, yet honest.
I have the most amazing support group in my family and friends. I could not have gotten through any of this without them. My parents, siblings and their spouses have supported me emotionally, physically, financially. My friends have also done the same. I really do not know how anyone gets through this without that support. It is so difficult to just get through the day-to-day things life throws at us, but then, throw in emotions, raising children, trying to reinvent yourself at 43 with a new career and path in life…It is quite the challenge.
I am beyond fortunate! I am surrounded by so much support, but, if I am being honest, I do have my days when I feel so alone. I can imagine it is difficult for those on the outside (not going through the emotional part of it all) to understand what I am truly feeling and going through. Until you actually experience something yourself, you can’t really be expected to know what it feels like. I think that is where the loneliness sets in, and I hope that someday I can help others going through something similar.
You have two beautiful sons. How are they coping and how do you communicate with them about what is happening in your family dynamic?
Under the circumstances, my boys are doing really well. I think there was a kind of slow digression of their dad’s behavior that led up to all of this happening. They know he has a problem with alcohol, and blame it on that. He was not a consistent participant in spending time with them. He has a history of not showing up for scheduled parenting time.
Unfortunately, as time has gone on, their dad has not given them reason to rely on him. He was beginning to lose their trust. I think communicating with them openly and honestly is the best coping mechanism for them.
I am here for them always and they know that. I will never let them down, I will always have their back and I will never walk away from them as their dad did. They know they can trust me, and I will continue to build that trust with them. They are my everything and I just have a bigger role now in continuing to raise them to be the amazing boys they already are!
I have a great relationship with my boys. We talk about everything and spend time together. I have noticed my boys leaning on one another and looking to each other for support. They play together more and take care of each other. It is really refreshing to see them bond and stick together in such a difficult time. I think they have only grown closer because of this, in fact, we have all grown closer. We are also starting counseling and hope that this platform helps them to continue to talk and communicate with each other and me.
What are some incorrect assumptions or stigmas people have about domestic violence?
Stigmas about domestic violence…I think people associate [it] more with physical abuse. The day I left, I went to the police department and spoke with an officer about my situation and how I felt scared to go back into my home. Because I was not physically touched, hit, slapped in the face, pushed down, hair pulled, etc. there was nothing they could do to protect me.
Does someone have to be physically hurt before being protected? That is the scariest part of it all! I think that is why more women do not report abuse. They might not be believed or the abuse isn’t serious enough. How serious does it need to get, before it is too late?
Verbal abuse is just as damaging, if not more. I think verbal abuse goes unnoticed for so long that it becomes part of who you think you are. You start believing that you are not good enough, it is your fault, etc. I think verbal abuse takes longer to recover from.
Do you have any thoughts or advice for someone who may find themselves in a similar circumstance?
My advice to others is to speak up and ask your family or friends for support. They will be there for you! I have been amazed at the people who have come forward to help my boys and me, including strangers!
The emotional support alone has given me more strength than I thought I had. It is scary, you will get through this, but you must ask for help. People will not judge you, as I thought might happen. It was exactly the opposite.
How are you healing and taking care of yourself right now?
My healing process is an emotional and physical one. Just knowing my boys need me gives me strength to move forward each day. They only have me now to raise them, teach them and guide them.
I wake up each day and find what I am grateful for and put up a strong front for my boys. I try not to let them see me break down and cry, because let’s be honest, I have those days. I am not sure of our next steps, but the boys don’t need to be scared of what the future holds, I am just trying to let them live their lives as normally as we did before; consistent schedules, activities, time with friends. We take each day as it comes and deal with what we can at the moment.
I know I need to keep myself healthy so I can take care of my boys. I try and get out for a run to help clear my head and practice yoga. I will also go to counseling and am in the process of finding someone now. Right now, I am in between jobs, so I’m looking for something that will allow me the flexibility to be there for my boys, as much as possible, as they need me right now. It is a bit scary reinventing yourself at 43, but then add in the complications of the situation we are in. I give a lot of credit to those single parents out there! I am just at a crossroads and am searching for the right path to continue this journey I have in front of me.
What words do you offer to women who suspect they are in a vulnerable situation but may be convincing themselves otherwise?
I guess my response would be…Listen to your inner voice, go with your gut feeling. I ignored mine. I would also say that once I opened up to friends and family, I was more accepting of what my situation was and knew it was something I needed to get out of. It gave me the courage to do something about it because I knew I had support.
*To offer additional financial support to Heather and her boys, please visit their GoFundMe page.