[TRIGGER WARNING: emotional + verbal abuse + thoughts of suicide]
“You can commit yourself, or I will have you committed,” Robert, my therapist, said to me.
I’d been in therapy for about a year. The small paneled office had been a lifeline for me over the previous several months, but today it felt like a coffin. I stared at the ceiling, sinking deeper into the mahogany leather chair, wanting to disappear.
“It looks better if you commit yourself,” he said. “You’re a danger to yourself.”
I didn’t argue with him. He was right. I had considered suicide, although I couldn’t imagine acting on it.
“What will happen to my son?” I asked. “He needs me.” He was only six years old, and the thought of leaving him with my husband caused my stomach to turn. My son had been unable to sleep through the night without nightmares for weeks; he needed me.
“What would you like to do?” Robert pressed, avoiding my question.
Too weary to fight and too numb with pain, I simply said, “I’ll admit myself.”
A few hours later, I found myself standing in a small room on the fourth floor of the local hospital—a patient in the psychiatric ward.
It was there that my healing began in earnest.
* * *
I recognized my marriage was abusive shortly after my son was born.
My son was a beautiful, but colicky, baby who slept far less than other newborns I knew. My well-intentioned friends told me to just let my son cry when I put him down for a nap, so I could get some rest. Once, it was so bad, that the neighbors came over to see if we were all right after he had screamed for two hours straight.
The stress took a toll on both my husband and me, magnifying the marriage problems we were already experiencing. I had also recently become a Christian, which angered my husband, an atheist, tremendously. To complicate matters further, I had injured my back after he was born, which made it difficult for me to drive and leave the house.
Isolated from friends, I looked to my husband to meet my needs.
One evening, I had planned a romantic dinner for my husband and me. The table set, and candles lit, I put on a pair of dress jeans, and a silky blouse with a low neck. Six o’clock rolled around and then seven o’clock. At 7:30pm I blew out the candles and put the food away.
Around midnight, I heard my husband’s key turn in the door. I met him as he crossed the threshold drunk.
“It’s all your fault,” he said. “All my friends went out to see an X-rated movie after we had a few drinks, and I was the only one who didn’t go. You think you’re so much better than everyone else now that you’re a Christian. I’m sick of you, and sick of this marriage.”
Crushed, I went off to bed alone, while he settled in on the couch.
The next morning, I asked, “Can we talk about what happened?”
My husband turned his back, and walked out of the room without saying a word. He continued with the silent treatment for days. But when days turned into weeks, I began feeling depressed and asked my pastor’s wife to join me for lunch, hoping to gain some insight and help with my marriage.
When I told her what was happening, she said, “A husband doesn’t treat his wife like that for no reason. You must be doing something wrong. Submit to his authority and show him the love of Jesus no matter how he treats you.”
Despite my best efforts, he continued to ignore me. And my depression grew.
My days were filled with frantic activity—baking his favorite desserts, cleaning the house, losing the weight I had gained while I was pregnant—to gain his love and approval.
Somewhere around three months after the silent treatment began, the ice began to thaw and he would come into a room, and acknowledge my presence with a few words.
Like a starving dog scrambling for crumbs that fell from the dinner table, I scarfed them up, strengthened to go on for another day or two before the depression would again swallow me whole.
Then, one evening while watching a movie about a woman who was abused by her husband, the reality of my situation hit me. What was going on in our home was abuse—regardless of whether my husband physically hit me or not. While watching the movie, I identified other abusive behaviors in our marriage—his constant criticism and mind games, slamming doors so hard they broke, and limiting my access to money to name a few.
Armed with that knowledge, I began reading voraciously to learn all I could about abuse. One book, in particular, was life changing—The Emotionally Abused Woman: Overcoming Destructive Patterns and Reclaiming Yourself by Beverly Engel. In it, she defines emotional abuse:
“Emotional abuse is any kind of abuse that is emotional rather than physical in nature. It can include anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics, such as intimidation, manipulation, and refusal to be pleased.
Emotional abuse is like brainwashing in that it systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in her perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of “guidance” or “teaching,” the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and all remnants of personal value. Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting than physical ones.”
After reading the book and acknowledging the destructive nature of the abuse, I returned to work part-time and began going to therapy. My therapist, a Christian, advised me to stay in the marriage, citing the crippling effect divorce has on children. My pastor and friends told me the same thing.
Too young in the Lord to know any better, I stayed. I understood God hated divorce, but I did not yet understand I was free to separate to protect my son and myself.
My emotional health continued to decline until I ended up in my therapist’s office, nearly incoherent, after taking too much anti-anxiety medication. I simply couldn’t remember how much I had taken; I only knew I wanted the pain to stop.
It was the day I found myself drowning in shame, a patient in the psych ward.
* * *
Painful and humiliating, it was the beginning of my healing.
During my first few weeks in the hospital, I came to recognize my mother as my original abuser through therapy. Her constant criticism, silent treatment, and deprivation of needed attention, affection, and encouragement, propelled me into an abusive relationship with my husband.
My husband exhibited none of these behaviors when we were dating, although in retrospect, I see now that he was very controlling.
I released the hope of ever receiving what I didn’t get as a child and, in time, I forgave my mother after confronting her about the abuse. She had recently given her life to Christ and asked my forgiveness for the abuse.
The fact that she acknowledged the abuse served as a catalyst for the healing process.
Once released from the hospital, my husband and I began counseling, which helped. There were many mistakes and missteps as we struggled to lay a new foundation for our relationship. Still, it was a defining moment and would set the course for healing in years to come.
I purposed to depend on God alone, and reentered the work world, launching a career as a professional writer and editor for a national trade association. But shortly after starting, I was diagnosed with three severe autoimmune diseases, one of which was particularly disabling. I believe the autoimmune diseases and disability I live with today are a direct result of the abuse I endured.
Abuse not only destroyed my mental health, it destroyed my physical health as well.
For many years, I worked in physical pain until, last year, it became too much. Last year, I left my commercial writing career to freelance full time. Despite my physical pain, I’ve managed to build a satisfying career and life.
My marriage will never be picture perfect. I don’t delude myself into thinking that I will never face abuse again.
My husband acknowledged the abuse, and the change in his behavior is significant. However, he still leans toward controlling behavior. When that happens, I call him on it and he backs down. Still, I have remained financially self-sufficient so that I can support myself should the need arise.
My son has sought and found healing through pursuing a Master’s degree in psychology. I have asked his forgiveness for not leaving the marriage and protecting him from the abuse. He has forgiven me and we have a strong, healthy relationship. In addition, he and my husband are also building a healthy relationship.
Sadly, I made the mistake of staying in an abusive marriage, not knowing I was free to leave to protect my son and myself. Unfortunately, I don’t get a “do-over.” I must live with the consequences of my choices.
But I can educate others about the pernicious nature of emotional abuse, how it destroys emotional and physical health, as well as the high cost to children in an abusive relationship.
If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, hear this loud and clear: If your husband doesn’t get the help he needs and stops the abuse, you must protect yourself and your children. Leave the abusive relationship and find a safe place to heal.
Frankly, I believe it’s impossible to heal alone. You need the love and support of others. Don’t allow abuse to steal your physical and emotional health or your children’s future.
We only get one chance at life. Let’s love ourselves enough to stop the abuse and get the help we need.
This story is part of our Stop the Silence, Start the Healing initiative. Each month we feature the story of one person who has never had the chance to tell her story, without fear, in a safe space. We honor these women who are speaking up.
Do you think you may be on the receiving end of abuse? Please visit our resource page for more information on what it is.