The path to escaping domestic violence is a challenge, but so worth it
This week I’ll be speaking at the Family Justice Center Gala in Contra Costa County, a place that supports and serves families impacted by domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault and even human trafficking. The theme I’ve been asked to incorporate into my talk is children and the future. As the mom of an 11 and an 8 year old, and a person whose day job is in a college, that’s an easy sell for me.
The reason I’ve been asked to speak is a bit more humbling. It’s because, in spite of my day job as an advocate and educator at a Center for Women & Gender Equity, I was once a client. I’d love to tell you that I stumbled into an unhealthy relationship once and quickly got out and never looked back or repeated the pattern ever again. Afterall, I teach people about the cycle of interpersonal violence, the four stages of relationship violence—tension builds; an incident happens; there’s a beautiful, often euphoric honeymoon stage, followed by a period of calm, before the tension builds; another incident happens; and you’re back to square one.
The pattern can be often intoxicating, and you know that just on the other side of the storm, there will be a ray of sunshine that you’ll want to believe desperately will be the new normal. It will be for a day or two or three, as long as you don’t let your light shine too bright, avoid asking too many questions, bite your tongue when you’re tempted to speak about something that bothers you—leave something out of place, lose something or God forbid, make a mistake, and then you’ll work your way through that same cycle again.
We’ll do this over and over and across generations, moving from one storm, only to put ourselves in the eye of another, until we learn there is another way. That was the case for me.
I triggered lots of storms in my home as I was growing up—sometimes by correcting my dad’s mispronunciation when he called me “stupit,” other times by asking too many questions or talking back, or declining when he put a spoonful of something he wanted me to try up to my sealed lips–which sent him into a place of rage at first and eventually led to his long absences.
It wasn’t until my dad’s suicide attempt and first hospitalization (when I was 13) that I learned he had a mental health condition. When he left, although I loved him, I was relieved and I knew we’d be ok, because my mom, an elementary school teacher, was the primary breadwinner. My mom, on the other hand, didn’t realize her own strength and fell victim to the worries of what other people might think about her.
“I got married to stay married,” she frequently repeated, as she confided in any friends who would listen on the phone each evening until she cried herself to sleep. So in essence, when my dad was physically gone, my mom was emotionally gone. In order to get my mom back, my sister and I took it upon ourselves to find and talk my dad into coming home. Once he’d get back, we embarked on the rollercoaster ride of the four-part unhealthy relationship cycle until he’d leave again.
I arrived in adulthood without a template for a healthy relationship, believing it was safer to appease a man than risk disappointing him, with only examples of how to stay and endure.
When I found myself in a trainwreck of a relationship with a man I’ll call Jay while in grad school as I interned at a women’s center in Minnesota and was surrounded by abundant resources, rather than speak up and risk harming my ex’s reputation, I stayed quiet and gave up friendships to avoid making him jealous. When he got a job in the East Bay, I applied for one that I hoped not to get. That was a cop-out on my part.
Ultimately, I got the job (in my early 20s), moved here and endured more. I felt the way I imagine a drug and alcohol counselor who secretly uses feels while helping clients achieve sobriety. In my case, I was giving students the tools to set themselves free and reminding them they were worth it, without practicing what I preached.
When I upset Jay on a Sunday by playfully touching his hair as I tried to make light of a disparaging remark he made to me as I handed him the tamale I bought for him at the farmers’ market, he threw his plate at me with such force that it felt like the section of my arm between my elbow and shoulder split. My arm stayed intact, but it left a sprawling bruise that I covered with a long-sleeve top on a record-breaking hot and sunny day.
I never sought medical attention because I could think of no reasonable explanation to offer the doctor when she’d ask how it happened or give me the questionnaire asking me if anyone was hurting me. It took me two years to leave the relationship, but a half a lifetime later, I’m still at the same job.
When I became a mother and recognized the southward spiral of dynamics between my children’s father and me, I knew I had to do the right thing for the sake of my kids—leave. The decision to stay would have meant extending the intergenerational cycle of violence. Leaving could mean breaking it and embarking on a new tradition.
It also meant struggling to keep the lights on, the rent paid and food on the table in one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S. without any family in the state. It meant swallowing all my pride and showing up at the Concord Family Justice Center with a still-nursing baby in hand and a toddler by my side and acknowledging that I needed help.
I longed to get back closer to my family to a dream job at a diversity center near Minneapolis, so I could be near my dad, whose inoperable heart was failing. That didn’t work. Instead, I was told by my children’s father that he’d make sure that I would never get back home to my friends and family in the midwest. Instead, I’d be forever here in California, alone, as my parents and loved ones died and my nieces, sister and cousins lived their lives happily ever after without me.
The threats took my breath away and caused me at times to fight tears or force a smile—particularly during the holidays or when I’d wake up away from my family every Christmas. Eventually, I changed my perspective.
Today, I’m here to tell you that there is light at the end of the tunnel—and it is bright and it is beautiful. Many of my ex’s wishes for me came true—my godmother died in 2020, my father’s heart stopped beating on his birthday in 2018. My uncle Jack is on palliative care, and my mom is alone as she approaches 82.
I talk to my mom and sister daily and visit them a few times a year. I have a robust community here of makeshift and chosen family. The East Bay is my home, and it will be for the foreseeable future. And, I am happy. I may fall a little bit short in the eyes of my kids, like all parents do, when my cooking is subpar (which is always) or when I bring my work home with me (which is always). I may be on my own with my kids, but I am not alone. I may struggle financially at times, but you can’t really put a price on freedom. I am now weirdly thankful for the struggles and consider them lessons from the universe—albeit very hard ones.
Why am I sharing this? About a third of people have experienced unhealthy or abusive relationships. When we can stand tall in our truth and normalize the act of talking about relationships, then we can change our own circumstances.
If you’re walking on eggshells, or dimming your own light to avoid triggering a storm, staying for the sake of your current or future children, I invite you to reconsider. If someone tells you that he/she/they are the only person who does or ever will love you, don’t believe them. If you think change is too hard, it’s not. Change is hard and it takes time, but it is often worth it.
If you’ve experienced or are a victim of stalking, domestic violence or human trafficking and you need a safe place to land, consider reaching out to the Family Justice Center in Alameda County or Contra Costa County.