[Editors’ Note: The following details aspects of situations that might be described as potentially triggering in the event that they echo experiences any readers may be unfortunate enough to have undergone & as such this is intended to be a warning somewhat in the manner of “proceed at your own risk” – that said it is similarly the opinion of those of laying claim to being something like editors hereabouts that due to the unavoidably personal nature of much of what unfolds below the author has themselves risked a considerable amount by being brave enough to bring it here in the first place. Consequently, although they may well be happy to discuss some or all of it in the comments below & we’re pretty confident that the folks who’ve found their way here so far are a decent bunch a dim view will officially be taken of anyone attempting to take it upon themselves to browbeat them about what they have to say.]
I happen to be a man. That undeniably confers a host of advantages upon me under a wide range of circumstances. Nevertheless, I was powerless to prevent or to protect myself from the consequences of a destructive relationship. It is arguably more important to note that—during the period in which most of the relevant damage was done—I was also decidedly not wealthy. Certainly not wealthy enough to afford to pay for the sort of lawyer who would have been able to help me navigate the frankly Byzantine civil legal system in such a fashion as to have minimized the impact that it had on the rest of my life. Instead, the legal system at every turn compounded the damage while guaranteeing that it would continue to do so unremittingly until or unless sufficient funds could be procured to satiate it.
Should you make it to the end of this – or even before then for the bigger-hearted among you – some of you may have the understandable desire to offer your sympathies. While I appreciate the sentiment, that’s not why I’m doing this. Someone told me years ago that our greatest asset is our experience, for with it we can help others. Have you ever known someone who has gone through something terrible say they hope that something good comes of it? I think that the “something good” is being able to help someone else who is going through a similar experience. To let them know they’re not alone, no matter how much they may think otherwise.
This isn’t in any way one of those red-pill-blue-pill “Men’s Rights Activist” things – I’m not trying to “poor me, poor me, pour me another” my way into anyone’s good graces or die on any hills over the concept of misandry. In many ways the personal aspects of the thing are secondary to the reason I think it’s worth putting all this out in the open.
That reason is this: I believe it to be a stark illustration of the fact that a lack of financial means—as with almost every other facet of life in this country—sets anyone who isn’t rich up for failure when dealing with the legal system, both civil and criminal.
One other thing I feel like I should be clear about before going any further: nobody needs to tell me where I have been at fault. I’ve had the better part of a quarter century to reflect on that and pinpoint the terrible things that I did. I’ve also done my best to try and make things right for as many people as I could because it was necessary to me that I take responsibility for those mistakes. I promise you that there is no one in this world who could hate me more than me – at least during those times when I fail to do what is necessary to keep my mental and emotional health in order. However, even when I’m in a good place—which, thankfully, is most of the time these days—the specter of self-loathing is always waiting in the background for a chance to knock me down and keep me there. So, if you’d be so kind, I’d ask that you check your derision at the door and pay attention because I’m sharing this in the hope—however faint—that my experience may benefit someone else who might find themselves in a similar position.
Now that the preface and qualifiers are in place, let’s get on with it. A lot has been said about the benefits of beginning at the beginning but if I begin at the beginning there’s a fair chance few of you will still be with me at the end so instead let’s start…well…not at the beginning, but in the middle. There’s really nothing in the beginning that would be lost by starting in the middle, and quite frankly much of it would devolve into an exercise in well-trodden despair—and there’s already plenty of that in the middle anyway.
Also, this is likely to wind up a very long read even then so I’m fixing to try and cut out as much as possible along the way if it doesn’t seem relevant, or at least wouldn’t take anything away if left out.
So, with that in mind let us briefly set the scene: suffice it to say that I grew up in an alcoholic home where I learned almost nothing by way of how to behave in society, much less on a one-to-one basis with another human being. There was a whole lot of abuse in just about every form but sexual, and by the time I left that house I was a ticking time bomb that lacked the tools required to diffuse myself. That’s as much of My Beginning as is needed here.
I got married at the age of 21 to a woman who very likely saw me as an easy mark. I craved approval and attention, regardless of the form it took, and I was perfectly willing to be whatever someone wanted me to be at any given moment in time. The only people I had a problem with were me, and anyone who didn’t like me. Other women, women with a decent amount of self-respect and basic social skills, would—and did—leave me in their dust.
But not this one. In fact, she actively pursued our relationship much more than I did at first. I never gave one thought to the possibility that this wasn’t a particularly good idea. Aside from the fact that I had been dating her roommate for the previous several months, that she was six years older than me, that I didn’t like her at all, and that I didn’t find her the least bit physically attractive, she was giving me attention. A lot of it. So, I proceeded to chuck all those otherwise reasonable objections out the door in favor of getting involved in the most toxic, mutually-parasitic relationship I’ve ever had.
It wasn’t a relationship that started out well and then eventually went bad. It started out bad and got worse. We fought a lot. We manipulated each other. We did things to deliberately hurt each other. We also had lots and lots and lots of sex. The best sex I’d ever had up to that point. I was never a skirt chaser—my self-hatred simply wouldn’t allow for it—but I’d had a few relationships that had gotten that far. However, I’d never had one that had gotten that far that quickly and then just continued to escalate. So, I was hooked. I was also 19 with the emotional skills of a 7-year old at best.
The isolation started almost immediately. I was told I could no longer associate with my friends for reasons that she deemed relevant and that I didn’t have the spine to argue over. Access to my family was significantly curtailed. I was told to stop listening to the music I enjoyed and to only listen to what she enjoyed. I could no longer eat the foods that I liked—only what she did. I had to completely change how I looked. I had to account for every minute of the day for which I was not in her presence. Once she learned my schedule, I was given a precise amount of time to show up at her door after class or work. Woe be unto me if I took so much as six minutes to arrive at her place when I was supposed to be there in five. Her jealousy was off the charts, constantly accusing me of either outright cheating or wanting to cheat. I was constantly finding new ways of demonstrating my loyalty to her. Eventually, she declared that we would no longer have sex unless we were married. Still, I stayed.
I certainly wasn’t blameless in any of this. I mixed it up with her as well. I said inappropriate and wildly hurtful things to her. I engaged in a lot of passive-aggressive behavior to express my dissatisfaction, rather than have an up-front conversation. I lied. I fished for sympathy. I even played the, “I’m not sure if I love you” game, which was wrong on a number of levels. When it came to mental and emotional abuse, I gave as good as I got.
However, the mental and emotional abuse that we heaped upon one another weren’t the only things that would have been deal breakers in a functional relationship. There was also physical abuse. Slapping, hitting, kicking, and throwing objects. There was only one difference in this respect and that’s the fact that she was the batterer and I was the battered. She’d had several years of martial arts training and she knew how to use it.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has all kinds of statistics on intimate partner violence (IPV), but the one thing that they haven’t been able to clearly define is the percentage of women in heterosexual relationships who are the primary aggressor. They acknowledge that this is a real thing on an anecdotal basis, but for various reasons (not the least being its infrequency compared to male-on-female IPV) they are unable to quantify it. I’m a member of a demographic minority so small that decades of research has yet to tell me how many others like me there may be in the wider world. While the NCADV doesn’t specifically call it out, I’m going to guess that one of the reasons why they’ve been unable to nail this down is because of the level of shame involved. It’s hard enough for a woman in a relationship to admit that she’s being battered. After all, we are told today that abuse thrives on secrets and that some secrets are guarded most closely by the victims of such situations. Indeed, in some cases, the victims go so far as to enable and maintain the necessary fictions even after they have been proven demonstrably false. Now, imagine being a man getting battered by a woman. How eager do you think you’d be to air out that particular piece of dirty laundry? Can’t imagine it? Good. That means you’ve never been in an abusive relationship, and for that I am truly grateful.
There were a couple of times when I tried to get the physical abuse to stop. The first time I approached her, she seemed to be in a good mood and unlikely to get angry. I told her about the abuse I received as a kid. The trips to the hospital. The missing teeth. The crippling fear. The fact that I eventually became an active participant in my own abuse as a cutter. She seemed to really get it, and apologized to me saying she would never do it again. The second time I asked her to stop was three weeks later, after she’d started hitting me again, and I said I really wished she wouldn’t hit me especially after what I’d already told her. She looked me straight in the eye and said I could wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one filled up first. You know what I did? I stayed. I stayed because I wanted the abuse to stop, but not the relationship. I stayed because I felt I couldn’t make it on my own either financially or emotionally. I stayed because we did have good times that really felt genuine and loving—as few and far between as those were—and I clung to them. I stayed because I felt trapped. I proposed to her a few months later.
As members of a religious denomination, we were required to attend pre-marital counseling. After two visits, the priest working with us expressed his grave concerns about our relationship and suggested that perhaps we may want to consider putting off the wedding date until we’d worked those issues out. I thought to myself, “This is my chance to get away.” My fiancé, however, wasn’t having it. She told the priest that he had no idea what he was talking about and how dare he tell us we shouldn’t get married (which isn’t what he said, but that was a trifling detail). Eventually, she grabbed my hand and stormed out of the office. She made arrangements to complete the required counseling with an old friend of hers and he waved us through. After the divorce, her friend would tell me repeatedly how badly he felt for not digging into the roots of our relationship the way he did with other couples. I understood and I forgave him for it. Hell, I felt badly for him. It’s a terrible thing to carry a load for which you can’t forgive yourself.
The wedding itself was, well, odd. Everyone kept commenting to me before the ceremony how I didn’t appear nervous at all. It was true. I wasn’t nervous. I was miserable and scared to death. I just sort of went through the motions in a bit of a daze. Then came the reception and we left for our honeymoon.
We had sex on our wedding night, which was the first time in close to a year I think. It was great. I felt like we were going to make this work.
She enjoyed camping so our honeymoon was actually spent primarily at a campground outside a national park. We were scheduled to be there for several days while we checked out the park and otherwise enjoyed ourselves. Then, a few days in, a couple arrived at the neighboring campsite and immediately started playing music from their van. It was your standard classic rock fare and not blaring because that would have gotten them kicked out, but was certainly loud enough to be heard from 20 feet away with the side door of the van open. This Simply Would Not Do. So, she declared that we would cut the honeymoon short and go home. There were no reasonable arguments that would sway her (it’s not that loud; it’s not like they’re going to play it all day and all night—just give them an hour or so; we won’t get a refund for the time we paid for and won’t be using; there are other things we wanted to see and do; we can just ask them to turn it down). We were going home and that was that. So, we packed up the tent and all of our stuff, got in the car when the sun was going down, and drove for several hours that night (and through a massive hail storm) to get home. Not an hour after we got home, she said something awful to me and when I gave her that hurt puppy-dog look, she said to me, “the honeymoon is over.” She wasn’t kidding.
The controlling behavior ramped up in a major way. Communication with my family was completely cut off to the point that when my mother arrived, unannounced, at our door to see what was going on, my wife lied and said we were just leaving to go to a movie and gave me that look which said, “you’d better behave.” So, I said yes, we’re just about to leave. So sorry you drove four hours to get here but we don’t have time to visit.
Anything I did had to be done in precisely the way she wanted it done, whether it was cooking, cleaning, driving, or even eating. If I deviated ever-so-slightly from her instructions, there was hell to pay. In fact, the eating thing really went off the rails. It was no longer enough for me to eat what she personally approved, but how I ate and the amount that I ate was put under severe restrictions. A typical meal would consist of sardines and 5 crackers. If I reached for a sixth cracker, I was told in no uncertain terms that I’d had enough. I lost roughly 20 pounds over the next few months. My eyes had sunken back and my cheeks were hollow. Still, I stayed.
There was another aspect of the intimidation and control which is important to note. She had always claimed to have “a photographic and autographic memory”. In fact, she said it a lot, in just that way. This was her way of telling me that she could remember every word of every conversation or argument we ever had and that her memory was the absolute truth, while mine was flawed and wrong. Initially, I was very clear that her recollections were not always correct, but she would simply give me that pitying look that one gives to a small child and remind me of her perfect memory. Over the course of our relationship, I eventually came to truly believe that what she said was real and that what I remembered was not. This generated something of a crisis for me because I felt that I could no longer distinguish the true from the false—that my perception of reality was actually distorted enough that I might be teetering toward insanity and that only she could keep me tethered to reality.
A stray cat appeared at our front door one day when I came home from classes. He was sweet and friendly and clearly didn’t belong to anyone because he was skinny as a rail and not well groomed. I fed him some of the indoor cats’ food and he stuck around, meeting me every afternoon at the house when I got home. I would sit down on the porch and pet him and he would purr and snuggle. This was great because heading home in the afternoon was the worst part of my day, so it was nice to have something with which to look forward. Plus, it gave me an excuse to not be inside the house with my wife. When the weather turned cold, I cut a hole in a box and placed a towel inside. When it got colder, I would take several large rocks and heat them in the oven, then wrap them in cloth and put them inside before going to bed. When it got even colder, I ran an extension cord outside and put a heating pad under the towel. The cat (who I named “Mooch”) just stayed in the box the whole time after that.
One morning, I noticed Mooch wasn’t in his box. That afternoon, he wasn’t there to greet me either. By day two I was officially worried and said something to my wife about it. She said she didn’t know what was going on. I decided to take a walk around the house and that’s when I found his body all torn apart in the back yard. I was devastated. I walked back into the house, weeping openly, and told her what I’d found. That’s when she said she’d heard the cat fighting with at least a couple of dogs in the middle of the night a few days before. I asked her why she didn’t wake me so I could have put a stop to it. She said I wouldn’t have been able to help. That was that.
This was also the point at which I started to resist her control and intimidation. Up until this point, I had always acquiesced in any argument, or any discussion which might involve our various and sundry problems. I was The Problem, and therefore I was the one who needed to accommodate and make changes. That message had been delivered loud and clear for the past two years. I was no longer willing to accept the idea that I was the only person at fault and that my wife was somehow completely blameless. If the fights we had were bad before, they really started going off the scale when I so much as suggested the possibility, however remote, that she might have some responsibility to acknowledge. I also started making a point of really focusing on some of our arguments and even writing down things that were said so I could point to these notes and say, “see, this is what happened.” Even when I knew beyond a shred of doubt that my recollection was correct—even when I had evidence that could not be refuted—she refused to admit it and instead of pitying me, she went straight to the old reliable methods of screaming, intimidating, and hitting.
There was one incident in particular which stands out: We had decided to take a drive on a particular Saturday to another town to take some pictures, walk around, have lunch and otherwise enjoy ourselves. When we were about halfway there, we got into an argument. I decided that this was the place where I was going to plant my flag and I stated outright that she needed to take her share of the blame. The speed and ferocity of her rage surprised even me. She screamed at the top of her lungs at me, spewing hatred and obscenities, and slamming her fists on the door and the dashboard. She demanded that I turn the car around and I did. She then demanded that I take what I said back and accept that I’m the only one at fault. I refused. She told me to stop the car, so I did. She told me to get out of the car, so I did. She got out of the car, got into the driver’s seat, closed the door and tried to run me down. At that point I started getting very angry. When she missed me and stopped the car to try again I slammed the driver’s side window with the camera bag I was carrying. It was the first violent outburst I’d ever had with her and I think it frightened both of us because suddenly the entire fight had diffused and soon I was driving her back home while we both cried.
Not long after this, there was another violent confrontation. She was heading to work one morning and we had gotten into yet another argument. She had stepped out onto the porch and we were arguing through the screen door. She said, “Fuck you”, and walked away. I said, “Not on your best day.” She came back to the screen door and asked me what I said. I had intended to open the door, step out onto the porch, and tell her. That’s not what happened. I pushed the door too hard. It flew open, hit her in the face and she lost her balance and fell. I was terrified in the same way that I was terrified as a kid on those very rare occasions when I would strike back at my abuser, knowing I was going to get it back ten times worse. But, I was also angry and loaded with adrenaline. I screamed at her “FUCK YOU, ALRIGHT!” and slammed the front door shut. I could hear my voice and the slamming door echoing throughout the neighborhood. After a minute, she picked herself up and came back in the house to call out “sick”. Then she proceeded to tell me that she could not continue to live with someone who physically abused her. I was starting to realize that she would never accept nor acknowledge her abuse of me. I just stared at her, unable to believe what I was seeing and hearing and I didn’t say a word. I was cold and emotionless and I was becoming that which I had feared and cowered from all my life. I couldn’t bring myself to apologize to her for what I had done.
As we’ve already established, the NCADV does not have statistics regarding the prevalence of men who are battered by women in heterosexual relationships. However, they do discuss what motivates battered women to begin engaging in violence of their own and in looking back I can identify with quite a number of those reasons. I felt a need for justice against her previous continued assaults on me. I felt that violence was my only means of self-protection. I didn’t feel safe. I did it to gain a sense of control, even if for a short period. I did it because I was incredibly stressed out. Mostly, though, I did it without thinking because I was starting to lose control of my own reactions. It’s important also to make a distinction between what my wife was doing to me and what I was doing to her. The NCADV distinguishes between Use of Force and Battering. Use of Force is defined as physical, mental and emotional behaviors used toward an intimate partner to gain short term control of a chaotic, abusive and/or battering situation. That’s what I was doing to her and there is no excuse for that. Battering is a pattern of coercive control, intimidation and oppression effectively used to instill fear and maintain long term relationship domination. That’s what she was doing to me and there is no excuse for that, either. It’s perhaps ironic that this woman – herself engaging in forms of ritualistic abuse so strongly associated with male perpetrators – noticed a significant part of the context of our relationship only when it came to my actions on those isolated occasions.
Indeed some of you may even now be instinctively inclined to that view of what battering is to the point of doubting some or all of this. To those people I would make the following request: think through what I’ve described, but with the gender roles the way you’d expect them to be, and ask yourself if you’d “instinctively” sympathize with the woman in that scenario…and if so, then ask yourself why that shift in gender equates to a shift away from that sympathy. You might be surprised at how much of that is the result of ingrained assumptions rather than genuine reasoning. It has become commonplace to make reference to “toxic masculinity” but it is less often acknowledged that not all of that toxicity is directed outward at those of a different gender. In more cases than you might suspect a great proportion of the harm done by what might be termed the cult of machismo is to its subjects rather than those it would see classed as objects. So it was in my case.
I could not be honest (with others or even to myself to a great extent) about the reality I found myself trapped within. This was in no small part because such an admission appeared to be a denial of the person I strove so hard to convince myself I was.
To anyone who finds that thought painfully familiar please, if you take nothing else from this, understand that life shouldn’t be that way for any of us and no matter how impossible it might seem it can be different and there are people who will understand and who want to help. There are links at the end of this to some organizations that might be relevant and I would encourage you to avail yourself of some or all of them.
In any event, that isn’t the end of the story. It might be closer to the truth to say instead that it was around that point that the stakes were raised.
Within a few months, she was pregnant. This wasn’t great news for a whole host of reasons, but there was an additional complication. She had crippling morning sickness. It couldn’t even really be called “morning sickness” because it was all day sickness. Today, we know this condition isn’t morning sickness at all, but an acute clinical condition called hyperemesis gravidarum. You may have heard of Kate Middleton’s experience with it. My wife threw up morning, noon and night. She was constantly on the verge of dehydration and had lost her appetite so she was having trouble maintaining—much less gaining—weight. She was weak and couldn’t really take care of herself. So, I had to step up. I was already doing the bulk of the housework so that didn’t change. What did change was that I needed to literally spoon feed her, dress her, undress her, bathe her and hold her hair back while she vomited uncontrollably, then clean her up afterward. I didn’t actually begrudge these things because she was undeniably sick. However, what this did was put an incredible amount of strain on me at a point in time when I really didn’t have anything left to give.
Two things happened during this period which are worthy of note. The first was that I had partially dislocated my knee cap one night after bumping into the side of the couch. This was a long-standing problem of mine and fortunately the knee cap didn’t fully dislocate and slipped back into place quickly. However, the pain was incredible. I could barely walk and I told her I needed to go to the ER to get checked out. She told me that my knee was fine, that I needed to stop complaining and just go to bed. I protested, but it wasn’t working. So, I spent a sleepless night in bed trying to ignore the pain and failing. It took a week before I was able to walk normally.
The other thing that happened was my first experience with food poisoning. One of my classes was at night, so my wife would spend that time at her mother’s place across town, where I would pick her up afterward. One night, when I arrived to take her home, I was offered the takeout that my wife simply couldn’t bring herself to eat. I was starving and wasn’t looking forward to cooking dinner that late at home, so I chowed down. Eight hours later, I woke up running to the bathroom, just barely making it in time. I spent the next few days sharing time in the bathroom with my wife, with the added benefit of having to sit on the toilet while puking into a trash can. It was not a pretty picture. We were both completely laid out. She gave me some of her Phenergan which knocked me cold for a couple of days until my body could recover. In the meantime, she hadn’t bathed, changed her pajamas or eaten anything. When she went to the bathroom to throw up, she crawled on her hands and knees. I was truly powerless to help her and it frightened us both.
Just before she had gotten pregnant, I had started seeing a counselor. I told her about some of the problems with my marriage, but I was very careful not to talk about the physical abuse that I was receiving. Shame and embarrassment are powerful motivators. The counselor instructed me to find some rigorous physical exercise in which to engage, outside the house, at least one hour every day. With the demands on my time this was not an easy thing to arrange. But I eventually found a solution, which was to bang a racquetball around at the campus athletic center on weekdays and bang a tennis ball off of a backboard at the local high school on weekends. Negotiating the time with my wife wasn’t easy but, in the end, she allowed it.
February 20th, 1993: It’s been roughly a week since I’d been able to get away to exercise. I asked my wife if she would be OK for an hour and she said she would. This was a Saturday so I needed to go to the high school. When I arrived, it had started raining. I should have just given up and gone home, but I felt like I really needed to do this, so I got out and started hitting the ball. Within 10 minutes the weather had changed from rain to hail. I didn’t care. I banged that soggy tennis ball in the hail until my hour was up, feeling much better.
When I got home and walked into the bedroom to change, my wife took one look at me and flipped out. I was completely soaked and had several welts on my face from the hail storm. She starts yelling at me from the bed, asking me what the hell I was thinking. If I got sick again who would take care of her? This was an excellent question, but it was one that I realized I could not answer at that moment. I couldn’t answer it because I needed to keep my mouth shut. I needed to keep my mouth shut because if I opened it at all, I would say things that could not be taken back. Things that would destroy what was left of our marriage. I was doing everything I could to keep the lid on the pressure cooker. I just needed to change into some dry clothes and get the hell out of that house again so I could calm down.
There was one big problem with my plan: withholding verbal communication made my wife insanely, unreasonably angry. Over the years she would routinely demand that we have a conversation and that I was responsible for initiating it. (“Let’s talk. Say something.”) In the previous several months, as I started to resist her control, I would refuse to be 100% responsible for starting conversations and told her she needed to be responsible for it once in a while. It never went over well and I almost always gave in. But this time was different. I was unraveling quickly and I knew it. So, I kept peeling off the wet clothes and putting on dry ones. She got so angry that she got out of bed on her own power for the first time in what felt like weeks. She got in my face and screamed at me to say something. I just stared at her. I needed to get around her and get out of the house. She smacked me across the face and turned and walked away.
That was the point at which everything changed. The past two years of physical abuse—hell, the abuse from my entire childhood—came shrieking out of me and I ran up behind my wife who was two months pregnant, got my arm around her throat and started screaming. I don’t remember specifically what I said—the next several minutes were a blur—but I’m pretty sure I screamed that I hated her and I wished she was dead. We fell to the floor and I think for the first time she was truly afraid of what might happen next because her voice had changed in a way that I’d never heard before. She sounded unsteady and pleaded for me to let her go. It took a few minutes for my rage to subside, but I released her and stood up to leave the house. She got up and met me at the door and said, “When you come back, I will still be here, I will still love you, and I will still be your wife.” I couldn’t say anything at all and I left.
After that, everything came apart pretty quickly. She had a warrant put out for my arrest on Monday, which is not unreasonable considering what I did, but that’s not the object lesson here. After spending the better part of the day in a holding cell I was taken to see a judge in his office where we had a little 4 minute “trial”. He read the charge against me (aggravated battery) and asked me how I wanted to plead. I was looking at the arrest report and told him that there were certain things in the report which were true, but there were others which absolutely were not so I didn’t know how to plead. He said my options were “guilty”, “not-guilty” and “no-contest”. I knew what the first two meant, but not the last one and asked him to explain it. He said it meant that I wasn’t going to fight the charge, which sounded a whole lot like “guilty” to me, but he said it was different. I asked him if I could have a lawyer to help me and he said sure, but that I’d need to sit in jail until a formal trial date was set—several months away—because I couldn’t afford the bail.
This is what happens when you don’t have money and find yourself at the mercy of the legal system in this country. You are put in a position to make uninformed choices and hope that whatever you do doesn’t end with a stint in the county jail, or worse. I said that I couldn’t plead “guilty” or “not-guilty” for the reasons I just explained, so I guess that left me with “no contest.” He ruled that I was guilty, sentenced me to a suspended six-month sentence and sent me on my way. Could it have ended worse? Hell yes it could have. But, again, the point here is that a person should not be put into such a position simply because they don’t have money to throw around.
I also received a temporary restraining order that day. She was playing the part of the terrorized wife very well. I arrived at the court house at the appointed day and time for a hearing to determine if the order should be extended for 90 days. Again, I have no money so I have no lawyer. But her family hired a fairly high-profile attorney in town to represent her. The judge asked me if I had any objections to the order and once again, I find myself telling him what I told the other judge: some of it was true, but some of it was not. I asked the judge if the order meant that she also had to stay away from me and he said it did. At that point I told him that I honestly didn’t care what he did because I didn’t want to have anything to do with her and if the order meant she had to stay away from me then so be it. I wasn’t about to tell him that I was actually the battered spouse. The first reason has already been established: shame and embarrassment. The other reason was also quite simple: there was no way in hell that he, or anyone else, would believe me. I was quite certain of that. Women simply don’t batter men. It’s a stupid notion on its face. He probably would have either laughed at me or thrown me in jail for Criminal Stupidity. Here’s a little tip in the event you find yourself in a hearing for extending a restraining order after assaulting your pregnant wife: when objecting to her version of events as written in the arrest warrant, do not say in open court, “she says that I told her I was going to kill her and that’s not true. I told her I wished she was dead and those are two different things.” Suffice it to say, the order got extended, and not because he was worried about my safety.
She filed for divorce and with the help of her family used the same lawyer to try and make the terms as punitive as possible. Her family had a lot of money. They weren’t 1%-ers—probably more like 10%-ers—but compared to me they might as well have been the Bezos family. I was completely cut off from my family (who wouldn’t have had the money to help me anyway) and I was on my own. One thing became clear rather quickly and that was her intention to finalize the divorce and move across the country as soon as possible. She wanted to live near her father and have the baby there which would make the entire custody process even more advantageous for her. Strangely enough, this provided me with a fair amount of leverage in the divorce proceedings. There were a great many items in the initial petition to which I was not about to agree, and a court date wasn’t set until after the baby would be born. So, I listed my objections and what I wanted changed. The two biggest ones that I recall at the moment were the reasons for the divorce and the payment of alimony. First of all, I was broke, so alimony was out of the question. Secondly, she wanted the divorce to be on the grounds of physical, mental and emotional abuse by me. While I was certainly willing to admit my own fault, it was perfectly clear over the past 2 ½ years that I was the only one who would do that. So, I pushed for irreconcilable differences. I figured a long enough delay would put her in a position to have the baby before moving, which would mean dealing with the custody battle locally where I could at least be present. I was also hoping that I could delay this long enough that maybe we could work things out and get back together. I didn’t care about the abuse. I felt completely lost and she was the only human relationship I had left. Have you ever wondered why certain people keep going back voluntarily to an abusive partner? I don’t.
She balked initially at all of it, but I had time on my side. I communicated through her lawyer that I was perfectly willing to wait until we hashed this all out in court. Hearing that, she started negotiating terms. It still took another two months because she really, really, really wanted the decree to state that I was the abuser forever and ever, amen. But, as the due date for the baby got closer, she finally blinked and agreed. While I was certainly happy that I got what I wanted in the divorce arrangement, I was not happy about the fact that I knew she’d be across the country in two weeks after the papers were signed. But, I was making this up as I went along so it was the best I could do at the time.
A quick side note. During the months of the divorce process I visited my wife’s first husband at his office. Yeah, she’d been married before and that one was shorter than ours. Anyway, I asked him if he ever regretted divorcing her. His answer surprised me at the time, particularly because he didn’t hesitate. He said, “Absolutely not. It was the best thing I ever did.” As screwed up as I was at that point, I really didn’t understand. I just sort of mumbled a quick “OK, thanks”, and left. Today I can say with complete honesty that getting divorced from her was the best thing I ever did, too.
But I digress. A date was set for me to go to her attorney’s office and sign the settlement. I asked her attorney beforehand if he could arrange for her to be there when I did. I had a lot of things to apologize for that I couldn’t do because of the restraining order (which was still in effect) and I wanted her to hear them before she left. Over those few months he’d gotten to know me a little bit and I think he realized that I wasn’t the monster she was making me out to be so he said he would make sure she was there.
On a beautiful May afternoon, I walked into his office where she sat with a counselor from a local battered wives’ organization that she’d been seeing. The counselor could have burned me alive with her stare. My soon-to-be-ex-wife, who had so masterfully played the role of frightened, battered spouse, was cool as a cucumber. I had written down everything I wanted to say because I knew I’d screw it up if I tried to wing it. It took a lot longer to get through than I thought because at times I was crying uncontrollably and simply couldn’t speak. Eventually I got through it and no sooner had I stopped she tore into me. She told me how awful I was to her and how much I hurt her and all I could do was sit there and bawl and take it–mostly because she was right about a lot of it, but also because I knew this was my last chance to save the marriage and I failed. Eventually she ran out of steam and the attorney asked me if I was ready to sign the papers. I nodded and he led me to his assistant’s desk where I could barely see where I was supposed to sign because I was blinded by tears. Under normal circumstances nobody would ever say my signature was legible, but in this instance I was shaking so badly that my hand flew all over the place. I didn’t even recognize my own handwriting. Then I wobbled out of the office to my car and wailed for some interminable period before I felt calm enough to drive away.
My counselor had told me to come see her after the signing and I did. I spent most of the time crying in her office while she did paperwork. When I was calm enough to talk she asked me if I knew why she had told me to engage in daily rigorous physical exercise. I said I did not. She said, “Because I was trying to keep you from killing your wife. You were under incredible strain and I was afraid you’d snap if you didn’t work off some of it.” I asked her why she hadn’t told me that in the beginning. She said she didn’t think I could have accepted the truth of the situation. I realized that she was right.
The day after the signing of the settlement, I received a phone call from her attorney. He said my ex wanted to meet me for lunch to arrange how I would pick up my stuff that was still at the house. I said I would do it only if she signed a release to not have me prosecuted for violating the restraining order, which was still in effect. She did. So, a couple of days later I’m sitting across a table from her while she ate lunch and I just stared at my plate because I was too stressed out to eat. This person who had proclaimed her mortal fear of me and my violence against her to anyone who would listen (and most did) sat there and ate her Cobb salad, chatting away without a care in the world. Finally, she asked me if I wanted to just get the stuff now and I said that would be fine, so we left and I met her at the house. She had most of my stuff packed and ready to go, but said there were still some things in the bedroom she hadn’t gotten to yet so I went in there to check it out. She showed me what hadn’t been packed and I started dealing with it. She sat on the bed and asked me if I wanted to feel her belly. I hesitated. She said it was OK. So, I sat on the bed and put my hand on her…and wept. Her cats were there on the bed, doing the cat rubbing thing, and I petted them and wept more.
Then she kissed me. Just a gentle one on the lips. Within five minutes we were having sex. Afterward, while we were laying there covered in sweat, she asked me if I wanted to see something cool. I said sure. She said that if I used my hand to bring her to orgasm that I would see an outline of the baby. Several minutes later I’m watching a very tiny hand and arm moving across her belly. It was incredible.
I spent the night there. And the next night. And the night after that. The past 2 ½ years of pain and abuse had simply vanished. The sex was just as good as it had always been. She wasn’t mean to me and didn’t threaten me with violence or even try to control me. I felt comfortable around her. I felt that I could be honest and open with her and I wanted to do nice things for her for no other reason than because I loved her. It was everything I had been hoping for in our relationship. It was such a relief. I spent the next two weeks at the house (except for the times when we had sex at my place), helping her pack and prepare for the trip across the country just as happily as if I was going with her, even though I knew at the time that wasn’t the plan.
I asked her what her address was going to be and she said she didn’t have one yet because she was going to stay with her father while shopping for an apartment. I asked how we would talk to each other because he would not be happy if he knew I was calling. She said we could make a schedule for when I would call her at times when her father wouldn’t be around (It didn’t occur to me at the time that, once again, I was the one responsible for communicating. I was simply too happy to care.).
On moving day, I helped her get and pack the truck and then we kissed and said goodbye. I watched her drive away wishing with everything I had that I could be going with her.
After a few days, she was at her father’s and we set up our calling schedule and it worked without a hitch. We talked every day for roughly an hour each time. I was using the phone card (if you’re younger than 40, you’ll just need to Google it) that my mother had given to me four years prior—and I hadn’t used the card to talk to her in a year. My ex and I talked about all kinds of things. We talked about when I could come out to visit. We talked about the possibility of me being there for the birth. We had phone sex—a lot of it. We also talked about the custody arrangements. She suggested, very reasonably to my ear, that I should give her sole physical and legal custody of the baby. Physical custody was for obvious reasons with us living so far apart. Legal custody, she reasoned, because if the baby needed some kind of immediate medical attention that the doctors would require my consent for treatment and it would be very hard to reach me. Well, I certainly didn’t want to risk that, so I agreed. She sent me a copy of a sonogram she’d had recently. I couldn’t tell head from tail, but I knew my child was in there somewhere and I was so happy to have that image. We talked every day for the next few months until one August day when I got a phone call from a priest that we both knew who told me that my daughter had been born and everyone was healthy and doing well. I was ecstatic.
I knew she would be in the hospital for the next day or two so I waited until the third or fourth day and then called right on our regular schedule. The phone rang and rang and rang until her father’s answering machine picked up so I hung up. This went on for the next few days until one day when I called and her father picked up the phone. I asked if I could speak with her and he said that wasn’t going to happen and hung up on me.
By this time I was confused and didn’t know what was happening. So a couple of days later I decided I was going to call during an unscheduled time, from a pay phone. Sure enough, she picks up the phone. I was so relieved.
“Thank God, you answered the phone.”
“I can’t talk to you.”
“I just can’t.”
“Please tell me.”
“This is for the best.”
“The best for who?”
Those were the last words I ever spoke with her. The custody papers showed up via certified mail a few days later.
The custody agreement initially looked like what we had agreed, until I took a closer look. The address that was listed for her was an apartment complex that I knew wasn’t correct. I had spoken to someone who had been in touch with her after the baby was born and my ex had told them about the house her father had bought for her and the baby. I tried to make the court change the address, but they simply ignored me. I didn’t fight the sole custody stipulations because…well…that’s what we agreed to and I still believed her. I didn’t fight the child support because this was my daughter so of course I would provide support. My main concern was whether I’d be able to actually pay it. (I was actually given an opportunity to relinquish all of my parental rights and therefore be exempt from having to pay child support. I was appalled at the idea and refused.) I looked at the visitation schedule which kept using the phrase “supervised visitation” which we never talked about because we were supposed to be getting back together…someday. Then I saw something that made me realize how short sighted I had been during the divorce. The baby’s name. Aside from the fact that she had named the baby without talking to me about it—and the fact that I was too distracted with all the phone sex and loving conversation we’d been having to ask—I saw that the baby didn’t have my last name, but hers. One of the things she had wanted in the divorce was to get her maiden name back—something she’d done during her first divorce. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal to me so I agreed to it. Now I understood the full implications of that decision. It meant that not only would my daughter not be connected with me by name, but there would be nothing stopping my ex from wiping my entire existence from my daughter’s life.
My experience with the court system during the custody battle was just as futile as my previous encounters. This time the custody agreement was made entirely on terms favorable to my ex and I was simply informed of the outcome and essentially told to deal with it. I was given a P.O. Box address to send the child support checks. It was only then when I fully understood how she had played me and I felt like a complete idiot.
My downward spiral had already commenced when the custody papers first arrived, but now that it was over I went from a spiral to a straight shot to the bottom. I suffered from terrible insomnia. I had no appetite. I wasn’t bathing regularly. My academic performance cratered. I would just sit in my room and stare off into the distance for hours at a time. I was losing weight again. Eventually my despair turned inward as my self-hatred kicked into high gear. How could I be so stupid? I am the dumbest person alive. I am the dumbest person who has ever lived. I’m a piece of shit. No wonder why nobody likes me. Of course, at this point I no longer had someone who could take the next logical step and start beating me because that’s what I deserved. So, once again, I became an active participant in my own abuse. I started cutting again. I also started hitting myself. Hard. With closed fists and solid objects. Whenever I drove my car on the highway and noticed a car parked on the side of the road, I would think about drifting over and ramming into it at full speed.
It was around this time that I had a conversation with someone which changed the course of my life. It was with an older gentleman whom I knew, and who knew about the problems I was having. He was also concerned about my well-being because I was clearly about to hit a wall. He told me that when I wake up every morning, I have 100 units of energy that I can use in any way I wish. I can either use those 100 units towards aspects of my life for which I have some degree of influence. Or, I can choose to waste 1, 5, 10 or all 100 units on things over which I have no control. It was a hard thing for me to listen to, but I started to learn how to compartmentalize the parts of my life which involved my ex and my daughter so that I could do what I needed to do each day.
During the divorce process I decided I had to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be as a person. However, this was on a very limited basis until the custody suit had concluded, at which point I realized I needed to take it more seriously. This was not a simple thing because I had allowed myself to be completely unmade for almost 3 years, so I was essentially starting from scratch. Do I go back and listen to the music I used to? Do I wear my hair the way I used to? Do I try and re-establish the friendships I used to have? What do I like to eat? Do I really like these clothes? What is my sense of humor? What are my values? Do I have political leanings, and if so what are they? Am I a dog person or a cat person? Everything—large and small—was up for consideration. Ultimately, I found that there were some things that I could go back to, some things that I couldn’t, and there were new things which I was able to discover and make my own. But, this process took a number of years to work through.
I found ways to make some money, and also enrolled in the food stamp program, so that I could pay the child support and send it to my ex’s P.O. Box, because that’s where the custody order told me to send it. I paid every month, right on time, as often as I could which was most of the time. Every once in a while I would fall behind due to the kinds of things that non-rich people deal with all the time: the car breaks down, or I had a medical problem (in fact, my knee had dislocated again, fully, which prevented me from working for some time and I obviously didn’t have health insurance), or I had to choose between paying my car insurance so I could drive to work, or paying the support for my daughter—and I was being deliberately excluded from her life so the self-justification was a little easier. But, whenever I fell behind I would find ways to catch up again. I was not going to be a Deadbeat Dad, even if my only use was to send money.
I had chosen to stay in school and finish my degree, rather than drop out and work full time. I did this because I had fully bought into the lie that educational debt was “good” debt and that getting a degree would enable me to be more financially secure. I was looking at the long term rather the immediate picture so I thought I was doing the right thing. Looking back, I now see that the best thing I could have done was leave college and enroll in a trade school. I would have finished in less time, with less debt and a much higher income straight out of school.
I sent my daughter gifts for Christmas and her birthday, with the full expectation that my ex would likely either repackage the gifts as being from her, or give them away or throw them out. But, I did it anyway because hope springs eternal. However, one thing I also did was to keep the receipts for the gifts and I sent them registered mail so that my ex had to sign for them. If there came a time when my daughter would ask me why I’d abandoned her, I wanted to be able to show her that I did what I could with the limited resources I had. There were even a few times when I would slip a very small note containing my contact information somewhere in the gift that wouldn’t be easily discovered. I knew that it was entirely possible that she’d never get the gift, or that my ex would find the note first, or that my daughter might never find the note. But I was utilizing any resource at my disposal no matter how desperate or futile.
About a year after the custody battle, I got a letter from the child services division of the state where my ex was living. They stated that I owed several months’ worth of support. I panicked. I had no idea what was happening because I was keeping track of my payments and doing what the court order stated. So, I called their office to find out what was happening. They stated they weren’t getting records of my payments which were needed to offset the payments they were sending to my ex. “What?! I’m the one paying her, why are you paying her?” They informed me that she was not reporting my payments to them, so they were paying her assuming I was not. I said that she refused to communicate with me and they said that wasn’t their problem. They were not about to ask her to be accountable for the money she was getting from them, but I was expected to be accountable for getting her to report the money she was getting from me. I informed them that the court order stated clearly what my obligations were. They didn’t care. I asked what I needed to do to correct their records. They stated that I needed to send them copies of my cancelled checks, so I did. Eventually, my arrearage was cleared up—until it went to hell again. Then I would clear it up again and it would get screwed up again. Thus, began a never-ending cycle of misinformation and miscommunication with child services. Almost every time I called, there was a new case worker assigned to me because the previous one had left. Nobody had any idea what was happening and I found myself retelling the sordid tale over and over again. I had a court order which clearly laid out the instructions I was to follow. Child services declared the court order irrelevant. Furthermore, based on what they were telling me, my ex had been receiving double payments—one from me and one from them—but nobody was about to jam her for gaming the system. They suggested that I just send them the money directly to avoid the communication problems, so I tried that for several months until I received a notice from the IRS that my tax refund was being withheld for non-payment of child support. When I contacted child services again, the latest case worker assigned to me basically didn’t care what I had to say about anything. As far as she was concerned, I was a Deadbeat, living high on the hog while my poor child lived in squalor. I tried to remind her that I was actually trying to do the right thing but that I couldn’t get a straight answer out of anyone. While we’re arguing this, I’m looking at the statements from child services that I would get every month. I noticed something curious: they listed me has having two children. Both were girls with almost the exact same name—only one name was slightly misspelled. When I asked if this was the reason why they keep showing me in arrears, she said that their records weren’t the issue—my non-payment was.
Now, if I had a lawyer who could deal with all of this stuff, I probably could have gotten it all figured out in relatively short order. But the fact was that I was on my own and dealing with a bureaucracy whose default position was to assume that I was a Deadbeat Dad who deserved zero consideration. After a few years of this, I finally wrote them a letter stating that because they were both incapable of keeping their records straight and unwilling to deal with me on a reasonable level, that I would cease sending payments to them and resume sending payments directly to my ex, per the court order. I knew that they would simply keep tagging me with more “unpaid” months, but at that point I saw no other way, and I didn’t have the resources (financial, mental or emotional) to deal with it. Just like before, I was being put in a position to make uniformed choices for no other reason than I didn’t have the money to pay for a lawyer. Nobody should have to do that and I mean absolutely nobody.
Not long after this, I decided that I needed to find a way to see my daughter. I wrote my ex and asked her how we could arrange a visit. Within a week I received a letter from her newest attorney who stated that I would have to deal with him. So, I called and talked to him about it. He informed me that my ex had told him in no uncertain terms that I was not to be allowed to see my daughter. He also said that he informed her that there was no legal way for him to do that. I had a legal right for visitation and that he couldn’t stop me, but that he could make the arrangements if she didn’t want to do it. So, arrangements were made for me to fly there and see my daughter (supervised by her Godparents) at one of those kiddie entertainment places with the ball pits and human-sized hamster tunnels.
I got to see my daughter roughly a week after her fourth birthday, for two hours. I milked every minute I could and can still remember the visit as clearly as if it were yesterday. At two separate points during the visit, I asked my daughter if she knew who I was. Each time, she got very quiet and lowered her head. She clearly didn’t want to talk about it so I didn’t push her. When the time was up (actually I pushed it an extra 15 minutes or so, much to the consternation of her Godfather), I asked her to give me a hug and I told her I would see her again as soon as I could.
About six months later, I contacted my ex’s attorney again to see about setting up another visitation. He wrote me back stating that he was no longer representing her and that I needed to contact her new attorney. I called her former attorney to find out what was going on and he reported that after the visitation she fired him stating that if he wasn’t willing to prevent me from seeing my daughter that she’d find someone who would. She wasn’t kidding. When I reached out to the new attorney, he told me flat out that I would not be seeing my daughter and that if I wanted to fight it, I could take my ex to court. He knew full well that I didn’t have the money to do that, and my previous experience with that state’s civil system had fully demonstrated that I was not going to be heard if I didn’t have a lawyer. I had just learned a hard lesson about making promises to my daughter that I couldn’t keep.
It wasn’t long after that when my ex had closed the only point of direct contact I had. I received one of the gifts back in the mail with a stamp stating that it had been refused. Soon afterward, my next child support payment was returned to me because she had closed the P.O. Box. The message was clear: Go Away.
I wasn’t about to start sending the child support back to child services again just so they could keep misreporting it. So, I decided to open up a savings account specifically for depositing my monthly payments. I knew that when I graduated, I would get a decent paying job and could get this stuff sorted out. I wanted to be able to just hand over all the money that I owed so that nobody could accuse me of not caring.
Graduation came and went. Job opportunities were not there, so I had to start working full time in two and three low skill jobs at a time to make ends meet. Six months later my deferral period expired and the student loan payments were due. I was under a crushing amount of loan debt which completely short circuited my grand plan of getting a Real Job and being able to afford to resolve all these legal problems and see my daughter on a regular basis. After a number of years I was able to find work in my chosen field, but the student loan debt was simply too much. It continued to absorb the lion’s share of my income and even screwed up my ability to regularly deposit child support payments into savings. Every year I would put the debt into forbearance so I could catch up on the child support deposits, while the loan interest continued to pile up. It took 20 years for me to pay the loan off, and that’s only because my father died and I got enough money to pay off the debt three years early.
I had gotten to a point where the pain of how I was living had become too much to bear. There is pain that hurts and pain that forces change. I’d had plenty of the former, but now I was dealing with the latter for the first time. I knew I had screwed up a lot of things in a major way and I was still finding myself incapable of behaving differently. I’d been in a few relationships after my divorce. One had even gotten so far as an engagement. But, I was still damaged goods and I kept torching the relationships either through my own selfishness or by being so dependent upon the hostage I had taken at the time that they would leave me so they could come up for air. I’d known for years that I needed help but I also knew part of that help would involve doing some hard work to look at what I did and change who I was, so I avoided it until I couldn’t anymore. So, I did what I had to do—initially just to get the pain to stop. After some time of getting used to living like a healthy person (and that took some time, believe me) I continued to do the work necessary because I appreciated what it had done (and continues to do) for me.
Eventually I got married again. My wife and I have been together for almost 20 years and have been married for 16. Soon after we got engaged we lucked into a chance to enroll in a well-known financial literacy seminar. This seminar typically costs $130 per person (which was not possible for us at the time), but we were able to do it for a total of $30 (which still took some doing to figure out how to pay for it). That seminar put us on a path that eventually got us to where we are today: able to pay our bills and even save money for short- and long-term goals. We’re not even close to rich–our combined income barely cracks $90,000 per year–but we no longer require the tender mercies of the local food bank, or energy assistance, or food stamps, or working 4 and 5 jobs between us to make ends meet. There was once a time when I was selling my plasma so I could put gas in my car to get to work. So, I do have a good perspective from which I can view my current economic position. I’m doing a whole lot better than I was then, and certainly much better than millions of people in this country alone. I am grateful for what I have (materially and emotionally), not just because I don’t have to stare down how to survive the next month on $28, but also because I no longer sabotage my own life whenever something good comes along. Today, I don’t have the voices screaming in my head that I don’t deserve it and should therefore destroy it. That being said, I also have no illusions that the relatively privileged position my wife and I now hold can’t somehow be eliminated with a major crisis such as a cancer diagnosis. We are doing what we can to insulate ourselves from a major disruption mostly because we’re making enough money to not have to worry about the minor disruptions. Anyone who says that money can’t buy happiness has never been poor because what money can do is buy peace of mind, which is the entry point to happiness. All of my problems today are high class problems.
It’s important, I think, to emphasize the “luck” aspect. Contrary to popular belief, hard work isn’t actually the key to success and wealth–it’s luck. Whether you were lucky enough to be born into a rich (or at least not hopelessly dysfunctional) family; or make that professional connection, through another similarly lucky person, which led to your high paying job; or won the lottery; or got that publishing deal, luck is the primary driver of success and wealth. Don’t believe me? Read this or this or this or this or even this. If, after reading all that you still think that hard work and talent is what gets people to the top, then stop reading now, because nothing that follows will illustrate this reality enough for you to change your mind. Perhaps what would be necessary is for you to have enough bad luck that it brings you down a few pegs.
I also want to take this brief aside to emphasize some of the differences between my current marriage and my previous one. My current wife and I treat each other with love and respect. When we argue we do it by not being personal—we argue the principle issue. Every once in a blue moon we’ll have a real nasty fight (mostly due to my continued problem of being afraid to express my feelings in a timely manner—the scars from my past still show themselves from time to time, which is a reminder to me of the need to keep doing the work to get and stay healthy), but at no point do either of us ever consider hitting each other or otherwise deliberately hurting each other emotionally. We work through things. We get over it and move forward. I helped her raise her two girls from her first marriage, and supported her through her own, very similar, problems as a non-custodial parent without money for a lawyer. I didn’t do nearly as good a job as I could have with the girls, mostly because of the guilt I still carried over not being in my daughter’s life. The fact that I’d been deliberately and systematically excluded didn’t matter to me. I’d had all kinds of hindsight to see where I should have made different choices and how I blew it every single time. At this point, I came to realize that I was suffering from problems of my own making. So, when it came to my step-daughters, I was more distant than I should have been. The upside is that they were able to develop a stronger relationship with their own father, but I know that there were times when they could have used my support and I wasn’t emotionally available to provide it and that hurt them.
Meanwhile, my ex got married and divorced a third time. I can only hope that her third husband either managed to avoid being a victim of her abuse, or he had a much lower tolerance for it than I had.
In the intervening time period, child services seized my bank accounts (including the account with the child support deposits) which forced me to change banks, but only for the purpose of immediately withdrawing my paychecks. I operated on an almost entirely cash basis for years. Again, if I could have afforded an attorney, I could have cleaned up the wreckage of my past, but I could not so the wreckage continued to pile up because that’s how things work when you’re not rich.
Time passed. My daughter turned 18. I learned about and enrolled in a pre-paid legal plan. Essentially the way these things work is like this: you pay a small monthly fee (in my case, $26) and in return you have access to all sorts of basic legal services such as contract review or sending a nastygram when needed. We got our wills and healthcare proxies completed for no additional cost. Another benefit from the plan in which we enrolled was 25% off services for an attorney to handle more involved matters. I got a referral for an attorney in my ex’s state.
The first thing I learned was that the child support obligation didn’t stop with my daughter’s 18th birthday—it would continue until she turned 21. I said the court order specifically states that child support would continue until her 18th birthday. Once again, I found out, many years too late, that the courts don’t really know the laws by which they’re supposed to operate. The whole thing had been screwed up from the very beginning and I was just now learning about it. I had the option to clean it up now and resume making payments to child services for the next three years (the attorney informed me that I should never have been ordered to pay my ex directly, so chalk another one up), but that the retainer I would have to pay would cost much more than I had anticipated—and was definitely more money than I had. I decided to wait and clean it up all at once when she turned 21 and hopefully, had the money to pay the retainer. Besides that, I was not about to spend even more money that I didn’t have asking my attorney to take child services to court every month for the next three years to make sure they kept their records straight.
My daughter went to college. I only know this because of the occasional Google search which would come back with a new result now and then, but not always. I didn’t have any social media accounts, but I would occasionally ask friends who did to see if she was online. She wasn’t. Her mother was. I could only assume that my ex was enforcing the same strict controls over my daughter’s life that she had enforced over mine. While I didn’t know my daughter’s address, I did know which school she was attending and it was far enough away that I figured she couldn’t be living with her mother. So, I drafted a letter and enclosed a picture from the day we met and sent it via general delivery at the school. Within a week I had gotten an answer. It was in the form of my own letter, still sealed, with a Refused: Return To Sender stamp across the front. Not only was she not interested in hearing from me, she was even less interested in possibly learning what had taken so long. You know what? I can’t blame her. I was heartbroken, but I had to find a way to move forward. I remembered the conversation I’d had so many years ago about those 100 units of energy. After a rough couple of months, I was able to compartmentalize that part of my life again and move on.
I had given up my chosen profession a few years prior for the sake of making better money while still paying for an education I was no longer using. After several years of low skill, low paying work, I eventually transitioned into the best paying job I’ve ever had, with an obscene array of benefits–and this was entirely due to the luck factor I’d mentioned before. I knew someone who knew someone and that’s how I got my foot in the door. Without that connection, I would have never had the opportunity to apply for the job – much less actually get hired – no matter what my qualifications and work ethic were. My wife and I bought a run down, abandoned house and did some fixing up. We sold it a few years later and used roughly half of the proceeds so I could finally take child services to court to deal with the child support arrearage.
I got a new lawyer who had been doing this kind of work for several decades and what I had encountered was not new to him. He had informed me that child services departments across the country are woefully underfunded, employing low-skill workers because they don’t pay enough to hire qualified case workers so the turnover is incredibly high. Their record keeping is a shambles and they have no incentive to work with non-custodial parents to clean up mistakes. I spent the better part of the next year to get this resolved, but I was finally able to put it behind me.
More time passed. An old friend of mine told me not long ago that she’d done a social media search and found that my daughter had gotten married and had a baby. My wife found a picture online. She looks very happy as a 26-year old wife and mother. It also appears that she has cut off contact with her mother. Maybe my ex was right after all. Maybe it was for the best.
These days I no longer hold out hope for establishing contact with my daughter. She’s made her position perfectly clear. Even though I know her perspective doesn’t take into account the truth of the past 30 years, I think it would do more harm than good to try and find her for the purpose of letting her know that much of what she knows is a lie. I’ve hurt her too much as it is.
So, there it is. The whole, wretched, story. I’m not the person I was then. Come to think of it, I’m not the person I was as recently as 10 years ago. Recovery and survival for me means a process of constant change. If I’m not working every day to try and be better than I was yesterday then it becomes all too easy for me to backslide into unhealthy and destructive behaviors. So, I change because change is necessary and because the results enable me to live my life with a certain degree of peace of mind. I ran out of animosity towards my ex years ago. Carrying that hatred was doing nothing to her but it was destroying me, so I had to let it go. Today I’m in a position of neutrality when it comes to my ex. I feel neither sadness, nor fury, nor pity. Mostly, I just don’t think about her at all, but I will admit she’s been in my head quite a bit over the past several days while I’ve been writing this. Still, her presence is more like an elephant in the room. She’s there, but I barely acknowledge it.
There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of my daughter and how I failed her, but I’ve been able to keep moving forward in spite of that because the alternative is a life where I not only destroy myself, but the lives and well-being of everyone I come in contact with. I continue to screw up plenty of times because nobody can live a faultless life—but I do my best to make things right any way that I can. I recently did an inventory of all the people who I’ve hurt in large ways and small and found that my daughter is the only person to whom I haven’t been able to make those amends. The magnitude of that is much heavier than the number alone would suggest, but the only thing I can do about it is try to live the way I would if she had been in my life all this time. It keeps the nightmares away most of the time.
I want to close with some basic points of information that may prove helpful to someone who has either found themselves in a similar situation, or knows someone who is:
If you, or someone you know, is in an abusive relationship, please reach out to the NCADV. Their website has a lot of good information and contacts for a number of other organizations who can provide help and support. You’re not alone, no matter how hard your abuser has tried to isolate you.
If you need legal assistance but think you are too poor to afford it, there are a number of pre-paid legal services out there. Some employers even provide it as a benefit. These services can go a long way toward leveling the playing field.
Get yourself some financial education, no matter what your circumstances. If you’re in an abusive relationship, the NCADV has a lot of resources towards providing financial education to victims of IPV. If you’re just plain broke, go to the local library and check out books on financial literacy. Having a basic understanding of how finance (personal and macroeconomic) works can go a long way toward not being taken for a ride. There are also lots of podcasts out there from which to choose.
If you feel like there’s no way out of your situation, no matter what it is, please do a search for suicide prevention services in your area.
After living for so many years with the shame and silence of being a victim of IPV earlier in my life, and having been shut up and shut down by the legal system in this country for no other reason than I wasn’t rich, I realized that maybe sharing this might help someone. I don’t hope for a lot of things these days, but I hope I’m right about that.