…the shells are on the bed. We stand face to face, each holding the stock with both hands. He outweighs me by eighty pounds but I have more to fight for. I am pleading with him to stop this. He is ranting about failing and losing, having no reason to live. He finally releases his hold on the gun and I set it on the bed, while he continues his tirade. He backs me up to the closet door and is screaming in my face. I am repeating the same words over and over, “Okay, okay, please stop…” I would have said anything, agreed to anything. He raised his fist and beat it against the hollow closet door just above my head saying he can’t fail again – pounding until his hand broke through the door. I shout for him to stop, to look at his daughter, to look at how much he is scaring her…and finally, he stops. We all stand crying – in shock, horrified and out of breath.
He is still in a state of agitation. Breathing rapidly and staring at the floor. I am talking in my dispatcher/mom voice, I convince him we must go to the emergency room. This has gotten out of hand, out of control. I get my little boy out of his crib and put him in the car seat. My little girl rides in his lap, on the pretense that she is very upset and he is going to “hold” her to calm her but in reality it is a distraction for him to prevent him from jumping from the car as I drive down the road.
As we drive the 24 miles into town enroute to the hospital, we talk about what to do. He continues to tell me that he just cannot fail at this marriage, he can’t get divorced. He won’t do that to his kids. I promise to go to counseling to help us through this – being careful never promising to “stay”.
By the time we arrive at the hospital, he has calmed down and decided against going to the emergency room. He tells me that his best therapy is to go for a run – so, instead, we drive to a park and he goes for a run on the trail. I sit in the car with my kids, waiting…in survival mode. I consider leaving him at the park but I know that will make him VERY angry. I consider who we can tell, who would help me convince him that he needs help, this whole episode was horribly wrong. I decide on his mother. She and I have been very close and I feel certain will help me convince him to seek medical help.
He returns to the car. We drive to see his mother. As I am changing our son’s diaper, he tells her his version of the story and by the time I return to the room, she is angry and defensive. She asks me if I ever loved him. It was then that I realized I was on my own and this was not going to be an easy road, for any of us.
The rest of the story is long and blurry. We never had another violent episode, although I would periodically find the shotgun shells out of the drawer and on the bed – as a reminder or threat?
We did seek counseling but I insisted we have individual counseling first. I knew that I hadn’t intended to stay and my purpose for seeing a counselor was to help me figure out how to end it safely. His counselor gave him some suggestions for how to deal with the situation, I think she told him to give me time and space. She also told him that she needed to speak to both of us. My counselor told me that I should pack his bags and leave them with his family – along with a restraining order.
He tried several strategies to coerce me into working on the marriage, telling me the kids would be ruined. Also saying our families would never forgive me. I would be excommunicated from our church. The courts would never give me custody of the kids. I would never find a man willing to take on our two kids. They would be mistreated or abused. I would go from relationship to relationship – failing over and over. He knew all of the weak spots in my self-esteem.
I kept my head down, shields up. I learned. The direct approach would never work. The truth wasn’t the answer. I had to bide my time, stay the course. I would never confront or respond to his faulty reasoning, saying very little. But inside my head, I was moving forward.
I was determined not to raise my kids in that type of environment, without love and having to live under someone else’s “rule”; a rule and lifestyle that I couldn’t abide. I wanted them to learn that marriage and parenting was a partnership – no one is the “owner” or “dictator”. At that point, even being a single mom would have been better for them. I could be stronger and more secure, for them.
More importantly, I would not live that life.
It was another month or more before he finally gave up and moved out. I will never forget the feeling of that day. I had to work but he had told me that he would be leaving after I got home. When I arrived, he was waiting for me with a pile of old greeting cards. He sat me down and asked me to read what I had written in each card, then asked if I was lying when I wrote it. It was one final attempt at shaming me into submission. I didn’t falter. (Also, all of the evidence of that one fateful day had been destroyed; the broken door was burned and the glass shards of the flower vase were thrown away. I wouldn’t have noticed but my daughter told me later when I asked what they had done on that day…)
After another hour of him trying to convince me I was making the biggest mistake of my life, he loaded up his old truck with his belongings and drove away. To this day I can still feel the relief, as I watched that truck get smaller and smaller.
I wish I could say that was the end of it. He drove off into the sunset and all was well. So many painful details in the divorce and remaining years of our life together. (If you have children, you never really see those taillights disappear for good.) It took years for me to stop feeling fearful of him and what he would do. Every time he took the kids for a visit, I worried he would take them and disappear, never to return – as he had once threatened. I worried that he wasn’t taking care of them, they were not safe, they were afraid, they missed me as much as I missed them.
To this day (and 34 years later), in writing about this difficult time, I still feel shame, fear, guilt, anxiety. I have triggers that bring me back to that time and feeling. Reminders of how I felt during that marriage – the helplessness, the anger, the fear. I know that I was luckier than most. It wasn’t easy but I did get out, it was the right choice even though it was hard on my kids and hell for me. We survived and are better for it, then and now.