The author’s name is listed by her initials only to protect her privacy and safety.
I left the house on June 21. Yes, it was Father’s Day. I didn’t plan it. The universe did.
I left the husband I lived with for 21 years and the father of my five children. (I took our children, four girls and one boy, ages 10 to 20, with me.)
At first, I thought I was a hero who saved her husband from himself and who rescued her family, but hours later, in the rented basement where we stayed, and many miles away from the apartment we left, I started crying.
Later that day, while shopping for groceries, I was thankful that I had to wear a mask, because people would not notice my tears. My husband was good at shopping for us, and he did it most of the time. I saw him in every corner and in every aisle.
Why did I leave?
It is a long story of subtle emotional abuse that I previously had not recognized as abuse. And then, one Saturday in October, I started to feel unsafe.
I struggled with the decision to leave my husband for nine months. I tried everything I could to avoid it, but all the signs pointed in that direction. I tried sleeping in a different room, I reached out to domestic violence organizations, I tried talking to him directly, I tried involving family members with my concerns, and at last, I tried asking him for a divorce.
When nothing worked, I tried to forget all about it, and let whatever was going to happen, happen — unless I saw a clear sign. The sign I was waiting for came on June 20. And this is how the universe planned our departure for the next morning. On Father’s Day.
When the owner whose basement I rented — a friend of a friend — saw my tears and heard me say that I missed my husband and that I wanted to go back, she knew the right words to say: “Look, you don’t have to take this as the end of the relationship. Take it as time away to think and then make your decision.” She helped me accept the huge step I had taken. But this acceptance lived on for an hour or so before I was attacked again by a strong wave of loss. I felt empty inside and yet filled with darkness. I was also deeply uncomfortable because I was unable to control who had access to the basement, to my children.
Three days later, after my usual dawn prayer, I decided that I needed more security. I called my local domestic violence hotline, and that is how the next chapter began at a women’s shelter in Virginia.
I felt safer at the shelter, a cozy house, and began to create a sense of normalcy by rearranging the mismatched furniture in a way that made it look and feel like a real home.
Our space has three bedrooms and 2½ bathrooms — it is perfect for the size of my family. I imagined myself painting the walls in fairy colors and waving a wand to make the carpets free of stains and the couches more inviting. I was assigned a case manager who checks in on me every week, and a therapist I can speak to whenever needed. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, these meetings are held over the phone. Only the cleaning ladies (who come once every two weeks) and the maintenance staff visit in person, wearing masks.
I started writing in my new orange journal, facing new feelings. Documenting my days. Sometimes I would write to the next woman in my place. I originally had 45 days to stay in the shelter, but I was told that my stay could be renewed as long as there was progress in either my search for jobs or legal proceedings.
With so much pressure to find solutions, my anxiety increased.
The first urgent problem was regaining access to my car. That took the whole month of July to solve. I got the car back at the beginning of August. Although the shelter offered Uber rides for emergency situations, I had to learn how to use public transit, missing the bus three times in a row on my first attempt and suffering heat exhaustion after walking for an hour trying to find the nearest bank. When I arrived, it was temporarily closed because of the pandemic.
The second problem was accessing my unemployment benefits again. After I moved to the shelter, the Virginia Employment Commission added a new requirement: I had to enter my personal identification number in addition to my Social Security number when filing weekly unemployment claims. I didn’t have my PIN because it was sent to my old address; that problem took all of August to solve. Another issue: The potential second round of stimulus checks. How can women escaping abusive relationships and living in shelters receive their checks? So far, nobody has an answer. If a couple’s tax returns were filed jointly and are connected to the abuser’s bank account, the IRS will deposit the check into the account that the abuser controls.
The third challenge was making decisions about legal matters. Should I file for a protective order? When and how can I file for custody? A brilliant lawyer offering free legal services for domestic abuse cases helped me understand my options and make a difficult decision based on my situation. Since I changed our phone numbers and service provider, email was my husband’s only line of communication with us. When he finally sent an email declaring that he would be willing to sign any agreement that makes me and the children feel safe, the lawyer wrote a detailed settlement agreement that took two weeks of work. My husband rejected it.
In the first two days at the shelter, I felt numb and lifeless. Then I progressed to sadness, guilt, fear, self-doubt, grief.
Where did these feelings come from?
Partly, I felt sad for my husband. When we left, he was alone. I wished that I hadn’t had to tear the family apart. I also missed him — I missed his mask.
But thanks to the sun rays at dawn, to warm cups of cardamom tea, to strict sleeping schedules, to the green salad I make at dinnertime, to 40-minute daily walks, to the hugs and kisses I am showered with from my children, and thanks to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” my anxiety and heartache gradually subsided.
And I realized something.
My husband’s coldness pushed me to love myself.
When he created chaos, I learned to set priorities and create boundaries.
When he pushed for a large family to distract me from following my dreams, I chose to artfully mother my children, and in the process, I connected with my inner child.
When he made me feel alone and tired of knocking on his door for connection, I learned to dig deep and find myself.
When he questioned my faith, I took a long walk and found God.
And I am still growing closer to the person I want to be.