When you’re in an abusive relationship, you don’t even see the triangulation that’s happening. At least, you don’t see it for what it is.
You see something – but not with your eyes. You feel it. You feel the sharp points of each angle.
The stabs are there but you spend all kinds of time and energy thinking that they are coming from several different directions.
You don’t see that one person is holding the compass and the ruler. Overlapping triangles so thick that you don’t even see the shapes, you simply bear the marks of the numerous points.
I was in triangles with the ex-wife, the son, the sisters, friends of his I met and women he was befriending that I had not. Affair partners. Harmless flirt buddies. Girls who posed for pictures with him arm in arm after shows I wasn’t invited to once he had the easy excuse of me staying home with our daughter. It’s ok if you don’t feel like going. I understand.
When you get out and the fog clears, things start to slowly fall into focus. And by slowly, I mean it takes months and months – maybe even years – to see what was truly happening, how pervasive it all was, how early it all started. On that long road to clarity, you will suddenly see single incidents that finally make sense. And after enough of those, you start to see the big picture, glued together piece by piece.
The falling into focus, of individual incidents, happens in a flash. Small flashes of clarity about certain things you hadn’t even noticed happening. While you’re in line for groceries. When you hear a certain song. When you smell a certain lotion. When you see a baby picture and remember something that happened that day.
And then it’s like the lenses that get dropped into place at the eye doctor to see what prescription you need. One then another. Quickly. Click click. Which is better? Click click. How about now? Click click. Is one more in focus? Blurred and clear and blurred again.
You blink and blink and then sigh and let go of one more thing you were confused about. Shift it from the unfiltered box into the one that now is overflowing with things done by design to keep you off kilter and isolated.
That’s why that woman I’d never met gave me that look. That’s why he had his friend email those photos knowing I’d see them. That’s why he told his ex-wife about the pumice stone.
That’s why he wouldn’t drive us home when our daughter was sick until after I had started crying in front of his sisters.
You finally see it for what it is and while the clarity comes with its own sharpness and hurt, you finally see and there is a freedom in that sight. You can finally see that the other person wasn’t ever getting the truth. Not ever.
The thing is, even if you want a clean slate with any one of these people, there are those years of mistrust to unwrap and step over.
For all the months it’s taken to see how I was pitted against x’s older child (or, more accurately, how that child was pitted against me), once free of x in my house, I almost immediately saw, Brilliant Minds style, how much I’d been played against the ex-wife and how much she’d been played against me.
It was literally like calculations wrote themselves midair and lines and circles wrapped around them all until it was the stuff of inspirational, feel-good movies about ivy league geniuses.
We’d. Been. Played.
From day one.
X had engineered all that tension.
And yet. There were still all those words I’d actually read that she said about me. Things that emboldened him and that he used against me.
And all the words she’d been told I’d said about her – plus the ones I actually wrote to her, in times I was nearly broken about her son’s distress, not seeing that it stemmed from someone in my own home. During times when I would cry into the dryer as I pulled clothes out, so no one would hear me, because I was sure if I could just get them to co-parent then their child would get the support he needed.
What a joke. Me getting them to co-parent. As though he just didn’t know how but would if he just had help. As if her silence when he would, unseen by me, lash out was anything but the very self preservation tactic I’ve had to use too many times to count in the last year and a half.
Trust me when I say that the irony is anything but lost on me.
We did betray each other. Both of us. And even if we can see it was by design, those wounds exist.
When you’ve been turned against each other so thoroughly, how many degrees of trust must be earned to even get to a neutral place?
Truth be told, in starting this blog, I worried that exposing myself to her would cost me. I worried about judgment but also about her (& others) spying on me for him.
My truth. My pain. My hope. Spelled out.
I trusted. Globally and blindly. By deciding to put my truth out. Unblocked. Frighteningly free for the finding.
Eventually, she found it. She trusted by reading.
And even though I wrote about feeling betrayed by her, she reached out.
And I trusted by answering.
Without hesitation. Even knowing it could be a trap.
My therapist was concerned. My closest friends told me to be wary. I was still rebuilding my own trust in myself and so I heard them loud and clear.
Who else has been in exactly what I’m in but her?
How else will her child ever come to see me as anything but what x has now made me into?
We met. We talked. We walked in circles while our daughters skipped ahead of or behind us. While they whined about thirst to the moms who forgot water bottles on a shadeless walking trail. While they got tired and so we sat. As they tossed pebbles into a waterway, dusty dirt rising and thinning out in the air with each handful they picked up.
Her story was painful to hear. And at the same time, comforting. It was like I was no longer alone on that island called truth.
Shortly after that weekend, the nightmares returned. His hands around my neck. His sister walking slowly down my hallway calling me Judas and ranting at me.
We still messaged off and on but we had a timid kind of back and forth. Spaced out. For me, at least, because I was a little scared. Of whether my words would be shared.
I knew horror stories of trusting anyone affiliated with the x. What it could cost while in family court.
After all, trusting x in the first place is what brought all of this on and wasn’t I supposed to be learning how to close up and be guarded more?
When she would message, I trusted by answering. No matter how measured. It was still a kind of trust. One that could cost me what mattered most.
Me. Afraid. To be open. To be myself.
So many years of us being pitted against each other.
I trusted. By saying to her directly that even texting her brought the nightmares back.
Like I took a knife to the protective netting I’d wrapped around my life.
Then. I asked her for something. Something big.
When I mentioned to my lawyer in passing that I had confirmation that the rigid boundaries I erected on day one had saved me from some of the worst, it seemed, my attorney said would she make a statement? That would make a big difference.
So I asked. I broke a sweat typing it. I closed my eyes and clenched and released my fists immediately after sending the message.
She answered without answering. The three-legged dog version of hope.
Everything I’d ever been before in my life said to give up.
When you have deeply loved people who’ve left you alone even when they’re right next to you, you learn to not ask.
When you’ve just finally left a love that always kept a tally and made unreliable a way of life while telling you how demanding and unreasonable you are, you learn that the cost of asking isn’t usually a price you want to pay.
So asking is big. And hard.
But I asked again.
My daughter is the only thing that will make me try beyond all trying.
And then: I thought I said yes.
But she hadn’t. Not exactly.
And then she did. She said ‘yes, but.’
But the but was something doable.
And so it was a yes.
She agreed to submit a statement to the court, on my behalf, outlining exactly how x had/has been with her and their child.
The threats he made. The ways he tracked and intimidated her. The things that echo – if echoes can come before the sound they mimic – what has happened to me. So, I guess, instead, she is sounding off that old bell to show the court that mine is an echo.
An old, worn sound x hasn’t outgrown and isn’t about who left him, just that someone did.
Which is very different than a thing that maybe I made up. Or a sound I fabricated and made look like he made it.
It was a huge ask. One that would assuredly bring retaliation to her and would have some effect on her child no matter how well we handled it all.
When she messaged me that she had just met with my lawyer. That despite having the kind of hard week no mother wants to have and being pulled in forty two different horrendously difficult directions that week, she did it. She followed through and dug into memories that are, literally, physically hard to dig into.
I read the words that said it was done and my face went slack a little and my eyes filled.
I cried. At my desk.
I surprised myself. Tears welled and filled my eyes and I tried to fan my eyes but gave up. Put my head in my hands and cried, feeling the lightness in my chest and the weight of no one really understanding drifting away from my body.
I didn’t even know it would hit me the way it did.
I felt a kind of vindication and validation I had not yet experienced.
Not only could this be the thing that makes the court put real protections in place for my daughter, someone else said out loud that this man, x, does what I say he does. What no one else but her has fully seen.
A cord of fear and trauma connects us in a way we aren’t connected to anyone else in such an exact way.
Someone else attested, out loud and then on paper, to this man being who I have said he is and not the version his hundreds of friends hold onto and believe him to be.
And then the nightmares returned.
Even when awake.
I thought of the 11yr old boy in San Francisco who was smothered by his father on the last weekend before supervised visits started just six weeks prior. The all too common act of an abuser losing control and punishing the other parent in the worst way they possibly can.
I thought of that boy’s mother. And her relief that the court had finally listened. That they had finally required supervised visits.
Thought of the exhale she must have taken at the end of that hearing.
Thought of the hope she had that her son would be a little safer.
And then I thought of her horror.
To make the truth not the truth.
My most heavy feeling of relief was immediately followed by my most overwhelming sense of fear.
The boys father killed him during his last visitation before supervised visits were to take effect.
To punish her in the worst way he possibly could.
I was asking the court for supervised visits.
This. This is what it is to navigate this world some of us live in.
I finally had someone who said: I will stand for you.
And I was, for a few hours, awash in something that felt like lightness and hope and a place, off in the horizon, where I could breathe just a little easier maybe.
But instead of just relief, I had dread, too.
These men (these people), when cornered, will do anything. Anything. To hurt us.
I breathed through it.
I talked to friends. My therapist.
I got through that one last weekend overnight between x being served her declaration and us both being in front of the judge.
And while my child was emotionally turned sideways that weekend and he wouldn’t let my scheduled call go through, she came home, alive.
I could go back to that feeling of not being all alone in this particular truth.
I thought I was healed enough that I didn’t need that validation.
And I didn’t need it in order to keep moving forward and keep healing. But I did need it to feel less alone. To feel the weight of not being believed lighten.
We all do.
I knew it has him and not me. I knew that. I did.
Knowing that there was some official account that said that – that said that he was who he was and it was not anything I did… well, that undid me.
In the best way.
There is a way that we know things, but there is also a place we know things.
In English, we have the one word: know.
Meaning to understand. And also meaning to recognize.
In French there are two different words for these two meanings.
Two different words in German. And in Slavic. The Anglo Saxons also saw these as two distinct things worthy of different words.
I can understand I was not to blame.
I can understand that he has done this to other women before me and is certainly doing it to other women after me.
I understand that nothing I do or did caused it.
But to recognize?
To feel in your body that something is real?
To re-cognize? To see again as something you knew and now know again, more deeply? To know that it now exists in another person’s words and so it is real?
(It was always real, but now it is real in a scope that floats free from you and so it is not your truth – it just is...).
That is a place that knowing doesn’t really touch.
I know I didn’t deserve it.
I know I didn’t cause it to happen.
But until someone else bears witness – until someone else says he does this – your body holds onto the doubt.
Your cells hold the weight of everyone else’s doubt.
Of the mediator who said you are also to blame because you drove away and so you escalated it. Who said you caused him to attack your car and try to drive you off the road.
That old lie that it always takes two to make that kind of mess.
Of the people who think they know because they, too, got divorced. Or they, too, had to share custody.
Of the people who say, just relax and enjoy your child-free time.
Who say kids always struggle at first.
Of the people who say sometimes it just takes some people longer to be good parents.
Your bones and muscles and flesh are still saturated with the he said, she said your life has turned into.
You know he’ll abuse no matter what you do or say. So you do the right thing.
But your body knows that almost no one sees that for what it is. Your body keeps tally and bears the weight of being doubted constantly about the new life he has brought to your world.
To my body, her words matter.
More than I even expected.
Her words bring a knowing I never thought I’d experience.
If it doesn’t matter to the court, if it doesn’t matter to the judge, if it doesn’t matter to anyone else ever… it matters to every cell of my body
Another woman risked something real to stand up for me. To stand up and say she is not this thing he says she is. And to say: She is not a liar.
I cried again later that night but this time for the woman who was waiting for that other voice and didn’t even know that some of the weight she was carrying was a hefty desire to harmonize – to make a song of recounted threats and times spent checking your driveway to monitor you. To take what is ugly and weave it into something that can save a child, save our children.
Only a few nights before getting that message, I had watched a livestream of Storm Large playing at her old haunt Dante’s in Portland and, as happens anytime I see her perform Stand Up for Me, I cried. Big fat tears that made me reach for the kleenex box and bite my upper lip to try to stop so I could see the video clearly.
Stand up for me, and I’ll stand beside you.
That night, for the first time in the dozen or so times I’ve seen her perform that song live, she told the story of how the song is love speaking. And so I cried differently.
Be the light. Be the answer.
My love for my child is so tied up right now with standing up and staying strong. Of being her light and traveling through this darkness to ensure her a better childhood than she would have otherwise. Of leaving the darkness that brought her to me so I can make light for her and so she’ll never have to know that darkness in the way I did.
Be the reason for the sun to rise.
Then, when I got that one simple text (about someone doing something that was anything but simple or easy), I understood love between two people who don’t really know each other but who are tied together through decades of life by what they have seen in the dark of their own journeys. By sharing some of the loneliest, scariest, most isolating moments that only they have shared in this exact way at the hands of this exact person.
I’m the light that guides you from inside you.
And everyone. And everyone. And everyone.
The call and then the answer.
They say these things only grow in the dark. And it’s true.
Darkness is where the hurt thrives and blooms.
May our children live only in the light.