You hear the word “survivor” a lot these days. Someone survived cancer. Someone survived a heart attack. Someone survived a stroke. I do not like the word.
When I hear that someone “survived”, I think of a car crash, or a plane crash. When my life crashed, survival was the last thing on my mind.
When I hear that someone “survived” abuse, I think of a broken person, struggling to face the day; someone going through years of therapy. I pushed my way through physical, mental, and emotional child abuse. I overcame domestic violence - with a vengeance. I did not merely survive.
Now, I am not putting down the many, many people who have survived these horrors. I am just saying we need a better word. Survival is passive. Passive people do not get through abuse, abandonment, torment, or worse; but, there are those who overcome it through perseverance of will.
Our kind of victim must stand, when we are too weak to crawl. We push forward, when we are knocked backwards. We rise up, when we are kicked to the ground. We live, when we are encouraged to give up and die. We may not be physically stronger than our abusers; but, our will to defeat the abuser gives us the strength to beat him or her. Living through the hell they have made for us tempers our steel resolve. We will not be defeated!
No, survival is not the right word for us. We refuse to be passive and just make it through the abuse. We must rise above the abuse, not recover from it. We must overcome the abuse, not outlast it. We must come out of the abuse stronger, smarter, and surer, not just another victim hanging on by our finger tips. We do not bow to the abuse; but, we may bend like a tree in the wind. Sometimes, we snap. That’s when we become writers.
My journey started when I intentionally got pregnant out of wedlock. It was still a bad thing in those days. My mother was so far beyond angry I was afraid my plan would fail. It was uncertain that whatever lay ahead of me could be no worse than what she had put me through. Mother was a master at mental, emotional, and physical abuse. At sixteen the only escape I could imagine was a shotgun wedding.
You have probably heard of and by now guessed, “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Teenagers hear; but, they do not understand. Actions have consequences. I was not ready for the treachery, deceit, and lawlessness my new husband, Dwayne, only kept hidden until the baby was born. I was determined to stick it out. He could not possibly be worse than my mother had been. I was wrong, so very, very wrong.
I was able to get past Dwayne not wanting to work, or pay bills. I was a child myself. Children may understand that bills must be paid; but, few are prepared for the reality. The father of my baby simply did not want to pay bills. He did not want to work. He did not want to be a husband or father. It is too bad that he never mentioned this while we were making our plans. Still, I was sure he would grow out of it. He did not.
I took him back after I had to threaten to jump out of a second story window to get away from his drug supplier. I never knew, until he was trading me for the money he owed for drugs, that he was a dealer. I was shocked and dismayed. By then there were two babies. Both were present as he made his deal without giving me any prior notice of his plans.
Looking into the faces of my babies, I knew I could not allow this to happen. I slowly looked around the room. I moved as if to go to the leader; but, I stopped when I reached the open window.
The apartment was dark and dingy in the bright light of day. It was second floor front, just feet from a busy city street and within steps to a major city cross street. Very few houses and apartments had air conditioning in those days. Open windows and box fans ruled the days.
I stood looking out the window with my back at Dwayne.
“Kill him.” I said.
“What?” The leader asked. He could not believe what he had heard.
“You might as well kill him now. This trade he offered is not going to happen.” All eyes were on me.
“I will jump from this window, as far out as I can. I will scream, yell, run, if I am able; but, I will attract enough attention that you will not be able to come after me. As soon as I can, I will tell the police everything about my drug dealing husband and the trade he offered his dealer. Within an hour the police will be all over this apartment. I don’t care, if the jerk I’m married to goes to jail. I don’t care, if all of you go to jail. My kids will NOT see their mother sold like a sack of potatoes. If it kills me, when I jump, I will still be my own person, not his, not yours.”
Have you ever seen the science experiment on YouTube with water and cornstarch on a speaker? I was that cornstarch. Every cell in my body was jumping, twitching, and moving like that cornstarch. It scared me to death; but, I would not let those two babies see how scared. I never wanted them to end up like me.
I won that round and things were better for a short while. Hubby even got a job. Then the final showdown came.
We lived in an upstairs duplex unit; but, our front door was downstairs. One day there was a knock. I went to see who was there; I was totally unprepared. A girl stood there asking for her boyfriend-my husband. I calmly went upstairs and told him to go down, his girlfriend wanted to see him. He cussed at me before going down to see her. He had the good sense not to invite her inside and he kept it short.
When my husband came back up the stairs I stopped him short with my rifle aimed dead at his chest. His stupidity is the only thing that saved his life and kept me out of jail.
“You don’t even know how to load that thing!” He said as he grabbed the barrel and tried to pull the gun from my hands. The shot missed barely missed the skin. It blew a hole through his shirt on the right side. My husband finished taking the gun out of my hands and belted me across the face hard enough to knock me off my feet.
The gun only had five parts. My husband had it dismantled in less than a minute. Without a word he turned and ran down the steps with me on his heels. He threw all of the pieces of my rifle under the duplex, got in his car, and drove away. As soon as his car was out of sight, I crawled under the house and found all five pieces.
It was my rifle. I had it cleaned and back together in no time at all. It was a single shot that broke like a shotgun. I reloaded and placed it on the mantle. My kids were babies. Neither could reach the mantle even if they stood on something.
We did not have a phone; so, I went downstairs and asked to use the neighbor’s. I called my mother-in-law.
“Let me speak to Dwayne.” I told her.
“He’s not here.” She answered.
“Yes, he is. This is where he always goes when he has done something stupid, gotten into trouble or both; so, just put him on the phone.” She did.
“What do you want?” Dwayne asked.
“I hope you think I’m too stupid to put it back together.” I hung up and went back to my kids. I passed the next hour or two boxing up Dwayne’s belongings. I decided our marriage was done. We were divorced within three months.
Out of the frying pan into the fire was not hot enough to teach me a lesson. I remarried within a very short time.
Willie was a charmer, when he wanted to be. He was good looking, very muscular, and had a job. None of those was the reason we married.
When Dwayne and I divorced, Dwayne surrendered all parental rights to me. I was fine with that. If he was willing to trade me, he would have traded the kids. Unfortunately, the oldest was seriously ill. I lost my job, and then my place to live because of all the time Dean was spending in the hospital. Landlords and employers don’t give a damn how sick a child is. The parent had better be at work.
I finally turned to the welfare department. It seemed that I did not qualify, even though I had two babies, no job, and no place to live. They were very sympathetic. They even told me I could keep the kids for the weekend to say goodbye; but, they would be there Monday morning to take my children.
It felt like a horse had kicked me. I had done nothing wrong. My sick child needed me. I was being punished because I was a good mother. A man was standing in his doorway listening to everything.
“Hey!” He called out. “What would happen if she had a husband?” He asked.
“That would be different. He would be responsible for working and paying the bills and she could be with her children.” The Worker answered.
“Want to get married?” The stranger asked me.
“What?” I was stunned. I had never seen this man before.
“We can put in for the license today, pick it up Monday, and be married at the same time. When they show up to get your kids, you will have an employed husband and a place to live.” He grinned at me. That grin should have sent me running in the other direction; but, the other direction meant Welfare would place my children in foster care; and, I might never get them back.
I turned and looked at the welfare workers in stunned silence.
“He is right.” One of them answered.
“Okay. Let’s get married.” I told him.
That is how I ended up being married to a man who was an alcoholic and an abuser. Every time Willie knocked me in the floor and stomped me; I knew I had made this choice with my eyes wide open and my brain in the “off” position. I did it to keep my kids. Willie made sure things would not change.
Many people have asked me for a reason. Why did I stay with him, when he would get so drunk for so long? Why did I stay when he beat me black and blue and left me lying where I fell? Why did I let him continue to abuse and mistreat me year after year?
I wanted to scream at them, “Open your eyes!” Couldn’t they see that I was still trying to raise two toddlers? I had dropped out of school to marry Dwayne and have my first child. I had no training, education, driver’s license, or support base.
My family lived hours away; and, family meant mother. Mother would never help me. I knew that before I entered kindergarten. Willie always picked places in the country that were isolated. Usually, there were no stores, no neighbors, no phone, and no bus or taxi service. Willie worked and paid the bills; but, he gave me no spending money. I received twenty dollars a week to buy groceries for a family of four and that had to include all household supplies such as toilet paper, soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, bleach, dish washing liquid, feminine supplies, and anything else we needed. I learned how to pinch a penny til Abraham Lincoln screamed for mercy. I also got creative at cooking on a budget.
I took Willie’s abuse as long as the kids were living at home. Once they were both married and living on their own, I started standing up to Willie. Not that I was all that tough or brave. It’s more like an animal that has been beaten and abused. They don’t growl and snap from fear or aggression like experts say. Trust someone who has been treated exactly the same way the poor animal has been treated. You don’t stand up to the abuser because you are brave. You stand up so the abuser will get angry enough to kill you and put you out of your misery. This way it is not committing suicide. I did not have near enough strength to kill myself. I was used to Willie hurting me. This would almost live up the M*A*S*H theme song-“Suicide Is Painless, After All.”
It did not work out as I planned. The first time I stood up to Willie, when he started to take his swing that would knock me to the floor, I stepped in closer and slapped Willie as if I was beating a rug.
Shock, then anger played across Willie’s face. Anger won. He drew back with his fist to really do some damage. Again, I stepped in too close for the blow to be effective and slapped as hard as I could.
“I’m not taking it anymore. Hit away. Swing both arms til they drop off. I’m hitting back.” This time surprise won. Willie walked away. It was two years before he got mean again.
Two years was a nice break; but, I never expected it to last. Willie was just a mean man. If I was not available, he was mean to someone else. I do not know what happened to get me back on his radar; but, he started out being verbally abusive, then passive aggressive on the physical side. It was a few months before he started hitting again.
At first he held back. He didn’t even leave a bruise. Willie had stopped drinking. I think withdrawal was turning him back to hitting; but, his sober mind was telling him it was wrong. One day the old Willie was back.
Willing caught me off guard and beat me worse than he had ever done before. I refused to make a sound. No screaming, no crying. I closed my mind to everything. It took a few hours before I could get up. I got a pillow and blanket and made up the couch.
“Don’t you think for one minute I’m going to sleep on the couch. I pay the bills here. I’m sleeping in my bed, in my bedroom.” Willie said.
“It’s not for you. I can’t manage the stairs right now.” I answered. I could; but, I did not want Willie to know. I had plans.
Willie’s bellows of rage woke me bright and early the next morning. I waited until he yelled himself out of energy, made myself a cup of coffee, and watched some TV. Later, Willie got a second wind and there was more yelling, cussing, and making threats. When he started winding down, I slowly walked upstairs.
During the night, I had tiptoed upstairs and safety-pinned Willie in the bed sheets. I then tightly tucked the bedspread in on both sides and the foot. Willie could not move.
When Willie saw me he started yelling again. That is when I gave him something to yell about. I had a commercial broom Willie had stolen from a construction job. I picked it up and held it just behind the sweeper head. I swung it like a baseball bat, hitting Willie repeatedly.
I beat Willie until I could no long lift my arms.
“I’m going to kill you, when I get out of this.” Willie said.
“What makes you think I’m going to let you out of this?” I answered and started beating Willie again. It’s amazing what a good thrashing followed by immobility, no food, and no water for three days will do. I just left Willie laying there for three days. He was a changed man when I unpinned those sheets. Til the day he died, Willie never lifted a hand or raised his voice to me again.
I would never have survived had I been passive. No, we need a better word.