I think it was around her second birthday when my daughter learned a brand new word. “Go tell Mommy she’s a bitch,” her father said to her. “BIT-CH,” he pronounced. “Can you go tell Mommy?”
I ran and covered her ears, as if that could stifle her curiosity, stop her lips from formulating the word, as if that could block out the smirk in his eyes and the laugh on his face.
He was never one to back down. He wanted her to say it and he wouldn’t stop trying.
There was a time when all I wrote about was domestic violence. After my divorce I began to write a memoir, chronicling, in detail, the time we were separated and the year it took me to actually want – and ask for – my get. It was important for me to get it out of my system, and it was equally important to me to give women a raw and brutally honest look into what domestic violence really looks like.
I haven’t touched that Word document in years. The idea of even opening the file and seeing my blood smeared across the page is almost too much.
How hard we strain to forget.
I am reminded, almost daily, that domestic violence exists. There are discussions at work and calls that I take and neighbors who break doors and smash glass and perpetually scream. I am reminded almost daily – but only once in a while am I reminded in my body, reminded in my bones that have tried so hard to forget. I am reminded when her story is identical to mine, or when he says something that reminds me of when HE said something. And then my blood goes cold and I am frozen in place, remembering every scream every threat every curse in my skin and my chest and the tips of my fingers.
How do you explain what it means to live and breathe domestic violence? How do you explain the tightness in your chest for days on end, not because he hurt you, but because he walks by you like you’re air? And your brain is in overdrive trying to figure out how to win him back, how to make him stop calling you a bitch, how to get him to stop ignoring you, how to make him happy, please for god’s sake, just be happy, just stop being mad at me and love me again, please baby, please. Just stop being mad.
How do you explain the devastating desire to please him, to fix whatever you did wrong? How do you explain the gnawing sense of emptiness and complete loss of self over and over and over again, even after you’ve already been reduced to nothing. How do you explain to others how words like fucking piece of shit and stupid ugly whore become NOTHING to you, how eventually you don’t even blink when the words just roll off your frozen body.
People will wonder why you didn’t just leave. And you’ll want to shake them and make them understand how they might as well ask you to cut off one of your limbs.
You don’t exist without him.
Years later, when you think you’ve healed, someone will call you a bitch in jest or in stupidity, and your body will remember. Years later, when you’ll hear a man scream, the sound of his voice will make you want to curl up into yourself and hide under the table. When you think you’ve healed, someone somewhere will say something and remind you that you haven’t healed, not really. And who knows if you ever will.
But you’ll realize something in the after-moments, when the tremors have stilled and you can finally hear your thoughts over the thud of your own heart. You will realize that healing takes time, who knows how long a time.
But… YOU. ARE. STILL. HERE. You EXIST. You faced everything you were ever afraid of – being alone, starting over. Being without him. And you freakin WON, healed or not.
Entirely on your own.
And that’s the biggest victory of all.