No Woman Is An Island

As we navigate yet another sharp turn in the road without a positive male role model in their lives, without the benefit of connection of the extended family in grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins that I flourished in, deeply connected as a child and young adult, I once again feel inadequate and isolated on the island of being the sole provider of everything for my children.

While I am emotionally supported by friends, my children are adrift in a vast sea where I am the only life raft in sight.

I have tried to help them navigate emotionally. The time has come for me to acknowledge that I have used my entire bandwidth over the last few years between them, my own challenges, and trying to make social changes to prevent others from experiencing our same fate. Juggling it all with providing for us financially has been a balancing act that I have not been too terribly successful with.

I am currently evaluating career possibilities that could incorporate my talents as well as accommodate my residual deficits, which I have finally accepted will continue to challenge me moving forward. Yet an unsettling feeling percolates just below the surface. I recognize it as the feeling I had the day I made the decision to move out and leave my children with their abusive father to preserve my own life. Then I reasoned I’d get out and come back and fight for them once I was out, but it felt like I was abandoning them to sink or swim on their own.

As the last five years have flown by, so, too, has my time of influence narrowed. They are not out of the woods. They still struggle. I feel like I, their lifeline, will be further abandoning them to their own devices, especially my 15-year-old, when I take on the additional responsibilities while further drawing from my limited energy to engage in the hours that comprised a typical work week ‘before’. Though I have tried my very best to guide them, somewhere in the depths I feel like I am failing them further.

It occurs to me that many of our society’s ills are born of lone mothers trying to survive emotionally and financially and raise healthy children in the absence of involved fathers and extended family. The most successful adults had solid family units growing up. Those at risk tend to have fractured and broken families.

In a perfect world I could create a life that allows the luxury of time with children, producing income, and taking care of myself. Raising two traumatized kids to adulthood and self-sufficiency has and will continue to be a top priority. Providing for them and looking towards my own future looks much like the tightrope traversed by a flying Wallenda. One misstep can have disastrous effects. It becomes paramount to move forward carefully.

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Browsing through a morning of posts on Facebook, I see a picture of a youth soccer team captioned as the season’s final game won. I look closer at the sweet faces of nine-year old boys and think how innocent they all are. How untouched by life. Thrilled they won. Excited they played soccer. Being silly.

Then it hit me my son was just nine. He was a happy sweet boy playing soccer one day, then the next he was trying to convince someone he flagged down on the road his mother had been shot and to call 911. Like a punch in the stomach, I had to catch my breath as I stared at the picture. I cried. He was just a little boy, much like those little boys in the picture, until suddenly he wasn’t. And I will always mourn that loss.

I wonder what it must feel like for him. Shortly after I was discharged from the hospital I had asked him how he was doing. He non-emotionally declared ‘I am the man of the house now’. When I reminded him he was still just my little boy and I knew he must be very sad about losing his dad, he flatly stated “I’m over it.”

That early interaction has defined all others. He is unwilling to communicate any of his feelings about his father or what happened. When I inquire, he shuts me down by insisting he does not want to talk about it with me. I will try again another day but for now leave it until he is ready, yet I always wonder how he can possibly not have so many conflicted feelings that it perhaps is too overwhelming to delve into any one of them.

It is one thing to hate me, to be so possessive or obsessed, or whatever it is that would make a man want to kill the woman he professes to love, the mother of his children. It is quite another to be so cruel and heartless he’d destroy his children by robbing them of their innocence, their sense of safety and security, and leave them with disparate images of who he was and what love is. I might have forgiven him my own trauma, but I find it impossible to dismiss the pain which he inflicted on them.

I am grateful to have survived to love my children. To show them what love is, how it feels, to unwrap those images. Yet every year my son’s birthday will be connected to the shooting. Every. Single. Year. The mental picture of a joyous, carefree nine-year old at his birthday party is a stark contrast to the lifetime he aged in those few minutes the following day.

With my dying breath I will fight for my children, and for all children so they can live in healthy, loving and safe homes. I don’t even think it’s a mission anymore, it has become such a part of me, with God’s help, to change the landscape so this can happen.graham soccer

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Birth Days

I was walking at the park by the river on a warm evening. I think it was this time of year. Seeing no one the better part of the walk, when I encountered an EMT in uniform towards the end he seemed oddly out of context. He held a flower and as we exchanged passing hellos he stopped, holding out the flower to me, which I initially thought might be for someone behind me or that he would be taking it to a girlfriend. As I received it, I looked up to thank him and our eyes connected. I paused. I recognized his eyes.

Police cars lined all the streets near my house and the twenty-nine officers on the scene included the SWAT team. The EMTs had to wait outside the perimeter for the signal it was safe to come in to assess and begin to treat me. This is what he told me. I only remember endless sirens echoing down the road, on and on and on as I drifted away. My heart races and I still panic when I hear sirens.

I don’t normally think about the end on my birthday but it has weighed on me all month leading up to today. I’d wasted so much energy, so much love, so much life at that point. For brief moments now I forget that end also marked a new beginning. A beginning which might have only lasted a few minutes, or days, but it has lasted these few years. Still, in those ever brief moments, I forget it’s a gift.

Gratitude is commingled with an urgency, an obsession to capture every second and make it count. I struggle to do the daily things, the mundane, the meaningless tasks that make up life without being laid low that I am squandering this chance to live. I struggle to assign importance. It was none of it important in what looked like those final few minutes. I knew only those I loved and cared for were important.

How do I re-engage? How do I resume? What do I resume? I am reassembling something to find integral pieces are missing. When I have successfully improvised one piece, another space appears. I move forward anyway, because time propels us forward. And I made it. I made it through another day, another year.

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Not every day is full of rainbows and unicorns. That could be said for any of us, but it is especially true of those of us who fight the residual emotional and physical challenges that abuse has left. Like the invisible prisons our captors held us in, it looks from the outside we are free of abuse so we must be free. Meanwhile we continue to maneuver around what ties us. We’ve paid the ransom, but in some cruel bait and switch where the jailor is gone, the impressions made by their shackles remain.

The price of freedom is high. Some pay with their lives, some with the lives of their loved ones. Others pay with profound residual physical challenges… paralyzed, blind, brain and neurological injuries; all share emotional scars that intertwine with the very fiber of who we are, who we’ve  become, who our children have become.

Beyond the emotional toll I have written of in the last 5 years, there is another real cost of freedom, the dollar price tag. The realities for any woman leaving an abusive relationship include devastating financial burden. The likelihood of recovering financially and enjoying anything but a basic standard of living for most is minimal. The equation seems to be the longer the emotional investment in the unhealthy relationship, the lower the chances of financial redemption.

Some continue to pay by being dragged in and out of court on custody issues, constantly having to defend their right to parent despite being on the receiving end of horrific emotional and physical abuse. It surprises most outside the dv community the exes who initiate some of these custody and visitation battles have protective orders against them while others are serving time in jail. Valid or not, defending the interests of the children with legal representation is costly.

Some are challenged by falling between the cracks of indigence and just enough income to be disqualified for social programs and assistance. Yet they move through continuing physical and emotional challenges requiring ongoing medical interventions.

While married, even as a business owner, I had little to show for my income. What I brought in went towards ‘my’ portion of the house payment and household expenses. Additionally, I paid for 100% of the children’s needs be they health insurance, clothes, childcare, education expenses, even birthday and Christmas gifts, but for an occasional minimal soccer or scout registration fee here or there.

I was trying to pull together money for the divorce attorney’s retainer when I was shot. In the divorce I knew I’d be  providing everything but I had two businesses and  was willing to do what was needed and work as hard as required. Nothing could have prepared me for the fallout from the shooting.

Recovering from the physical injuries and my trauma while navigating the solo parenting of two traumatized children proved overwhelming and emotionally impossible when combined with running a business with employees. I sold it within months and tried to continue in the less demanding one.

The cost of freedom continued long past the initial trauma surgery and hospital stay in ICU and recovery. It included two subsequent surgeries, periodic cardiac monitoring, extensive therapy for the kids and me, at one point with five therapists between the three of us, and hospitalizations for a suicidal child. Inching close to $200,000, some of which was covered by insurance, it is minimal as compared to the bills of others I know.

Some days I wonder when I will be done paying for making a bad choice in a life partner. Beyond my marriage, beyond the end, beyond my children’s suffering, beyond my own sometimes difficult days, I failed to take into account my recovery was going to plateau. I expected to bounce back. I had no way of knowing that I would continue to struggle with cognitive functions including focus and memory, and be continually exhausted. I took for granted that I’d be on top of things again, be sharp, have the energy and mental acuity to go out and create a living like I enjoyed before it happened. I could not have imagined how I would struggle with simple things that had been on auto-pilot before. Acknowledging that others have challenges far greater than mine does not negate my own.

Don’t get me wrong. I am eternally grateful for the chance to be here for my kids, to listen to a rain patter quietly on the leaves as I write, to wake up to another sunrise. Even my worst day now is better than my best day then. But there is no denying the collateral damage when I add it all up. And that, some days, calls for the grace of acceptance; a state in which I am obviously not as I regress and futilely fight to reclaim what has become clear is unrecoverable.

Though I know I must, letting go and trusting what’s next is perhaps my greatest challenge currently, much easier in theory then in practice and progress is not consistent. I know I can’t stay here long, but for today I’m paying the price again, mourning the losses again, wondering how to move through this part, again.

I get up. I do the next thing.

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An Anchor In The Storm

Most assume only a woman is victimized by an abuser. Perhaps a more astute reader would assume the children are abused by virtue of their mother being abused. This post is from the unique perspective of intimate partner homicide survivor’s mother, who thought she might lose both her daughter and her husband when they were attacked by Kate’s ex husband in the presence of their 4 year old son.

Kate writes “She was not present at my apartment the night my estranged husband appeared and shot my father (her husband) and me (her daughter) in front of my son (her grandson). But she has been the rock for our entire family. She received the call no mother and wife should ever receive: her husband yelling into the phone that her ex-son-in-law had done what we’d long feared. Here are her words. I love you, Mom. You’re the strongest woman I know.”

“I am Kate’s mother, Susan, and want to address how domestic violence affects the whole family beyond its victim(s). We, her parents, had a favorable first impression of TM, who became her abuser. He is tall, handsome, blonde and blue-eyed, an officer in the Air Force who turned out to be no gentleman after all. His demeanor is even charismatic. His manners are nice and he speaks well. His townhouse was beautiful. They seemed much in love with each other, so much that they began to live together in his townhouse several months after having met.

They married eight months later with a new baby on the way. Although rushed, things seemed fine initially. But questions evolved. His behavior seemed quirky at first but then became ever more controlling. There were constant texts that interfered with events, notoriously when my 90 year old father passed away. Astonishingly, there were almost 200 of them in one day. How we struggled to deal with this bewildering behavior at a heart-wrenching time! Conversations would routinely be interrupted to our increasing annoyance. Katie could do nothing in the kitchen or do any other household chores. It became increasingly evident that he felt only he could do it right. He’d always find a flaw so that he could maintain control.Even when we’d visit he never even allowed me to boil water!

Her social life became restricted, again we now know to gain more control and work toward isolation, making her ever more dependent on him. Such demands made us a bit uneasy. But her paycheck was most appreciated! He had no real interest in the children, H and W, always putting their books and toys well out of their reach. Again, we felt uneasy but were reluctant to upset the apple cart by asking questions. But we began to notice something seriously wrong when they moved to Florida and joined us.

TM had retired from the Air Force then, and was seriously agitated upon arrival. He paid lip service to finding a job but would disappear for hours without a sensible reason. He would create an upsetting situation to every family event and celebration causing untold drama, jangled nerves, tears, and unanswered questions. Even a trip to the pumpkin patch was not exempt much to our utter exasperation. We did not know what to do anymore. We had never encountered someone like this! Katie has described in previous accountings the steps leading up to a divorce, which were horrific and took two years and tens of thousands of dollars to accomplish.

The culmination was the night of the shooting on November 2012 at her brand new apartment. Never in our wildest dreams did we ever think that anything of this magnitude could happen to us. In our case, three generations of my family were victimized that night: my husband and my daughter were both shot and my grandson William, age 4 at the time, was uninjured but witnessed it all. Imagine my hysteria when my husband managed to get a call to me on his cell phone!

Katie was helicoptered out and my husband taken by ambulance to a trauma hospital. On my way to the hospital with my son Matt, we did not know if they would live or not. We found out in transit that William was safe in police custody. Sheer relief with that news! My son’s wife then drove to the police station to get William, take him to their house, and embrace him with love and safety. The hospital staff was magnificent, calm and professional. The police had TM in custody at the police station, alleviating the real fear that he could still be on the loose! Matt and I put our hysteria aside when we were allowed in to see them, so grievously wounded and in great shock. Our hearts and minds were heavy trying to come to grips with the unimaginable!

They both underwent major surgery early the next morning. Their doctors performed miracles putting them back together again! And there is much to be applauded in their efforts to recover after surgery with great pain and much occupational therapy. William, uninjured, received child counseling the entire first weekend provided by the state of Florida. Katie and William still receive counseling regularly.

Our attitude is to prevail, not allowing TM to take away from us any more than he already has! I became the secondary victim, not at the scene and not injured, but the three of them would depend on me for their survival. Such shattering and so many pieces to pick up! Not only did I have their physical recovery at stake, but also their mental and emotional stability. I became the rock for them, their fountain of love and deep concern.

I did everything possible to keep William’s routine the same and keep him on an even keel so he would know how much we love him and so he would feel safe. His preschool deserves great credit for lovingly guiding him through this ordeal too. Katie and William lived with us for a good year until she could maintain some sense of independence on her own, especially with limited use of her right hand. My husband’s left arm and hand has extensive nerve damage and will never be the same. So, yes, domestic violence affects entire families, not just individual victims.

My three loved ones are well on the road to recovery now, though this trauma will never leave us. We did not know words like sociopath, hollow point bullets, and restraining order. TM’s volatile behavior left us bewildered. For future reference, note that these behaviors are red flags to be taken seriously and can lead to untold trauma. Talk to your family members about these behaviors and warning signs. Offer an exit plan and safe haven. Emotional, psychological and financial abuse are just as dangerous as the obvious physical abuse. We need to band together as families and organizations to make the USA a safer place to live. We love you, Katie, and your boys always and forever!”

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