October is national Breast Cancer Awareness month. It’s also Domestic Violence Awareness month. I wish I wasn’t, but I am very aware of both.
Two years ago today, I was driving northwest and crying most of the way. I’d want to take the exit ramp -- nearly every exit ramp I passed -- and turn around and go back to my home, back to my husband. But I didn’t. That was unexpectedly strong of me, because going back would have made things far worse for me. It would have signaled to him that I had no boundaries; was willing to put up with whatever he dished out. That wasn’t the sort of message I wanted to send.
If I could have known then how much better my life without him would be, perhaps I wouldn’t have had such difficulty running from him. I could have been running to something instead. I *was* running to something; I just didn’t see it that way at the time. I was running to a more peaceful life without an abuser always nitpicking, criticizing, blame-shifting, gaslighting and having tantrums. Without an abuser who constantly threatened my safety, my very life. Maybe it’s OK that I didn’t know; life requires taking some risks. You don’t always know what will happen when you step off that curb; but you have to step off it anyway or you’ll be frozen in place. Probably as apt an analogy as any.
It was difficult to identify what was happening to me. We were happy in the early years of our marriage. I thought so, and he said so. Things changed when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and not in the way that I would have predicted. My husband -- let’s call him “Mac” -- reacted by going to the Medical Library and looking up “breast cancer,” reading everything he could about diagnosis, treatment, prognosis -- medical stuff. He’s a nurse. I reacted by reading about all the “soft skills” surrounding living with cancer and its treatment -- having your support group, how to secure the drains inside your surgical bra and what questions to ask your doctor. Mac insisted that my treatment be at the large teaching hospital where we both worked as opposed to the smaller community hospital I preferred. (I had a strict policy against being naked where I work.) I went along with him because things would be tougher on him, as the caregiver, then they would be on me. After all, I would be unconscious during the surgery and already had my prescription for Ativan.
Mac accompanied me to every appointment -- every lab draw, every MRI or CT, every pre-op visit, post-op visit and of course, the main event. He invited two women who were friends of his to wait with us in pre-op holding for me to go to the OR. I went along with that because this would be tougher on him, with the waiting, than it would be on me. I would be unconscious during the surgery, and I already had a dose of Ativan.
It took me a long time to notice that all of this “support” I was getting from him was really his chance to show off to the people we knew at our hospital about what a good husband he was being, a chance for him to get attention and support from his friends and colleagues in radiology, in the outpatient center, in the department of surgery (where he was a nursing supervisor) and all over the house. In fact, he wasn’t so much supporting me as controlling which questions I got a chance to ask -- in fact whether I got to ask questions or whether he took up all of the appointment time showing off and talking a mile a minute. While I was in a room with three-foot thick walls with radiation bombarding my left chest, he was chatting up and flirting with the women in the waiting room, at the reception desk, passing through. I’m slow that way -- I was still operating under the assumption that we had a good marriage. He had always said so; I had always believed so.
If you’ve ever read about narcissism or narcissistic abuse, you’ve read that the cycle consists of love bombing, devaluation and discard. I’d had a really long run of love bombing, where the narcissist convinces you that you are the only person for them, that you’re wonderful, everything about you is perfect and that they are truly, deeply, madly in love with you. The mask dropped the day my oncologist pronounced me a “breast cancer survivor” rather than a “breast cancer patient.” I wanted to go out to dinner to celebrate my good news. He said maybe lunch instead, and then spent the entire meal criticizing my lack of energy for housework and cooking, calling me “lazy” and “useless.”
Narcissists will treat you like gold in public; in private things are different. If I expressed concerns about any of his behavior, I was “jealous” or “a shrew” or “crazy.” Overnight, he became cold and uncaring, nitpicking and criticizing me constantly while refusing to be accountable for anything and making wild excuses for horrible behavior. I rationalized all of this by telling myself that caregiving was very stressful, and that he had had it much worse than I had. After all, I slept 20 hours a day.
I was in survival mode, and let some of the worst behavior go. One day I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and got announcements that my friend Mac had just friended “Fawn” and “Lola” and “Windy,” with accompanying profile pictures of three women wearing not all that much and posing in very suggestive ways. (Mac said he didn’t know how they got there, and made a big show of unfriending them.) After the breast cancer, there was my mother’s descent into dementia to deal with, and then I had knee surgery and then Mac retired. I was still working, trying to make up for all of the time I had lost to medical leave, all the deposits that hadn’t made it into my 401k. Things got worse at home.
Mac had long since moved out of our bedroom, and criticized me constantly. He presented my strengths as weakness and constantly compared me unfavorably to other women. My chest “used to be spectacular,” and he liked me better with long, straight blonde hair -- not the short hair that grew back curly and brown. He spent thousands and thousands of dollars, draining money from his 401k, and I knew nothing about it until the letter from the IRS arrived. “We” had underpaid our taxes by thousands, underreported our income. I had no idea where the money went, and asking Mac triggered the scariest tantrum I have ever seen. When I got the letter from our mortgage lender telling me to find another lender; homeowner’s insurance was a condition of our mortgage, Mac told me he had deliberately let the insurance lapse because he was angry with me. “I asked you for more money,” he said, “But you didn’t give me any.” (What I remember saying is that I didn’t have any money to give him until payday next Friday). He had sabotaged me at work, smeared me to his “friends” and acquaintances at the hospital, convinced everyone that I was crazy, jealous and controlling. I was constantly walking on eggshells at home, trying not to set off another temper tantrum and trying futilely to please a man who refused to be pleased
Looking back, Mac’s behavior seems clearly abusive, but I couldn’t see it as such. At least not until he deliberately put me in a life-threatening situation and then sat back smirking when I got injured. And even then, it wasn’t until the SECOND time that the pieces slowly shifted into place and I realized that I had been suffering verbal and emotional abuse for years, and that he had escalated into physical abuse.
Making the Right Decision
Two years ago today, I left my home, my husband, my marriage with what I could carry, and my dog. I had no job, no home, no family, no car, no church, no community. What I did have was determination, an Enterprise (car rental) account, and a friend living a thousand miles away. My life is much better now. I have an interesting, challenging job in my new city. I’m happy again. I paid off the bills, saved my money, bought a car and filed for divorce. I don’t have much -- the collection of Revereware, the leather sofa, the beautiful home that all seemed so important to me once upon a time are now things of the past. But what I do have is mine, and mine alone. Starting over again in my 60s is so much more difficult than it was thirty years ago when I left the first abuser. I’m older now, but I’m wiser. And I finally have some peace; home is a refuge rather than a battleground.
Breast cancer is not the worst thing that ever happened to me. Domestic abuse was.