I Thought My Husband’s Abuse Was My Fault

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Ms. Blog will be publishing a series of posts detailing the impact of domestic violence, including personal essays and more, throughout the month.

It was my fault. He swore he’d changed. Swore he wanted to get help.

I was living in California, with family, where I’d fled with my two daughters to start fresh, start a life without him. I was doing well, enrolled in school and trying to get my life together. But it was hard. And even surrounded with love and support from my children and my family, I was lonely. I knew it was stupid and I was trying to be strong, but I missed him.

Then one day, four months after I left, he contacted me via Facebook begging for another chance, begging to be a family again. He wanted to come to California and check into rehab—because California has the best rehab facilities, or so he claimed. He just needed to get here, he said, and if I would just spend the weekend with him, I would see how he’d changed. Then he would go to rehab.  And we would live happily ever after.

I was weak, so I gave in. I told him I would take him back. “Go to rehab and come back to me and the girls,” I said. “Be the man I know you are capable of being. I will wait for you. I forgive you. I love you.” I thought I could prove everyone wrong: the ones who told me he would never change; the ones who told me he was worthless; the ones who said it would never work; the ones who said I had caused him to be angry and caused his addictions. I would be more compliant.  Not talk back. Support him. I would prove them wrong.

The night he arrived, I drove the freeways, terrified and lost. I had no idea where I was going. It was late, and the girls were exhausted and confused. I just knew that when I found him, everything would be OK. He had changed. He wanted to be a better person, for me. He would fix this. He wouldn’t hurt me again. He was sorry. He was going to change, for me.

I pulled into the parking lot and saw the pickup; it was the one I had bought for him. I always took care of him. He was standing outside smoking a cigarette. He looked frail, so sad and almost childlike. He was sorry, I could tell. I got out and slowly walked towards him. The last time I had seen him, I was frantically driving away, running for my life. He was hurtling anything within reach at my car as I drove. But this time I didn’t notice anger, just tears. He wrapped his arms around me and sobbed. He loved me.

That is when I felt the gun. Tucked into the waist of his pants, the coldness pressed against my hip. He said, “I am so sorry, I will never hurt you again. But you can’t leave me. Don’t ever leave me again. Don’t ever take the girls from me again. I can’t live without you, I love you too much.”

I walked back to the car and scooped up my baby. She was 3. She was so beautiful, all curled up asleep. Peaceful. He opened the other door and woke my oldest, hugging her as she hugged him back. I prayed she didn’t feel the chill of the steel that I had felt. He told her he was sorry and things were going to change. We were a family again. He would never let us go. In a moment of weakness, I had believed him. Believed he wanted to get better and change, for us. How could I have been so stupid? I had been wrong. But I would protect them. I would do whatever he wanted. I would make sure they were OK. It was all my fault.

Three months passed, the longest three months of my life. At first he tried to be sweet, saying, “I won’t ever hurt you again. The gun is for our protection.”  But it was always there—on him. He slept with it under his pillow, in his hand. He would pick it up and toy with it, to make sure I saw it and feared it. After the first two days being back together, I mentioned rehab, asking when he planned on going.  He told me he couldn’t now because I had “made” him come to California, where he had nothing. He started to show his colors: slamming doors; throwing things; punching walls; yelling. He wouldn’t let me go anywhere without him and pretty soon, nowhere at all. I was too ashamed to even think of trying to contact my family, though I couldn’t if I’d wanted to—he had confiscated my phone, claiming he needed it to find work.

Then he started again with the shoving. Then it was slamming me against walls, for “being such a bitch!” Then came the choking and the kicking and the hitting.

I knew I was going to die; it was only a matter of when. I was ready. I was already dead inside. I was so ashamed and disgusted with myself. How could I have let this happen? I couldn’t handle seeing my girls locked up like this—they were suffering too. So confused as to why I never got out of bed, why we never had food to eat, why we never left.

We had moved from a motel into an apartment that a friend of my dad’s helped us get. I spoke to my dad’s friend often, at my husband’s request. I inquired about jobs and any help he could give us. It was so painful, I wanted to scream, “HELP! Help me! Help them! Get us out of here! He is crazy. He hurts me and won’t let me leave! Please, help me.” But I couldn’t. I had to pretend we were happy. My husband told me he would kill the girls if I spoke a word and I believed him. He had always followed through with his promises. He had changed, like he promised—he had gotten worse. More sadistic. He was a monster. He would never leave us and it was my fault.

He had taken my phone away that first night we were together. I wasn’t allowed to use it because he said I would try to get help. I was supposed to be with him. We were a family. He posted to my Facebook on my behalf. He answered my texts and messages. He made me hateful towards my family and friends. They were all angry with me for taking him back and for being horrible towards them. But it wasn’t me. I yearned for them and I missed them so much. I just wanted to go home. I wanted my family.  But he had erased me. He had taken my identity. It was my fault.

He slept on the couch after he was done with me at night. He told me that if I screamed, if I fought, the girls would wake up and see what he was doing to me.  I didn’t want that, did I? I lay there silently, letting him do what he wanted. He had already killed my soul. I felt nothing. I was numb; I had to be. My girls were right there sleeping. I could hear the soft whispers of their breath. I got used to it after that first night in the motel when he had started this new ritual. I knew the drill: He would finish and go to the couch and sleep—with my phone tucked under his pillow. I had tried to take it once, ending with my skull being smashed into the doorframe.

I was even more scared of the physical abuse now, since I knew I was pregnant. It was inevitable: the nightly visits with no protection. He knew it too. He took my daughter to get me vitamins. I needed them for the baby, he said. He always took her when he left so that I wouldn’t try to run. He knew I would never leave without her. Never. I found the irony almost humorous: I needed vitamins, yet I was being starved. I wasn’t allowed prenatal care, because I might tell the doctor or a nurse about his abuse, but I needed vitamins. It was all a joke. I didn’t want this baby. I hated it. It was a reminder of him and what he was doing to me. I had babies. I loved them, only them. I was a horrible person. It was my fault.

Then it happened. He was mad. He was obviously high. He had bought a steak and the little one was hungry. She watched as he cooked it in the kitchen. I could see her from my bed. I was only allowed to get up to use the bathroom. She said, “Daddy, I’m hungry.” He told her to get away from him and get a cracker. She was distraught. She didn’t understand. She was hungry. She yelled, “I hate you! You’re the mean daddy still! You’re mean to my mommy! I’m hungry!” He was furious. He picked up the sizzling piece of meat and threw it at her as she ran towards my bed. It slapped the wall with a disgusting splatter, and then he came at her. She grabbed the door, flinging it shut. But he caught it. I flew up.  I would never let him touch her. He threw me to the ground and kicked me in the back. “She’s just like you! A stupid bitch!” He left to go outside and smoke. I grabbed her off the bed where she was curled up with a pillow over her head. I told her it was OK. I was going to save her. I knew then it was my only choice.  He was getting worse. It was my fault.

That night I crept to the couch. He was deep asleep. I slipped my hand under the pillow. He snored and I jumped, but I didn’t move my hand. I took the phone. I was leaving. I was going to save us. Save my girls. I was done. I was leaving. And I did. I finally knew I didn’t deserve it, and it wasn’t my fault.

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Alicia McDermott is a 32-year-old mother of three. She lives with her husband and children in Idaho, where she runs an in-home daycare.