I’m well educated and employed. I make good money at a stable job with good benefits where work-life balance is a priority, making it easy to take time off. And I am a survivor of domestic violence.
All of these other things were true about me while I was in an abusive relationship, and despite these advantages, it was still incredibly difficult to leave.
Obviously, there are many victims trapped by socioeconomic circumstances, who stay because they can’t support themselves without the resources their abuser provides, but I was not one of them.
I didn’t start out dating a man who hurt me. He didn’t show signs of a violent temper or a controlling personality. It’s hard for people to understand how different our relationship was in the beginning, and how the violence escalated so gradually that I got used to it.
I tried to get help by following the rules I had been raised to believe: If someone is hurting you, you call the police. So I did. But nothing my husband did ever quite seemed to rise to the level of being against the law—or so the police told me each time they did not intervene.
One night, before my husband’s prescription drug abuse had descended into full-blown heroin addiction, I called the police because he was high and cleaning his guns. But it’s not illegal to clean your gun, and he was high on drugs legally prescribed to him.
I called the police when he was high and pointing a loaded rifle out the window of our apartment to “test the scope.” But rifles are legal in Minnesota without a permit.
When he took off in my car, the police couldn't do anything because we were married, so the car was joint property. When he drove to the bank and took my name off our account, that wasn’t against the law either. It raised so few eyebrows at the bank that no one ever even called to tell me. I suddenly had no money and no car.
The rules, the laws, the institutions all reinforced my sense of powerlessness. He could do and take whatever he wanted and there was nothing I could do about it.
I got my Master’s degree while my husband was spiraling into heroin addiction. We lived on my credit cards and student loans, financing his substance abuse at the expense of my credit score and long-term financial health. But it wasn’t straightforward like that. It was full of coercion, guilt, shame, exasperation, and intimidation.
I once connected with a new friend at work over cooking. He asked if I would make bone broth for him because he didn’t have a stockpot or the time. (Bone broth involves simmering animal bones to extract nutrients from the marrow, forming a delicious soup base. But the preparation can be fussy, requiring a pot large enough to keep the bones covered with water while they boil down for as long as 16 hours or more.)
After the bones had cooked a few hours, my husband dumped them in the trash, claiming it smelled bad. He went on a tirade and smashed drinking glasses all over the kitchen floor. Too embarrassed to tell my new friend this, I made excuses about not having time and gradually stopped talking to him until the friendship dissipated.
Any friendship I formed outside of my marriage eventually led to a blowout with my husband. He couldn’t stand for me to have any of my needs, such as friendship or emotional support, met by anyone but him.
Little by little, I gave up trying to connect with other people. I became conditioned to associate friends and family with pain. And little by little, my world shrank.
Let me be clear: My husband never convinced me he was right. I never believed his violent overreactions were ok. But I knew my safety depended on appeasing him. Survival meant not showing emotion, not being vulnerable, because vulnerability just gave him a roadmap to what would hurt me most and how to better control me.
I once saw a therapist who told me to sip water while I talked to him because (supposedly) it’s impossible to cry and swallow at the same time. I didn’t realize until I eventually saw a therapist who validated and encouraged me that this suggestion amounted to maintaining my husband’s comfort at the expense of my own self-esteem.
That’s the shortest way to explain why I didn’t “just leave”: My survival strategy of not showing emotion and of having no outside relationships was at odds with reaching out and getting help. And by that point, the me part of me was so small that I couldn’t see a way to save her—I needed a bigger motive, someone else to save.
One day, I came home from work and my husband was making a snowman out of the freshly fallen snow. A puppy was tied up on the porch, whining and shivering. My husband was so high I think he forgot she was there. I shudder to think how often the puppy might have been neglected while my husband was high and I was at work.
We both wanted to believe it when he said the puppy would give him a purpose, a reason to get sober and deal with his inner demons. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, the puppy gave me a purpose and opened my eyes to all the things I had become numb to over time.
One evening, I went to a friend’s house to get away, and for the first time, I was honest about my situation. I slept on my friend’s couch that night because I couldn’t bear going back home. When I finally did, I discovered my husband methodically moving all our belongings into the bedroom and screwing the door shut with a drill.
I sat on the couch with the puppy snuggled up against me, listening to the buzzing of the drill. Then I made a radical, life-altering decision. I filled a backpack with clothes, but my husband cornered me and stared at me with empty, drugged-out eyes. With time, the details of his face have faded from my memory, but I haven’t forgotten the way his eyes looked that last time I saw him.
He grabbed the puppy, put her in the bedroom, and used the drill to screw the door shut again. While he was doing that, I got my backpack and started to leave, but how could I leave without her? She was my reason.
I faltered. I had grown used to his behavior. At times it was terrible, but it would blow over. This time I wasn’t sure. There was no way I could get the puppy if he didn’t want me to have her. Maybe because I had finally made the decision to leave, my urgency to escape was intense.
Suddenly there was a puppy at my feet. I will never know why my husband let her out, but I put her collar on, grabbed her leash, and a 30-pound bag of her food, and fled my home on foot. The puppy pooped on someone’s lawn and I didn’t even stop to pick it up. I just shouted that I was sorry and kept running, worried my husband might have followed me.
He didn’t follow me, but he didn’t go quietly either. Almost immediately after I left, he began to list all of my belongings for sale on Craigslist. I called the police. They could escort me back so I could collect my belongings, but if my husband disputed anything I wanted to take, they would not let me take it.
Once I made the decision to leave, nearly every step, I was faced with a situation that seemed so bad, it almost seemed better to go back to my abusive marriage, which was at least familiar. The day after I left, I was washing dishes at my friend’s apartment and my hands were getting hot and dry. I so badly wanted my own dish gloves that I contemplated going home and making amends with my husband so that I could have my dish gloves.
I called a domestic violence organization. They listened to me and were sympathetic, but they told me I couldn’t get a restraining order to get my husband out of our apartment so I could go back home. I think they were trying to make sure I was safe—leaving is the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship and abusers don’t necessarily care if a judge has ordered them to stay away.
But that’s not the reason the domestic violence organization gave me. It still bothers me that professionals who deal with this on a daily basis were either ignorant of the law or lied to me to influence my course of action. I deserved a straightforward and truthful assessment of my situation; I have the agency to make my own decisions.
Two weeks later, my husband left the state and I went home—to utter devastation. He had sold or destroyed almost everything I owned. Anything that could be ripped or broken was. He had even urinated on my belongings.
I knew he was in another state and likely didn’t have the money to come back, but I was still afraid. My apartment management company wouldn't let me change the locks unless my husband signed a relinquishment to all legal claims on our lease. He wasn’t allowed to be on the property, but they wouldn’t let me change the locks.
Although it seemed to happen in an instant, it took a monumental effort to leave. It upended everything, and leaving wasn’t the end of it. Leaving was the beginning of an emotional, physical, and financial struggle to reclaim my life. There’s no “just” leaving an abusive relationship.
Kathy Wilson lives in the Central Hillside. She enjoys hiking and exploring the North Shore with her dogs, sea smoke sunrises on Lake Superior, walking rather than driving, and growing her own food.