My lovely friend Miss K. asked me to speak about my experience for the Stand Up and Speak Out March yesterday. Anyone who knows me knows that speaking to one person often causes hives and extreme anxiety for me. Speaking in front of a crowd at a rally on the town square? That is a few steps bigger than a conversation.
But I said yes. When I moved out of the shelter, I promised myself that I would do anything I could to help other women get out of harmful situations.
So I spoke.
I was terrified. I got hives. My voice shook. It was windy and I don’t know that anyone heard a thing I said. But I did it.
In the video recording (which can be found on Facebook), you can’t hear much, so a few people have requested a written transcript.
This was my speech:
Hi, I am Shannon Norman, I am not sure if I am a speaker or a storyteller like we are supposed to be in order to stand up here, but I am a survivor. So, today I would like to share a few things with you. I am better at writing than speaking, but I am okay at reading, so I hope you don’t mind if I just read this word for word.
I can still feel the cold tile of the kitchen floor, hot spit landing on me as he screamed. Calling me crazy, telling me how worthless I was as a mother and a wife. Telling me once more what a waste of space I was in this world. I attempted to stop crying, trying to get it together as I looked up at the man who was supposed to love me, the father of my children. Was this really what love looked like? When had it all come this?
He didn’t hit me though, not at first. I swore if he ever touched me I would leave.
Looking back, I can see the progression, but it was so gradual I didn’t have a chance of seeing it while I was right there in it.
It all started innocently enough. Maybe I didn’t load the dishwasher correctly, or the laundry wasn’t done in a timely fashion. He talked about needing more freedom, or wished I was more fun, how he thought I should be doing more to help our growing family. There were a few arguments here, and then he started making some degrading remarks occasionally. He always felt that nothing was ever quite right and when we tried to talk, he would twist my words so I couldn’t figure out what I was trying to say… But, somehow, I was always wrong. I began to doubt myself. Every word became monitored, every move calculated carefully to see if it would set him off or create an argument.
Eventually the external pressure began to break through to my heart and mind. I was convinced I was unworthy of love. His constant disapproval gradually turned to threats, constant fault finding, and reminders of my worthlessness.
But still, he had never touched me.
So many nights I cried myself to sleep, terrified about what might happen if I didn’t do exactly as he said. So many times I knew I shouldn’t give him my paycheck, but I did it anyway. So many times I felt like I should call someone and tell them to come get me. I told myself to get out. I told myself that life would be better if I just left.
But those thoughts came along with his voice, telling me I wasn’t strong enough, and I would never make it on my own, I was stupid and couldn’t succeed in the corporate world, much less find people to love me. I knew that if I left and failed, it would just prove my weakness, prove him right about me.
So, always haunted by the fear that he was right, I stayed.
A few years into our marriage, I stopped recognizing myself. I would look in the mirror and see a woman too fat to love at 100lbs. I saw a mother destroying her children because she was a terrible parent. I saw a wife who could never satisfy her husband. I saw stupid. Fat. Ugly. Worthless. Useless.
Eventually though, I just saw nothing. I had become the invisible girl.
I found emails, text messages, panties and lipstick that didn’t belong to me. But, if I were to bring it up, “I” ruined our day, or our evening, or our life. He didn’t understand why “I” always took the fun out of everything. Maybe if I was a bit more fun, he could be a bit more loyal to me, to our family. But I was so boring, he couldn’t handle it.
So, I tried to change. I started cheerleading for the arena football team, went to parties ad clubs with him. Acted like I was young and exciting again. I was miserable, but I wanted to make our marriage work and I had figured out very quickly that it was all on me to do so.
It didn’t work though. Nothing changed. In fact, when he commented on any efforts I was making, I could see how much he enjoyed the power, knowing that I was in pain, that I could no longer speak up, that all my boundaries had been broken down.
I began to live and breathe for the moments he would hold me in his arms and apologize, saying I brought it out of him. Things would be better for a while, full of laughter and smiles and good memories, even if making those memories meant we were getting swallowed up by debt. But, he convinced me in those precious moments that he wasn’t like this. I made him like this. I should have approached him differently. I should spoken in a softer manner. I should have done more listening and less talking. I should make my wishes clearer without being demanding.
He knew he could react differently if I just approached him correctly.
So, I adjusted my approach. Again and again and again. Until finally I realized the only way to avoid the pain was to be silent. Until eventually even that didn’t work anymore.
My friends came to me, concerned that I was disappearing. I defended him, told them that we were just going through some things and learning to be a team. All marriages had to go through a learning curve, right? We were both educated, we knew how to work through things, we could figure this out. I just knew it would all work out eventually.
When people began to ask why I no longer smiled, I learned to say “I just have a lot going on” and left it at that. When I accidentally let slip one of the terrible, hurtful things he had said to me, I immediately found myself justifying it by degrading myself exactly as he would.
Eventually I stopped talking about it. I didn’t want anyone to see the shame, didn’t want them to know the insanity of my circumstances. I couldn’t fathom the idea that a strong, independent woman like me could no longer take care of herself and leave an obviously toxic situation.
But, I had stopped expecting anything better for my life.
And all of this before he ever laid a hand on me.
I knew I could never explain that I felt it was my fault too. I had studied social work in college, of all things, and battered women always thought it was their fault…
But I was different, right?
I mean, no one knew him the way I did. No one really understood our situation. No one saw how much potential was locked behind his pain. I knew that if I could only protect him long enough, if I could just help him figure out his temper issues, he could learn to be better. He had to, for our children’s sake.
Plus, in a selfish way, I didn’t want people thinking I was married to a monster. I didn’t think I could handle them knowing I was so weak, making this decision I knew wasn’t healthy. I didn’t want them knowing that the man I loved treated me so poorly. We had a beautiful home, we were small group leaders in our church, we were involved in the community… We looked like we had everything together.
I couldn’t talk to anyone about the reality of my life, so I was left feeling completely alone.
Plus, he still had never hit me.
I found a job working from home. It was much easier to hide. I didn’t have to answer “how are you?” questions. I didn’t have to feel like a liar every time I said I was fine. However, my solitude meant that I no longer saw a reflection in other people’s eyes to remind me what normal looked like.
Now, the only reflection I saw was the one in his eyes. And the beliefs I had attempted to fight for so long flooded over me. I began to believe everything he told me about myself. I began to believe his irrational explanations despite my own heart and eyes. He defined my reality. I had no one but the monster to tell me who I was.
I knew that if any of my friends knew what was happening, they would try to force me to leave. In fact, a few of them already had by this point. But they never knew details, so they respected my decision to stay… while distancing themselves from me.
I still believed I would leave the moment he touched me.
And never go back. Until the night it happened.
He grabbed my arm and pushed me into the table, followed by a quick slam into the wall. The next day I left.
The way I thought about myself began to cloud my vision. My doubts and fears brought me to a realization that he could be right. What if no one else could love me? What if I was the terrible person I saw reflected in his eyes. What if I really could never do anything right? That first day, he texted and called me so many times that my friend I was staying with thought we should call the police. She was so concerned. And rightfully so.
But he convinced me that I owed him communication for the sake of our children.
That communication lasted several months until one day, we went to the park with the kids. There was a photographer, and he made sure it was the perfect day. Then he gave me the perfect apology with the perfect words. He told me that everything would be different now. Sometimes we just have to fall when we learn to ride a bike. We had fallen off the bike, but we could learn from it. He begged me to come back, to try again. So, I “got back on the bike with him”.
I rationalized that he had only been violent because I provoked him so much. I told myself that if I was able to avoid confrontation, it would never happen again. I believed he had realized just how crazy and out of hand things were.
I thought my leaving would change everything. I mean, it was obvious to everyone how much he loved me. Perhaps even how crazy I made him was proof like he said. He cared so much that he became overwhelmed by his emotions; anger, sadness, jealousy, whatever it was, and he just couldn’t control himself.
I was wrong. There were several instances after I went back where the police were called to our home. Eventually, I left in the back of an ambulance, after he attempted to murder me with his bare hands. Choked, thrown down a flight of stairs, my arm shredded, wrist broken, and shoved over the railing in front of our house.
I knew that night that I could never see him again. Because I believed the officer as he leaned in close and whispered, “next time, you will be dead. You are worth it. Those babies are worth it. Please take care of yourself. Please stay away.” I knew in my heart that he was right. 6 years of marriage and two children ended with my husband in the back of a police car while my children and I looked on from an ambulance.
I was lucky to get out alive, but we are here today for those who did not, or who still cannot walk out.
Because 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men experience domestic violence.
Look around. 1 in 4 women. 1 in 7 men.
Does it surprise you? Or are you one of those people?
Either way, I want to talk to you about a few things.
First, let’s look at a few red flags that could reveal a dangerous match.
The National Domestic Violence hotline says that most domestic violence relationships begin just like mine. A whirlwind, incredible romance where your partner seems too good to be true.
To quote from their website, “many abusers may seem absolutely perfect on the surface — as if they are the dream partner — in the early stages of a relationship. Possessive and controlling behaviors don’t always appear overnight, but rather emerge and intensify as the relationship grows.”
Here are a few things that you can look out for. If you see your relationship in any of these, there are resources that can help. Get out while you still can.
Some of the signs of an abuser are:
· Embarrassing or putting you down
· Looking at you or acting in ways that scare you
· Controlling who you see, where you go, or what you do
· Keeping you or discouraging you from seeing your friends or families
· Taking your money or refusing to give you money for expenses
· Preventing you from making your own decisions
· Telling you that you are a bad parent or threatening to harm or take away your children
· Preventing you from working or attending school
· Blaming you for the abuse, or acting like it’s not really happening
· Destroying your property or threatening to hurt or kill your pets
· Intimidating you with guns, knives or other weapons
· Shoving, slapping, choking or hitting you
· Attempting to stop you from pressing charges
· Threatening to commit suicide because of something you’ve done
· Threatening to hurt or kill you
· Pressuring you to have sex when you don’t want to or do things sexually you’re not comfortable with
· Pressuring you to use drugs or alcohol
· Preventing you from using birth control or pressuring you to become pregnant when you’re not ready
Obviously, domestic violence doesn’t look the same in every relationship because every relationship is different. But one thing most abusive relationships have in common is that the abusive partner does many different kinds of things to have power and control over their partners. It’s all about power and control.
As a friend of someone who might be abused, keep your eyes open.
When it really sinks in that over 25% of our population as women, over 14% of men are abused, you start to look around you a little differently. You start to realize that some of the people who look like they have it all together might not. And you realize that you have at least one, if not more people in your circle who are experiencing the pain of living with a monster in the dark.
So, how can you help?
Talk to them. Let them know that you see them, that they are not invisible, that their pain matters and it isn’t okay. But try not to judge them if they stay. Judgement means isolation and makes the decision harder for them.
Be sure that if/when you address it with them, it is in a safe place. If it gets back to their abuser that they were discussing their relationship, there is a chance that you are putting them in harm’s way.
Listen to them. Really listen. Sometimes feeling heard and validated can change a person’s mindset more than anything.
If anything, help them realize how common it is. Help them see that it is not their fault. Most abusers are master manipulators and their victims, aka your friends, feel that they are the one at fault for the hell in their life.
There is a very real possibility that your friend will be like me, in a state of “abuse cant happen to me because…” And whatever reasons they have come up with are real and true to them, so it is important that you use clear examples of the things you have seen and explain that although things may not be to “that level” yet, domestic violence tends to escalate over time, and you are concerned.
You can provide them with resources or help them develop a safety plan in case things escalate.
The most important thing is to let them know that they are not alone.
Leaving is the hardest thing I ever did. I had to start over, from ground zero. Realizing and redefining my ideas of normal. I had to realign my expectations. And I still have to consistently remind myself that acts of violence are never acts of love, no matter how heated the moment.
It has taken me a long time to see life reflected in other people’s eyes again. I am so grateful that there are more people like me, people who have broken down the walls that kept them in the darkness. There are incredibly strong, courageous women who have shared their stories, and by doing so, gave me the strength to continue. They embraced me with the pain of their pasts, showed me that I was not alone and that I am worthy of so much more.
Although that was a truth that was hard won in my own head.
Knowing I am not alone has allowed the shame to dissipate over time. I still struggle with many of the thoughts that were forcibly shoved into my brain on a repeated basis. But I no longer believe I was crazy, or overly sensitive or my imagination was just running wild, because I could not reconcile the love and the abuse in my mind.
Both existed. I have accepted that.
And now, I can only pray that as I speak, my words will find the woman they are meant for, that they will embrace you in the knowledge that you are not alone. I pray they equip you with strength and love and give you wings to rise from the depths of your own darkness.
As that officer whispered in my ear all those years ago, “next time could be the last time. You are worth it. Your babies are worth it. Please take care of yourself!”
Thank you for listening to my story today.