Seven attempts: What it takes to leave an abuser
I refused help, but people who reached out helped me see what I could not: I did not deserve a life of fists and fear.
I am sitting in the passenger seat of our truck. It is January in Boston. I am not sure why I do not have a coat with me, but the wind is howling, and it is snowing.
We are in an open-air parking garage near Faneuil Hall where Scott*, my boyfriend, has a small seasonal business. Our black labrador, Crystal, is beside me in the truck, leaning into me, providing warmth, my arms around her.
My heart is already beating fast, and then I hear the ding of the elevator. Scott approaches from around the corner. His face is bright red. From the cold? I wonder. But no, his hands are clenched in fists. His lips are pursed and thin, so I know he is fuming but trying to hide it. Please no, please no, please no, runs through my mind.
Scott is a talented wood-worker, respected by the Faneuil Hall executives and organisers. He sells his handmade boxes of various exotic woods in assorted sizes that hold pills, earrings, and business cards. He works at the kiosk in Boston about three months a year.
I am a waitress who works at least six days a week and often double shifts. This was to be my one day off in three weeks. I did not want to join Scott at his kiosk in Boston for the day. I had plans to stay home in New Hampshire, walk on frozen Lake Sunapee with Crystal, then curl up with a book and some much-needed silence.
But Scott insisted, assuring me he would make it a fun day.
I am afraid to look him in the eye. “Get out of the truck,” he says in a monotone. I shake my head no, pulling Crystal closer. Scott’s eyes widen, he opens his mouth then closes it. He looks around the parking garage.
“I just need your keys to lock up the kiosk,” he explains. My heart jumps. He knows I left the kiosk unlocked.
“Where is your set?” I ask. “I left them at home.”
I do not recall whether he used his or my keys to open the kiosk in the morning. My body, my gut, suggests he is lying, but my mind finds his request reasonable. His voice is calm, so I open the door.
Scott exerted control over my life very slowly. He was jealous of other men or friends right from the beginning. But that did not bother me. I was 25 years old, I thought that meant he loved me.
Once I moved in with him, he asked me to keep my money in his dresser drawer. He noticed that I misplaced money, sometimes finding random bills in coat pockets or a book. My parents did not keep tight tabs on me as a kid. Scott’s close eye on me felt like protection and love. I felt special.
Scott had always told me it was he and I and Crystal against the world. I did not think twice about handing all my money to him. I reasoned it was “ours”.
Soon I had to “ask” for money because Scott moved all the money into his wallet. I was never comfortable asking. As a result, I fell into a pattern of powerlessness and isolation.
The minute my foot touches the cement, Scott grabs my sweatshirt at the chest and yanks me out of the truck. He grasps me by the shoulders and shakes me as hard as he can. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he screams and rants.
I stumble then pirouette across the parking garage as he tries to thrust me to the ground. The world becomes silent, and I am no longer in my body. I am hovering high above the scene. I watch as Scott lifts me, extends his arms, and lunging, releases me into the air. I see my body twirl in a triple axel then land abruptly on cement. He successfully performs this move over and over. I watch as I tumble through the air in slow motion.
Our pas de deux ends with me on my side, cheek against concrete, left arm curved above my head, Scott’s steel-toed boot plunged into my ribs.
Still up on the ceiling, I notice that my tights are torn at the knees, my thin sweatshirt ripped down the middle, leaving my chest wide open.
I see Crystal standing on the truck seat, staring out the window. I can tell from the tension in her body and the way her mouth moves that she is barking ferociously. When I follow her line of vision, I see Scott stomping on my necklace, a double terminated quartz crystal, shattering it to pieces. It was a Christmas gift; he had bought us matching jewellery because of our “special bond and connection”.
Statistics reveal that nearly 20 people a minute, in the United States alone, are physically abused by their intimate partner.
Most of the incidents with Scott and I occurred at home, where there were no witnesses.
He often hit me in the head and chest or grabbed my biceps to shake me. The bruises he left were easily hidden. He never punched me in the face. I was the consistent wage earner; he knew he could not send me to work with visible injuries.
Like many abusers, Scott was also loving, funny, protective and adventurous. Those were the times I tried to recreate by staying quiet, letting his actions roll off my back, and reminding myself, as he taught me, if I did not upset him, he would not hit me.
At some point, I hear a bell in the background, and I am aware of a man and woman walking to their car. In a protective move, the man switches places with the woman so that she is on the far side of us. They try not to stare, but I notice them taking quick glances. I watch their car drive away.
There goes any help I might have had, I think.
The parking garage grows darker. The temperature drops. The presence of the couple does not deter Scott for a moment. When he is done punishing me, I am in shock: I’m shaking, cold and disoriented.
I try to speak, explain, but no words come out.
He leaves me alone, locked outside the truck. Crystal is inside barking as Scott heads for the elevator. I stand at the passenger window, trying to hold my ripped sweatshirt together. My knees, my chest, my palms, and my head are all throbbing.
“It’s OK, Crystal,” I say over and over. “Don’t worry, honey, everything’s alright.”
After arriving at the kiosk in Boston earlier that morning, Scott kisses me, gives me a wad of money so I can make change for customers, then says he is going over to Donovan’s for a quick beer.
When I protest, he says, “Don’t worry. I promise I won’t be gone long, then you can go have some lunch.”
“Okay,” I agree, “but don’t forget Crystal is in the truck. She’ll need a walk.”
Two hours go by. I want to go get Scott, but I do not. I am trying to be reasonable; I do not want him angry on my day off.
As time passes, I become increasingly irate and ignore or snap at customers. With one hour left in the day, I realise Scott used me to give himself a day off. I am worried about Crystal and furious with Scott. But I know my pattern; I will not say a word.
At closing time, instead of walking to the storage room, lifting the four heavy plywood sides to the kiosk and locking each of them in place, I leave the entire kiosk as is: completely open, as if I just stepped away for a moment. All the inventory is still arranged on shelves, handmade calligraphy signs offer special deals, and Scott’s business cards splay across the ledge. I leave his director’s chair to the side of the kiosk and walk out of the building. I do not care if someone steals every box on display. In fact, I hope they do.
The first time Scott hit me we had been together less than a year. One of his male friends was visiting. The three of us were in the living room, preparing to go out for the day. The friend asked me if I was ready. In the spirit of the moment, I said, “Yes. I was born ready.” With three large steps, Scott lunged at me and slapped me hard across the face. No one said anything.
I went to the bathroom and stared at the red mark on my cheek. Then, the three of us went about our day.
I never told a friend or family member about the incident because I believed they would blame me, too. I could not make sense of Scott’s reaction; I had grown up with three brothers, and we always talked like this.
However, I learned immediately to monitor my behaviour. From that point on, any type of violence or name-calling became normalised for me, and I instantly took on the blame. This one occasion conditioned me to stay quiet. The silence and non-reaction taught me that violence is acceptable.
I walk into Donovan’s where I find Scott holding a pint and laughing with the bartender. He sees me approach, lifts his chin in acknowledgement and continues his conversation. I stop beside him and say, “I’ll be in the truck.”
I leave the bar, walk to the parking garage, take Crystal for a quick walk, then return with her to the truck.
My plan is that Scott will come straight to the truck from the bar. He will have no idea what I have done. He will not realise until the next day when he comes to work that I left the kiosk open. But I will not be there. I will be safe in New Hampshire at my waitressing job, and by the time Scott returns home that night, he will have calmed down.
Over time, I learned to take careful steps to ensure that I would not purposely provoke Scott. But I never knew what might set him off. Once it was the skirt I was wearing, though he had seen me wear it to work many times; once it was saying “no I could not help him make his boxes” because of my waitressing schedule.
He blamed me so often that I believed I was always at fault.
One evening, I told him I was going out for drinks with my boss’s wife after work. I was clear I might not be home until 2:30am. Scott agreed; he even said, “Don’t worry if you’re a little late”.
I got home at 2:35. When I walked in the house, he flew at me, screaming that I always had to push everything past the limit.
After he threw me around the room, he locked me out of the bedroom, leaving me to sleep on the living room floor. We had no living room furniture at the time. It was February, cold. I covered myself with coats from the closet.
Lying on the thin rug, I could not sleep. I went over the situation again in my head. I knew I had not done anything wrong, but the familiar shame seeped up my legs, into my hips and stomach, my heart and throat. Shame is a paralyser, a silencer. Another reason for isolation.
I hear the elevator open again, and I brace myself for Scott’s return. I am shaking with fear and with shame because the couple witnessed what happened. My hands grip my sweatshirt, but I am prepared to let go and defend myself if necessary.
To my surprise, I see a thin short man in a uniform approach, head down. Oh sh*t, I’m in trouble. He’s gonna arrest me or throw me out for causing a scene.
Crystal barks wildly. My words do not quiet her. I pull my arms tighter around my chest. Please don’t take me away. Just let me stay here with her.
The man stops about 10 feet (three metres) from me. “Do you need any help?” he asks shyly, hands in his pockets. In my head I say, Please get me out of here, me and my dog. Please hide us. Please call my brother to come and get us.
But I do not want to involve my brother. Of course, he would come. I know this; he loves me. But I want to protect him from the ugliness of my life. I do not want anyone I love knowing that my life holds this kind of fear, this kind of violence. I have convinced myself that I chose this life; I have to handle it myself. My shame will not allow me to accept any help, but in my head, I am shouting, Please sir, please call my brother.
The money I made paid for our living expenses. The money Scott made was used for fun, like buying a Pontiac Fiero, splurging on dinners out, purchasing unnecessary woodworking tools or cross-country skis.
Every week, he insisted I pick up extra shifts. On the day Scott convinced me to join him in Boston, I had worked for nearly three weeks without a day off. Most of these shifts were “doubles” which meant I was away from home 12 to 15 hours a day. It would be a week before I would get another break. That is why I flipped when he left me alone at the cart all day. I had had enough of his false promises.
Because I am in shock, because I am shaking from fear and freezing temperatures, because I am still scared out of my mind, because I do not realise I deserve a better life, because my mind twists itself to Scott’s words … you and me against the world … I shout to the guard, “Leave me the hell alone.”
I do not know why there are two of me: one who wants help and one who believes safety means not admitting the truth.
“It’s none of your business! Get out of here,” I yell louder, taking a step toward him. Please don’t go please don’t go. I need help but I can’t ask for it. He raises his hands, apologises, turns his back, and walks away. Come back come back.
I crouch on the ground beside the truck and sob into my hands. I imagine myself following the guard, having him dial my brother’s phone number, hiding me in a storage closet until my brother can come get me. The problem, of course, is that Scott will know exactly where I went and he will drive to my brother’s house and haul me out of there, but this time my brother will get hurt, too.
I hate myself as I watch the security guard disappear around the cement wall.
Before too long Scott returns. He refuses to look at me and does not say a word. He gets into the truck and starts it. He does not unlock my door. I feel the truck jerk as he shifts into reverse. Crystal is still standing, looking at me, and I hear Scott yell at her.
I knock on the door. Nothing. I knock again louder, and he unlocks it. I scoot in as quickly as I can and stay as far away from Scott as possible. All my weight is leaning against the passenger door. Crystal lays down on top of me. Her front paws press onto my thighs as if to hold me in place. Ears alert, she will not lay her head down, will not rest.
The truck tyres screech around the tight curves of the garage until Scott stops to pay. Inside the kiosk, I see the money taker and the security guard. The second I see him, I fly to the ceiling of the truck, looking down on all of us. Scott speeds out of the garage, tyres skidding on the thin coat of snow.
On the highway, I glance down at him. His mouth moves furiously, his right hand punches my shoulder and head. I feel Crystal’s weight on my thighs; she is shaking as hard as me. I watch my hand lift to stroke her head.
I turn to the right and notice a line of tractor-trailers. I stare at their huge tyres and the swift painted white lines on the highway. It feels like an escape. I try to force Crystal off my lap. I am thinking I can push her toward Scott, open my door, jump out, shut the door for her safety, and let the tractor-trailer tyres flatten me, put me out of my misery. But Crystal will not move.
Scott’s mouth spews fire. The scene remains the same for our two-hour ride. I know we make it home alive because the next day, I wake with an aching body. I lie in bed, trying to remember the previous day’s events the way you try to recall a dream first thing in the morning.
I walk to the shower, turn on scorching hot water, then slide to a sitting position when I notice the purple-blue bruises throbbing on my chest, the dried blood and tiny gravel embedded in my palms and knees.
I have read it usually takes a woman around seven attempts before actually leaving her abuser.
For years, it never dawned on me that I deserved a better life. I never thought about leaving until other people intervened in some way. The people who attempted to reach out and help me were pivotal figures in my eventual departure from Scott. The first was the couple in the parking garage who reported the incident.
A few days after the Boston ordeal, it dawned on me that the couple saw what I could not: violence is unacceptable. They knew enough not to step in themselves; it would not have been safe. But they did not ignore it. They reported it.
The security guard was the second pivotal figure in my eventual decision to leave Scott. That timid man wanted nothing more than to take me somewhere safe. I refused, but he planted a seed in my mind. It became clear to me that he knew the violence was intolerable. Eventually, that knowledge seeped into me as well. His courage gave me courage.
Lastly, my brother was a critical source of assistance. Over the years, he had witnessed some of Scott’s vicious behaviour. Without Scott’s knowledge, my brother offered me a place to stay to free myself from Scott. I was not ready to leave then, but my brother’s sincere concern stayed with me. It grew inside me and prompted me to consider my options every time I found myself wounded, terrified or manipulated by Scott.
These people who intervened showed me through their actions that I was worthy of a better life, that Scott’s behaviour was not “normal.” I did not forget the gestures they made. These thoughts continued to rise to the surface, to remind me that people did care, that others saw the horror of my existence, saw that I did not deserve a life of fists and fear.
As a result, eventually, I garnered the strength to love myself enough to leave.
I will forever feel grateful for the bravery of those who stepped in. Because I was out of body during much of the violence, I was more a witness to incidents than a participant. That is why it was so important to have others reflect back to me the unacceptable conditions of my situation. I know from experience how frightening it can be to intercede, but I might not be alive today if others had not taken action while also maintaining their own safety.
*Name was changed to protect the privacy of the abuser’s family.