By Jennifer Kaysen
Imagine being a wife who is fearful of her husband at all times. She walks on eggshells from the time she wakes up in the morning until the time she goes to bed at night. She is petrified of making any wrong moves, but wants to give her children a better life. The following story is painfully real. The outcome is still a work in progress. All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals involved.
Joe Parks remembers his childhood as vividly as any nightmare. When he was four, his father walked out on his small family consisting of his mother, himself and his little sister. The image remains burned into his mind of his father’s back, walking slowly down the street, not to be seen again. His mother, Rebecca, had an addiction to alcohol — a factor in the numerous violent fights his father and her took part in. The abandonment left Rebecca feeding her alcohol addiction even more, spiraling her into a constant depression with moods alternating from extreme sadness to drunken bouts of violence and minimal affection. His mother began a relationship with Richard, a man who was absolutely toxic to her addiction. Together they became a drunken duo. The physical violence not only took over their relationship, but spread to the children as well. With Richard, Rebecca bore three other children. Because she had so many children, it was more beneficial for her not to work. Her lack of employment and stress of raising multiple children became the breeding ground for her out of control alcohol addiction. Richard, also a raging alcoholic, would release his frustrations from work, money and life on his partner, and when finished with her, would pound it into the five small children.
Joe hated his stepfather for the abuse. He couldn’t stand his mother for staying and allowing them to be abused in such a horrific way. His emotional issues began taking over his life. Joe wasn’t given the resources to be aware of how to release his frustrations in the proper way. He’d face fits of rage and take it out on whoever was closest. Joe began smoking marijuana with his friends. At first, he was a little scared. He had seen his mom smoke it and automatically associated marijuana with her behavior. But, when his friends smoked marijuana, they never acted the way she did. They were calm – downright mellow to be exact, and instead of bouts of violence, they would end up in fits of laughter. Marijuana became very appealing to Joe. He began smoking pot every day after school, increasing his intake to indulge before school. It felt so wonderful to be high. He found that almost instantly a better mood would take over.
Every time Joe smoked a joint, or puffed on his make-shift pipe, he was able to forget how bad it felt to be at home. He forgot about the pain of losing his father, the pain of the blows from his stepfather and the pain of hearing his mother cry after the alcohol wore off. Marijuana provided him with the perfect pair of rose-colored glasses. He relied on the never failing support that marijuana provided for him into his 20s. A cheap drug, marijuana was easy to obtain and the consequences were minimal. Joe married when he was 23. He honestly felt that happiness was within reach, although he conveniently forgot that marijuana played a huge role in this so-called happiness. He still hadn’t learned to work out his emotional issues on his own. With every fit of rage, he would turn to his trusty friend, marijuana. His young wife thought it was a phase, only seeing the dark side of Joe temporarily when he wasn’t under the influence of this drug. As she matured, she saw the damage the addiction to such a seemingly innocent drug had caused. Joe wasn’t able to enjoy any activity with his family without taking a few hits of his joint or pipe. His anger issues spiraled out of control when he wasn’t using. The physical violence escalated when his wife insisted he stop smoking marijuana. To her, marijuana was just an illicit drug teenagers toyed around with. To him, marijuana was his source of sanity.
Joe never hit his children, but what they were exposed to was damaging. The children heard the constant belittling of their mother and arguments, and on numerous occasions witnessed the violent acts he displayed with their mother. After years of being berated, violently abused, and forced to work two jobs because Joe lacked the motivation to hold a job, his wife filed for divorce.
Here is the mother’s account of the night she decided she had enough of the abuse and decided to take a stand against her husband and protect her children:
“I remember the incident like yesterday. It was the worst night of my life. It had been a long time coming, but what happened that night made me realize I had no choice but to leave my husband. I spent the day with my three children at Fort Mott State Park in Pennsville. My oldest and middle children are obsessed with anything affiliated with the military. My youngest loves to tag along and play whatever war games they create. My husband, Joe, didn’t go. Things had been pretty rough between us for a while and the more time we spent apart the better. He has a chemical imbalance which he chose to self-medicate. Being married to a man with severe mood swings and anger issues is definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve had to deal with; constantly walking on eggshells, wondering if the simplest word would set him off.
A comfortable 72 degree day was just what the kids and I needed — to explore and imagine a life so far from reality. We stayed at Fort Mott until 5 o’clock. Exhausted and hungry from a day of running through fields and hiding in bunkers, they cried, “Mommy! We want Happy Meals!” Happy Meals — the irony of their statement stayed in my gut like a pound of bricks. We arrived home around 6:30 in the evening. The house eerily quiet; my husband sound asleep in the bedroom. Depression had set in deep for him at this point. Not wanting to wake him, I bathed the boys and brushed their teeth. They climbed into bed as I started a movie for them to fall asleep to.
A loud noise came from downstairs. My heart began racing. I knew what that meant. He was awake. We had been gone all day — was he angry or calm? I bit down on my lip and prayed for the best. Giving each child a kiss atop their forehead, I tucked them in and said, “Mommy loves you … No matter what happens, everything will be okay. Daddy loves you and so do I.” With that, I let them be. Ignorance is bliss. As I descended down the stairs, I heard him whispering. I paused, waiting to see if I could catch a tone in his voice to feel out what our encounter would entail. He saw me. My heart dropped; the look he gave me was so familiar it chilled me to the bone. I ran scenarios through my mind but, thankfully, he redirected his course and walked quickly outside. Panicked, I snuck a peak out the bay window to see where he had gone.
Hidden in the dark corner of our 6-foot high privacy fence, he continued his conversation. Immediately I knew this phone call involved drugs. My instinct on high alert, I decided that I would say something. Enough was enough.
Waiting patiently on the steps in the dining room, I prepared myself for what was coming. I knew it would trigger an argument, but had no idea how far he would go. I planned on confronting him quietly, maybe walking away so he’d follow, just to get this confrontation away from the children. After I asked him, he lost his mind. The threats were so frightening, I began recording him from my phone. He realized I was making a video and became more enraged. Joe grabbed my phone and tried to break it. I struggled, finally able to secure it into my custody. I ran outside screaming for the police so the neighbors could hear. He followed, screaming, “I’ll kill you before they get here!”
Running on pure adrenaline, I pushed past him and ran to the front of the house, stashing the phone in our mailbox. I grabbed the house phone fumbling over the keypad as I dialed the police. The officer informed me that they’d be right over. I knew in my mind this would be the longest wait of my life.
My children heard the ruckus and came down the steps, fright prominent in each of their young eyes. Their dad exclaimed, “Do you see what your mom’s making me do?” They didn’t say a word, scared of what would happen next. The police officers arrived and arrested him. I tried to compose myself and reassure the boys that everything was okay. Daddy just wasn’t feeling well. I rested on the steps near their rooms for a bit, trying to focus on what would take place next.
An hour or so had passed as I listened to the kids slowly slip into a deep sleep.
The door slammed. I jumped, already shaken from the earlier events. He came bounding up the steps at me throwing his hands around my neck. My death in front of my children became the foremost thought in my mind. I wiggled loose and ran down the stairs into the dining room. He looked at me, eyes full of rage. “I’m not supposed to be here right now. But I promise you, you will die tonight. I will have you beaten so badly they won’t recognize you.” I begged for him to leave. I offered to take the kids to give him time to collect his things. He said, “Don’t even start the car. It will kill you.”
And with that, he left. I called the police and as I walked into the kitchen, I smelled gas. I must have said it out loud, because the police officer on the other end screamed into my ear to immediately leave the house with the kids and not turn on any lights. In a state of pure panic, I grabbed my children and ran out to the driveway to ensure we were as far away from the house as possible. Minutes later, two police units arrived. After they heard what had happened and saw the tape, they assisted me with filing a restraining order. The Atlantic City bomb squad was called to comb over the vehicle. He never came back. I slept in our bed with my children and one eye open.
That event occurred almost four years ago with many more before that. To say that we’ve endured an emotional struggle is an understatement. As a mother, my first concern was to protect my children. I have done everything in my power to do so. Between counseling sessions and family discussions, it has been a long road. We are at the point now where we’ve accepted the way things are and understand the differences from the past to present. I sat and talked with them, showed them that I am person with emotions and that it’s okay to cry and feel pain. My children understand that not one drop of this is their fault. If I chose to stay in that relationship, the kids would have been raised with a false sense of security in addition to incorrectly learning what a family foundation is made of. I honestly believe that therapy is a must in any abusive situation. There has to be a time to cope, a time to heal, and a constant understanding that the children shared are facing challenges emotionally as well. When I made the decision to leave, I felt at the time that it was in the best interest of my children. I will not say that there aren’t times when I wonder how different life would be for them if I had raised them in that kind of home. But, on the contrary, I know in my heart that it was unhealthy and I could not allow them to grow up believing this was the way a marriage should be. I want them to be strong and be part of a marriage they are content in, not one surrounded by conflict and abuse. Every day is a struggle for us. The benefit is that because my children are no longer exposed to a tension-filled home, I can focus on making them my top priority. They are well-rounded, accepting and making progress. Their outlook on life is positive and they seem secure and confident.
Rebecca’s outcome is unfortunately not typical. Many times, domestic violence victims are too scared to make this life-altering decision in fear of the violence continuing past their ‘escape.’ It is a process that takes place over time. But, her story is real. She accomplished the escape of an abusive relationship in an effort to improve the lives of her children and herself. She utilized every resource available in an effort to remove her children from this environment. The cycle of violence doesn’t stop unless a person puts a stop to it. Rebecca continues to face ‘aftershocks’ of the abusive relationship. Her former husband continues to harass her, but she has surrounded herself with a support system that is strong enough to destroy any negativity he brings into her life. It’s a constant struggle, but with determination and dedication to a positive end, escaping an abusive relationship is a possibility!
If you are in an abusive relationship, don’t feel as if you don’t have a place to turn. Support systems aren’t just family members. They can consist of friends, groups, social services, etc. Even when you feel as if you have no one to turn to or confide in, there is someone there.
Children in families where there is domestic violence are at a great risk of becoming victims of abuse themselves. Studies indicate this group is 15 times more likely to experience child abuse than children in non-violent homes are. Over half of the children in families where the mother is battered are also abused.
*Statistics from “Children: The Forgotten Victims of Domestic Violence,” Janet Chiancone, ABA Child Law Practice Journal, July 1997.