American girl

Most people don’t know it, but Oct. 9 is a holiday – for this American Girl it’s a personal Fourth of July. You see, it’s the anniversary date of the liberation of Laura Cartwright and her precious children from a very long, verbally and emotionally abusive marriage.

This year is the 15th since we got out.

You may not want to read this; it’s not a pretty story, but maybe it will give somebody strength.

Because if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I was feisty. I was the bossy one in previous relationships. I was a tomboy. I was self-confident.

I was naive.

Cathy and I were raised in such a way that we didn’t know that seriously mean people existed outside of novels and horror movies. My kids have the advantage of knowing those people are out there. But I’d give anything for them not to know and I still lose sleep over it at times.

I was 20 and in college when I met their dad. I’d been madly in love with someone else for a long time, but, possibly because we were so young when we met, it didn’t last. I still wasn’t over him when I met a dramatic, older Vietnam vet who needed saving. I thought it was a bit weird (and mildly scary) that he came on so strong and pushed so hard so fast to get married, but these were the hippie-dippy ’70s. I said OK.

I insisted we wait until after my 21st birthday, so we set the date for 10 days later (in retrospect, like that matters, but I’d made a vow to myself years before). We’d known each other for about three months by then and had dated for half that long. By the time of the wedding, I knew it was a mistake; I’d felt rumblings but felt trapped. I took a Valium or two and went through with it.

The wedding was Friday; the dark side erupted in full dramatic fury Sunday evening. I thought it was a joke at first and actually laughed before I got scared.

This story could get very long, so I’ll synopsize. Very quickly he had me out of school and working, despite a promise to my father that no matter what, “Laura will finish school. She’s the brains of the couple.” Hah.

Social isolation is one thing abusers do. He tried to be physically violent but quickly learned that wasn’t happening, so he had to settle for the other routes. And he constantly made me feel it was my duty to ease his psychic pain and war-survival guilt. His emotional wellbeing was my responsibility. That’s another thing abusers do.

I managed to get myself back in college pretty quickly. By the time I learned I was pregnant with precious one No. 1, I already loathed my husband yet still felt responsible for him. Complicated and confusing way to live.

Becoming a mother, my greatest joy, meant I was out of college again. But I’d never been happier than taking care of that boy.

Ben was quickly followed by precious one No. 2.

My darling babies

He and Liz became my reasons to live and the greatest loves of my life. I poured everything I had into protecting them and trying to offset abuse directed their way by loving them even harder and telling them how wonderful they were. I should have just grabbed them up and run.

But anytime I brought up his abusive behavior, my misery and that we needed to end things, the threats began. “I’ll take your children. You’ll never see them again. What judge would give them to you? You can’t support them. You don’t even have a college degree.”

My father was dying an extended cancer death when my children were toddlers, so survival became the theme of those years. My then-husband refused to visit him “because he’d seen too much death during the war.” (Most things I’m over, but that’s one thing I’ll never forgive.)

Daddy died in April, and by August I had a student loan co-signed by my mother and was back in school. I made straight As, so I knew I wasn’t insane or incompetent, no matter what I was hearing at home.

I finished my degree and got certified to teach.

Graduating was a long haul. And graduation was a four-hour ceremony.

Just knowing I could support the three of us relieved some pressure. Then I went to work and found another measure of sanity and release.

Weirdly, things got somewhat better; the craziness would wax and wane, but we never knew when things would explode. Holidays were extremely stressful.

The kids and I walked on eggshells every day. We managed to seem normal publicly, and their friends always hung out at our house. Adults generally weren’t welcome at our house; he made that obvious by rude behavior whenever I tried having guests. We had very few friends. I had many friends, but as a couple, nada. He used to tell people I was his best friend.

These situations are so complicated; if we divorced, he’d have unsupervised access to our children, and I couldn’t allow that. And there were the continual threats of what he’d do – to me, to himself.

By the time the kids were in junior high, they were begging me to get out. My 40th birthday was the last straw (again, I won’t go into details, but that was my breaking point). The kids were in high school, and I knew they’d be OK. My sister would take them in if anything happened to me.

I’d reached the point of not caring what happened to me. Well, I preferred to live and be free, but literal death couldn’t be worse than zombiehood. Funny thing – when I called his bluff and told him to leave, he did.

It wasn’t easy, though. Lots of late night phone calls, a bit of stalking. That continued after the divorce, for quite a while.

He told everyone “Laura woke up one day and wanted a divorce.” I told people nothing. For years. Trina suspected from the beginning. Pam knew. Rhonda knew. Tammy came in on the end of things, but she knew. June and Jack not only knew but feared for my safety. After the divorce, Jack sat me down and counseled me, quite paternally, that I couldn’t think about dating for a long, long time.

“I’ve seen that look,” he said.

My family knew the truth, of course, and supported me fully.

In one of the crazier turns of events at the end, I got a late-night phone call from a distraught husband telling me he’d found evidence of our spouses’ extracurricular activities and she didn’t deny it. I told him how sorry I was, but my divorce was being finalized in the morning. I was free, and that bit of info, plus several more that came out, gave me the ammo I needed to enforce the “don’t come near me” rule.

My sister went to court with me. My almost-ex didn’t show. I left the courthouse with my name back and the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. I worked three and four jobs, including a stint as the world’s worst cocktail waitress at Sir Loin’s Inn to make ends meet as a single mom. Great tips, despite my lousy service and refusal to carry a tray with one hand.

(My friends Debi and Morris, who owned the place, suddenly “desperately” needed a part-time waitress and could I help them out? Thanks, you two. I’ll always love you for that.)

Every day I woke up thrilled that I didn’t have to be married anymore, yet aggrieved at what my kids had been through. I asked their forgiveness, but they said none was necessary and thanked me for their childhood.

We survived. We thrive. I bear responsibility for my part in the insanity and the only grudge I hold is for mistreatment of my kids. Seems like a bad dream after 15 years have passed.

I still have occasional nightmares, but now I’m married to a dream of the good sort.

I’m over being embarrassed or ashamed, and if this helps anyone, I’m glad I told. But don’t look for a victim from this story. She’s not there.

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