The Abyss

The Abyss
The Abyss

It seems appropriate that after having not been able to write a word in over a year, I’m sitting here at 2:37 a.m. trying to put thoughts on paper. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to write; indeed, the opposite. I’ve just been in a bad place and there haven’t been good words.

This is about domestic violence. Dysfunction. The cycle of abuse. Mostly, it’s a warning that when you think it’s over, it’s not over. If you know someone in this situation, if you’re helping someone in this situation or, if you’re in this situation (bless your heart), read on.

“Has he ever trapped you in a room and not let you out? Has he ever raised a fist as if he were going to hit you? Has he ever thrown an object that hit you or nearly did? Has he ever shoved, poked, or grabbed you? Has he ever threatened to hurt you? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we can stop wondering whether he’ll ever be violent; he already has been.” ~ Lundy Bancroft

There is nothing I love more in this world than my children. Not my husband. Not my siblings. Not my dogs. Not even my grandchildren, although they’re pretty damn close. My children…they came out of my body, people. That’s a tough act to compete with. When they are hurt or in peril, it is a genuine effort to not go Rambo on anyone or anything that is causing it.

“Hello, is this Mrs. Mansell?  This is Sgt. Wells with the Stone County Sheriff’s Department.  I’m here with your daughter, and we need to get her and the kids out of the house for their safety right now.  Can they come there?”

I asked to speak to her, because I just wanted to know she was ok, but I didn’t recognize the voice on the phone and I couldn’t make out what she was saying.  The only recognizable words?  “I’m sorry, Mom.” *Note:  There’s a reason the officer makes the call.

That was a couple years ago.  It wasn’t the first call.  It wouldn’t be the last. An hour later, when we’re hustling kids into the house, cold and wet from driving 45 minutes in the rain in a car with windows that had been busted out with a metal pipe, shaking out the blankets they were wrapped up in as more broken glass falls out, I am certain this would be the final straw.  She couldn’t go back after this.

I was wrong.  She could, and she did. It’s a cycle, you know.  So back into the maelstrom we all went.  I won’t bore you with the details.

Then it actually happened.  About 10 months ago, she made the decision to leave.  There was finally a straw that broke the camel’s back.  A catalyst.  She was going to actually end her participation in the cycle.  Exit the situation.  A cause for celebration?  Hell to the yes!

I didn’t know that decision was the beginning of a Fresh Hell. 

My highly intelligent, uber responsible, capable daughter is devastated.  She is terrified of decisions.  Her confidence is stuck at the bottom of some dark hole.  She has aged 10 years in 10 months.

My tween grandson has looked me straight in the eye and said:  “Well, Dad warned her what he was going to do if she tried to walk out of the house.  It’s her fault.  She should listen.”  Sweet Jesus, is this real?

I’m ten months in and if my daughter hasn’t sent a text or Snap Chat in 3 hours, I am seized with fear.  I find the reality of restraining orders laughable.

Counseling on a scale that I had never imagined is now as normal as taking a shower in the morning.  Endless counseling.  Individual counseling.  Family counseling.  Counseling with her and each child  alone.  What is most amazing?  The counselors are unfazed by what these children have witnessed, what my daughter has endured.  They see it all day every day.  Business as usual.

“The boys had always been her reason to stay, but now for the first time they were her reason to leave. She’d allowed violence to become a normal part of their life.” ~ Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies

Endless legal wrangling.  Files and forms and statements and subpoenas and records.  Reams of them.  Anxiously awaiting court dates just to learn there is going to be yet another continuance.  The judicial system is equally unfazed; probation violations, violating restraining orders, wildly inappropriate interactions with the children….happens all the time. 

I could now write a thesis on how to handle badmouthing.  “My Dad says you’re not allowed to tell us what to do.”  “My Dad says you hate him because he’s not rich.”  “My Dad says this whole side of the  family is nothing but douchebags.”  “My Dad says we’re going to go live with him.” “My Dad says Mom’s new apartment complex is full of drug addicts and we’re not safe there.” 

I was so euphoric when she chose to leave.  Giddy.  Relieved.  Thrilled.  No more would the kids come over and casually tell me about the fights and the police visits.  No more would my 8 year old granddaughter climb into my lap and tell me that Daddy said he was just going to blow his brains out, but she hopes he doesn’t.  No more would I walk into her house and see holes in the walls and doors ripped from their hinges.  No more would she try to cover for him; tell me about how he’s always had a bad temper, his abandonment issues, or his endless promises of improvement.

But it’s not over.  It’s just getting started.   She’s still not safe; I don’t think I will ever believe she is out of danger as long as he knows where she is.  The impact on the children is immeasurable.  Did I know they were going to need some help?  Yes.  Did I have any inkling of how severely damaged their concept of a healthy relationship was?  None.  Nada.

So here we are.  Better than we were a year ago.  There IS improvement, even though it’s mostly 3 steps forward and 2 steps back.  It’s still progress.  It’s a damn Cha-Cha, but it’s progress.

Know this:  If you have a friend or loved one who is leaving a bad relationship, they are beginning a brand new journey full of fear, uncertainty, and difficult realizations.  They are not out of the woods, but are only accepting that the woods exist and they need to escape them.  Know that they need you to support them.  Know that they need you to listen when they grieve the loss of the relationship, the in-law family that now sees them as the enemy, the loss of all that was familiar.  Know that they need you to show up on days they can’t find the energy to get out of bed and face the world.  Know that the impacted children are devastated and love both their parents and need you to love THEM unconditionally through the tantrums and anger and misbehavior.

Leaving is only the start, not the finish line.  Winning requires maneuvering a marathon obstacle course while doing the Cha-Cha.  We’ve all got our dancing shoes on, but prepare for a long haul.  Don’t give up because you get tired.  Don’t go back to the familiar because you get scared. 

Don’t. Give. Up.

Confessions From the Home Office

Confessions From the Home Office
Confessions From the Home Office


7 years ago, I became a “remote employee”. Back in the beginning, I was like a unicorn; rumored to exist, but others weren’t convinced it was real.  We “home basers” have come a long way since then, but perceptions haven’t evolved as quickly.  Some friends think I spend my day watching television and snacking.  Some envision it as identical to an office structure:  at a desk by 8:00 a.m., break for a 30 minute lunch at noon, and close up my computer at 4:30.  My kids think I never get out of my pajamas …which is the most accurate of all the assumptions.

I won’t lie; it’s a pretty sweet gig….but it has it’s downsides. While my coworkers in the office are chatting about their weekend over lunch at Chili’s, I’m more likely eating random things from Glad leftover containers while prepping dinner.  Sometimes it’s stiflingly lonely, and it takes focus to keep our team connected and bonded when we’re scattered across the country. Oh, who am I kidding?  I get to skip traffic, makeup, and ironing (or wearing) pants.  It’s frickin’ awesome!

While every day is different, I’ve tracked a recent day that is pretty representative.  Here’s a look at my pj clad, slipper wearing, unwashed hair, they-really-pay-me-for-this day.

5:00 a.m. – I’m awake. From bed, I grab my phone and check email.  Check Facebook.  Check Twitter.  Check NPR. It’s my turn on Words with Friends, and my brother is kicking my ass.  Jump into my slippers and take the dogs outside for their morning evacuations.

5:30 a.m. – I get my Kanban board set up. If you don’t know what that is, you can learn about it here.  Don’t let all the fancy stuff fool you:  mine is created with 3M sticky notes and a dry erase board.  The reality of the tasks give me anxiety, so I pick 2 of the easiest things to do quickly and get them off my plate.

Read email and replace the 2 tasks I’ve just completed with 4 more.  Friggin’ hell.

6:00 a.m. – I play with the dogs, because they’ve been annoying me for some attention since we came in at 5:30.

6:12 a.m. – Drink from last night’s cup of ….diet Pepsi?  Tastes like flat, warm diet Pepsi.  Drink it anyway.  Refill with fresh diet Pepsi.   Empty dishwasher. Remember new tasks on Kanban board and go back to work.

6:20 a.m. – Get to work on the non-urgent emails from overnight. Since I work for a global entity, communications come in all the time.  The goal is to clear those out before my “real day” starts at 7:30.

7:00 a.m. – Make sure the Mister is up and put some coffee on.

7:05 a.m. –Notice the first coworkers starting to pop up on Skype.  Why do we pretend that we start work at 8:30?  If we haven’t heard from someone by 7:30, we’re calling out the National Guard.

7:15 a.m. – Chat with the Mister, shove him out the door with leftovers for lunch.

7:30 a.m. – The Morning Blur: Skype, phone conferences, emails, internet research, daily industry news summaries, book airfare for upcoming trip, confirm meetings.

10:12 a.m. – Refill Pepsi, bathroom break, take dogs out, feed the cat, evaluate options for dinner and take something out of the freezer.  I’m exhausted, and it’s not even 10:30 in the morning.

10:22 a.m. – Daughter calls. “Hi, what are you up to?”  “Making pizza.”  “Oh, you’re not working?”  Silence.  “OK, sorry, just wanted to ask you something real quick….”

10:30 a.m. – The Morning Blur, Part Deux: this part of the morning almost always involves heavy phone calls.  This is when the dogs have their daily barking bonanza.  Sometimes it’s over a squirrel.  Or the UPS guy.  Or a leaf blowing across the yard.   Hit mute on my phone and head to the spare bedroom for noise control.  Forget I’m on mute and just think everyone is talking over me.

Realize I didn’t finish upcoming trip preparations, make car reservations.  Realize I booked the car at a different airport than the one I’m arriving in.  Cancel existing reservation and start over.  Question how I’ve survived this long.

12:22 p.m. – HOW IS IT AFTERNOON ALREADY? Take a shower.  Debate return to pajamas or upgrade to sweat pants.  Refill diet Pepsi, and chastise myself for diet soda addiction.  Hunt for food.  Settle for cheese and nuts, unless there are really good leftovers that I didn’t send to work with the Mister.  Go feed chickens and collect eggs. Get mail.

If you’re picturing a woman in purple leopard print flannel nightwear, hair piled up in a ponytail, sometimes with a coat on over the pajamas, hauling around a chicken feeder, you’d be accurate. Just add my chicken waders to the visual, and you’ve got it.  My neighbors love me.

I inevitably get a phone call while I’m doing chicken chores  Usually it’s something critical and detailed, and it’s from an angry customer.  Try to memorize the details while replacing fowl food.  Rooster starts crowing because I haven’t given them treats yet.  “Is that a chicken I hear?  Why do you have a chicken at work?”  This does not soothe the situation.  Ever.

12:50 p.m. – Start on a project that requires concentration, for which I’ve blocked 2 hours and set my Skype to Do Not Disturb

12:52 p.m. – Get a phone call about a sick grandchild, and go pick them up from school. Make phone calls while in the car. Hands-free, of course.

2:00 p.m. – Return home, take dogs out, refill diet Pepsi, get sick kid situated on couch with blankets and remote control. Realize I’m still starving, and hunt for more food.  Bacon!

2:20 p.m. – The Afternoon Blur: Skype, phone conferences, return phone calls.  Realize one of the conferences is video enabled, and curse myself for the Cardinals t-shirt and crazy, untamed Phyllis Diller hair.  Thank God I got the call about the sick kid, or it’d be the purple leopard print  with the untamed Phyllis Diller hair.  Always look on the bright side.

2:32 p.m. – Son calls. “Hey, are you busy?”  This is always better than “Whatcha doin’?”.

2:48 p.m. – Daughter calls. “Go check Facebook.  You’re going to DIE!”

3:15 p.m.  –  Realize I didn’t book a hotel for upcoming trip.  Back to travel planning mode.

4:40 p.m. – Parent of sick child arrives for pick up. Take dogs out.  Throw in a load of laundry.  Get dinner prepped and in the oven.  Feel guilty for making dinner during work hours.

5:00 p.m. – Re-evaluate Kanban board. Commit to finishing 2 items before calling it a day.

5:05 p.m. – The Mister comes home, and I apologetically explain I’ve just got 2 more things to do.

5:50 p.m. – Boss calls from car on his way home to catch up on some topics we were supposed to talk about but didn’t get to. (He has a 75 minute drive, so this could take 5 minutes or 60.)

6:30 p.m. – Dinner; dishes; dogs; tv; normal evening.  My mother in law calls and asks what I did today.  I say “nothing, really”.

9:00 p.m. – Check email. Prime time in Asia, and the Inbox is filling up.

At some point – go to bed.

1:15 a.m. – Wake up; bathroom, check email.

3:22 a.m. – Wake up, check email. Find response from annoying string that’s been going on all day; type out snarky reply on phone.  Click send.

3:23 a.m. – Realize it was much too snarky, and that I’ve just blown my chance to go back to sleep.

5:00 a.m. – Here we go again.

It has its ups and downs, but I’ll take my chicken feeding, dish washing, makeup free days over the traditional corporate schedule any day.


Why She Stays

Why She Stays
Why She Stays

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  Rather than give statistics and a pep talk about “zero tolerance”, I thought I’d talk about the elephant in the room.  The victim who keeps going back.

If you know anyone who is impacted by domestic violence (and I hope you don’t, but it’s likely you do), you have undoubtedly experienced the sense of helplessness that smothers friends and family of the abused.  You may have helped intervene.  Maybe you’ve provided a safe place.  You may have been there during the humiliating physical exams, police reports, or court proceedings seeking protection.  You’ve likely wiped tears and listened to hours of sobbing, reinforcing that it wasn’t the victim’s fault.  You’ve put on soothing smiles while trying to distract children who have seen too much, heard too much, and can’t quite understand what they’re afraid of.

The one thing you can’t do, can’t comprehend, can’t accept, is why she goes back.  After multiple instances, it’s difficult to remain supportive.  Out of frustration and fear, the victim’s strongest supporters become her biggest critics.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time trying to educate myself on the dynamics that keep the cycle in motion.  When you’re outside looking in, the choice is so crystal clear.  When you’re in the maelstrom, it’s not so easy.  If you love someone who is in an abusive situation, you have experienced the massive relief, bordering on euphoria, when the victim reaches out for help because they are “done”.  You cheer them on as they stand their ground and take steps to move on with their life.  She finally sees herself as others see her:  smart, capable, and so deserving of a better life.  You commit to doing whatever she needs to get a clean start, and you mean it.

It may last a day, a week, a month, 3 months, but you can feel it when she starts to slip.  Her anger and fear is replaced with the anxiety of starting over.  She loses the fire that made her take those steps out the door.  She is tired. Then you sense the danger is returning:  the victim stops talking about the future, communication starts to wane, and pretty soon you realize it’s all back to square one.  She backs away from the people who have supported her initial decision to leave, and surrounds herself with the enablers who are congratulating her for her commitment to her relationship.

It’s hard to accept.  Most people just hold their breath and wait for the next time.  Some people sever the relationship with the victim because they don’t want to be part of it any longer.  Many deride the victim for the decision, creating an even bigger obstacle for them to seek help the next time.

It seems insane.  So, why does she do it?

She stays for the kids.  While it seems insane to people on the outside looking in, she thinks the downside of not having their father around is worse than the occasional outburst.  She doesn’t want him putting the kids in the middle, or, worse, making the kids feel sorry for him because Mommy got him in trouble.  She knows that no matter how poor of a father he may be, if she leaves him, he’ll be worse.  She doesn’t want them to be abandoned.  She doesn’t want them to have a series of new step-mommies, because she knows he won’t be alone for long.  Abusers need to have that relationship to get their fix.

She stays out of sympathy.  Most abusers have enablers around them.  Friends, family, people that have never held the abuser accountable for his actions.  These people work overtime trying to appeal to the victim.  They’ll give her updates about how sorry he is.  Convey messages, letters, gifts, even in the face of violating restraining orders.  Why?  Like her, they believe his lies.  They believe he’s learned his lesson, and is so sorry, and will never ever ever do this again.  He likely plies them with manipulative lies:  “Don’t tell her, but I haven’t slept in 4 days because I can’t stop thinking about her.” The victim, too, may have developed a co-dependent relationship with the abuser.  Codependent relationships may stink to high heaven, but they’re as comfortable as an old pair of slippers.

She stays out of fear. Whether the threats have been against her, the kids, her family, or himself, she believes he’s capable of following through.  The risk is just too great.

She stays because of ego.  This is a tough one to acknowledge, but it’s true.  When the cycle hits the part where he is begging, pleading, promising, saying all the right things, it’s pretty powerful.  He can’t go on without her.  Life without her is meaningless.  What woman doesn’t want to feel that adored?  Of course it’s bull hockey, because if it were true, the pain he caused her the very first time he abused her mentally, emotionally, or physically would have crushed him to the point that he would have immediately gotten the help he needed to never let it happen again.

She stays for security.  The abuser may hold all the cards financially.  He may threaten to take the children away if she leaves.  The truth is, after living in an abusive relationship, it is likely many of the positives in the victim’s life have faded away:  self esteem, friends, family, career.  The victim may not feel capable. She may not feel worthy.  She may be dealing with depression.  She may be afraid of being alone.

She stays out of shame and embarrassment.  The first time, there’s some hope that the abuser really means it when he says “I’m sorry.”  The second time, there’s usually a harsher ultimatum, and the apology is more profuse.  If the victim seems really serious, the abuser pulls out some deep dark secret that explains the abusive tendencies, and swears to get help. As the cycle repeats itself, the victim is humiliated that she ignored the advice from her supporters that was likely hurled at her endlessly every time she went back.  Now, she just feels stupid:  she fell for it again.

She stays because she’s invested. Forty percent of women  who leave an abusive situation will return.  On average, women leave seven times before leaving for good. Why? The investment theory  is a classical analysis that is often used to explain why people do what is so clearly not in their best interest. Simply put, what has already been invested into the relationship, be it emotional, social and/or financial, can be incredibly hard psychologically to give up.  It may seem infinitely easier to stay in a bad situation then to muster the energy and make a change. This explains why people stay: In jobs they hate, cities with no opportunities, with the wrong circle of friends or in an abusive relationship. Where we are may not be good, but it seems easier to coast along rather than put in the considerable effort needed to make a change.

She stays because she loves him.  There may have been happy times, and hope is a powerful thing.  However, this response is typically just a combination of all the other reasons listed.  Of course she loves him, or did at one point, but a genuine love would encourage the victim to stand firm so that the abuser could get healthy.  Statistics show that if she stays, the chances of the abuser actually learning how to stop the abusive behavior are abysmally low.

So what do you do?  There’s no right answer, but the decision should be based on what is healthiest for YOU rather than what the victim’s situation is.  You may cross your fingers and wait for the next time the dysfunction spills over into violence.  You may choose to maintain a relationship with the victim, but not the abuser.  You may decide you need a break from all of it, and step away for a time.  You may have to accept that if the victim goes back, it is with the agreement that she will stay away from you.  Abusers don’t like the people that try to help the victim leave the situation, and will try to convince the victim that their supporters are causing problems in the relationship.

Even if you have to keep your distance for awhile, it’s important that the victim knows that people love her, care about her well being, and that there are resources available to her if she needs them.  Unconditional love is the best thing you can offer.

**While I have used “he” for the abuser, and “she” for the victim, that is only for clarity of communication.  Victims and abusers come in all genders, colors, and religions.**

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE