Why I Stayed…

Even if you spend much of your time under a rock like I do, you probably caught wind of the whole “Why I Stayed” campaign on Twitter (and elsewhere).

There’s big noise because Meredith Vieira shared her story today. The NBC Nightly News shared feedback; one woman mentioned the misconception that people who are abused have low self esteem, which she succinctly defined as a load of hooey (she used a better word but I can’t remember it now). She went on to say that Ms. Vieira’s revelation should give them hope, since she is such a vibrant person who has developed a very positive existence in the years after her abuse.

Hope is great and I certainly applaud Ms. Vieira for telling her story.

I have shared my own in various places but have never said specifically why I stayed.

There were a number of reasons, the most gigantic of which was tied tightly to self esteem. I didn’t have low self esteem–I had no self esteem. I was a love-hungry college student and he was an older man. He showered me with compliments and I basked in the experience. Alarms went off in my head but they did not prevent me from letting him moving in to the apartment I had shared with a colleague. When the true holder of my heart called me one last time (on Thanksgiving; I was standing over the stove, cooking a holiday dinner for this man and my parents…), what I think of now as my truer self screamed, “Wait! Don’t hang up–listen: I’m sneaking out and coming to your house. If you let me crash there, I’ll explain everything.” My actual in-the-moment self said nothing and continued to stir the gravy.

Instead of acting on the advice of my truer self, I got married; my truer self tried to drag me out of the church, but my in-the-moment self stood there and mouthed those words in front of my mom and dad, members of his family, and our church, none of whom had a clue. My truer self would do backflips each time I was screamed at, hit, and shoved. I stayed at first because I felt like I had nowhere to go; I felt like I could not tell my family what had gone on, what went on with regularity.

And then I got pregnant and stayed because he threatened to take my child and make me out to be a bad mom; the fact that I was the one who made sure my child got what he needed was lost on the in-the-moment me.

As time blundered on I stayed because I was in so deep and simply couldn’t see past the end of my nose. I was afraid.

I was eventually widowed out of that marriage and all the mental health training I had kicked in; couldn’t lean on any of it when I was in the thick of things, right? But once the world was silent I could listen. He was a product of abuse; he did what he knew.

I offer than not as an excuse, but to say that from a distance, I came to understand the abusive nature of that man. Just as I had no one to “school” me about not staying in such a situation, he had no one to “school” him on how not to be the person he was.

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell asked, “Can you imagine staying in a relationship where you were being hit?” (That wasn’t the exact question but it was close).

Yep. I sure can.

Can I imagine walking away back then?

Sure, if I knew what I know now. If I had listened to my truer self and was then the woman I am today, sure. But as Ms. Vieira said, abuse is complicated. It’s never neat or as simple as, “Just leave.”

And that’s what people must remember before they comment on the experience of anyone in any situation.