It is a winter night in my new home in Paris, Tennessee. I use the term home very loosely. I am more like a boarder or burden than a welcome addition. I have been living for the last few months with my step-father’s mother, Laverne and her roommate, Joe. Deposited into their care for the week while my mom and step-father look for work in Memphis, a two plus hour drive away. The weeks are long and hard for a little girl in a completely strange environment without anyone who truly wants her around. I feel lonely and confused. I don’t fit in Paris very well. Not in Laverne’s home with all the weird antiques and junk. Nor in my new school. Where I “speak funny” and mingle with my black classmates. Things are very different here than what I am accustomed to in South Jersey. This is a memory of one night. A memory so crystal clear that if I close my eyes I can be transported right back in time, over thirty years ago. It is winter in Paris and there is snow on the ground. Bitter cold. I am sick with bronchitis. I am 5 or 6 years old, asleep in Laverne’s bedroom. In the room she begrudgingly allows me to share with her. Suddenly, I am awoken from slumber by my mom’s voice. She is begging, pleading with an edge to her voice I had never heard before.
I am immediately and fully roused. My sympathetic nervous system automatically kicks into high gear. I lie still, heart pounding, ears pricked and straining to listen to what is going on outside the bedroom. My eyes unblinking on the shaft of light piercing into the bedroom from the door slightly ajar. I am frightened. Listening……
“Joe! Please! Please put the gun down!” My mom is pleading.
“Please! Melissa is in the next room! Please! Don’t do this!” She continues.
Now my mind is racing. I am trying to puzzle together exactly what is happening in the living room.
Is my one friend, Joe doing something to hurt my mom? The same man who lets me climb on him like a jungle gym, brings me small trinkets and shares his television with me so I can watch cartoons? This man that I like and who has shown me a bit of pitying kindness in my new world where I feel a constant outsider and obligation? He is pointing a gun at my mom? He has never so much as raised his voice in front of me. I am baffled.
But I know he has guns. I have seen them. Long, large and foreboding. Lined up like soldiers along his bedroom wall.
I breath rapidly. I am trying to stay silent and still though my insides are abuzz in panic and fear. Time seems to slow down.
Joe is mumbling inaudibly. Voices quiet. An agreement is being reached.
Mom rushes in. Gathers me up and soothes me. I can see that she’s been crying. Hurriedly- We have to leave. We’ve been thrown out.
In the middle of the night.
In the height of winter.
We have no money.
Once again, because of him, my stepfather, we’ve been asked to leave.
On this night because an argument erupted and my stepfather began to hit my mother. That prompted old Joe to step out of his room with his rifle loaded and ready for my stepfather. My mother being so very broken stepped between the gun and her abuser to protect him.
That night we stayed in a fleabag motel. I missed school the next day. The cycle of domestic violence rolled on through our lives. The pattern of chaos continued.
Living in a home plagued by domestic violence equates constant fear, walking on eggshells, making yourself so small and quiet you aim to disappear. It means learning how to read the energy in the room constantly and keeping the beast calm by any means necessary.
Life with an abuser shapes you. Long after you escape those triggers and survival skills remain active. The overly sensitive fear responses, reading a room, reading people, memory flashbacks. They all remind you of where you have been and never want to return.
Before I was old enough to understand the cycle of domestic violence, before I even knew it had a name, I vowed to myself that I would never be my mother. For years I deeply resented that she was so weak that we kept returning to him. He destroyed our lives. He destroyed any connections to family and friends. He moved us all over the place. And she let him.
Now, I understand it differently. I forgave her. I found compassion for her. My mom was simply repeating all she had ever known. She was accepting what she felt she deserved.
Years later mom finally found the drive to leave him. I finally found my voice to say that he had to stay gone or I was leaving. She chose me. She chose her freedom and her life. We started over, yet again, but not without our scars.
Take care of each other. Please seek help if you or someone you love is in an abusive situation.