I sit in this circle of chairs in my tailored gray pin-striped business suit, my Sergio Rossi sling- back pumps and my Tommy Hilfiger handbag on my lap tucked up against my hips, among women who barely wear makeup or style their hair. All of us with our arms folded and shoulders drooping; I with my ankles wrapped around the cold steel legs, as if to fetter myself to keep me from bounding out the door.
I’m listening, but I never say a word. It’s my third visit and still I can’t utter a single word; but I will leave this time carrying a heavier burden than when I walked in; a burden that will ultimately lead me on the path to healing.
I can’t understand why Margie recommended that I attend a group therapy session for abused women; she thought it might help me. I’m divorced, but I wasn’t an abused woman. I would never allow myself to be abused. I am not like these women. I was never hit, beaten, pushed, shoved or burned like these women. I was never yelled at or beaten down with words. I was not controlled by my husband.
He didn’t tell me what I could or could not wear or where I could or could not go. But Margie is my friend and she leads this group so I here I sit, my arms crossed, my head down and the pain in my chest on the verge of eruption.
I can’t take much more; I can’t bear their pain mixed in with mine much longer. I feel for these women, really I do. I can see their pain, but this isn’t me.
My story is not like theirs. They will never understand what I’ve been through; they will laugh at me for sure. How dare I try to compare to what they’ve been through. Besides, my secret is much too shameful to share.
I look around the room again to the women in this group. I purposely avoided registering their names. Margie is the only one who uses our names, the rest of us just respond with small gestures of acknowledgement or a brief utterance of empathy.
Miss 50 with her dark stringy unkempt hair and oversized coffee-stained T-shirt hanging from the bony shoulders she tries to keep drawn in to her chest shares her story. This is her third marriage; all three to abusive men, alcoholics or drug users. She can’t understand how she keeps ending up in these relationships. Her sister had begged her to leave her husband and come live in Colorado, but she just loved him too much to give up on him, until he finally left her for another woman. Three men, and she doesn’t know when to leave?
Blondie, I’m guessing is in her mid-thirties, is crying as she tells us that she just never believed that she deserved any better, that it was all her fault for fighting with him and he swore over and over that he would never hit her again. She finally left after her third trip to the emergency room, this time with a broken arm from being shoved down the stairs. I would have left after the first punch.
Miss Cotton, in her cotton gauze skirt down to her ankles and flip-flops on her feet, tells us how she bought into her husband’s constant reminder of how she was no good to anyone, not worthy to be alive and lucky to have a man that would have such a low-life wife. She finally escaped after he held a shot gun to her head promising to take them both out if she ever tried to leave. Why would anyone put up with these things?
Margie asks if anyone else wants to share. I keep my head down, the lump in my throat surely visible and the sweat on my palms saturating the silken pantyhose on my knees. I avoid shifting in order not to make a noise. Then Margie shifts the conversation, “Let’s talk about what you’ve been experiencing as a result of your abuse,” she says.
Miss 50 says how for the first six months after her divorce she would cry constantly, at the drop of a hat and sob for hours. I remember that, sitting at my desk and slowly a tear would drop and then they would flow until they wouldn’t stop and I had to leave work for the day. Probably everyone who gets divorced goes through that.
Blondie tells how she felt her heart was being ripped from her chest and how she thought it was a pain that would never heal. I remember the morning I woke up and I could feel the deep sharp slice in my chest as though my heart had been fileted like a catfish lying open with the guts removed. I can feel that pain as we sit here and I wonder how a heart with a wound so massive will ever become whole again. Probably just like anyone else who’s been divorced.
Miss Cotton is talking now. She still has nightmares; a nightmare where she wakes in such fear that her heart is pounding and the sweat is pouring off her brow and she is afraid to go back to sleep and the fear of her nightmare carries on with her throughout her day.
Blondie has nightmares also and Miss 50 also suffers from nightmares and the other three ladies who have been quiet this whole meeting, they all have nightmares; and Miss Cotton goes on to talk about her flashbacks.
She can have flashbacks in the middle of the day; they can be brought on by a television show or something that reminds her or sometimes nothing at all. A couple of the other ladies mention their flashbacks of the beatings, the threats, the pain and Miss Cotton tells of how sometimes in her dreams her mind tries to relive the experience but with a different ending.
I know these feelings, the dream that starts with a memory of the experiences I hated and in my dream I try to adjust the ending, thinking the pain of the incident will disappear if I can just change the outcome, but I always wake up confused and unsure.
I have the nightmares; the nightmares where I’m naked and running from my husband and unknown men, the chase that takes me over fences and walls and through strangers’ yards; the chase that lasts for hours and I never get away and the nightmares where I am so angry and I swing baseball bats and destroy everything in my dream, everything that belongs to my husband, his collection of rusty old classics- the red 1968 Plymouth Barracuda, his favorite; the dresser that I left behind for him that sat up against the wall that I also pounded with holes and anything else left in the room where he alone now resides. And sometimes I beat him with tennis rackets and baseball bats or destroy things with sledge hammers. I wake up so angry with the smothering weight of an elephant on my chest, the air too heavy and hot to inhale
I have flashbacks too, non-sequential, inexorable flashbacks that sometimes occur in the movie theater or while I’m alone in my car or while I’m watching a TV commercial or if a simple word someone says brings back a memory or a feeling or sometimes without any prompting at all. The scene of reliving events that commandeers my view of the television screen or the magazine page I’m reading; the image that won’t be pushed away. It comes and my neck immediately tenses and my pulse quickens. The anxiety maps its course through my muscles doing its best to pull me into a fetal position and bringing with it the urge to crawl inside myself to tuck myself deep within my skin and the tears begin to fall and suddenly I’m sobbing because I can’t stop the film. I can’t stop the scenes from repeating over and over and over in my mind.
Margie announces it’s time to end the session and everyone gets up for a group hug. I silently slip behind the chairs and bolt for the door……
I can’t bear the weight of my discovery.