“For nearly 20 years Kerry Abbott lived with the presence of abuse. But Kerry grew up in the ’50’s, and was raising children in an extremely rural area, geographically isolated from family, at a time in American culture where things like this were not discussed, let alone normalized.
“I made my bed,” Kerry said. “And now I have to sleep in it.” That’s the story she told herself about her situation. But what Kerry did differently, though, from me and from many other women in this situation, is that she didn’t let that mean that she had to quit trying to overcome it.”
Kerry Abbott’s story is like a lot of women’s stories when it comes to abuse. But Kerry did something really cool that I wish I’d been able to do, and something that I think made the difference for her.
“I knew, at some point, I was going to be able to get out of this.”Kerry Abbott
Kerry lived nearly 20 years with a man who would push her off their porch, hit her in places where the marks he left wouldn’t be seen, and leave her stranded in their rural home, which she hadn’t wanted to move into, without a car while he worked third shift, and drank work off in the mornings.
It would have been so easy to give up the spirit of self-preservation that Kerry needed to harness in order to eventually leave the person who’d been abusing her for almost two decades. I know I certainly lost that sense of intrinsic value in myself after only five years together – two of those married – with my now ex-husband. And while the manner of abuse that Kerry and I experienced were different in their own subtle ways, the majority of my time spent recovering from my marriage was taken up simply rediscovering my own worth.
It was the knowledge of her own worth that kept Kerry focused on that time, though she didn’t know when it would be, when she was able to get out. And in the meantime, Kerry busied herself laying by in store.
She stood up for herself where she had to – she worked even though her husband didn’t want her working. She chose her own vehicle – something reliable that she could depend on if she needed to leave – once she’d saved enough money. Kerry squirreled money away for years preparing for the uncertain day when she’d finally flee.
However, when the time came for her to make that call she’d imagined for all those years – sitting in her van outside the home she shared with her husband and two children, while he sat inside, at their kitchen table, with the gun he’d used to threaten her laid out before him – Kerry did hesitate.
“I called 911, but then I hung up.”Kerry Abbott
But then she made that one small change – took that first step onto an uncertain path – and picked up the phone when they called her back.
She also reached out to her local domestic violence shelter when that day finally came, and was given a place to wait until her husband had been removed from their home, as well as assistance filling out a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order. That was not the end of the ordeal – to this day Kerry still interacts with her ex-husband, as they now share grandchildren. But from that day forward, Kerry said, her sense of self-efficacy only increased.
She went on to make good decisions as she navigated the waters of dissolving marital assets like life insurance and bank accounts.
“I never took him off of anything. I’d hand him the life insurance and say, ‘here, I got my own life insurance policy.’ I got my own checking account, I didn’t take him off of anything I just gave it to him and got my own.”Kerry Abbott
These things may not seem like a big deal to many people. But the nature of abuse is such that you spend years being systematically weakened, made to believe that you’re undeserving of anything. That you’re the problem. That the abuse wouldn’t be happening if you could just behave correctly. If you could just figure out how not to make him hit you.
To have the strength to take on the responsibility of their home, their car, and the children they had together in his absence after that day, Kerry must have kept a bright flame of self-esteem burning deep within herself for all those years, hidden from her husband but lighting her way toward her own eventual liberation from the specter of the toxic emotional environment in which she lived.
When she started dating again, Kerry said, she’d jump anytime her new boyfriend – now husband – would move too quickly. Our responses to abuse, to any kind of trauma, become encoded deep in the most ancient parts of our brains. The parts that respond without our thinking about it. The parts that kept us alive as the world we know today came into being. They are automatic. They are survival-based. And they can be unlearned, but it takes a while, and a ton of self-awareness, not to mention a universe of courage.
To anyone experiencing domestic violence today, I encourage you to visit 211.org, or call 211 to be confidentially connected with an agent who can help you find resources in your local community based on your individual needs, resources, and challenges.
If you’ve lost the spirit to fight for yourself in the midst of an impossible situation, reach out to someone who can help you get it back. If that has to be a third party from an impersonal agency, let that be the place you start.