A few days after I got married, I had to leave everything I had ever known behind and move 800 miles from Florida to Virginia. It was December and I was 18. I moved from the beautiful new home I shared with my mother to a tiny 1 bedroom apartment in Norfolk, Virginia, sight unseen. When I walked in for the first time, I felt no sense of pride or independence, just terror. Something in me must have felt the first pangs of what my life was evolving into and I cried as I immediately gave in to the urge to clean the place. Slinging Comet about the kitchen and shedding tears silently, I had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach and wanted desperately to get in my car and drive back to Florida as fast as possible. Two days later, my new husband left on a submarine for 2 months and the following day, it snowed.
Solitude vivifies; isolation kills.
– Joseph Roux
Back then, there was no internet, no expedient way of getting messages back and forth except for the military operated “Family Gram”, which was rationed. You got a certain number of Family Grams per year and the military would decide whether they were important enough to send. Usually it was limited to births, deaths, and family emergencies. A month went by before I got a letter from my new husband and, instead of it being about missing me, being happy to be married, looking forward to getting back and other things you would expect from a newlywed, it was a list.
Make sure the apartment is always clean, especially the kitchen and bathroom.
Ask me before you go grocery shopping and before you decide what meals to make. I don’t like fish so don’t buy any. I also don’t like strawberries or mushrooms so don’t waste our money on buying them.
Keep the laundry done and my uniforms in perfect condition. Use only medium starch and be sure when ironing them that you make the creases sharp.
Be sure to shine my shoes at least once a month.
Write my mother a letter every week.
Those are just 5 of the things I remember, but that’s enough to paint the picture. Instead of a partner, he clearly thought he had just hired himself a house girl. I was furious, insulted, sick and a mixture of such strong emotions that I began to dread his return. Only 6 weeks into my marriage and I felt like a caged animal being poked with a stick. I was too embarrassed to talk to my mother about it so I just skirted around it and talked about how much I hated Norfolk.
Isolation Is a Tactic
Isolation is a typical tactic of the abuser. It is also one of the abuser’s best weapons. You become more and more reliant on him or her for companionship and connection, thus giving the abuser more power over you. One of my strongest traits is loyalty, so when I thought over all of these things, I considered that maybe I had no right to be angry about my “duty list” and that this would be what being a wife entailed. Once you are isolated from friends, family, activities you love and special connections, the abuser becomes your puppet master. You learn to work harder and harder to try to get those positive “strokes” that should be automatic, since they are part of a healthy relationship. On the contrary, the harder you try to be better, the more criticism you receive, just to keep you in your place. You’re never quite enough and the “finish line” keeps moving.
Soon after his return a month after the letter, he invited a friend over for dinner as a kind of skills test. Me not having an extensive amount of experience cooking, I failed on the homemade gravy that was to go over the rice. He criticized me, made fun of me and said, “Damn, I thought you could cook. This is awful.” Right in front of someone I didn’t even know. I tried to lighten the mood by making a joke about how being a Southern girl doesn’t mean you naturally know how to make gravy. Truth be told, we didn’t really eat it because of my father’s cardiac diet. That joke was also a failure and after I cleaned up, I excused myself to take a shower so I could stand in it and cry. I was incredibly embarrassed and I dreaded what would come later after his friend left. Would he yell at me? What would he say? How angry was he? Would he leave and go sleep on the sub that night? As it turned out, nothing happened. Exactly nothing. He didn’t speak to me, just got ready for bed and ignored me until he got home from work the next evening.
When you do not have solid, reliable, close relationships in your life, you are vulnerable to all sorts of things. If you are in a relationship with an abuser, you are at the mercy of his or her every whim and without those relationships to temper the effects of the abusive behavior you are likely to learn to believe every negative and demeaning word ever spoken to you, as I did. I tried very hard to be a good wife, to do what I thought was right, but I wasn’t strong or savvy enough yet to realize that the things I was doing would have been good in a healthy relationship.
Making Connections Is Important
No matter where you are or what you are doing as you read these words, please think carefully about your relationships with others. Do you have more than just one or two friends? Are there people that, if you called them with an emergency, you know without hesitation that they would drop everything and come to help you? Are there others for whom you would do the same? Do you belong to any sort of group where you can be nurtured as a human, such as a church, club or support group? If you don’t have these things, develop them. You are a wonderful creation and the world deserves to get to know you, as well as you deserving the comfort of just being with others.
Baby steps, my friends…but you can do it.