When my husband and I separated after fifteen years of marriage, I felt as though all I did was answer question after question from everyone I encountered. But, there was one question that stood out among all the others, and it continues to replay in my head, even today.
“Did you know your son was being emotionally and verbally abused by his father?”
A Mother Seeking Help
This was asked by a health care professional in the psychology department of the children’s emergency hospital. My son had been in a severe depression for months, and I felt as though he was entering crisis mode. So, at the suggestion of our pediatrician, I drove my son to the hospital. I didn’t tell anyone I was going, and I made arrangements for my other child to be picked up from school.
I was unaware that once we were admitted to the ward, we could not just leave at whim. Actually, they took my son inside for evaluation while I was locked outside of the entire wing, left to sit staring blankly at the dull, lifeless, faded pastel walls of the basement sitting-room. The atmosphere was somehow comforting. I think it would have been offensive to have bright cheery surroundings in a place that held such heartache and suffering.
I sat there for several long hours. The nurse would come out every so often for updates or questions. It reminded me of an almost perverse maternity ward where parents would look up expectantly whenever the door opened signaling news for one family as to the status of their child. Only this time, instead of the excited anticipation of waiting to hold our newborn children sweetly wrapped in soft blankets, we sat in pools of guilt and insecurity while wrapped in an oppressive blanket of fear.
A Child In Crisis
Eventually, I was called in to the locked corridor and brought to a small room that held a table and chairs. And that’s when the nurse from social services, accompanied by a psychiatric nurse, asked me the question that haunts me still: Did you know your son was being emotionally and verbally abused by his father?
I remember reaching for the table just to make sure I had something solid beneath me as I answered. The fact is, I had just recently discovered this to be true, and filed for separation as soon as I knew, but I hadn’t discussed it with my son, and I had no idea that he felt such effects that he was able to relay that information to complete strangers.
“Yes,” I tried to sound competent and worthy of caring for this child that was somewhere down the hall, completely out of my reach at the moment, “but I didn’t know for many years. As soon as I knew, I tried to get his father to leave. He doesn’t live with us anymore.” In my head I continued to explain- I thought I was doing what was best for my children by staying together; I didn’t know what emotional, verbal, and psychological abuses were. I didn’t know…
Signs of Abuse Start To Show
It turns out, my ten year old son was better at articulating the abusive behavior than I was. He may not have known what to call it, but he knew what scared him, and hurt him, and made him sad. I thought I was protecting them from all of that. It was very clear to me that I was not. But I couldn’t go back and change my decision to stay with their father all those years, I could only move forward and figure out a way to help them heal.
While I was in the waiting area, his father called after getting my message on his cell phone, and went into a verbal tirade reprimanding me for ”embarrassing him by taking our son there while he was on vacation”. My ex was in the Caribbean on vacation with friends and believed that this was a ploy on my part to make him look bad. I felt as though I was going to die from the unimaginable pain of hearing my ten year old son say he ‘didn’t want to wake up in the morning’, and my soon-to-be ex-husband was angry that he looked like a bad father. I couldn’t process that level of narcissism and ended up turning off my phone mid-call.
Learning To Trust My Instincts
After a painful and tumultuous night, my son and I left the psychiatric hospital and headed for home. Just as I was about to start the car, my son turned to me and said, “Thanks mom, for taking me here tonight.”
I didn’t have a response other than to say, “You’re welcome,” and give him a hug. But inside, all of my anxiety and fear over my decision that day disappeared. I wasn’t sure why he was thanking me. I think he needed to know that he was loved and supported, that his emotions were validated, and that he was not expected to ‘fix himself’. We were going to help each other by trying to understand what we had been through and by sticking together while trusting our own instincts.
I didn’t listen to my instincts for so long; it felt a little uncomfortable to start making decisions this way. But I was finished listening to what other people thought was acceptable or not. I didn’t know the signs of emotional and psychological abuse because there were no bruises, no broken bones. That was how I defined abuse. After all, words can hurt us, right?
Well, eventually I learned that while physical abuse leaves bruising and scars on the outside, emotional and psychological abuse leave wounds and scars on the inside, and those don’t fade nearly as quickly, if at all. We didn’t have any broken bones, but our spirits were broken, as were our hearts.
It almost seemed unfair to me at the time that victims of physical abuse didn’t need to prove they were abused and, often, tried to conceal it. While here we were trying to explain why and how we were abused, and other people in our lives tried to cover it up. Of course, I do understand that physical abuse is also accompanied by the ‘unseen’ abuses, but I didn’t understand (and still don’t) why it is not accepted by much of the world that abuse is abuse whether it leaves visible signs or not.
I also learned that many people would rather pretend abuse doesn’t exist, because it is embarrassing, messy, and complicated. Looking back, I could place myself in this category during the early years of my marriage.
But, I think what is most confusing about these forms of abuse is that the abuser can usually manipulate the victim to believe it is normal behavior, especially if they are using the guise of love and compassion. My ex-husband, like many sociopaths, was very good at making me feel adored and cherished; so, it was easy to make excuses for him when he was acting cruelly. I could tell myself he was tired from working so hard, he was stressed about providing for his family, he was upset about something that happened that day, and on and on. The interesting thing was I was never able to use these ’excuses’ for myself. I always had it easy, according to him, and expected everything done for me.
A Turning Point
But that night, one of the worst nights of my entire life, was a turning point for me. I now knew that the effects of the abuse we suffered in secret silence for years had left a devastating toll, and so did my son. I promised myself that night that I would listen to my instincts and teach my children to do the same. And I would learn everything I could about healing from emotional, verbal, and psychological abuses.
These days, we are still surrounded by questions about what happened during those fifteen years, but now, we are the ones doing the asking.