Press Pause - Chapter 3
“Is anybody out there? Anybody there? Does anybody wonder? Anybody care? - Foolin’
“Okay everyone, who is going to process?” I pick my eyes up to look around the room, but everyone is either staring at the floor or off into space.
“Those of you who have been here for a while know how this works; someone takes the floor, or I choose.” Ariel looks around the group to see if her reminder has any affect. Ted finally speaks up, but I can’t focus on what he’s saying. I’m still trying to get a hold of my own thoughts and I’m losing the battle. I’m exhausted from lack of sleep. Ted discusses his job and how his boss is out to get him. I feel nothing; no sympathy, no empathy, no sadness, no compassion, no urge to say something witty to make him smile. He describes how he drove his car into a cement divider on a bridge and I don’t even look up. I don’t care what brought him here; I don’t care what brought anyone here to this room. Ted makes me nervous and as he speaks his voice is just one decibel shy of shouting. My anxiety starts to rise and my discomfort grows. Sitting in the middle of this room is similar to sitting in a room with John. I’m on guard about what he will say and worried that just one innocent comment can lead to an argument or worse.
I met John almost 5 years ago when my marriage was ending. He’s a 6’7” retired Corrections Officer, and in the beginning I wholeheartedly believed he was the love of my life. We had everything in common and I felt like I could be myself when I was with him. We loved to sing at the top of our lungs to our favorite songs on the radio and talk non-stop into the early morning. Every red light was an excuse for him to lean over to plant a kiss on my lips. He told me he loved me on our fourth date. I fell hard and fast. He made me feel beautiful, sexy, and he got a kick out of me. Within 5 months we, along with my daughter Kayla, were living together. By the end of the second month I started to see subtle flashes of impatience. At first it was little things; I didn’t put the toilet paper on the holder the right way, I loaded the dishwasher incorrectly, I ate “his” cookies. Instead of questioning him I told myself they weren’t battles worth fighting. I made sure I hung the toilet paper the right way, loaded the dishwasher the way he preferred and didn’t take anything until I made sure it wasn’t a special treat he bought for himself. I simply wanted to be happy and continue to make him happy, and none of the issues he had were so important that I couldn’t adjust.
What I didn’t know was how quickly small issues were going to mushroom into life altering problems. Ironically, Kayla was the first person to see John for who he really was and it would change the course of our lives for years to come.
The three of us were in John’s car coming home from dinner one night and we were joking around, giving each other a hard time. I don’t recall what I said but it was in response to a wisecrack John made and it caused Kayla and I to dissolve into giggles. John was holding my hand as he always did, but as we giggled he yanked it toward him and squeezed it hard enough that I instinctively tried to pull it back. He was laughing too, but his grip was solid and I couldn’t get my hand free.
“What the fuck was that? Don’t you grab her like that.” Kayla was 16 and sitting in the back of the car. I turned around in shock and faced her.
“What did you just say?! Apologize right this second!” I was so angry. Why would she speak that way?
“No! He shouldn’t grab you that way. Daddy never grabbed you like that! Who the hell does he think he is?” She was holding her ground and refused to back down.
“Kayla! You WILL apologize right this second!” I was mortified that she would curse so unapologetically and speak so disrespectfully. Kayla was always her own person, even as a child, but this behavior was beyond that and completely out of character.
Kayla continued to refuse to apologize to John and we argued the rest of the weekend. You could cut the tension in our house with a knife. When it came to a head, I told her if she wasn’t going to apologize and didn’t like the rules in our home she could move back with her father. Until the day I die I will regret those words; regret not taking a breath before giving the person I love the most in this entire world that ultimatum. Within an hour she packed herself up and had me drive her “home”. I told myself once she calmed down she’d come back to live with me. Eventually she and John made peace, but we would never again live under the same roof. She chose to divide her time between home and my house. Home was no longer with me. I cried almost every night for 6 months.
Once Kayla left, our relationship shifted and the things he loved about me became the things he slowly began to criticize. He blurted out one day that he didn't like my hair straight; it was sexier when it was curly. I started wearing it curly. Another time, when I went to kiss him goodbye he turned his head with a disgusted look on his face. “I HATE kissing a woman who wears lipstick.” When I asked him how long he felt that way he said “Always”, but didn’t want to deal with the drama.
“What drama? Because you don’t like lipstick?” I didn’t understand.
“THIS drama, Maureen. I tell you I don’t like something and you gotta push for a why!” Does he think I’m questioning why he doesn’t like lipstick? What am I missing?
“I’m not pushing, John. I'm not asking why. I just feel bad you thought I would be upset with you." Was I difficult to talk to?
“Yes, you are pushing because you love drama, Maureen! Just say okay and stop wearing lipstick! That’s all you have to do. If you just listened to me there wouldn’t be a problem!” I don’t love drama. I avoid it at all costs. I wish I knew why he felt that way.
I stopped wearing lipstick.
Then there was the night I came home after picking up some new clothes. John asked me to show him what I bought. When I came out in the new pants I loved, John tilted his head, grinned and said “You know I love a woman with curves, but you need to cut back on the dessert. Your ass looks pregnant.” He laughed at himself, repeating the punchline. When I didn’t laugh back, he became annoyed and accused me of being too sensitive and not having a sense of humor. I was the same size and weight when we met but it didn’t matter. In my mind I was fat and unattractive.
I started doing everything I could to “fix” the things that upset John. The more unhappy he seemed the harder I tried to be funnier, prettier, sexier, a better woman. Nothing I did would made John happy and the stakes continued to get higher. The criticisms grew harsher and his "jokes" more cruel, until his words turned into actions.
The first time John hit me we were on a trip. I promised Kayla I would call her to let her know we got there safely, but I left my phone in our room. John, who never let anyone touch his phone, dialed Kayla’s number and handed it to me. We were at the beach bar and a guy struck up a conversation with John, so I walked a few feet away to talk. As I tried to figure out which button to hit to hang up, a topless picture of a friend of ours popped up on the screen. Below it she wrote “How do you like my tan lines, baby?” He wrote back to her “I love them and I love you SOOOO much, baby. I’ll call you later.” Halfway through our trip John said he was getting a headache and asked me if I would drive. While I played chauffeur, John soothed his headache by sexting with his other girlfriend. I stood frozen as I stared at the blonde, curly haired woman who had been to my house with her husband on several occasions and with whom John and I double dated. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to smash his phone into the ground or stick it in his face. I decided on the latter and when I brought the phone back to show him what popped up, I told him he could cab it back to Jersey.
I raced back to our room ahead of him knowing he had to pay the bill, and repacked the clothes I unpacked just an hour before. My hands were shaking, my heart was thumping and all I wanted to do was run as far away from where we were as quickly as possible. As I grabbed my pocketbook and the car keys John stormed into the room.
“What the fuck are you doing, Maureen?” He was standing in front of the door. “Are you crazy?!?!”
“How do you like her tan lines, John? You love her so much?” Although I managed to stay calm I couldn’t hold back the tears. “I’m going back to Jersey. Let her know you have an empty bed for two nights. I’d ask you why, but it doesn’t matter.” I knew something was up. I even asked him if he was cheating, but he denied it and told me I was being silly. Deny, deny, deny...the cheaters creed.
“You’re crazy! She sent that text to me by mistake. It was for her husband Jeff and she sent it to me by mistake. I was joking when I responded. What the fuck is the matter with you?!” Does he actually think I’m going to believe him?!
“Get away from the door, John. Do you think I’m a fool? YOU’RE FUCKING HER and now you’re going to try to lie to me?” I walked toward him and tried to move him away from the door with my hip but he wouldn’t budge.
“You’re not going anywhere. Give me my car keys. You’re fucking nuts! You don’t think I’m going to let you drive off in MY car, do you?” He was actually grinning.
“Get out of my way, John.” When I approached him this time, I planted my feet and pushed my hip into him harder. For a second he lost his balance and I was able to open the door. As I took the first step to walk out he grabbed me, pulled me back into the room, slammed the door and shoved me with both hands over the bed. I bounced off the other side and hit my head on the wall. Before I could get to my feet he was standing over me, grabbed me by front of my shirt and was lifting me off the ground. The back collar of my shirt was slowly digging into my neck.
“You fucking cunt! Who the fuck do you think you are?!?!” He threw me to the other side of the room and smacked me across the head. “You’re not going anywhere! You even try to take my car I’ll call the fucking police and have you arrested! You fucking bitch! Don’t you ever put your fucking hands on me again!”
Apology after apology. Endless begging. That’s what I got the first time he hit me. The next time he hit me the apologies and promises were followed with “You know how I get when I think you’re going to leave me. I love you! If you would just listen to me everything would be okay.” The third time he hit me, I stopped believing the apologies and packed my bags. He grabbed our dog by the neck and shook her like a rag doll. He only stopped when I unpacked and promised not to leave. The fourth time he hit me, I left and went to my brother’s house. He broke in when I was home alone one afternoon and put a gun to my head.
“If you don’t come back I’ll kill everyone you love then kill myself. I’ll leave you alone so you can always remember what you did.”
I went back.
“Maureen? Maureen?” I quickly open my eyes and turn to Sean. I’ve dozed off and our group is breaking up.
“I’m sorry. I...I just haven’t slept in days.” I’m a little confused and stammering.
“It’s happens to all of us, especially early on. You’ll eventually be able to sleep and the naps won’t be an issue.” Sean quickly grabs my shoulder as he walks out of the room.
I look up at Ariel and apologize.
“Sean is right. We’ll get you sleeping regularly again. Right now we’re just glad you’re here.”
I smile thankfully at Ariel and pack up to head home. As I pass Linda’s office she pops her head out.
“So, you made it through the first day”. Linda is a woman with wildly untamed black hair, a Demi Moore type voice, big brown eyes and a wide, toothy smile. “I’m not going to ask anything of you this first week except to just show up. You may wake up and feel like you just can’t, but do it anyway, okay?”
“I will. I will see you tomorrow morning”. The tone in my voice is void of any emotion.
“For now, particularly the first week, whatever gets you up and back to us is what I’ll ask you to use as your motivation. You can’t see it right now and I know you don’t believe it, but you can do this, Maureen. You are a warrior with a fragile soul. There is remarkable strength within you. It’s what brought you through your life.”
I desperately want to feel the way Linda does. She is so passionate and I can see she believes every word she is saying. On the drive home I think about Linda’s words: “There is a fighter within you”; “You are a warrior with a fragile soul”. The only word I can relate to at the moment is fragile. A warrior? A fighter in me? I have no more fight left. I will always be a woman whose mere presence destroyed lives and brought nothing but shame, resentment, sadness, and a constant reminder of what could have been to those who loved her. The ONLY success I can claim is that I gave birth to a magnificent young woman. But, even that is marred by the fact that the strong, independent, confident survivor she believed her mother to be is actually a weak, frightened, failure who cannot even wrap her mind around the simplest thought. I am as much of weight on my daughter’s back as I was around my mother’s waist.
As I bury myself in that last thought, I wonder for a brief moment if I am one of “those people” in my group. Suicide ideation happens in the blink of an eye. You agonize over the realization that the only thing that is guaranteed is waking up every morning to pain, fear, and shame. When you wake up in silence, you have fallen to a level of hopeless exhaustion and your heart, your mind, and your soul die off.
But, in the next second my reason for showing up everyday and completing this program comes into focus. My Kayla. I think about the day she was born. The nurse brought her into my room after everyone left for our first official mother/daughter “girl time”. I had an emergency c-section that morning and wasn’t awake when she was born. I drifted in and out of sleep the entire day, and that moment was the first time I had her all to myself. She was so quiet and content laying there just staring at my face as I unswaddled her. I looked at her tiny fingers and toes, and I covered her in hundreds of kisses. I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was; so perfect in every way. I was overcome with a love I didn’t know existed. As I recall that night, I realize there is no pain so great that I would willingly prevent myself from ever seeing my daughter’s face, hearing her laughter, or telling her how much I love her. On my worst day she remains the person who brings me my greatest joy. I will always love her more than life itself.
She is the reason I will never be one of those people.