From the stage I had a full view of the room, and I tried not to stare as the largely male crowd filed in. Some looked sheepish and others cocky as they found their place and sat down. The sound of whispers, shuffling and scraping of chairs could be heard. Everyone avoided looking at the person next to them. There was no shaking of hands or welcoming smiles.
What was I thinking? It sounded like a good idea, but now I wasn’t sure.
When it was time to start, Angela (the group moderator) reviewed the rules and the guidelines of what was acceptable and what wasn’t and introduced the panel. The first speaker shared a video about the effects of domestic violence on children from the show 20/20. It wasn’t pretty and wasn’t meant to be. The speaker reviewed the statistics on domestic violence…so many women killed in the previous year. The sheer number of children affected was overwhelming. It was a stark reality no one in their right mind wanted to listen to or watch. It was horrifying and depressing.
That was the point. Everyone sitting in the room had been previously convicted of domestic violence against their spouse, girlfriend, parent, or partner. They had no choice in attending; this was part of their requirement from the judge. Be here or go back to jail. Not much of an option.
The hope was that they would see the error of their ways and choose a different path.
They called me up to the podium.
“My name is Karen, and I was a victim of domestic violence.”
Though I had my story written out in front of me, my voice trembled as I read and tried to remember to make eye contact. I spoke to every person in the room as if each man were my abuser. I poured out all my anger and disgust upon them. Everything I couldn’t say to “him,” I said to them. It was accusatory and condemning, and rage dripped from every word I spoke. I held nothing back as I demanded to know why they thought what they did was okay. In what world was this right? I told them about the effect on my now-adult children.
I shared the family secret. How no one knew what went on in our home. The silence. The rage. The good times. The bad times. How I never called the police, because he was the police. How I stayed for 30 years due to fear, isolation, and thinking I really had no other option. On and on I went for 30 minutes telling the horrors of my life married to an abuser. I ended my time telling them I was no longer a victim or a survivor, but an overcomer.
My entire body shook with anger. At them. At him.
Everyone filled out a survey which went to the judge, corrections, and me. As the men filed out of the room, a few approached me to shake my hand and apologize for what was done to me. Shamed by what they did, they ducked their heads and scurried away. The majority headed for the door, relieved they could leave.
For the next two and a half years, I spoke every other month to a different group of offenders. Yes, there were repeaters. In April 2009, the program ended, and honestly, I was ready. I was tired of telling my story, not just to those who had to listen, but to anyone. Outside of this group I stopped telling my story, realizing no one wanted to hear it. Especially me.
It’s an ugly subject, and one most people wanted to shove under the rug, especially the church. One pastor told me I was weak. My response to him was, “No, some men are just mean.” Most saw it as a family issue, and the church saw it as a submission issue. Malachi makes it clear: God hates divorce, and Jesus said adultery was the only reason for divorce. So what was a woman to do? Tough it out and suffer for Jesus. Pray. Pray harder. Just wait; your answer is right around the corner.
I waited for the corner, but all I got was a brick wall.
After 30 years, 4 months, and 2 days I left. It was December 26, 2004. Stick a fork in me. I was done. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was pretty sure God would be furious at me for leaving. I couldn’t have been any more wrong. My view of God was narrow and petty. Over the last 10 years, He revealed His true character, showing me who He really is. He never expected me to stay. When He said, “Trust me.” I though He meant trust me and stay. What He really meant was…trust me and go.
I allowed the voices of fear and shame to plug my ears so I couldn’t hear the “go.” On January 19, 2005, I moved to Texas, where my family had recently located. They welcomed me with open arms and helped me when I couldn’t decide what to order for dinner. They loved on me and listened as I shared what my life was really like. It was beyond their comprehension. They knew things weren’t right but had no idea how bad it really was.
At 51 I found myself single, without a job, and staying with family. Within a few months, I found a job which turned into a career, got a new-to-me car, and my own apartment – living on my own for the first time in my life.
The process of healing came bit by bit, layer by layer. The first to go was fear. I could actually process a thought and think clearly; although, I still struggle with deciding where I want to eat. Shame took longer. It eventually left, but I discovered bits of it deep within my soul which held on tightly, not wanting to release its tentacles.
The journey to freedom never ends, but I’m freer now than I have ever been. Discovering who I was meant to be has meant breaking soul ties and strongholds, replace lies with truth, tearing out dead roots and allowing healthy roots to grow deep into His love. I’ve had to delve into the heights, depths, lengths, and widths of His love. It has been exhilarating and despairing.
When I tell my story the two most common questions I am asked are, “Why did you stay?” and “Why did you marry him?” Both of these questions took me years to find answers to. Like Jeremiah, I kicked myself for my stupidity! I was thoroughly ashamed of all I did in my younger days (Jeremiah 31:19, NLT).
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline (sound mind)” (2 Timothy 1:7, NLT). Fear takes your power, destroys love, and removes your ability to make decisions, clouding your judgement. In other words, I couldn’t think my way out of a paper sack.
I lost the ability to think for myself, trained to only think of his needs, his wants, and his desires. The best definition I’ve heard of codependency is orbiting around someone else’s darkness. I truly believed since I made this bed, I had to sleep in it. That God so hated divorce that He would hate me if I left. What I discovered was the opposite…God loves me more than He hates divorce. I wasn’t a martyr for Jesus by staying. The enemy used the Bible to keep me trapped with message after message about hanging on, praying harder, longer, not to give up hope because my answer was coming.
I allowed shame and pride to keep me silent and to silence the voice of God telling me to run and trust Him to protect me. And yes I shouldn’t have married him in the first place. There were red flags, and I ignored them. It never occurred to me that once I said yes, I could change my mind. Though I had been a Christian for four years, I was so insecure and had no clue what loved looked like.
After five years of singleness, in walked a man. Dating in your 50s is a terrifying experience. It’s not like riding a bike. March 2, 2010, we met for coffee. Half-way through our chat, he asked me out. I hadn’t been on a date since 1974! Through the summer of 2010, I discovered the joy of being with a confident man who spoke beauty into my life and showed me real love. My family loved him, and six months later I became Mrs. Tom Gardner. God has a wonderful sense of humor. Tom is a bodyguard. Yes. I have my own personal bodyguard.
Although I’m not the woman I used to be, I’m learning to become the woman God intended me to be when He created me.