Abuse, Guest Posts

The Gatekeeper I Couldn’t Leave: Why an Educated Woman Stays

March 24, 2017

By Joyce Hayden

No, I wasn’t poor.  I didn’t have five children.  I wasn’t disabled in any way.

I was college educated.  Privileged, white, middle-class.  Had parents and siblings who loved me.

Friends who cared.  I had a job and a checking account.  I had a car, or at least access to one.

It’s difficult to recount how love became control in such a short time.  Or how long it took for me to see it.  And then accept.  And then take action.

I’m not sure any of the reasons make sense of it.  But, it matters, because:

  1. Though I often doubted it on wind-lashed winter nights, I was never the only one. We are countless.  We are too often the silent countless.
  2. Too many of us continue to remain stuck, unable to put the first first down. To stop the ride.

Kevin was my partner on Magical Mystery Rides in our shiny orange Karmann Ghia on dirt roads through New Hampshire and Vermont.  He was smart.  He was funny.  He was street wise.  He was handsome.  He was an artist, a writer, a wood carver.  Using sharp metal tools and sandpaper, he could smooth the bones of a leaf fairy’s ankle skin soft in thick basswood.  That’s right: he didn’t carve stout orcs and wart covered trolls or guns and muscle cars. He carved leaf fairies and forest gnomes. And I  was in LOVELOVELOVE!

It’s true he was my gatekeeper.  My tormentor.  My abuser.

He accounted for every second of my time and every cent I made.

It would be impossible to count the days and months that added up to years of living in real or expectant fear.

As a result, sometimes the rebel in me needed to yell and I would start something.  Purposely press his buttons, even though it would have been so much easier to walk away.  Like the time I gave a co-worker a ride to the restaurant, and after our shift, she finished first, she went to the nearby bar, the bar Kevin had forbade me to enter, and I had to go fetch her for her ride home.  Would it have been just as easy to say No, when he asked if I’d gone to the bar?  Of course.  But some nights I was tired of so many rules, so many seemingly ridiculous demands. Rules made from possession and jealousy.  So instead, I stood my ground.  In my purple mini skirt, my bare legs, left hand on my hip, I threw my long blonde hair back and said “Yes. Yes, I did go in.  I had a beer.  Then I got Shari and we left.  What’s the big fuckin’ deal?”  Well, I should have known not to turn my back and walk away.  I had carpet scrapes on my knees and elbows, cauliflower shaped bruises on my chest for weeks after that.

But the main reason I didn’t shake a fist and run, grab the keys and speed away, was this:

He was the first human being I ever told that I’d been molested as a kid.  He said exactly what I needed to hear, and feared I never would.  It was Christmas time, two months after we met.  We’d just bought a tree together at Faneuil Hall one snowy night, threw it in his pick up, and half drunk, pulled and pushed it up the three flights of stairs in my Brookline apartment building.  When it was standing up right in the red metal base, and a couple strings of colored lights adorned the branches, Kevin motioned me to his lap, and although I can’t recall what prompted me to say so, because we’d already been having sex, but I confessed that I’d been molested.  I didn’t dump the full trilogy on him.  I just told him about one time when I was 12, lying on the gurney, alone with Dr. Palmer in the examining room on Hinsdale Drive.  I don’t know why, but I needed Kevin to know.  To know then, two months in, not in two years or 20.  And Kevin, seeing me turn red in the telling, probably feeling my body stiffen, contract, pulled me closer and said something to the effect of, “I don’t care. It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t change anything.”  And for a sparkling moment, I too thought, “Right.  It doesn’t matter.”  But it did.  It did for years.  It made me feel wrong, feel guilty. As if I’d lured the doctor, as if I’d seduced him, though that word was not part of my vocabulary back then.  But Kevin’s consolation helped ease my mind.  Helped me put the PTSD on the back burner for awhile. That might seem insignificant, but for me, who had held the secret for years, Kevin’s response was a tremendous gift.  I was accepted, not blamed, as I had anticipated.

Perhaps one incident of molestation wouldn’t have mattered, wouldn’t have misshapen me so poorly.   But when they are spliced all together, from the babysitter’s foster child, to the family doctor, and the uncle, the years of fear, of hide and seek and trying to stay as invisible as possible, the ages 5 to 12,  then it’s clear why that girl only felt safe in shadows. She was home alone at the house on Dixon Drive while the rest of the family went to Uncle Bob’s every weekend. She wiggled her way out with babysitting jobs she lied about having.  Alone from Friday night til Sunday afternoon, keeping herself awake with Sgt Pepper and The Animals, until the sun came up, then sleeping til noon.

By the time she found a man who loved her, despite the sexual abuse, by the time she found a man she felt she could have consensual sex with, she, me, I, was 25 years old.  He loved me.  He accepted my flaws.  My past.  My body of what I then believed to be “damaged goods”.  He wanted me.  And that made me feel safer than I’d ever felt in my life.  Ever.  Why would I leave that?  How would I ever find that again?

When things got tough, after words and name calling thrust through the air like swords, after wine bottles missed my head and smashed to pieces on the floor, I had one focus:  To get us back to those early days.  The magical mystery days.  The sitting on his lap, loving me despite days.  We had it all once.  I was convinced we could have it again.  That was my goal.  If I just did xxx; if I would stop doing zzz.  If, if, if, I could get us back there.  Kevin gave me everything I’d never had.  What I interpreted as complete passion and devotion.  No judgment.  He knew about me and he wanted me with him.  He never used my past against me.  Not once.  Not the way my own mind used it against myself.

That is why I stayed for another five years after the first time he hit me.  I never thought I’d find that initial approval and tenderness.  Someone like me doesn’t throw love and acceptance away very easily.  Not when it took 25 years to find in the first place.  Not when I was convinced and repeatedly told I’d never find it again. Not when the man I loved would stop for birds that lay wounded at the side of the road, take them home, try to nurse them back to health.  He did this even though the birds, despite his eye drops of water, despite him staying up with them all night, despite the worms and bugs, would inevitably die.

When Kevin brought me into his world, it was fun.  It was the three of us together.  Kevin, me and our black lab Crystal.  It felt like a fairy tale.  I don’t care what it looked like from the outside; from the inner circle of us three, it was playful, it was adventurous, it was loving, it was camaraderie, it was thick as thieves joy.  And that’s it.  When it comes down to it, that’s why.

We finished each other’s sentences.  We knew each other from the inside out.  We knew each other’s deepest secrets.   One night I was driving home from my waitress job at Daniels in Henniker, NH.  It was early November. I was driving slow.  Really slow. My grandfather had just passed away, and on top of that, our favorite dishwasher, a kid who studied at the local college, had been killed a few hours earlier in a car wreck on black ice.  So I was driving 30 mph in a 55, on a sharp curve near Lake Todd, when a car came flying around the bend, tires squealing, and he wasn’t slowing down.   And he was in my lane…about to hit me head on.  What they say is true:  I saw my life flash before my eyes.   I thought I was dead.  I thought I was going through the back windshield.  I thought I was a nano-second away from becoming star dust.  But I turned my steering wheel to the right, quickly and sharply, and my car stalled in the ditch.  Mr. 100 Miles Per Hour kept going, fast as hell in the wrong lane.

I was shaken when I arrived home.  Legs like mush as I climbed the long flight of stairs to our house.  The second I opened the door, Kevin bolted over to me. I shrank back.  He grabbed my biceps and shook me.  “Where’ve you been? Where’ve you been??”  I couldn’t speak; I was still in shock from the close call and confusion of Kevin’s fear disguised as anger.

“Ten minutes ago,” Kevin said, “I felt in my entire body that you were in mortal danger.  I felt your heart stop.  I called the restaurant and you’d left.  But you should have already been home.” We lay down together on the couch.  There’d been many nights I’d come home to him yelling at me for being so late.  I was used to that.  It was normal everyday life.  But this night I knew we were connected in a way I’d never experienced with another soul.  I had nearly died.  He had felt it.  He knew it.  How does one turn her back on that  kind of love?  There were more days like that than there were filled with fists.

When I love someone, I see their potential.  I’m too often blinded by it.  I know the goodness in them.  I couldn’t leave until I saw that potential fade.  Until I’d watched him throw all his chances and potential out the window.  I couldn’t leave until I realized in my bones, not just understood in my mind, that nothing I’d ever done was enough to make him hit me.  I couldn’t leave until my love had turned to pity, my respect to disgust.  No one but me could carry me to that moment.  No one could tell me it was time to go and expect me to act.  People tried.  They told me I deserved better.  People saw who he was.  They saw who I was.   But I couldn’t leave until I could see it: see who he was; see who I really was.  I stayed until I realized he was never going to change.  I stayed until I realized that I wanted and deserved something better.  I stayed until I believed that the next time he really might kill me. I stayed until I finally believed I had the right to open the gate, put the key in the ignition, and go.

Former English Professor, Joyce Hayden, recently left her job to complete her memoir The Out of Body Girl. An artist and writer, Joyce’s work can be found on her website: joycehayden.com

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1 Comment

  • Reply Bonnie West March 25, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    What a brave and honest piece. Thank you. So happy you found your way out.

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