After Domestic Abuse: Finding a Healthy Relationship

Patient Expert and several other HealthCentral communities are marking Domestic Violence Awareness Month by posting information and personal stories about the issue and how it relates to those living with chronic illness. Posts will be added to our special Domestic Violence Awareness Month page throughout October.

When we think of domestic abuse, what comes to mind?   The woman who is beaten and afraid to leave the relationship.   Elderly who are at the mercy of spouses, children, or hired help.   The spouse who may not hit but who controls all points of contact with the "outside" world.   The spouse or boyfriend who belittles, isolates, or limits access to financial resources.   The disabled person and his/her caregiver who begin to get crushed by the relentless pressure of coping with the challenges of disease and life.

What we don't think about as often is what happens after the abuse?   Can survivors go on to find healthy relationships?

As I don't have personal experience with domestic violence, I wanted to talk to others who did.   Jackie is a woman I met on an MS forum and she is a survivor of domestic abuse.   Her abusive relationship happened prior to her development of MS.   Now, Jackie is in a loving relationship with her second husband of 26 years who has "never, ever laid a hand on me, ever."

Jackie, can you tell us about your first husband?

I was a young bride married to a mad-man.   He had never hit me until our honeymoon in Bermuda.   We had dated and been engaged for two years and I never knew he had a penchant for physical violence.   He was nine years my senior and I thought he was the "perfect man" as did my parents.   College educated, handsome, rich etc.

How long were you married before your husband first hit you?

He struck me the second night we were married, the first night in Bermuda with no one to turn to and no place to go.   I had made the mistake of accepting an invitation of another honeymooning couple to join them the following evening for a dinner cruise without his permission.   He was sitting right there and when they invited us I said we'd love to attend.   He took it out on me back at our hotel.   I was shocked to say the least.   He stormed out and didn't return until the following morning.   I never told anyone because he was all apologies the following morning; I believed  him when he said it would "never happen again."

What did you do when you returned from the honeymoon?

Well, I believed him back home in our new home when it continued to happen on average of once a month for no apparent reason.   Perhaps I was 10 minutes late arriving home from work so I MUST be cheating on him.   Maybe I asked him to dry the dishes or burned the pork chops.   It never took much.

This continued until one week before our first anniversary when we were driving to meet friends for dinner.   I said something (fairly benign) and he pulled off of the road into a deserted lot where he proclaimed he was going to "cut me up into little pieces and leave me in the dumpster."   I jumped out of the car and he followed.    He caught me, broke my arm and collar bone (by choking me on the hood of our car and very nearly killed me).   I kicked him in his crotch with my very high-heeled boots and managed to get into the driver's side door and locked it.   I drove as fast as I could to the local  police station.   This was 1984 and well before cell phones.   They took me to the ER and headed back to find him walking calmly home.   He was arrested.   It was a nightmare for me.

Before your husband broke your arm and collar bone, had you told your parents or anybody else about the abuse?

Naturally I then was forced to tell my parents everything and was so relieved I had.   I will NEVER understand what kept me from telling them all that time other than believing that he would stop.   I thought if I told my parents and we  stayed together they would hate him and I never wanted that; I was young and I was  a fool.

What did you do next when you got home?

I moved home from the hospital, filed for divorce and never looked back.   Two years later I met and married my husband and we will be married 26 years in December.   We have three children together and a  beautiful granddaughter.

Please tell us about your MS.   When do you first experience symptoms?

As I previously stated, I had my first attack following the birth of my youngest [third] child in 1991 but never realized what it was; they said likely a virus.   I was young and healthy [29 years old] with three kids, a large home, my own business and I was busy.   Of course I was tired, wiped out and had achy arms and legs.   No one paid much attention, including me.

How long did it take before you received a diagnosis?

My mom died very suddenly, in my arms at my home in 2005.   A month later I had a MAJOR attack.   This time the doctor took note and I was immediately sent to the hospital for an MRI and LP.   No question, it was MS.

Do you think that your experience with your first husband had any influence on what you looked for in a relationship when you met your second husband?

Truthfully, I wasn't LOOKING for a relationship and clearly not so soon after my divorce.   Tom just came out of nowhere the way the best things in life seem to do.   He was the "antithesis" of husband #1 in every way.   Where "#1" was all businessman in a suit, Tom was laid back; into boats and the outdoors; didn't mind getting his hands dirty etc.   Tom was and is a "man's man" and I like that about him.   I would feel safe with him under ANY conditions - any.   He's a big, strong man but not a muscle-bound meathead.   Sorry, too descriptive?

#1 was 6' even and 180.   Very trim, neat as a pin type.   Again, all business; all executive.   NOTHING wrong with that as I was raised to gravitate toward that type.   I'm college educated (as was the rest of my family) so it seemed only natural.

Tom is 6'2"; 200 lbs of solid muscle still to this day.   His hair curls the way IT wants to and he would never stop to fix it.   He was an offshore boat racer when we met (I bought a boat from him originally) and we still own/operate a marine business to this day.   We opened it in 1987 and have been very successful.   I majored in business in college and it came in handy.

How are you doing now with your MS?

My MS is not noticeable to most during the majority of my life.   I am still very active, though limited.   I can no longer downhill ski due to a bad bone density test so Tom and the kids go but not as often as I wish they would.   We continue to use our boat because it has a spacious cabin that sleeps six and A/C so I can get out of the sun and heat when necessary.

What advice would you give to survivors of domestic abuse who are looking for a healthy relationship?

My best advice to a woman even contemplating another relationship is this:
Do not let your past define  your future.   You MUST come to terms with the absolute fact that the abuse was NOT your fault and therefore do not automatically expect it to reoccur.   That said, DO NOT punish the next man for the mistakes made by the previous one.

I strongly suggest counseling whenever possible.   No, I did not get any myself and yes I did work through it but I had a fabulous support system that many do not.

Thank you, Jackie, for sharing your story.   My hope is that someone else who is afraid to tell anybody about what goes on behind closed doors at home will find that there is life after abuse.   Don't keep secrets, tell someone! isa Emrich is author of the blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers.