The other day I emailed the director of a small domestic violence shelter to ask if she wanted some of the feminine hygiene products collected through Time of the Month Club, an annual donation drive I coordinate to collect tampons and pads for women who are homeless. There was extra left over after distribution to five local emergency shelters and because I’d seen this domestic violence shelter in the newspaper that morning, it occurred to me that they could possibly use some tampons and pads.
“We could use some, but not a lot,” was her answer, adding that “most of the women here are in their fifties so they don’t need supplies anymore.”
What she said stopped me cold. What does it mean to be a victim of domestic violence when you are in your fifties? It probably means that the violence has been going on an awfully long time. A helpful fact sheet published by the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence describes this as “domestic violence grown old.” In other words, the abusive relationship is longstanding but as both partners age, the “injuries occur more often and become more severe over time.”
Some abuse inflicted on older women is the result of “late onset domestic violence,” where the violence may grow out of years of relationship problems and emotional abuse that escalated as the partners got older. The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse says that “When abuse begins or is exacerbated in old age, it is likely to be linked to retirement, disability, changing roles of family members, sexual changes.”
I am 67 and have been married twice. In neither marriage was there ever a hint of threat, not a single violent episode. There was never a single moment of apprehension or fear. I have lived a combined 41 years in the married life equivalent of a completely pacifist community.
But in between, I spent five years in a relationship with a gregarious, fun-loving man with serious mental illness exacerbated by alcoholism and cocaine addiction. When he was well, he was very well and when he was not, he was very scary.
We had a relationship marked by periods of fun and companionship interrupted by terrible, threatening incidents where his posture and demeanor, more than any verbal threat or actual move, scared me to death. We once spent a whole night in my apartment with him naked, holding a butcher knife, wanting us to talk through our problems, wanting me to really understand him. He never laid a hand on me that night. Later, he said he’d only planned to use the knife on himself.
We went years like that. Months would pass. There would be trips out to the apple orchard in the fall and Christmas dinners. We worked together and ordered pizza on Friday night. We did things that people do. Normal things. Every day wasn’t drama.
But then something would start the unraveling. If I was to be a normal person with likes and dislikes, opinions and attitudes, the unraveling was inevitable. A real couple has conflict. But most of the time, it isn’t life threatening.
I knew what was happening was dangerous. There were times when I’d sit up at night looking out the window thinking “he’s going to kill me someday.” But I didn’t end the relationship. He hadn’t laid a hand on me. Until he did. It took almost five years but the signs were laid out like Tarot cards in the first few months I’d known him. Five years of being careful, being blocked, outwitting a naked man with a butcher knife, knowing better but making deals with myself, thinking it will get better when he really gets help, all of that evaporated when he finally did put his hands on me, around my neck. Then there were no more deals I could make with myself. “He’s going to kill me someday,” I told myself again, not a thought this time, a prediction.
I was 34. Not 54 or 64. I was 34.
I got out of the relationship with the help of a very intense, feminist therapist who spent weeks and months taking me apart and putting me back together again. Just when I was beginning to think I could walk on two legs and spend a whole evening without sitting in the bathtub with a bottle of wine, I met a happy man and I married him. It was ill-considered but wise. I give myself credit for that. All of the fear I’d had for five years didn’t make me afraid to be well.
But other women aren’t so lucky. They stay. They think it will get better, that he will get better, that he will stop drinking, that he will get treatment. They think, actually often they know, that they can’t make it financially without him. They stay for the children but then the children leave. They succeed in keeping their partners’ terrible attention concentrated just on them as other things fall away – jobs, physical abilities, money.
I can see how that happens, how it all unfolds over many years, the incrementalism of it. I can see it but it pains. When the domestic violence shelter director told me that most of the women there were in their fifties, I felt it in my gut. Not the injuries because I never really had any. What really hit me was the fear. There was a time in my life when I was afraid. I was afraid of someone, afraid of what would happen. I was afraid that someone would someday kill me.
That is all gone. I am free of that. I haven’t been afraid of anyone in 32 years. I am so utterly safe that I never even think about it.
Why should I have this gift and other women have to take shelter from domestic violence?
I don’t feel blessed or special. I don’t believe that Divine Providence singled me out for safety leaving others to be afraid and to suffer. There is nothing that makes me more entitled to be free from fear than the women in the shelter. There’s not much I can do to make those women safe.
Except to say this. What I have every person deserves.
Daily Post Prompt