‘He warned me the only way out of our marriage was in a body bag.’: Abuse survivor shines light on obstacles women face in leaving

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of abuse and domestic violence and may be triggering to some. 

Never Knowing Any Better

“Why don’t women leave abusive relationships? I grew up wondering this. I grew up in a dysfunctional and abusive family. I never knew my biological father. At least, I have no memory of him. My mom said I used to call him Daddy, but one day he just left. He was the first person to break my heart. My mom got married when I was 7, and my brother was born shortly after. My earliest memories of my stepfather are difficult to remember. What I do remember, I do not like to discuss. He was abusive to me, especially when my mom was working. He would throw me against the wall and hit me. We were extremely poor and often went without our basic needs being met. At one point, we did not even have indoor plumbing or electricity. I was terrified of my stepfather as a child and still do not want to be around him.

As a little girl, I dreamed of my prince charming riding in and saving me. I was enchanted by Disney fairytales, praying one day I would find my prince charming. I was 23 when he came into my life. He was tall, dark, and handsome. Within weeks, he swept me off my feet. He was everything I had ever wanted. Charming, sweet, successful, and he was head over heels in love with me. I was in awe of him. He showered me with fancy dinners, gifts, and flowers. He wanted to take care of me. He was going to save me. If only I knew then what I know now. Hindsight is 20/20, but my inexperienced naivety led me down a road of heartache and despair.

I missed every red flag because I just did not know any better. A fast-moving relationship is a serious red flag. Everything moved so fast. We were married within 6 months of our first date, and we started our family right away. I was so happy on our wedding day, but my happiness was short-lived. The first night we were married, things changed dramatically. He changed. He became possessive and controlling. On our wedding night, he was sexually aggressive. He wanted me to know I belonged to him. Afterwards he said to me, ‘Now you’re mine and I own you.’

Husband and Wife standing outside at their wedding
Courtesy of Sophia Smith

Years Of Pleasing

After our wedding, we settled down in our new roles. He was the ‘man of the house,’ the provider. It was my job to take care of him, our home, and our children. During the early years of our marriage, I was busy raising our two sons. Pregnancy was not easy for me. He was not supportive; instead, he was annoyed I needed help. I had serious complications with my first delivery. I developed preeclampsia, a life-threatening complication at 38 weeks (about 8 and a half months). My son and I almost did not survive my delivery. My son was not breathing when he was born. He spent his first week in the NICU.

I noticed my baby was different from the other babies before we even left the hospital. The nurses would complain to me they could not settle my son down and he was disturbing the other babies. After bringing our son home, I was left to deal with my postpartum depression on my own. He worked constantly. I hardly saw him the first two years. I was preoccupied with being a new mother. I loved my new role as a mother, even though our son was colicky and difficult to soothe. He had very intense dislikes and likes. By the time he was two and a half, we had a referral to a child therapist. It was clear there was something different about our son. The doctors believed he might have early onset bipolar. I was already pregnant with our second son when we were told this. We got his official diagnosis when he was six. After my son was diagnosed, I started questioning if my husband was bipolar as well.

Mother hugging her toddler
Courtesy of Sophia Smith

By 2003, we had been married 6 years and had two sons. We were building our first home. And then I found out he was having an affair with my best friend. That was the first time I tried to leave. It was also the first time I saw how unstable and violent he could be. I wanted to leave, but during one of our many heated fights, he placed a loaded handgun in his mouth and said he would kill himself if I left. Our children were in the room. I stayed out of fear. I stayed because I loved him. I stayed because I had nowhere to go. We moved into our new house and tried to repair the damage. The next few years were better. His business was successful, and we were enjoying vacations and spending a lot of time with our boys. By this point, both of our sons had been diagnosed with early onset bipolar.

Husband and wife smiling together
Courtesy of Sophia Smith
Father holding his baby son
Courtesy of Sophia Smith

After our second son was diagnosed, in 2006, I knew my husband was also bipolar. His behavior was unpredictable. He had extreme mood swings. He became preoccupied with body building. He started going out at night with his friends, drinking and seeing other girls. He was prone to violent outbursts and was controlling everything in my life at this point. He had moved his business into our home and controlled where I went and who I talked to. We were together 24/7. I tried to convince him to get treatment for his bipolar. I begged and pleaded. I thought we could save our marriage. I did everything and anything I could to please him. I became the perfect wife and mother. But the more I did to save our marriage, the worse things became.

The Fight That Changed Everything

By 2009, he had started using steroids to enhance his muscles. That was the beginning of the end. I knew there was no saving our marriage. I was trapped. I could see no safe way out. He had warned me if I tried to leave, he would kill me, telling me the only way out of our marriage was in a body bag. I spent my time walking on eggshells. My only concern was my children. For their mental health, it was imperative their home was as stable as possible. My focus was always on our kids. I tried desperately to keep things calm in our home for our children’s well-being. And then, one day in early spring, my entire world blew up.

Husband and wife in car together
Courtesy of Sophia Smith

We had a huge fight that changed everything. It was the spring of 2011. I will never know for sure what set him off that morning, but he snapped. I could see it in his eyes. They changed; became black, empty, devoid of all emotion. He had more rage in his eyes than I have ever seen in anyone. I could see this intense hatred directed right at me. He was going to kill me. I had always known this day could come. I was hysterical. He assaulted me by throwing me to the ground outside. I knew my life was in danger. I ran inside to call the police. He followed, tearing the phone out of the wall. I turned to leave, and he crashed my car into a tree. I was able to call 911 from another phone. While I was calling for help, he was getting his gun. I knew he was going to use it. It is difficult to share the pure terror I felt. He was seconds away from reaching me when the police showed up.

The police showed up at the right time to stop him. He was arrested and went to jail. During this time, I filed for a restraining order and divorce. I was devastated. I still loved my husband, but I was traumatized. Lost and completely alone, I had two children to care for and no idea how to do that. My friends and family, who had spent years encouraging me to leave, turned their backs on me. I thought I would have their support. Instead, I had no one to turn to.

And, worse than that, my husband was not about to let me go. He started doing anything he could from jail to stalk and harass me. I thought leaving was going to be the hardest step. I had no idea the abuse was going to intensify and escalate. I had no idea what our financial situation was, or how to access our money. He had been in complete control of our money and paid all our bills. The shock of having to figure everything out, without even speaking to him, was daunting. I had spent 17 years living with him. And now, he was gone. My children did not understand what was happening. Their father was gone. Overnight. The next year was one of the hardest times of my life. I stood up to him, moved out with our kids, and slowly started picking up the pieces of our shattered life. He was not going to let me go without a fight. That was when the post separation abuse started.

Brothers at an outdoor table with drinks
Courtesy of Sophia Smith

Breaking Free

He started fighting for custody of our kids, dragging me in and out of court. He repeatedly violated the restraining order. He started stalking me and having people spy on me. He stopped paying our mortgage and refused to pay child support. I considered going back, just to make him stop abusing me. I no longer had friends who were there for me. I grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of support. I decided I wanted people to know what happens when a woman tries to leave. I wanted to draw attention to the very real barriers women face trying to get out. I decided I was going to get away from him for good. I hired an exceptionally good lawyer. She was my hero. She helped me get a lifetime restraining order and full custody of our kids. Even though I was standing up to him, I was still very afraid of him. I knew he could kill me and, during this time, my life was still in danger. The court placed a GPS monitoring device on him, preventing him from entering the town we were living in. I never gave up fighting to be free from my abusive marriage. I was determined to keep my children safe and to find love again. And that’s exactly what I did.

Brothers smiling together outside
Courtesy of Sophia Smith

I am remarried to a wonderful and supportive man. He has been my rock through the years of post-separation abuse. In 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And then, my kids and I were diagnosed with PTSD. My ex-husband continued doing everything he could to destroy my life. He forced me into bankruptcy and allowed our house to go into foreclosure. He never paid his court ordered child support. He continued to stalk me until he passed away in the fall of 2021.

Husband and wife smiling together outdoors
Courtesy of Sophia Smith

I found out my ex-husband passed away at the age of 48. Three days later, I found out I had been diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer, stage 4. It is treatable, but will be fatal. Sometimes, I wonder why all of this has happened. If I could have done something else. What I stay focused on is how we made it out alive. I kept my boys safe, and they are both doing very well. I am still trying to come to terms with his death and my cancer.

Leaving an abusive relationship is one of the hardest things a person can do. The healing comes, but it comes slowly. Healing is messy and hard. I am built for survival, and I still have a lot of fight in me. My love for my boys has carried me through it all. I get my strength from them, and for them. I am a survivor.”

Son and stepdad smiling together
Courtesy of Sophia Smith
Husband and wife leaning against one another and smiling
Courtesy of Sophia Smith
Husband and wife smiling at a dinner
Courtesy of Sophia Smith

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sophia Smith from Massachusetts. You can follow her journey on Facebook and Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more domestic abuse stories:

I’ll Never Judge Someone Who Stays In An Abusive Relationship—I Know Firsthand It Takes Guts To Leave

‘I accidentally left my son’s sippy cup on the top of the car at a gas station and ended up with bruises on my arms.’: Domestic violence survivor urges ‘there is no excuse for abuse’

‘We had a bully, not a dad,’ my son said. It would take literal Superman to stop me from raising my kids alone.’: Family of 4 survive abuse, kids adopted by loving dad

‘The church said, ‘Even if he continues in sin, you’ll be in sin if you divorce him.’: Woman explains why separating from husband was best decision ever, ‘God does not call women to abuse’

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