“I was cleaning out my basement with my husband on Wednesday in preparation for downsizing now that we are empty nesters. Crammed in with all the old photo albums, boys’ first blankets, their favorite toys, Halloween costumes and other childhood keepsakes, was a large plastic tote – but this tote was not filled with good memories, it was filled with reams of paperwork from lawsuit after lawsuit, court appearances, copies of restraining orders, nasty and threatening letters from my ex-husband (the boys’ biological father) and just basically bad JUJU. My ex has passed away in 2015 – Why was I still holding on to all of this negative energy – so just yesterday – I threw it all in the trash! I jokingly said, ‘Well there goes all of my fact checks if I ever wanted to write a book one day.’ That evening, I see that someone has commented on my post from January about our sons’ adult adoption, and is interested in hearing our story. Seriously… the same day I throw out all of my relevant paperwork. What are the chances of that? So, when God Winks – I pay attention.
I first met my ex, when I was 27 years old and was instantly swept off my feet. I was living in Florida after leaving a job in Memphis that I did not like. I moved in with my mom to try and figure out my next steps. I was a college graduate, working at a surf shop, living with my mom and truly just not sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. So, it was the perfect setting for me to get swept away with a charismatic, stockbroker from New Jersey. I am originally from Kentucky – so this man from New Jersey was almost exotic to me…fast talking, said all of the right things, and within months, had moved me up to live with him. Within a year we were married, and a year after that I was pregnant. My ex was a hardworking, go-getter and climbing the ladder quickly as a financial planner. I had noticed a few things that threw up some caution flags, like excessive drinking at times, not coming home when he said he would be there… but all of these things he would easily explain away and I was told that I was being paranoid or jealous.
Prior to getting married, he was never verbally or physically abusive. I can now see that he was starting the ‘grooming’ process of isolating me (which wasn’t hard since I had moved to New Jersey and he was the only person I really knew) and taking care of me financially. I finally put my foot down after we got married and got a sales job that allowed me to have a good income and start making friends… really, life was good, and I was excited for our future. My ex was charming, funny, exciting and loving.
We got pregnant with our first son in 1995. During the pregnancy things started to become more and more suspicious… late nights, sometimes not coming home at all and him basically just acting very odd. When I was 7 months pregnant, I made a call to his cousin saying that I was concerned about his behavior and he said, ‘Oh no, is he still doing that crap? He promised me he would quit when you got pregnant!’ I said, ‘What is he doing?!’ That is when I found out that my ex was a crack addict! I had never been around hard drugs and had no clue about addiction. My world went spinning.
I confronted my ex and he came to his knees and admitted that he needed help. The next day we got him into his first of many 30-day rehabs. I was so clueless, I actually thought this 30 days would be the end of it and our lives would not only return back to normal, but better than normal. Little did I know this would be the beginning of a roller coaster, abusive relationship that one day I would have to flee from in the middle of the night and stay in hiding for many years. There is not enough space to tell all of the stories of how the abuse escalated, nor do I think it is necessary to get the message across. Anyone who knew me before or after him – would never ever think I would be the subject of abuse. I am a serious type A, highly motivated, take charge type of a woman…but all an abusive, bi-polar, narcissistic person needs is just one little weakness and they will exploit that, isolate you and turn you into someone you don’t recognize. This happens so slowly, you don’t even know it is happening.
I once heard an analogy – you just can’t throw a rabbit in boiling water as he will jump out, but if you first put the rabbit in the water and slowly boil it, he won’t jump out as the boil happens without him noticing it… that is what abuse is. Mine started with verbal abuse, then escalated to emotional and finally to physical. My ex was able to stay sober for many months at a time, and even one time for a glorious 1 year, which is when we had our #2 child in 1998 and moved into a beautiful 5,000 sq. ft home, on 5 acres on a lake in Wall, New Jersey.
As the kids got older they went to a private school and I left my pharmaceutical sales job to stay at home with the kids. From the outside, we were a perfect family – and for many, many days, we were. But, the relapses would happen and with that came the abuses and the bad days would become more and more. When my ex first went to his first rehab, I started Al-Anon and keep at that for over 6 years. At first I was really upset about having to go to a meeting for HIS disease, but I came to realize that something in me made me think I was HIS fixer and I finally came to realize that I was an enabler and that I had to get control over that, so I became diligent about working on myself. His relapses became closer together, but he was making his company so much money they just allowed him to basically do whatever he wanted and kept sending him to different types of in and out-patient treatments.
After several years of this pattern of relapsing, abusing me, coming back and begging for one more change, going to rehab and then relapsing again, I finally had enough. Five years into the marriage, I found an attorney and filed for divorce. I came home that day, my kids were with our live-in help, and my ex had come home early for some reason that day… to this day, I don’t know how he knew I was at an attorney’s office, if it was just blind luck, but he knew. He met me at the car with gun-in-hand. With a sinister look, he told me I needed to call the attorney back and tell her I had changed my mind. I was breathless – he was not screaming, the kids and their caretaker had no clue what was going on as we walked past them (he had concealed the gun) and I walked into our bedroom to call the attorney to tell her I had changed my mind.
Two more years of this merry-go-round cycle with his disease progressing each time and the relapses getting longer, sometimes we would not see him for a month. The only thing good about his disease is that he left the house and the boys and I did not have to be around it. They were young enough that I would make up stories about his whereabouts and truly they were just used to me… so as long as I was there – they were happy.
The proverbial straw… My ex had been clean for 6 months and we had decided to take a family vacation to Disney World to meet up with my mom and my sister, her husband and their 2 sons. This was October 2001…right after 9/11. The boys and I flew down first to spend some time with my mom at her beach home and from there I would rent a van and we would meet my ex at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. I was looking forward to my ex mending fences with my family and for us to have a family vacation which was much needed. We met up at the resort… and I could tell something was off, but he swore he was not using and that he was just tired. We were talking in the bathroom, so not to talk in front of the boys who were the room. I told him this vacation was so needed and that if he were to screw it up in any way, I was going to leave him… with that, a rage came in his eyes and he put a choke hold on me and threw me into the tub. He said he would NEVER allow me to leave and take away his sons. If I even tried, they would find my body in several pieces in garbage bags in South Jersey.
Here is my regret to this day… I should have figure out a way to escape that night, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to be wrong, I didn’t want to be married to this type of man and I certainly didn’t want to be the wife that couldn’t fix her husband… so I stayed quiet. We went downstairs, had dinner with the family and made plans for the next day. My ex said he was tired, he would stay at the resort with our 3-year-old while I took our 4-year-old to one of the parks with my sister and her youngest son. The plan was to meet back at Animal Kingdom Lodge at 7:00 p.m. We got back promptly at 7:00 p.m. My ex was not there, and neither was my son. I tried his cell phone, no answer. This went on until 9 p.m. I sent my mom and my sister and family back to my mom’s house as it was over an hour away. I just knew he would come back… but at 10:00 p.m., I went to the front desk and reported what was going on. Of course, there is no law that says a dad can’t take his son, so all they could do was to put a notice out to the Park Police to be on the lookout and told me to go back to my room and wait.
I continued to call his cell to no avail and finally at 2:00 a.m. I got a call from the front desk that a 3-year-old had been left at a Disney Day Care and the daycare worker had finally called the police as the dad kept calling and making up excuses about why he was late picking up his son. Mind you, the Day Care Center was supposed to close at 9:00 p.m.… which only shows the master manipulator he was. I took a taxi over to the Day Care Center and found my sweet little boy asleep. They allowed me to take him with me. This was the last straw. He had never done anything to put my children in harm’s way and I was never going to allow that to happen…even if it cost me my life…he was not going to hurt them.
This began our months and months of hiding at hotels, friends’ places and finally getting our own apartment, that only my 2 best friends knew where it was. I had gone back to the original attorney, filed divorce and started the process in motion of regaining my life. Again, the boys were so young, I just told them we were on adventures and they rarely skipped a beat. They would still go to their private schools, we had a restraining order – so he was not allowed on the grounds and for the most part, he was too busy getting high and going to jail to be much of a threat. Finally he landed in jail for long enough that I could have a somewhat of a peaceful life and I was able to sell the house, which I had convinced him to sign over to my name only. I was under the Victim Protection Act, which I was supposed to get 48 hours notice prior to him getting out of jail… until one night, I got a knock on my apartment door. The door that NO ONE knew I was at except my 2 best friends. I called them both and it was not them. The next day I called the VINE (Victim Notification System) line and they informed me that my ex was released from jail 2 days prior. With every being in my bones, I knew that was him.
I got the kids to school… which was a new school that I did not think he know about, but warned them that their father did not have custody and in fact he had a restraining order out on him. I got back to our apartment, called a mutual friend that was not scared of my ex and had him come over. The two of us packed my car and when the boys got off from school we headed to Kentucky. By law, I was not allowed to leave the state of New Jersey as it would have been considered kidnapping since our final custody had not been determined – BUT, I told my attorney that was her problem, and that I was going on an extended vacation to see family. The boys were only in Pre-K and Kindergarten, so I home-schooled them in Kentucky, paid rent in New Jersey and kept my driver’s license in New Jersey. I’d fly back and forth for the awful court dates.
Finally, New Jersey gave me permission to move the kids to Kentucky and in January 2004 we became official residents of Kentucky and it’s the only home my boys know. For years after we moved, I would get phone calls, threatening mail – Not a night would go by that I wouldn’t triple check the locks, look at the windows, sleep with one eye open and various other symptoms of PTSD. My ex took me back to court many times over the years in an attempt to drain me of money… which he was just about successful in doing. I spent every dime I got from the ‘marriage’ on court costs and from settling lawsuits from his former employer trying to recoup some of the money they lost because of him. When I moved to Kentucky, I knew that I must work, but I couldn’t stand the thoughts of not being home with my kids or being with them when they got off the bus once they went to school. My cousin told me I could join him in his Travel Agency business, which was 1:45 hours away, commission only – but it was a way to make some money and be home with my kids. I jumped at the chance to work with him and learn the travel agency business and in 2005 I started my own travel agency.
My life got exponentially better in 2006, when I met my current husband, David, via an online dating site. I had dated a few other men, but with 2 small kids and a new business, I really just didn’t have much time to fool with it. However, we went on a lunch date and 4 months later, we were married. I never thought I would re-marry that quickly – but when you know, you know!
After a few months of marriage, we started talking about David adopting my sons. David had one son from his previous marriage who was 16 and my sons were 7 and 9. The boys were starting to call him Dad. They had not heard from their biological dad since they were 4 and 5, all they knew is that he had a disease that made him make bad choices and until he was able to get help, he would not be around. However, I was still getting random threatening calls, which got worse once he realized I had re-married. I knew the only way that David could legally adopt them would be for us to get permission from my ex, and I just knew he would not allow that. Not to mention, us asking him truly may cost me my life… so we did not pursue it further. In his heart, they were his sons and in my boys’ heart, he was their father…what else could they need?
In 2014, their biological dad passed away in Las Vegas while doing drugs. It was so painful to hear, so sad of a life that was never lived to his full potential. My sons were 17 and 19 when he passed. It never occurred to us that the boys would want to be adopted at this time… I mean, all these years had passed and what would it mean at this point to make it legal… truly we just didn’t give it a thought. About a year ago, my youngest had started talking to his aunt and his (new) dad about the desire to change his last name to ours. When I heard that, I said to David, ‘Do you think they would want to still be adopted? Is that even a thing? Can you adopt adults?’ A quick internet search and a text to a good friend that is a paralegal and indeed, we found it was possible. So, that Sunday we invited the boys over to a family dinner and David, their Dad of 12 years, asked them if he could make it legal and adopt them? Tears flowed and a resounding YES put the ball into motion for David to legally adopt our sons at the ages of 20 and 22. I still own my Travel Agency and have traveled all around the world with my husband and kids getting to go on many trips. Our sons are incredible young adults and we could not be prouder of them.
Our oldest just graduated from college and made a big move to pursue a career in Sales in Dallas and our youngest is in college and serves in the Kentucky National Guard. We are just a normal family. If people don’t know the story, they think David is their biological Dad as they boys resemble him. I am eternally grateful as they have grown up in a home with a father who loves them, who never raise a hand or say a negative word to their Mother. He has shown them how to love and be loved… is there anything better that he could have taught them than that? I think not! The cycle of abuse has been broken and I have the love of a good man to thank for that!
Today as I tell this story, it seems like a lifetime ago…how could that have really been my life? But, I know it was. I still have ‘sprinkles’ of PTSD, times of panic or overwhelming anxiety or stress, but a prayer and talking it out with my husband or kids has done wonders to keep that at bay. If you are reading this and find yourself in a similar situation, please reach out for help. Find someone you can confide in that will help you make a plan to take care of yourself and kids if you have them. You are WORTH IT!”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sheri Clarke. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read more inspiring stories of overcoming abusive relationships:
‘While driving, I saw him text a girl, ‘I miss you. I can’t wait for her to move out so we can be together.’ I was livid and shaking.’: Woman leaves ‘narcissist’ husband after years of ‘manipulation and lies’
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