‘My boyfriend woke me. ‘He is in the house.’ I checked the doors, all locked. I climbed back into bed. ‘I just saw him in the hall!’ I got up again. He was there. We heard a loud BOOM!’

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“There are times in your life when you know, deep inside, something is not right. But being a teenager, I didn’t listen. All the signs were there. I didn’t listen. Everyone was telling me. I didn’t listen. Even after the abuse started showing up on my body – I. Didn’t. Listen.

We met as teenagers, he went to a bigger school and I felt so proud he chose me. I think that’s how I was able to fall so hard for him. When I turned 18, I was told to stop dating him, or leave. So I left. He had my heart. And young love is so deceptive. I was a foster kid and grew up never feeling accepted – so how can someone that told me he loved me do me wrong? I soon found out. I was behind a year in school so when I turned 18 I was still a junior in high school. I had gotten pregnant with our first child in my senior year. It wasn’t easy, but I graduated early. I guess I was trying to convince everyone I could do it. We got married when I was 7 months pregnant and I thought everything would be ok. All the bad parts were behind us. He would stop running around with his friends and decide to be a dad and husband. That’s all I ever wanted. But that’s not what happened. 

Courtesy of Hope Cunningham

He used our marriage as he wished. It didn’t matter what I thought. And when I tried to speak up, I was quickly put in my place. His most-used form of abuse was head butting me. He would get really close as we yelled. When I said something he didn’t like, or if I didn’t react the way he wanted me to, he slammed his forehead in my face. I have had so many bloody noses I lost count. And after the incident, he would pride himself saying, ‘I didn’t hit you!’ Like using his head was a way out of saying he abused me.

It quickly escalated to hitting me in the head where my hair was. His new phrase, ‘You don’t have bruises if you can’t see them.’ I hid all of it. I continued to go to college. I wanted the happy life so badly. I wanted my son to have his dad growing up. I wanted to fix this. I needed to fix this. So I stayed. 

Courtesy of Hope Cunningham

The first time I left was 6 months after we got married. I couldn’t handle the physical and mental abuse. I was going to have lunch with his mom later that day and needed to pick up some formula. I had to use WIC vouchers. But because of his pride, he would not do the shopping with those. He didn’t want to be seen with them. He was supposed to drive me to the store because I wasn’t allowed to drive his car. A friend of his stopped by and wanted him to run some errands with him. He had chosen his friend. We had just gone ice skating with him a couple of days before. (Remember that) I was really upset that he was going to make me walk to the store and buy gallons of milk and formula in the hot sun with our child in a stroller. He didn’t care. I was holding our young son on my hip in the kitchen and I said, ‘Take more responsibility for your wife and son,’ and he smacked me in my face. I froze, I walked over to the swing and placed my son safely down.

I walked back into the kitchen, pointed at him and said, ‘Don’t you ever hit me while I’m holding my baby!’ The next thing I remember was laying on the floor, getting kicked. Repeatedly. His friend ran and pulled him off of me. He threw a dish toward our son’s swing and walked out. I was in shock. I called his mom to tell her I had to cancel plans. I was bruised and bleeding and didn’t want her to see me. But she knew. She told me to pack a small bag and get the hell outta there. And so I did. I called the police. Went to a women’s shelter in the next state. He went to jail. So I moved back in. Unfortunately, he has ties to the police and fire departments in the area. So even pressing charges, they didn’t stick. He told the officers the bruises were from ‘ice skating’ (mentioned above) and not from him. They believed him. So he got out.

Knowing I would never be able to do anything substantial to him as a criminal, I filed for divorce with legal aide. He would try to convince me he would never hurt me again. I wanted to believe him. And got pregnant again with our daughter. I remember when I was around 6 months pregnant walking into the room to wake him up. He was to watch our son while I was at work, and he kicked me in my stomach. I prayed so hard for her to move. I prayed so hard he didn’t hurt her. And praise God, she was ok. 

He put the fear in me. He used everything he could to get me to believe I was a horrible mother, crazy, and I would never have my kids. He even went as far as to withhold my breastfed child from me until he screamed to eat, and he let me nurse him, as long as the gun was pointed at my head. He didn’t want me to leave him. 

I never officially lived with him after the first time I left him, but we stayed married for 5 years. He would come into my life, promise me he’d changed, but go back to abusing me every time. I was able to get into a beautiful house with my two babies and graduated from college. I really thought I was going to make it. When he saw me succeeding, he knew it was time to beat me down again. He came over one afternoon to see the kids and I can’t even remember why we started fighting. But I had enough of his verbal and physical abuse. I stood up for myself. I did something I thought I would never do, I pushed him back. I pushed him away from me. I pushed for my freedom and almost thought I could get it until he raised his fist and punched me so hard I flew across the room and landed on the floor. My babies saw that. My eye instantly started swelling and turned blue. He left, and I once again had to lie to everyone about how the bruises happened.

Courtesy of Hope Cunningham

I made up a story this time was that my almost 2-year-old son threw a baseball at me and it hit me in the eye. Some people laughed and sorta believed me. Most people did not. They knew. One of my co-workers pulled me aside and said something that to this day I remember as the thing that finally resonated… ‘If nothing changes in five years, will you be happy?’ He didn’t give me time to answer before he walked away. He didn’t want the answer. He wanted to get me thinking. And he was right. Oh, and yes, I had to go to the doctor to make sure my eye socket wasn’t broken. And my abuser stayed with me in the room the whole time and they believed him as they always do. 

It came to the point where he finally signed the divorce papers and I thought I was officially done with him. So I moved on. I started dating again. He did not like this at all. He stalked me and would not take no for an answer. He called the police on me for child checks when I didn’t return his calls. One evening, I was with my boyfriend (now husband) watching TV while the kids were asleep. I didn’t answer his calls. He knocked at the door, and I didn’t let him come in. He was furious and called the cops. The cops checked the kids, they were OK, the house was clean and there was food in the fridge. The cops left with nothing to report. When that didn’t work, something happened that to this day he says he had nothing to do with, but I still have my suspicions. Just after the cops left, I was talking to my boyfriend on the couch, telling him to be careful because this man is crazy, when we heard a loud BOOM! I thought it was a gun, but it was the sound of the sliding glass door window exploding from being punched in with a glass breaker. We called the cops this time, they showed up and checked everything out, including our cars, which were also vandalized. The passenger windows were broken out of both of them. 

I had enough and decided to stop communicating with him. But we had children and he knew how to get to me. It was about 3 o’clock in the morning. I was sleeping in bed and had my boyfriend on one side of me and my toddler snuggled on the other side. My boyfriend woke me and said, ‘He is in the house.’ I got up to check, and found nothing. I checked the doors and they were all locked. I climbed back into bed, and again, my boyfriend says, ‘I just saw him in the hall!’ I again got up and thoroughly checked the rooms and discovered he was in my house! We started arguing and it woke my son up. Excited to see his dad, he ran to him. He picked him up, turned and walked out. He just took my son! He did not have a car seat or clothing. I called the police and filed a report. But because the court-appointed attorney never filed the paperwork, no custody had been established and we were still technically married. I couldn’t do a thing. He took only one child and claimed it was his scheduled time to pick him up. NO ONE schedules visitations at that time and with only one child. I was left to pick up the pieces again. He only kept him for about 2 weeks before it was too much responsibility to take on. 

I hired a different attorney, got my divorce, and with the support of my boyfriend, now husband, we left the state. He knew he would not win with the Judge. His attorney even quit on him once all the reports of abuse were finally out in the open. He didn’t show up at the divorce hearing and I got everything I wanted – my children and my name. 

Courtesy of Hope Cunningham

I have been happily married for the last 14 years. Not saying that my abuser completely left me alone, but I was far enough away and had more support, that I could effectively handle the situation. That is, until now. I have been having some issues with breathing for a while. It was getting harder and harder to take a breath using my nose. I was referred to an ENT who told me that because of my abuse that happened years ago, I now have to have surgery to correct the physical damage. My heart sank. I thought once I left, everything would get better. I knew I had some emotional things to work out. But I never expected to hear this. 

Courtesy of Hope Cunningham

I wished I had listened. I wished I had listened to my heart, my head, my friends, my family… but I didn’t. But please listen to me now. My story is my story. It is unique to me. I would never want my story to change because it is who I am. But, if your story is just beginning, please let my pain inspire you to leave an abusive relationship. It is not worth 20 years of memories that still to this day cause PTSD. I still shake when someone yells at me. I still have triggers. I still need to walk away from my husband and cry before I can finish an argument. I just had a very difficult and painful surgery on my face to correct the damage done so many years ago, and some of the damage is irreversible. I will never recover. 

Reach out to someone. Don’t stay. You are worth it.”

Courtesy of Hope Cunningham
Courtesy of Hope Cunningham

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Hope Cunningham. You can follow her journey on Instagram hereDo you have a similar experience? Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more empowering stories of women overcoming domestic violence:

‘On the night of our honeymoon, I saw the DARKER side of my husband. My heart was beating out of my chest. He whispered in my ear, ‘You… are NOT going to tell me what to do.’ 

‘I got a text from him saying, ‘What are you smiling at?’ And I froze. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Where was he?’

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