At one point early in our relationship, my husband was a volunteer firefighter. The way this worked in our town was that all the volunteers got a radio that picked up a specific channel broadcast from the station. When there was a call, the radio would burst into life and someone from the station would describe the situation. Any volunteer that was available to help would then go to the station as quickly as possible and get on a fire truck. Most drove, but we lived a block away from the station, so my husband ran.
Calls could come in at any hour, day or night. I still have a clear, visceral memory of the first time the radio went off at night in our bedroom. I was scared out of my wits, convinced there was a firefighter in our bedroom yelling at us. I remember half-imagining there was a man standing in our doorway before I woke up fully and figured out what was happening. My husband threw on some clothes and ran out the door, and I went back to sleep fairly quickly, but the memory of that fear is still with me a decade later.
Given that initial experience, I was surprised to find that I soon learned to sleep right through calls. I might wake up a little, even talk to my husband, but have no memory of any of it the next day. I was used to it.
I was reminded of that experience this morning when I woke up before six. I couldn’t figure out why the dogs were outside barking and my husband was nowhere in sight. It turned out he’d set an early alarm, and I’d slept right through it. I tried to remember the last time I’d woken up to his alarm, and realized it had been ages. The truth is that I haven’t worked for a couple of years, and therefore haven’t needed an alarm for a long time.
Of course, instead I have the baby “alarm.” In the morning, she no longer cries when she wakes up, but I will wake up to the sound of her babbling in the next room. I’ll also occasionally still find myself in her room at an ungodly hour holding a crying baby before I even realize what’s happened – I just ran in and picked her up without even processing it. So it’s not that I’m a heavy sleeper – I’m just trained to respond to certain things and not to others.
I’m not the only one. Our deal, since my husband was working and I wasn’t, was that I was always on night duty. So my husband never gets up with the baby. Even though he’s a light sleeper, he has woken up a few times and been surprised to find out how often I was up in the night with our daughter, and for how long.
I think most of us have this ability to train ourselves to adjust to things. The inability to filter things out is actually a problem. Without it, we are overwhelmed by inputs, and unable to make sense of our lives.
Even in relationships we often learn to adjust to things that used to irritate us – the toothpaste cap on the sink, the boxers that always end up on the floor next to the hamper instead of in the hamper. This is normal and rational.
The fact that this process is usually unconscious does mean that sometimes we adjust to things without realizing the consequences.
Lately, I have been thinking about another memory from even earlier in our relationship. My future husband and I were both sophomores in college. My best friend from high school lived in the same dorm wing as my husband – that’s how I had met him – so on this particular evening I sat for a few minutes in the hallway with her and a few other girls from the wing. A pint of ice cream was being passed around, and I had a spoonful. Later on, I went into my husband’s room, and at some point I told him about the ice cream. He asked me if my friend had also shared the spoon – we both knew her well enough to know she occasionally had cold sores, though she didn’t have one at the time. I said yes. He hit me upside the head, hard. Not enough to make me fall down, but hard.
I think now about this event and I am deeply disturbed. I was terribly upset at the time, and I told him so. I cried, and I just could not understand it. I eventually came around to believe that what I had done was terrible enough, and frightening enough to him, that his reaction was understandable.
At the time I didn’t tell anyone, except possibly my friend. No one helped me see this was controlling behavior. I didn’t understand it was controlling behavior. He didn’t say “It really bothers me that you shared a spoon with those girls. Will you please not do that anymore?” That would have been an adult request I could have responded to with an adult “yes” or “no.” He hit me.
I’ve said before our relationship has almost never been physically abusive. Unfortunately, that “almost” is most definitely there. I still remember the fear and the shame and the confusion that washed over me that evening. What really bothers me is that I know there were other times when he did things equally controlling, when he said things that were equally painful, if not physically so, but my memories of them are not nearly so clear.
At some point, I just adjusted.
When I started this journey – when I started this blog – I was almost a year out from the wonder of having my first baby. All I knew was that my life felt small, and I felt it getting smaller, which seemed like the wrong direction. I started this blog as a way to roll that process back. I started seeing my therapist more regularly. At that point, I would not have told you my relationship was abusive. I would have told you we had problems in the past. I would have told you that we divorced originally because we both needed to mature, and I almost completely believed that.
I had adjusted.
Why call it abuse? Because I am terrified that if I don’t, I won’t keep this new awareness, which has allowed me to see the effect on my life that my husband has had. I call it abuse to remind myself there are other ways to live and other ways to have a stable relationship, even if I don’t know how to do them right now.
I call it abuse to remind myself that I have a choice – a choice whether or not to accept certain behaviors from my husband, or to request that he stop.
I call it abuse to remind myself that sometimes, learning to adjust carries a higher price than I want to pay.
P.S. Linking up with the hangout grid at Yeah Write again, because I am again, stupid proud of this post. Love to all the friendly, talented, amazing people who visited my blog and commented last week, even given that it’s such serious fare compared to most of the others. If you didn’t start there to get here, check it out. Lovely writing is always in abundance.