(My apologies to my readers for the length of this blog. It is an excerpt from my memoir, I Never Heard A Robin Sing, and documents what I wrote in my journal regarding my plan to escape my abuser. It will be followed next week by excerpts showing what happened after I left the shelter)
I’m sitting at Bethlehem House in the midst of forty children, all shrieking and running about. I listen to their mothers struggling to cope with all of this. I watch a pregnant woman, bruises tainting the pale color of her face, chain smoking, and fighting off coming down from heroin addiction. I look with sadness at a young lady with only one arm, the result of the male in her life shooting at her, first in the head and then in her arm. She’s grateful her head survived. All the women at the shelter have stories that weigh on my heart.
Their faces show more than strain, more than hopelessness. They show a living death. And yet, at times, I spy courage, I sense strength; I feel acceptance, but not the kind that comes through resignation. It’s more a sense of, "this is what is, do I have the courage to change it?" It has taken several hours to get me checked in. I had to fill out a lengthy report of all my marital problems, including permission to get a restraining order against Dennis.
I watch the Director closely as we sit in her office. She's a large woman, perhaps in her mid-thirties with shoulder length brown hair and a pronounced no-nonsense attitude. She stops her intake frequently to comfort a newcomer, hug a distraught victim who has just discovered her abuser knows her whereabouts, commiserate with a child who has an "owie", arrange for a fill-in to prepare dinner and so on. All of it is done with an aggressive and robust humor and compassion. While I describe Dennis' abuse, I cry, rocking back and forth with pain, feeling fearful and guilty, like I'm tattling and am going to be punished. It's so hard to separate the sociopathic, sadistic side of Dennis from the charming, nurturing side, almost as if when I see the one, it negates the other. I'm worn out emotionally, drained of strength, wondering if I'm doing the right thing, trusting only that God is guiding me in my path.
I'm lonely and frightened, grateful to be away from Dennis but don't feel I belong here. I don't like the rules. There are too many of them. You can't use the phone. If you do, they’ll kick you out. And try as I might I can't get used to how dirty everything looks. My discomfort is acute, an alien in a world I can't relate to, miserably homesick for my own bed and the love and caring that only the phone can bring me in reaching out to my family and supportive women friends. I feel like I am hanging on by my fingernails, each breath agonizing in its intensity. What am I doing here?
The first night amidst all the din and depression, I sleep like I've never slept before. I am cautiously appreciative, knowing it's from medication Dr. Lewis gave me to keep food down.
I spend the day pacing back and forth, trying to write in my journal, chain smoking on the porch, numb with confusion while I wait for the therapy I have been told is forthcoming. Bethlehem House is situated in the mountains amidst groves of pine trees. It looks so peaceful outside the compound; almost like a movie I'm watching that's part of another world. Only the heavy gates and tall chain link fences remind me that I am a prisoner here of my own choice.
At group therapy, I hear horror stories I could never have thought up, even with my imagination. It frightens and depresses me further. I watch the other women, at times able to relate to what they've been through, and other times feeling as if compared to their stories, mine is minor. Are they thinking that compared to mine theirs is minor? We all act like zombies, milling around, waiting for hope, waiting for courage. I search the faces of the women sitting in a circle. They look like homeless people with intense, stricken faces, aged beyond their years.
Later, while I'm smoking a cigarette on the front porch, the Director of the shelter screams at everyone to get inside and run up to the dorms quickly. Bodies scramble and trample over one another as we race up the stairs. A nun comes rushing into the room screaming, "One of your asshole husbands found out where you're at and is on his way here. If the siren goes off, hit the ground and cover your heads. “I stare at her, dumbfounded that a nun would use profanity. The police show up and after the grounds are searched, an all clear is sounded. Again, I sleep like a baby while the other women lay taut and frightened, their sobs ripping through the night.
Today passes in a painful haze, like fog in a meadow, one from which the mist will never rise. I can't bring myself to eat, am lethargic and drugged from the medication. It doesn't matter. The food is so awful I'd rather starve. I feel like a "Prima Donna", heavy with guilt that I should have this arrogant opinion. I can't seem to pull myself out of the depression and pitch in to help with the chores and children. I've been told that after the first three days everyone is expected to pull their share of the weight. This includes taking care of the children whether you have any of your own or not.
I keep going up to my bunk in the dormitory, trying to sleep or read. But my restlessness and misery is so acute that I seem unable to stay in one place for long. The continual noise and chaos from all the children and angry women feel like a battlefield. Early in the afternoon, I fall asleep in the main hall on a sofa, only to be awakened by someone stating that everyone is to gather for an announcement.
It turns out to be a lecture on how to care for yourself, since lice and other creepy crawlies have been discovered. Everyone is to cover themselves with a foul smelling lotion and take showers and shampoos before retiring with other special medication. This will continue for several days. I listen with revulsion, my anal retentive cleanliness feeling an aversion that stirs me into action.
I begin listening to other women. Several of them have made the decision the shelter is not what they have been told and want to leave. They are desperately attempting such an action, but have been told they cannot leave without permission of the head therapist who is due within the hour.
I immediately go to the Director and tell her I am leaving. She says I have to follow the same rules. And no, I cannot call my children to come and get me. After waiting several nail biting and chain smoking hours during which the head therapist, the Director and several others have a staff meeting, I finally decide "screw this" and remembering that I’d been told if I use the phone booth I’ll be kicked out I find the only phone booth, using it to call Teri. I arrange for Tammie to pick me up. At this point I can only hope they will kick me out for this breach of conduct.
It is almost bedtime before I am told I can leave. First, I have to have an interview with the psychologist on duty. He too asks me for details of my life with Dennis and finally tells me I am making a mistake in leaving. He says that only by facing the hard life at the shelter will I come to believe that I need to stay away from an abusive relationship. I wonder how more bad times will help me escape from my own and tell him I can't live with the chaos that is within these walls. He says the chaos is inside of me and that if I had thought I was coming to a retreat where I could have quiet times and meditate, I was mistaken. It's obvious I am. I decline to stay but decide to wait till the next day to leave.