I lay on the bed curled up in a ball, my arms wrapped around my head in an effort to block out the sounds around me.
I had just returned from a women’s retreat in the country where I was serving with my husband of three years. Some roses greeted me when I got back home—a sweet gesture, though not uncommon. John (not his real name) had always been a romantic and often lavished me with gifts. I loved the flowers, but I had been sick with a fever and stomach flu for the last two days and could only think of crawling into bed to get some sleep.
As I now lay in bed, I heard a tearing sound and felt something drop on top of me. I did not know what it was, and I did not want to look. Is it my journal? Is he actually tearing up my journal? More ripping, more things dropping on me, more names, more yelling. God, please make our neighbors deaf.
Earlier that evening I had explained to my husband that I just could not deal with the smell of all the hand-sanitizer he was using and I had to sleep in a different bedroom. You see, John had struggled for two years with what our first counselor labeled as an ‘extreme’ case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Tonight, sick with the flu, I just could not stomach the pungent smell. That is what sparked the anger this time. Just keep your eyes closed, don’t say anything, don’t look, just will yourself to fall asleep. He’ll stop, he’ll stop… When he finally left the room I got up to close the bedroom door and discovered it was the beautiful red roses with which he had greeted me earlier that were now torn and scattered.
It was not always this way. I had been a global worker in Africa for more than two years when I met the man who would become my first love and later my husband. John, also a global worker, was beyond what I could have imagined: attractive, sensitive, thoughtful, romantic, and, most of all, committed to following God. We dated in Africa for more than a year, and then we moved back to the United States to be married. The next two years were spent preparing for ministry overseas together in a country new to both of us. Our first year of marriage was wonderful, but after that first year I started to see some disturbing changes in my husband. I watched with no small amount of confusion as the gentle man I loved turned into somebody I could neither recognize nor understand. While OCD was a difficult hurdle to overcome, the abuse it spawned was devastating.
I soon found myself pouring every ounce of energy into making things wonderful again, no matter what the cost to me. I told myself once we got back overseas John would feel happier and more secure. Just hang on, keep smiling, make things as easy as possible, everything will be fine. I became able to go from several hours of being relentlessly degraded to being the beaming young global worker bride giving a presentation at church.
It did not take long for us to raise our support, and once we were back overseas I waited expectantly for the return of the man with whom I had fallen in love. It did not happen. The isolation that comes with the first year of learning a new language in a foreign country increased the stress and escalated the deterioration. I would smile and be happy in public and with our team, but at home I tiptoed around trying to avoid another blow-up. I tried praying harder—Lord, help me to be who I need to be to make this work. Help me to shower him with love, help me to meet all his needs…
I drew limits in my mind as to what I would take before getting help. But when each imaginary line was crossed, instead of getting help I moved the line further away. When things escalated into physical abuse, I found a way to dismiss that as well. If I did even the slightest thing wrong—raised my voice, was less than patient—then I could excuse whatever he did or said. I told myself to simply try harder the next time and things would improve. Nothing I tried worked.
My eyes were usually swollen from long nights of crying, and the stress was wearing on me physically as well. I was sick often. Nevertheless, when my team leaders became suspicious that all was not right and asked me about it, I found myself explaining everything, coming to my husband’s defense, and telling them that everything was OK. He was just a little bit ‘stressed,’ and I was just a little bit ‘tired.’ We were ‘fine.’ In short, I lied, and I was convincing.
This is usually the part where I am asked, “If things were so bad, why didn’t you just leave?” I can only try to relate my experience, but even I do not understand the chaos in my mind that seemed to make it so impossible to get out.
I wanted out…sort of…but how? My thoughts would spin: What if I am making it all up or just being dramatic about things? What if I tell and nobody believes me? How can I betray my husband like that? Where will I go, anyway? Doesn’t the Bible say you should not leave your spouse? What will our supporters think? Wouldn’t it be irresponsible after having just asked so many people to sacrifice in order to send us overseas? It’s not like I am without fault, and it isn’t bad all the time—sometimes he even apologizes…
John had already drilled into me that ‘what happens in our marriage stays in our marriage.’ Any breech of this secrecy was ‘adultery.’ I later learned that the demand for secrecy is one of the clearest indicators of an abusive relationship, but at the time I was willing to go along with it even if it seemed extreme. I felt incredibly confused but was effectively cut off from any outside input to help me sort through what I was hearing from my husband. Many times I prayed for a nervous breakdown or even death so I could escape the craziness around me.
My parents were the only ones who had any idea of what was happening. I called them the first day things had gotten physical. I was locked in the house, and I threatened John that I would call out the window for help if he did not let me out or at least give me back my phone so I could call someone. He eventually let me call my parents, taking notes on what I said. I do not remember what all I told them, but they urged us to seek counseling. I begged them not to tell anyone what was going on.
We started seeing the pastor of a church we were attending, telling our teammates that we were having a ‘date night’ every Tuesday. It was this pastor who first pointed out the cycle we were in. One week things were terrible, the next week things were ‘better.’ Week after week, the alternating cycle continued. When the pastor began to confront my husband, John told me that what the pastor said was invalid since the pastor was ‘manipulated’ by my tears, or, worse yet, that I had flirted with him and hence swayed him to ‘my side.’ So, while it was a relief to have someplace to go and be honest for a few hours, it was clearly not enough to save the situation.
Eventually it was a change in my own behavior that convinced me I absolutely had to break my silence to someone who could truly help. Months earlier John had removed the locks from the rooms in our apartment so that if I wanted to seek some kind of refuge I had to use my body to keep the door shut. After one long day of having the door slammed into my back, I tried to tell him that he was hurting me. I guess somehow I thought if he knew it hurt then he would relent. He did not. I finally had enough. With a burning rage inside me I stormed through the doorway, grabbed the front of his shirt and pushed him back, saying through clenched teeth, “I told you that it hurts! Stop it!!!” At first he looked surprised, and then he looked amused, even satisfied. He gloated that I had ‘failed’ and had lost it mentally. I was scared by the rage I felt and who I was becoming. I finally had what I thought was a ‘good’ reason to break my silence. Now I just needed to find the guts to actually do it.
My first attempt to get help did not go well. That day he had shoved me and I just kept walking right out the door. I was focused and determined as I started out toward our team leader’s apartment. My husband was right there with me as I walked. Scattered throughout the names he was calling me were the threats that scared me the most: “If you say anything, I’ll never talk to you again! If you tell then our marriage will be over; you’ll have ruined our marriage forever! It will all be your fault!” Still, I kept walking. I was really going to do it this time.
John tried to block my path by standing in front of me, grabbing my coat and holding me back, pushing me up against fences, doing anything he could think of. I just kept going. As we finally reached the apartment building, my husband got more desperate, pinning me against the wall. During the struggle I saw all too clearly how easily I could tumble down the steep cement stairs nearby. It was absolute insanity, but after more than an hour of this tug-of-war, I finally made it up to the apartment.
I rang the doorbell and waited, while John lingered a few stairs down. I rang again. And again. And nobody answered the door. I waited for over an hour before giving up and walking back home. The whole way back my husband told me God had protected us from my sinfulness. I felt that God Himself had betrayed me.
Several weeks passed before I gathered the courage to try again. This time I had to physically fight my way out of the apartment. I did not make it any farther than the stairway before I was pulled up by the hood of my jacket. Once more I was locked inside. John sat in a chair in front of the exit, arms folded, refusing to move. Thankfully, that evening I had a Bible study with the two other women on our team, and as evening drew near I convinced my husband that he had to let me go or they would call wondering where I was.
As I sat with the women on the team I had a large bruise on my back and a sprained ankle from trying to get out of the apartment earlier. My shirt was torn and my heart was pounding. My ankle was bruised and swollen, but I did not allow myself to limp. I was also careful to move in such a way that my shirt would not ride up in the back and reveal the bruise. My husband had coached me to make sure I was especially watchful about that. My makeup was in place—with extra eyeliner in the hopes of masking the puffiness from the drama of the day. I knew that if I did not say anything,everything would go on like it always had. I looked no different and sounded no different; I laughed and joked like always. To this day, I do not think my teammates realize what shape I was in that night.
We did our Bible study, and when it came time for prayer requests I knew this was my moment. I asked for the usual requests: language school, relationships with the neighbors, etc. I was just getting ready to blurt out what my real request was when the team leader moved on to the next lady. Here I saw clearly my opportunity to just forget it. To not tell. To keep my secret. All my husband’s threats rushed through my mind, all that it might mean for me if I said something, all the old arguments I had used before to talk myself out of it. But I knew that I was turning into an angry, frightened, deceptive person. Surely this did not please God. How could I continue to go on like this?
Somehow, God gave me the courage I needed. I steeled myself, then blurted out, “Actually, I have one more prayer request.” They looked at me to go ahead, and I said the few simple words that would signal the beginning of my healing. “Things aren’t good with John and me. He gets really angry.” That was all I was going to say, not a big deal, not too revealing, but at least I said something. God obviously honored my effort and prompted my team leader to ask what would be a key question: “Does he ever keep you from leaving the house?”
I looked at her a bit stunned, but I answered truthfully. They prayed for me, and I knew she would consult her husband, our team leader. When I got back to our apartment that night John was waiting by the door; the first thing he did was ask me if I had said anything. I told him I had and braced myself for a long night. Amazingly, and perhaps because he knew I was now talking to someone, he mostly just ignored me. I was at once relieved, and twisting inside with anxiety.
When I was out of town for a few days on business, my husband decided to speak to the team leader’s wife. He told her I was a liar, depressed, and probably ‘delusional.’ Ironically, it was what he himself said that really alarmed them. In this and so many other ways I feel like God truly did rescue me. Looking back, I believe that God wanted me to take that first step, and then He let my husband condemn himself. I am convinced being an abused spouse is similar to being an alcoholic in this way: you have to be able to admit the problem in order to really get help. If someone just tried to ‘rescue’ me before I was willing, I would have rejected it soundly. I did realize that my teammates were ‘safe,’ trustworthy people who loved me and my husband. Without their wisdom, gentleness, and willingness to confront, I honestly do not know that I ever would have shared enough information to reveal the true seriousness of the situation.
When the truth was separated from the lies, my team leaders sat down with me and then with the both of us for a confrontation that was handled very sensitively and with love. I ended up spending a couple of nights with my teammate in order to ensure my safety while arrangements were made for John and me to go to Link Care, a counseling center in California designed for ministry workers. My miracle! I had no idea such a place existed, and I nearly melted with relief to know I was not just going to be kicked out of our organization and left to try to figure things out by myself. I was ready to do whatever it took to get better.
Of course, John was very angry to have to leave the field and furious with me for talking to somebody. He felt that I had betrayed him and ruined our marriage. This was very painful, and at first I felt a tremendous amount of guilt. The difference this time was that I had a place to go to hear an objective voice. I had the support not only of godly counselors but also of other women at various stages in their own recovery. Still, it took many months in counseling before I really found my voice. When asked to introduce myself in my women’s group, my first words were, “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say.”
Eventually I learned that I did not fail my husband by telling. If anything, the silence I kept out of a desire to respect him was where I feel Ifailed my husband the most and contributed to the deterioration of our relationship. My silence enabled him by making it easier for him to keep doing what he was doing. How do you ever realize you have a problem if someone keeps rescuing you from it? While I know that he is responsible for his own choices, I still wonder if things might have turned out differently if I had broken my silence earlier. Would the progression of the mental illness have been halted before it had taken such deep root? Would the abuse have been more easily stopped if it had not had so long to grow into the monster it became? I do not know. I never will. I have to leave those questions in God’s hands.
The Bible tells us very clearly to confess our faults and pray for each other in order to be healed (James 5:16). It is in the silence that sin has a chance to take control. The confessing of sin and struggles is a theme repeated throughout the Bible, and I have found in my own recovery that confessing to another human being takes away so much of sin’s power! It is amazing what the enemy can do with us when we try to hide or disguise our struggles. He accuses us and binds us in shame which immobilizes us and, I am convinced, keeps us from the abundant life Christ came to give us. Secrets lose their tremendous power when they are exposed to the light of Truth.
I have come to believe that grace-filled spirit-led confrontation is one of the greatest expressions of love when restoration—not condemnation—is the goal. “Dear brothers and sisters, if another Christian is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path” (Galatians 6:1a, NLT). Though perhaps motivated by love, letting someone languish in their sickness or sin is no more loving than letting someone drown in the ocean without doing something to help. This ‘help’ does need to be given in a healthy way. If a lifeguard just feels badly for the drowning person and sympathetically starts swallowing water too, what good is that? In essence, that is how I was trying to help my husband—trying to swallow the ocean so he would not drown. Sometimes a rescuer has to knock out the one drowning lest he also be pulled under in the struggle. That is the essence of what I did in defying my husband’s demand for silence in favor of God’s demands for truth in love.
I share my story because I know there are others who are struggling and feeling bound to an unhealthy code of silence either by the perceived expectations of others or perhaps a misunderstanding of what loving and respecting your spouse really looks like. One of Oxford’s definitions for ‘respect’ is to ‘avoid harming.’ Respect means seeking the best for and of someone. Even if you do not think your situation is as extreme as mine, please know that there is hope and there are places you can go to get wise counsel so that your marriage can be all God ordained it to be in the first place. The Bible is full of verses promoting wise counsel. We need each other in the body of Christ. “Plans go wrong for a lack of advice; many counselors bring success” (Proverbs 15:22, NLT).
Many mission organizations and churches will be supportive like mine were, though some may not be. I am not saying it is an easy path, or a path with guarantees, but it is a path that has hope. There is no shame in doing all you can to be all God created you to be, and I would propose that God is more interested in your relationship and walk with Him than He is any project or ministry that you may have to let go of for a time. I have been learning to focus on why I got involved in ministry in the first place—to be obedient to Christ, and follow wherever He leads me.
So how does my story end? Well, God is not through writing it yet! Things did not turn out like I had hoped, and I grieve the loss of the life I thought I would share with my husband. He did not embrace the help offered to him, and he continues to this day on what I can only see as a path that will destroy him. I hope some day he joins me in recovery and our relationship will be restored. I believe that would be God’s best. But I am also experiencing tremendous blessing and restoration as I move forward. I am safe now, healthier emotionally and physically, and using my new-found voice to help facilitate a small group for abused women in an amazing program called Celebrate Recovery®. God never wastes a hurt, and somehow through this I have a new-found intimacy and freedom with the One who has proven Himself to be my provider, protector, and true husband.