Some of the people I have represented over the years are an incredible source of strength and inspiration. It’s a privilege to be a part of a process wherein the first time a woman walks into your office she can barely lift her head and look you in the eye she has been so cowered by her mate, and a few years later you watch in admiration as you see how she has overcome her fears and pulled her life together.
Recently a client with whom I worked for a number of years sent me an article she wrote about the legal process and overcoming fears of her highly abusive ex-husband. With her permission I am posting it here, and of course, all of the names have been changed.
The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself
By Leah Lyon
“I’m sorry, Sharon, but I just don’t know if I can keep going on with this,” I sobbed. My temples were throbbing, and I felt slightly sick. Sharon didn’t answer, but looked towards me silently and I could see the compassion in her eyes. She waited patiently, her fingers resting on the keyboard. She knew that I would continue when I was ready.
I had spent the last two or three years trying to get away from the painful memories of a long and abusive marriage. I was doing therapy, and everyone around me told me that “I was doing so well.” Gradually, solidly, moving one step at a time, I was beginning to redefine myself. At my own pace, I was starting to create my own identity away from being an Abused Wife. With great Siyatta DiShmaya*, I had built up a career, was successfully supporting my children, and had found some wonderfully supportive friends.
(*Help from Heaven)
But I knew that the pain was still there. I have often referred to it as the “war wound.” It’s that huge scar that sits silently inside your heart, weighing you down. It usually won’t bother you when you are doing the shopping, picking up your kids from school, or while you are immersed in your work at the office. But like any old war wound, there are times when it gives you pain, when it reopens and bleeds all over again. It happens when you are finding it hard to sleep, when you hear a certain piece of music, or you overhear a conversation between two other people that reminds you of when he …
But the time had come to access those memories, and though it was very painful I knew it had to be done.
Perhaps I should stop here and give a very slight legal background. In Israel, the concept of suing for punitive damages is relatively new. When you sue someone for compensation, it is usually in monetary terms. But in the last few years, the victims of criminal attacks are starting to sue for compensation for the suffering that they have been through, not just the money they have laid out. In my case, I had been physically attacked by my ex-husband, who was arrested and found guilty. On the advice of my lawyer, I sued him for compensation – not only for the effects of that terrible night but also for the suffering that I went through during my marriage, something which could never be quantified in monetary terms.
To prepare the case, Sharon, my lawyer, had asked me to describe the suffering that I had endured during my years of marriage to Michael. But it was not easy.
I took a sip of water and then reached for another tissue. Twisting it between my fingers, I took a breath and then continued:
“So, as I was saying, his face was contorted with rage. His breath reeked of alcohol. I knew I was going to get it that night, but I had no idea that things were going to be so bad ….” And as the words somehow stumbled out of my mouth, Sharon’s peaceful office melted away. Once again, I was in that accursed room, and once again I could see my husband’s evil grimace. …
For the first six months after Michael was dragged out of my home by police officers after physically attacking me, he was the stuff of my worst nightmares. I would try to sleep, but the sound of his rasping voice would return to haunt me. I used to call friends, relatives, anyone really, every night before I went to bed because I felt as if the ghost of his hatred still pervaded my home. Once a morning person, I soon developed a habit (that I can’t shake to this day) of staying up very late at night so that I could sink into the oblivion of exhaustion once my head hit the pillow.
I had worked so hard to bury those memories, to push them out of the way so that I could get on with my life. I was determined that I would not allow the trauma I had been through to control me and that I was going to control it. And after much therapy and dogged determination, I had begun to believe that I had won.
And yet there was one hurdle that I could not overcome. Michael never forgave me for wanting out of my marriage, for daring to take the reins and say that I could no longer live with a man who consumed excessive alcohol, was violent, terrified all of us, and had an unlimited supply of secret girlfriends. And like many abusive men, he has continued to beat me beyond the divorce, not paying any child support and using the children as his weapon.
If there was one thing that I couldn’t do, it was to be in the same room as him because for me, Michael was The Satan. He might not have killed me physically or even spiritually, but he had ridden a coach and horses through my life for so many reasons and every time I looked at him, I could feel his twisted hatred.
And one day, Sharon, my lawyer, told me that the time had come to claim compensation. After all, I was the victim of a crime – his crime of aggravated assault against me. He also owed me a lot of money and was contributing nothing financial towards his children at all. But it was more than that.
“It will be cathartic for you,” Sharon explained. “Till now, no one has heard your voice, not even at his trial. But now is your chance. Cross that one last frontier – and he will never scare you again.”
I really wanted to believe Sharon, but I wasn’t convinced that I could.
After we began our suit, the judge sent Michael and I to a court-appointed mediator. Sharon was not supposed to go with me, so I had to face Michael in front of the mediator without anyone else present.
I have never forgotten that very distressing experience. Michael told a whole barrage of lies about me in his usual charming, convincing way, oozing his typical faux charisma. When he left, I found myself crying in front of the mediator, who gave me a sympathetic smile and wished me good luck in this unresolved case. I left her office shaking and in a complete daze. Unable to go home in this state, I went into a café and ordered a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. I must have looked awful because the waiter asked if everything was ok. I felt embarrassed, frustrated, and afraid, but I didn’t dare go home to face my children until I had managed to pull myself together.
So how on earth was I going to handle the next stage, which was to face Michael in court and answer his lawyer’s and the judge’s questions about all of the atrocities listed in our original petition to the court? To describe acts of physical violence and more in the presence of the perpetrator? Over the coming weeks, the nightmares and flashbacks returned in full force. This time, I asked a friend to come to the court with me as I didn’t trust my traumatized reactions afterwards. I was haunted by stomachaches and I prayed that this would all soon be over.
And that was when I learned the meaning of Roosevelt’s famous expression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Here I’d like to interject and say that I thoroughly agree with Leah that part of the rehabilitation from the abusive relationship is to overcome residual fear. However, for people still in that relationship, fear is actually a friend; it’s a healthy adaptation that puts our body and senses into a prepared state to meet someone or something that is about to endanger us. So, we only want to overcome fear once we are on safe ground (with all due respect to FDR).
The court date soon arrived, and I turned up at the court with a friend, Sharon, and a copy of Tehillim*. I almost felt my knees buckling when I walked into the courtroom. Michael’s lawyer also turned up – but Michael himself was not to be seen. In the end, I was asked a few vague questions that were not too painful to answer. Michael’s written denial mainly consisted of an allegation that I had taken all of the events we had described “out of their original context.” Sitting in the courtroom, I could feel all of the tension evaporate like hot air escaping from a burst balloon. I suddenly realized that the incarnation of evil that I had feared so much to confront was such a coward that he did not even dare to make his appearance in court. He clearly knew that his actions were indefensible.
(*Book of Psalms)
Evidently, the judge, who made it clear that he was not impressed by Michael’s absence, thought so too and he decided to issue a default verdict.
It wasn’t actually a default verdict even though the other side didn’t show up. My client testified, I gave my summation and the judge wrote a regular verdict.
Six months later, I was awarded compensation at more than twice the figure we had originally asked for. My case made legal history in Israel and was even reported in the newspapers (without our names).
I wrote about the case in an earlier post.
But what did this whole experience do for me? To date, about two years later, I still haven’t seen a penny – but I am sure that at some point in the future Bankruptcy Court is going to award me what he owes. In the meantime, however, I gained something far greater from my tort case. I learned that Michael is no longer anyone to truly fear.
The next time I saw Michael, in fact, it was at our son’s bar mitzvah. I noticed how much weight he had put on, the amount of hair he lost, and his generally unkempt and rather pathetic appearance. For some inexplicable reason, Michael was no longer the devil. If anything, he had become simply a contemptible, pathetic, nasty little man. The charm that he used to exude towards others had somehow evaporated, and I realized that he could only frighten me as much as I would allow him to.
I can’t say that seeing Michael is ever a pleasant experience, and I still think of him as a mean, abusive person who caused me a lot of pain in the past. But he no longer traumatizes me, and I feel truly free. And even though the war wound is definitely still there, I can truly say that it has started to fade. I don’t know if it will ever go away completely, but it certainly bleeds a lot less.