Perhaps my story will save another woman who may be sitting on her bathroom floor right now thinking of ending her life.
I was called “grandiose” in court because I wanted to take occasional dance classes. My ex mother-in-law delighted in lying about what a terrible mother I was, perjuring herself in a court of law to exact her son’s revenge. She smirked at me as she left the stand and walked back to sit with my firing squad– the people I had once called my family. They were my children’s grandmother, aunts, and uncles, and they were trying to destroy their mother, all because I had the audacity to leave an abusive relationship.
Breathe in. Breathe out. No sudden movements. “You must remain calm or the judge will believe you are unstable, unfit, a danger to your own children.” My lawyer was a tiger. She was every popular mean girl in high school who used to terrify me. Now she was on my side, fighting for me. I had lost so much weight my head looked like a large balloon on a string. It floated above my body. I was careful to move my arms slowly when I brushed my hair off my shoulder, a task that was easier the higher my head floated away. I froze my face stiff, not reacting to the claims that I was threatening to kill my babies.
They played a recording my husband took of me without my knowledge or consent as I was having a nervous breakdown in the middle of the night, pleading for him to help me, screaming, cussing, “I need fucking help!” Our son screamed in the background. “What the fuck is wrong with him? Why can’t I help him? Everything I try isn’t working!” I’d tried every type of cream, elimination diet while I was nursing, special formula, bone broth, sunlight, apple cider vinegar baths, and on and on and on. My son’s eczema seemed to be directly connected to my inner anguish, and we were both inflamed. It’s illegal to record someone in the privacy of their home without their consent or knowledge, but my ex’s lawyer found a loophole that allowed the recording to be played, but not on the record. My ex husband played my worst most private moment publicly, loudly into the microphone from the tape recorder he hid in his pocket instead of going to comfort our crying son. My attorney reached under the table and squeezed my knee as we listened to mine and my son’s screams coming through the speakers. I couldn’t look up. I sat in shame while his family glared at me from the gallery. But the one thing they tried to prove was disproved when they played that horrible tape. I never, even in my most desperate rageful despair, not once, threatened to kill my child. Still, I believed I was a monster.
I swallowed each lie like a hornet until a rage-filled swarm of fiery insects stung every inch of my throat and stomach, over and over and over, silencing me for years after that trial. When it was my turn to testify, my husband’s brother mocked me and made faces at me from the gallery as I spoke. My ex husband and his family were trying to persuade the judge to issue a permanent restraining order against me, which would’ve prevented me from being with my children for one to five years. If granted, it would’ve affected the types of jobs I could get. It would’ve branded me “an abuser.” The irony. I would’ve worn the scarlet letter “L” on my chest, “Lunatic,” for the rest of my life.
Breathe in, breathe out, freeze, float.
My attorney later laughed at how stupid my children’s uncle was for openly mocking me while I was testifying. “The judge sits up high on the bench. He sees everything that happens in the gallery,” she reassured me.
Thankfully, we had a fair judge who saw through bullshit. He knew they were lying. He called out the fact that instead of trying to comfort our crying son, his father went for a tape recorder. “Put your own kids through college, not your attorneys’ kids,” he said right before denying my ex’s request for a restraining order against me. My ex was sanctioned for filing an unmeritorious restraining order and making false claims. My ex mother-in-law was warned by the judge that he could remove her grandparent rights and visitation privileges. “You’re not helping your son.” The judge told her. My ex-husband was ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars of my lawyer’s fees, in addition to his own. His lie cost him nearly $100,000. It almost cost me my life.
A week after I told my then-husband I wanted a divorce, I woke up to a quiet house. “He let me sleep,” I thought. To my surprise, my mother-in-law was sitting on the sofa, playing a game on her tablet. “Where is everyone?” I asked. What happened next changed me forever.
Her shit-eating smile showed just how much she enjoyed slapping down the papers in front of my frail body. “Temporary Restraining Order.” My eyes darted across the page, “threatened to kill our son,” “unfit,” “unstable,” “not allowed within 500 feet of the minors, her spouse, or her home.”
“Why don’t you go live with your boyfriend,” she jabbed, following me around while I tried to figure out how to pack for the end of my world.
The pieces started coming together. The previous day, my children’s father told me he had to work late. I was a stay-at-home mom, so I was home with our babies. I was always home with our babies. He was either gone out of town “for work,” working on some project outside to help him avoid our family, or sleeping through our children’s cries. “I have to work!” he shouted at me when I desperately asked him for help with our special-needs son in the middle of the night. While I was at home, caring for our babies, he was at the courthouse telling a nuclear bomb of a lie that would turn everything to dust.
A few months prior to this, I’d reached out for help. After 3 years of sleep deprivation, a lack of nutrition, and isolation, I began fantasizing about driving the car into the wall during my occasional solo trips to the grocery store. We only had one car at the time, which he took to work every day. So when I could get away in the evenings to the market, my mind wandered. “I have this nagging feeling that my babies would be better off without me,” I confessed to my husband, shivering in front of him. “I think I need help.”
I started seeing a therapist. “Postpartum depression.” I said, was the reason for the appointment. My youngest was 12 months old.
“On a scale of 1-10, how supportive is your husband?” she asked me.
“10,” I said. “He’s great, but I’m a mess. I just need to expand my capacity to handle everything better. My children and my husband deserve better.” My therapist’s compassion for me was a stark contrast to just how little compassion I was receiving at home. With time, she helped me see that I was being abused and that anyone would crumble under my circumstances. I got on medication, I went to therapy 2 to 3 times per week. My therapist pleaded with my husband to get me some support in the home, whether it was childcare so I could take a nap, a housekeeper so I could chase my toddler and care for my infant son, or a break from cooking all of the allergen-free meals.
“Funerals are more expensive than childcare,” my therapist warned him over the phone (because he refused my therapist’s request to come in with me for a session). He nodded and told her he would do what he could. Then he hung up and told me there was no money for childcare or a housekeeper. A few weeks later, as I was mindlessly opening the mail, I accidentally opened a bank statement. It was a savings account in his name only that had a balance of $50,000. That day I learned my husband was willing to let me die when he had the money to save me.
The women in my husband’s family offered saccharin plastic words of encouragement wrapped in pretty lipstick smiles. They poked me with constant searing hot reminders that I would feel better if I just tried harder, got a makeover, and did things the way they wanted me to. One of those things included letting my eczema-ridden son scream and scratch himself bloody in the middle of the night to teach him to “self-soothe” so I could get some sleep, something my ex admitted he was doing while I was forced out of our home. “You just have to do it,” my sister-in-law would say.
I sunk into a hole on the black and white chessboard tile of the tiny guest bathroom floor. Florence and the Machine’s song about walking into the ocean echoed in my ears, “And it’s peaceful in the deep,
cathedral where you cannot breathe,
no need to pray, no need to speak,
now I am under.”
I found solace in a conversation with an old friend, a man I knew in my former life, when I was a whole person, a fiery performer, a rebel…how did I get here? He was kind to me, and asked me how I was. He listened to my mundane stay-at-home mom struggles. His messages from the world outside my picket-fence prison filled me with hope. Maybe I’m not as bad as I thought after all. Someone cares about me. My husband got into my phone and found our messages. I confessed that I was falling in love with this man and told him I wanted a divorce.
I started praying again. I prayed to find a way to zen out and accept my impossible circumstances. Instead, what came out of me was a roaring lion. “Rage is the body’s final attempt at fighting for life,” a friend told me to soothe my shame at how angry I felt all the time.
Slowly, I began to realize that it wasn’t my shortcomings as a mother, but the lack of true support for me as a mother, and a human being, that was the problem. My anger bubbled up and gave me the energy to start demanding help. “You are getting up with our son tonight when he cries. Take out your earplugs so you can actually hear him,” I said as I slammed my fist into my pillow and lied down to sleep through the night for the first time in years. My husband wore earplugs at night so our children’s cries wouldn’t disturb his loud-snoring, sometimes alcohol-induced slumber.
One night, he was so drunk from gin martinis that he mumbled something loudly before he stumbled down the hallway, opened our daughter’s bedroom door, and urinated on the floor next to the head of her crib while she slept. I woke him up as he stood there, peeing, his urine splashing off the floor and onto our daughter’s crib next to her sweet sleeping face. “What are you doing?” I shrieked.
“I’m just talking to her.” he slurred. I watched his eyes grow wide as he became conscious of what he was actually doing. I ran to the kitchen, grabbed paper towels and tried to clean up the puddle before our daughter could wake up and see what he’d done. He snatched the towels from my hand. “Give it to me, I’ll do it.” He came back to bed crying and in shock at what he’d just done. I suggested he stop drinking. He blamed the gin and kept drinking, just not gin. Later, he would tell the judge that he had taken melatonin that night and that was the reason for him urinating on our daughter’s floor near her head. The judge didn’t buy it.
“I mean it.” You are getting up with your son. I know you work in the morning. I work too, taking care of our family. And I do it on 2 to 3 hours of broken sleep every night. I’ve been doing this for 3 years. It’s your turn to Get. the Fuck. Up.” I went to sleep. At 1 o’clock in the morning, our son started crying. I nudged my husband. “Our son needs you. Get up.” Silence. I swatted his leg. “Get up!” I yelled. “Get up, get up, GET UP!!!” Silence.
“That’s it!” I screamed. I’m going to CVS to BUY MYSELF SOME EARPLUGS WHILE YOU GET UP WITH OUR SON! I never intended to use them. I just wanted him to know what it felt like to know his partner would abandon him by wearing earplugs to tune out his and his children’s suffering. My husband even wore earplugs in the hospital after I gave birth to our daughter so he could sleep in the hospital room. I was recovering from a c-section so I couldn’t stand, or even fully sit up. Our daughter was in a bassinet next to my bed. When she started choking on her spit up, I yelled for my husband to wake up and help her. He couldn’t hear me because he was sleeping with earplugs in his ears. Desperate, I pulled her bassinet close to my bed and pulled our daughter out. I could barely reach her. My incision pulled, my catheter jammed hard inside me, but I managed to pick her up. It was dangerous, I could have dropped her. Later, I hated myself for not buzzing for the nurse first. But when your baby is choking, you’ll do anything to make it stop immediately. There was no time to wait for the nurse. I held my baby and cried while my husband slept peacefully, completely unaware of what had just happened.
I hated those fucking earplugs. Furious, I grabbed the car keys and yelled, “I’m leaving!” My hands banged on the wall to make as much noise as possible so he would get out of bed when I left. I drove to CVS, seething with rage. At 1:30 in the morning, I slammed a package of earplugs on the counter, paid with my husband-approved-and-monitored credit card, and took the receipt. The streets were quiet, peaceful. I knew I couldn’t go back in the house with all of that rage, so I sat in the parked car in the driveway for quite a while until I was calm. It had been about an hour since I’d first heard my son crying and told his dad to get up with him.
I expected the house to be quiet when I walked in. Instead, my son was screaming like I’d never heard him scream before. He was still in his crib, alone, and I came to find out he had been screaming for a full hour since I left. My rage erupted. “Why the fuck is he still crying?!” I yelled. My ex walked out of our bedroom and stood in the hallway. I went to pick up our son. He had a hole in the foot of his pajamas that was cutting off the circulation to his toes. Guilt. Shame. Why did I trust his dad to take care of him? “His fucking pajamas need to be changed!” I yelled. I put our son on the couch and hastily changed his pajamas while my husband stood over us. I had no idea that I was shouting almost directly into the tape recorder he had hidden in his pajama pocket. He let our son cry to set me up. I changed our son’s pajamas and…I hate myself for saying this, but I said, “Get him out of my sight.” I said that. About my son. Shame. This was the line that later made my attorney squeeze my knee under the table as it blared over the speakers in the courtroom. Monster. I am a monster.
My husband performed for his tape recorder and took our son back to his crib, rocking him back to sleep…after an hour of letting him scream to punish me. I made myself a drink. I slammed cupboard doors. My ex came into the kitchen after putting our son to bed. “Now I need a drink,” I sneered, making a jab at his drunken indiscretions. My husband feigned ignorance. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked innocently. If there were Academy Awards for tape recordings… I screamed at him for a few minutes before I sat down and gathered myself. The recording stopped during the calm part of the conversation.
During the six weeks I spent homeless and penniless, sleeping on a friend’s couch while fighting the temporary restraining order, I was allowed to see my babies for three days per week, two hours at a time, supervised by my ex mother-in-law. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but the children are doing so much better off without you.” My husband must have told his mother about my trembling confession, my depression justifying the ending of my life, the terrifying nagging thought that made me seek help in the first place.
“I can’t shake the thought that my babies would be better off without me.” Now I was hearing those words, the words that almost convinced me to kill myself, coming from the woman I used to call “Mom,” a fellow mother, my children’s grandmother. Was she trying to convince me to end my life? Looking back at just how far she went to annihilate me, I believe she was. She stood over me as I had tea parties with my babies during our supervised visits, her pen scribbling furious notes about my every move and every word I said to them.
My neighbor snapped a picture of her standing over me during a front yard picnic and sent it to me. “This is what your visitations look like. That woman is a monster,” my neighbor texted. My ribs cracked as I held in the hornets.
“Make sure you clean up after yourself before you leave,” my children’s grandmother snickered.
During the trial, the judge ordered my ex to pay for a neutral, court-approved monitor. “This obviously can’t continue,” he said as he pointed to my smug mother-in-law, referring to her monitoring my visits. I was assigned two monitors. One was cold, matter of fact, harsh. Her disapproving stares penetrated my skull as I tried to do the most natural thing in the world, mothering my babies, in the most unnatural of circumstances. The other monitor was kinder, as if she was a mother too. I felt more at ease with her, which allowed my playful side to come out when I was with my babies. I remembered the songs I’d always sang to them, the little games only we would play, “Oh, I love baby feet, I love baby feet,” I sang as I kissed my son’s feet during his diaper change. I remembered the silly voices I used when my daughter and I played dress up. “Lady Sassafras, you do look lovely today,” I said. “And Lord Fancy Pants, you are quite dapper.” I saw the twinkle in my babies’ eyes again. How I ached for that twinkle. When my two hours were over, my daughter would scream and wrap her entire little body around me, begging me not to go. Her hands shook as she used all of her 3-year-old strength to hold onto me while the monitor physically pulled her off of me. My daughter’s red, tearful face watched through the window as my own front door was shut in my face. After every visit, I wailed from the empty cavern of my womb. Uncontrollable sobs exited my body as I got into my car. I don’t know how I managed to drive away. I’ll never fully comprehend what that kind of trauma, the trauma their own father and grandmother inflicted, did to my children. Thankfully, they were too young to remember, though I fear that they still carry it somewhere in their bodies.
How had it come to this? I had no idea that I had been living in a venomous snake pit and the poison was emaciating me until I'd all but disappeared. But not completely. I grew up in the snake pit. I knew how to fight snakes. I was raised dirt poor by a single mother. I raised my younger siblings. I got in fist fights to protect them. Fighting for the people I love was the fuel that kept me going. And now that fuel was keeping me alive to fight for my children. They had no idea how tough I was or how hard I would fight.
After the judge ruled that I was not violent nor a danger to my children, I was granted access to my home and my babies. I called my friends for support as I went back into the snake pit. I had nowhere else to go and no money. My ex closed our bank accounts, a punishment for withdrawing money from our joint account to pay for my lawyer.
After I withdrew the money for my lawyer’s retainer, my mother-in-law scolded me during one of my visits, “you have no idea how hard this is on me. I had to write a check for your mortgage because you took all of his money.” I hadn’t taken all of his money. I left $1,000 in his account because I didn’t want to leave him with nothing, even though he had a pretty fat savings account and a wealthy mother. I borrowed the rest of the retainer from a family member. My ex withdrew the $1,000 I left him and closed his account, leaving me penniless after I paid my attorney. I pushed a tall stack of cash, all the money I had in the world, across the desk at my attorney’s office and cried as I signed my divorce papers. I got a parking ticket that day. My ex later emailed me that he received the parking ticket in the mail and ordered me to pay it so it wouldn’t tarnish his credit. He knew I had no money. A month earlier, during my rage fest, I demanded that we get a second car. I’m so thankful I did that, I had no idea at the time that I would be using that vehicle to drive me to my attorney’s office, and later, the courthouse to save my relationship with my children and fight for my life.
The judge’s ruling gave me pause. Maybe I wasn't the monster after all. I was honestly shocked that he saw through their carefully crafted lies. Even I had started to believe some of what they said about me. “Did I say I would kill my son? I don’t think I would ever say that, would I? I was so tired. I don’t remember saying that,” I told my attorney in the hallway during recess right after my ex’s attorney revealed they were going to play a recording of my nervous breakdown for the whole courtroom to hear. I honestly didn’t know if I would hear my own voice saying the most terrible thing in the world about my child. But I hadn’t said it. They were lying. They played the recording to demolish my character, even though it didn’t prove their claim. It was a festival of public humiliation, one which I still have nightmares about.
The judge’s ruling was the day after Mother’s Day. I opened my front door and couldn’t believe what I walked into. My ex-husband’s family was setting the table as if we were all going to break bread together. As if they had not just done everything in their power to destroy me in court just an hour ago. “Get out of my house.” I said calmly. “Now.”
“You can’t do that, we don’t have to leave.” My ex’s mother’s hubris was stronger than ever, even after the judge served them a healthy dose of justice.
“I mean it. I will call the police and have you escorted off my property.” This was one of my finest moments. My head was no longer cast down. I knew exactly what kind of snakes I was dealing with. And I was cutting them off at the head, one by one. “I’d like to report intruders in my home.” I said over the phone to the police station as my friends stood by my side in my living room. While I was on the phone, the intruders agreed to pack up and leave. That night, my daughter wouldn’t leave my side. She slept with me in the guest bedroom. I sang to my son as he fell asleep in my arms. I was at home with them, I just needed to find a safe home for us.
I spent the next few months working to secure a little apartment for me and my children. After all of that, I still agreed to 50/50 custody in mediation. I was also pressured to give my ex $15,000 for the rights to my own thoughts, my intellectual property. Although he spent years ridiculing and criticizing me for being a writer and creator, telling me it’s not a real job and I should have done something else to make more money, he suddenly valued my work…to the tune of $15,000.
Hornets. Rage. Sign here.
For years I dealt with panic attacks and horrible recurring nightmares of being forced to remarry my ex again, public humiliation, and losing my children. I was diagnosed with PTSD and have been in therapy ever since I left.
It has been almost a decade since my ex dropped that nuclear bomb on me and my children. He still tries to manipulate the system to exclude me and obstruct my relationship with my children. He hides school documents so I’m kept in the dark about field trips, giving him the opportunity to chaperone before I can sign up. He struts around at the school under the façade of being “such a good father,” while stabbing his children’s mother in the back in the shadows. Every time he schedules an appointment or activity without my knowledge, every time he tries (and sometimes succeeds) in making me miss an event or activity, such as our daughter’s first ever stage performance, I’m retraumatized. I found out about her performance 3 hours before it started, rushed to get there, and missed it by 5 minutes. I’ve had to call all of our children’s doctors, dentists, orthodontists, and specialists and give them copies of our court orders that prohibit him from scheduling appointments and treatments without my knowledge or consent. Every time he does this, it puts me right back in his driveway, hornets in my belly, with my own door slammed in my face while my little girl watches from the window, screaming and crying. So I’m putting this pain on paper in hopes to exorcize that trauma and remove his power to put me back in that place.
Maybe one day, cosmic justice will prevail. Maybe, at just the right moment, I’ll open my mouth and unleash the hornets I’ve carried in my gut for almost a decade right in his face. Maybe his evil deeds are accumulating like tar in his bowels and eating him up inside. But for now, I have to smile, cooperate, and coparent with the person responsible for the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced. I have to sit next to him during performances, hug my children and send them to him for several days at a time, knowing they will be neglected when nobody is around to applaud his parenting. I’ve had to ask the court for help when he travels with them and refuses to tell me where he is taking them. Occasionally, I have to see his mother, the woman who tried to convince me to end my life and did her best to permanently take my children from me. I have to honor my children’s relationship with my monsters.
One day, when my children are grown, maybe I'll tell the world my story without hiding behind an anonymous shield. My ex and his wealthy mother have shown me just how litigious and vindictive they are, and I’m not willing to risk it. Not yet. As Anne Lamott said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I’m sharing what I can while protecting myself, today, on International Women’s Day. Perhaps my story will save another woman who may be sitting on her bathroom floor right now thinking of ending her life. This story is mine. I own it. Best $15,000 I ever spent.
Excuse me sir, these hornets belong to you.