Talking about abusive relationships is not easy, especially when you’ve been through one yourself. And so this blog post was not an easy one to write. I’ve struggled with it over time and avoided making it public. I did send it to my newsletter readers once. However, I was unable to turn it into a blog post despite positive feedback from my readers.
I can only say that this is one of those articles that one battles with and the topic refuses to let go of you until it’s written. It’s an open and raw article where I share my experience of leaving an abusive marriage.
So here goes…
Warning: This is a very long post.
No peace of mind; no sleep
In August 2016, the media in Kenya was awash with the story of a woman whose husband cut off her hands. That story gave me sleepless nights and reminded me of my experience in an abusive marriage.
I was also out of sorts because people had asked me to share my story publicly but I shied away from it. Mwende’s story showed me that it was time to speak out.
In the end, I wrote a heartfelt email to my newsletter readers and shared my experience. Writing today’s article still feels raw, as it did a year ago. However, I know that refusing to write it will not make it go away. It will simply simmer in the back of mind and give me more sleepless nights!
I’ve given up the fight today, surrendered to the Great Voice within, and written the article. I’m writing it for peace of mind, if for nothing else.
Going down memory lane
The moment Jackline Mwende’s story hit the headlines, I was spun down memory lane and not in a nice way.
Mwende’s husband cut off her arms in August 2016. She was lucky because well wishers got together and helped her get new mechanical arms.
Reading the story and listening to Mwende was scary to say the least. I was saddened by some comments made in social media. There were some really vicious comments from people who wondered why Mwende stayed with such a man.
Having been in an abusive marriage, I know how hard it is for a woman to finally get the courage to leave. And I know that only a few are able to leave. I understood Mwende’s wish to try to make things work because I’ve done that, even when my life and the lives of my children were in danger.
The one thing that kept going through my mind as I read the follow-up stories was the statement, “There, but for the grace of God goes I.” I also thanked God for having given me the strength and courage to leave…because I was headed down a not-so-nice road.
More information has emerged about their marriage, but this should not take our attention from the fact that he was an abuser.
The reality of abuse in marriage and relationships
Women in abusive relationships struggle with the decision to stay or go. There are also others who are not in abusive relationships, but they know deep inside that this is not the relationship for them.
Worse still, are the women who feel that they cannot leave. Fear is a strong motivation to stay. Some don’t have the financial ability to take care of their children. Others are held back by their roles or status in society. And others are shells after being abused for so long.
I was one of these women and I still find it hard to talk about it because it feels as if ‘nimeanika’ my family.
Still, these are experiences that need to be shared. For one, sharing gives others the strength to take action. Sharing will also makes it harder for abuse to stay a secret. Abuse is powerful because the abused keep silent.
If this article is not relevant to you, I urge you to share it with other women. I’ve met women who sought my help because of something I wrote. Someone forwarded my newsletter or article to them requesting that they forward to their friends too.
The person who sent the email had no idea that they were sending it to someone who was struggling. I also know that people contact me because it’s easier to talk to a stranger about abuse than it is to talk to people who know you.
On the other hand, if you’re the one that benefits from this article, I’m doubly blessed for having shared this information with you.
My personal experience
I had what looked like a great life and women envied me. I never had to work unless I wanted to. Things were very different away from the public eye – life was full of pain and tears.
For many years, my goals list had one goal at the top: to leave my husband. I set this goal every year and never achieved it. I tried many things to gain courage including walking on fire, but my fear was stronger than my desires.
Sometimes the wish to leave was stronger and I even moved out a couple of times and then came back. My home had become a prison that I was unable to escape from for long periods of time.
I still remember how hard it was to go back home after dropping my children in school each morning. Some days were especially hard and there were several times when I was a danger to other motorists because I would drive while crying. There were times had to stop and park the car by the roadside and cry until the inner pain eased enough for me to drive home – back to my prison.
Many days I’d stand at my bedroom window, looking outside while thinking, “This is my prison and I need to escape.”
Yet, I still stayed.
Looking back, I feel as if I was a well-trained animal that had no concept of leaving or breaking out. Kind of like the circus elephant that’s held in place by a small rope. And I think women in abusive relationships feel the same way. You’re only free as far as the mental leash your abuser holds can stretch.
A dark night of the soul and mind
The day I left my home was no different from the others. No one told me to leave. I certainly didn’t plan for it to happen that day. I left after a sleepless night that was full of emotional abuse.
That night, suicide and homicide became viable options. At one point, I found myself cataloguing all the chemicals and medicines in the house, wondering which ones would work fast. At another point, I started thinking of ways that I could do away with my husband (yes, you read that right) because the world didn’t feel big enough for both of us.
I finally broke down around midnight and started chanting silently, “Holy Spirit, protect me. Holy Spirit, guide me.” This prayer had been my pillar and it kicked in when I needed it most.
After some time, I called my mum and cried for an hour, telling her that I couldn’t take it anymore. When I hang up, mum called my sis who called and helped me calm down. All this happened as my husband stood threateningly over me, but I no longer cared. I was ready to die and didn’t give a damn anymore.
In the morning, I lied to my husband that I had physical coaching sessions. I felt the need to leave the house for a few hours and breathe. As I was leaving, he took my keys and told me that from now on I’d have to call him to come open the door for me anytime I left home.
That was the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back! I mean, why bother when I no longer have a home to go back to?
The Voice that changed it all
I cried all the way to Prestige Plaza on Ngong Road (Nairobi) while telling God, “This has to end. You have to give me a solution because I can’t take it anymore!” I sat in the food court at the plaza for 2 hours with a blank mind.
Then came a voice in my head that asked, “What are you going back for?”
It was such a clear question that I looked at the chair next to me because I thought someone had slipped there while I was blank.
The question was repeated a second and a third time.
That was it!
I call this a Divine Intervention because I got a sense of courage and inner power that day that has never left me.
I called my parents to ask whether I could move back home for a month or two and then called my sisters and told them that I was done. The next step involved picking my children from school and getting them a few pairs of clothes and underwear. My last stop for the day was my parents’ place, where I found my mum and dad very worried and anxious.
My last call was to my best friend. She only had 2 questions: “Are you safe?” and “What have you carried from your house?” When I told her that I had carried nothing except my work stuff, she responded me that I was now ready to leave.
The journey to recovery
I didn’t know how tired I was until I got to my parents’ home. I felt safe and secure – like a baby. This feeling was so powerful that I slept for over 12 hours.
Prior to that, I used to sleep 3 hours a night because of verbal abuse from my husband. It’s also hard to sleep well when you’re told “Toka uende zako.” daily, followed by threats of what will happen if I do leave.
That was on 1st July 2014 and I have not looked back since then. The journey to emotional, psychological and financial recovery has been challenging, but the courage and peace that I got on that day has remained.
Today, I sleep peacefully no matter the challenges that are facing me the next day. My children are thriving and my business, which I had to rebuild from scratch, is growing.
When I walked out of my home, I left everything that I once thought was important. I don’t have those things, but I have never felt happier and more fulfilled. Best of all, I know that the future is determined by my decisions and I am now in a place to achieve my other goals.
Should you stay or go?
When thinking of whether to stay or go, other questions come to mind. These include:
- How do you decide whether to leave or stay?
- What factors should influence your decision?
- Is leaving always the right thing to do?
- What will other people think or say about you when you leave?
- If you decide to leave, then how do you do it without jeopardizing your life, relationships, and/or finances?
- How safe will you be when you leave? (This is a strong motivator to stay for those who have been threatened with dire consequences should they leave – it certainly made me stay…).
I cannot answer these questions for you and I will not claim to know what is right from what is wrong. All I know is that it’s almost impossible to leave if you allow the questions above to hold you back.
I also know that abuse progresses with time until you become a shallow version of who you were. You die on the inside and the shell just does things on autopilot. At that point, the abuser will have won.
Here’s some help for you
This is not a journey that you can walk alone. You need the help of other people, be it in books, programs or physical help.
Below are some resources that helped me explore and make a decision that worked for me. None of these resources tell you what to do, they simply help you evaluate your situation and make objective decisions.
1. Books to help you move forward
This book was written by David Steele of the Relationship Coaching Institute (RCI). I was lucky to get this information in a teleclass and a free book. I even went as far as becoming a relationship coach for one year. Helping other women mend or get the courage to leave abusive relationships helped me heal too.
If finances are tight after you’ve left, get a copy of The Successful Single Mom by Honoree Corder. This is an amazing resource for all women and not just single mums.
The book gives you an outline of what you need to do to get yourself back on track. It walks you through a healing and recovery process, which is a bonus.
You can also use the book in a group together with other single mums who are working on recovering their lives and finances.
Also, go to Amazon.com and search for books titled “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” (without the quotation marks). Read the introductions and reviews of a few books and then pick 2-3 that speak to you.
2. Work with a professional e.g. therapist, counsellor, relationship or life coach.
Don’t pick a professional blindly. Ask people for advice and look from someone who listens and validates you. Be wary of professionals who try to make you think or act in a certain way – you don’t need that at this point.
If you cannot find someone, or don’t want to go public, then contact me. I’ll send you contacts of therapists whom I refer people to. At the moment, I only know good therapists in Nairobi and welcome recommendations for other towns too.
What if you don’t feel ready for therapy or have tried therapy and it didn’t work for you? If this is you, then check out the Break Free program. I created the program based on my personal experience, my experience coaching women, and training in NLP (Neuro-Linguistics Programming) and coaching.
NLP is a very powerful process that will give you confidence, courage and control over your life. With NLP, you move from feeling disempowered to being totally empowered in a very short time.
Working with a life coach is a powerful and life-changing experience. My life coach Shilpa Shah helped me heal emotional scars I didn’t even know I had. She didn’t address my marriage directly, but she helped me realize that I was not a victim. Through working with her, I became courageous enough to take the last step to freedom.
In one of my sessions with Shilpa, I visualized myself driving alone to Mombasa. That freaked me out because I feared long-distance driving. I also didn’t see myself free enough to leave my marriage and move to another town. Shockingly, I did exactly that. Events unfolded such that I drove all the way to Mombasa alone on 1st December 2014.
That, however, is a story for another day.
3. Report the abuse
This is critical whether you decide to stay or go. One thing that stopped the death threats in my case was when I made a report to the police.
I know many women have not had a great experience with police. I’ve been to police stations where the policemen manning the front desk made a great show of telling me how stupid I was. Some laughed outright. Others made me walk through my story and never recorded it in the O/B book. And others teased me saying that I was not a good wife.
One policeman actually told me that my marriage was doomed from the start due to tribal differences (I’m a Kikuyu who was married to a Luo). In all our years together, even through fights and drama, tribe was never an issue in my family. We had even reached a point of agreement not to vote because our votes would probably cancel each other.
The police at Langata Police Station in Nairobi helped me out twice. They also told me that all police stations have at least one police woman who is trained in gender violence. This is the person you need to ask for when you go to a police station.
Over the years, I had tried getting help from other places including church, going to Cradle, FIDA, the Children’s Court and hiring a lawyer. None of these helped and the lawyer took off with my money. Running around from one place to another left me bitter. So I now had another level of anger and disappointment to work through!!!
I’m not saying that these institutions don’t work. What I’m saying is that it might be better to make the report and then focus on getting your inner strength before taking further action.
4. Create a circle of support
Family and friends have been my biggest sources of help. I didn’t set out to create the circle, and I have seen it’s amazing strength.
My parents have stood by me as I carved a new life. In the process of healing, I also made peace with my dad, whom I never used to connect with. He came through and has supported me in a silent way with questions like “Are you OK?” and “What help do you need from us?” These are simple but powerful ways for an elderly African man to show his support without proclaiming it out loud.
I’m an introvert and tend to go into a shell when I’m hurting. My sisters bulldoze their way into that shell. They never allow me to wallow in there for long. They’ve been my rocks emotionally, psychologically, and financially. I know my experience took a toll on them, but they’ve never wavered in making sure I’m OK.
My elder brother and brothers-in-law came through in unexpected ways by connecting directly with my sons. This provided my sons with a safe place to discuss male issues without me having to know about it (phew!).
I’ve also been blessed with friends who were there to talk to at any time. Sometimes there’s stuff that’s too deep to share with your family. Your soul sisters can help you work through such stuff.
One thing that’s common is that all these people refused to allow me to go into depression. I know for sure I would not be writing this article today were it not for my circle.
I urge you to create a circle if you’re in an abusive relationship. You need people who will support you now and in the future, no matter the decisions you make.
5. Read or listen to something empowering each day
I read something that makes me feel good each day. I also listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts. There’s a lot of information on the internet so check around and find someone who uplifts you and use their books, audios, or videos.
To boost your morale further, create a playlist of music that lifts your heart and makes you feel powerful and strong. Listen to this playlist daily. Save it on your phone, burn audio CDs to listen to in your car, and save the playlist on your computer. Make friends with the freedom offered in the songs.
Whatever your religion, there are texts that will give you a stronger spiritual foundation. The Bible is my main source of inspiration, motivation and learning. I use the Jesus Calling Devotional Bible. It’s a King James Version with devotions from Sara Young. I bought myself this Bible as a birthday present on 20th January 2014. Little did I know that it was going to change my life for years to come!
One of the things a woman loses when she’s in an abusive relationship is the ability to feel in control of her life. These simple touchstones – being able to make something just for yourself – are a way of starting to reclaim your strength and power.
A new life with a new perspective
If you’ve read this far, then this is an issue that burns your heart. And it’s now time for me drop a bombshell. For all that I was in an abusive marriage, I’m aware that there is a role I played in allowing the abuse to continue.
There was also a time when I got so courageous that I became an emotional abuser to my husband and turned the tables for some time. Of course that didn’t last long, but it felt so good while it lasted! It’s very easy to cross the line and once you cross it, it will be hard for you to go back.
If you’re in an abusive relationship, you need to take responsibility for the 50% part of the mess that belongs to you. Also, know that you always have options in life. You have chosen the option you’re living now or helped make it a stronger reality for you. Not making a choice either way is actually making a choice for things to stay the same or get worse.
Now, I’ve met people who expect me to be bitter and angry with my husband. Some also expect me to be anti-marriage and relationships.
I smile when I meet such people because healing and forgiveness have played a huge role in my life. I’ve forgiven and healed from the inside out, which has made me happier and stronger.
Finally, I still believe in love and marriage. I also believe that:
- Being in empowering relationships helps us find our best selves.
- It’s possible for abusers to recover and become great partners (I’ve seen this happen in some relationships).
- We can turn the tide that is sweeping our country and heal both men and women.
Can you turn around an abusive relationship?
I get requests for help from women who are in abusive relationships. They hear my story and want me to help them leave. Sadly, this is not a step that anyone can help you with.
Even the professionals you seek will only help you to a certain point. There is a point where only you can go. This is a point where only you can make the decisions and take the necessary actions.
The only time I tell someone to leave their marriage is when they and/or the children are in danger. Other times, I ask 3 questions:
- Do you respect your husband?
- If all things were sorted out, would you still want to stay married to him?
If the person answers “Yes” to these two questions, I then ask:
- Are you willing to work on your marriage for the next 6-12 months, even if your husband doesn’t do anything or change?
These are the questions I would want to leave you with today if you are in a relationship or marriage that is not to your liking.
I believe that a woman can live with a man if she respects him. Once respect flies out of the door, then your relationship is doomed.
And, if a woman believes she’s safe and is willing to work on herself and her marriage, then the marriage has a very high hope of recovery.
It takes lots of love, courage, patience and persistence to stay and heal your relationship from within. The best thing is that, if you do this and things don’t work out, you can leave knowing that you gave it your all.
My new way forward
I strongly believe in the power of forgiveness. I’ve seen the best and worst aspects of myself and my husband. I lived through it and survived it.
I no longer hate him and have created an environment where my children respect their dad. They have a relationship and communicate directly with him. We, the parents, may have separated, but will forever be bound by the children. It doesn’t matter how their dad acts or what he says about me. What matters is my behaviour and how I handle myself.
That is why you will not find me trolling in hate groups. I also don’t spend time with people want to talk ill of their spouses. Negativity has never created a good life for anyone, so why indulge in it?
Now, I’m not a saint. I do have my moments and get angry – especially when finances are tight. It’s also lonely being a single mum. Throw in 2 teenage sons and you have a recipe for so many disasters!
One thing that I pray for is to be able to create a place where women and children can heal from abuse and get back on their feet. I want to have a place where a woman feels safe. A place where any woman is able to get the emotional, psychological, physical, financial and professional help she needs before she can start over as a single mum.
Finally, I dream of Kenya turning into an environment that does not support abuse in any form. I want to be part of the change process in our country and help women rediscover who they are. And once they do this, they can create new lives, new relationships, and have a new way of looking at marriage and relationships.
Your way forward
No woman has to stay in an abusive relationship. The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave. Constant exposure to abuse will drain you and leave you completely at the mercy of the abuser. Here are some resources to help you move forward if you’re ready to make changes.
If you’re in an abusive relationship
Reach out to someone you trust and whom you know will hold your information in confidence. If you have no one like that in your life, contact me and let’s think things through together. Also, check out the resources and assessments on the Couple for Life website (it’s owned by the Relationship Coaching Institute). If you’re struggling to make a decision, then seek professional help. If your relationship is physically abusive and you and/or your children are in danger, find a way of leaving.
If you suspect a friend or relative is in an abusive relationship
Reach out to them softly and be their cushion. They will probably deny it if you ask them outright, but will open up when you persist. I thank God for my sisters, mum, and friends who never gave up on me! When you reach out, take care not to get sucked into their drama. Get a copy of David Steele’s book Should I Stay Or Should I Go to help you stay objective even as you help them.
Share this article with other women
Abuse happens to the most unlikely people and you never know who you could be helping. While it’s not easy knowing that this article will be read widely, I do know that many women will benefit from knowing that they are not alone or from the resources given here.
Do you want to regain your confidence?
Are you interested in learning strategies that will help you gain confidence and have the courage to take control of your life? Check out the Break Free program. This program will help you get unstuck and start living your dream life. You can attend the preview teleclass or live workshop to get a feel of it before enrolling in the main program. Feel free to invite other women for the teleclass, workshop or group program.
This article is my open letter to you, one that forced its way into being. Writing it was both scary and somewhat cathartic. I’d love to hear what you think.
Please share your thoughts, comments, experiences and any more tips or resources in the Comments below.