When I met my first husband, I was a 19-year-old college student, book smart, full of compassion and a peacemaker from birth. He was a broken man with no familial support to speak of and his issues, in some way, almost appealed to me. I thought I could fix him. I was vulnerable, and a new diagnosis of Crohn’s disease made me even more so. Although we eventually married, in that blessed 20/20 hindsight vision, I knew there were red flags during our dating years that I didn’t realize could (and would) one day lead to a full-blown abusive marriage.
As life does, things became more stressful in our marriage and he became less able to properly cope. While we were still newlyweds, my mother suddenly passed away at the age of only 59. My father was left behind, lonely as one can imagine a spouse would be after 40 years of marriage, and I helped care for him. I discovered just a few months later, much to my complete joy, that I was expecting my daughter. Four and a half years after my daughter, I gave birth to my son, my tiny preemie, born just one week after I had emergency surgery to remove part of my intestines due to Crohn’s disease complications. Just two years after that, my father passed away after a short but difficult illness.
Throughout these years, my then-husband was abusive, first verbally and emotionally. That’s often how it starts – small digs here and there that eventually amount to threats and eventually lead to follow-through on the physical threats. And so, it went for several years: the cycle of narcissism, pathological lies, abuse, gaslighting, manipulation, infidelity. On my part was fear, confusion, exhaustion, brokenness, fierce protectiveness of my children, and the hope for my marriage to somehow, someway…work. But it didn’t, and it never would, I realized much too late.
One cool April morning seven years ago, my estranged abusive husband was to be out of town, he said. In fact, he had been staying out of town, but at some point, in the early morning of that day, he decided to come back to our home, park his vehicle out of my sight, and sneak into the house during the twenty minutes I was out taking my children to school. When I returned to start my work day, I discovered him in our home, waiting for me. I would soon learn he planned something horrific. He had loaded an antique gun my father had left me. Then he proceeded to force me at gunpoint to disrobe, tied my hands with a computer cord, rendering me unable to fight or flee, and then violently brutalized me before turning the gun on himself.
As one can imagine, the hours, days, months, and years since that traumatic day have been challenging, enlightening, and full of healing for my children and for me. We have each grown, coped, and healed separately and together. Only the three of us know the deep loss we suffered that day. We bear that burden together. My children are my champions. Many people have credited me with their survival and their success. Of course, while I do believe my love and support of them has greatly contributed to their well being, I also know that it was they who saved me. They gave me two perfect reasons to keep breathing when breathing felt almost too hard.
Beginning the Healing Process
During the darkest hours of my healing, I began to write again. Writing had been a passion born in me. I had written since my chubby childhood hands could put pencil to paper and create a story. In those days of great healing, I would write at night, filling up notebooks with letters to God and letters to my deceased husband. There was no railing at him now, he was gone. I couldn’t ask “how could you” or “why” or “how could you do this to my children?” His madness will have no answers. But I could write it all down, ask all the questions on paper, yell my anger, my pain, and eventually, my forgiveness. Writing became therapy and it became healing balm. Writing, my faith, and my children kept me alive and eventually, helped me truly live again.
In the first few months after that tragic day, I was able to successfully live in denial. When someone dies, it’s almost a full-time job taking care of estate details, and we had the additional task of selling a home and finding a new one to rent. We never stayed another night in the house we had lived in and loved. It was a place of terror and evil for me now. We found comfort on couch beds and spare rooms at my brother’s house in the months between homes. We eventually found a rental home. It wasn’t fancy, but it came with incredibly kind neighbors, a great location, and the space we needed. It would be the place we would heal.
After the busyness ceased and life settled into the proverbial “new normal”, we had to deal with everything together. I had two angry children and rightfully so. Why were they without a dad? Why did we live in this odd house that wasn’t familiar? Why were we getting so much takeout pizza? (Although there were no complaints there). Why did Dad hurt Mom? Why did he CHOOSE to leave us? Why aren’t we good enough to live for?
All the “why’s” came out. And there I was with no answers, yet their eyes and souls begged me for them. That first year had a lot of tears and a lot of laughs. We spent more time with my children’s cousins than ever before. Family and church family packed up our “old house” and stored everything that didn’t fit into the rental. This spared me from having to spend any time in the house where I was horribly traumatized. This was a blessing.
We spent holidays laughing with my siblings and nieces and nephews, painfully aware of the details that lingered in the background, hanging out in the periphery. We knew our story, but we were facing forward, moving ahead. Very early on, I knelt before my children and got their faces very close to mine. “What has happened to us is really bad, it’s horrible. This is going to hurt for a long time. Maybe it always will to some degree. But this will never be an excuse for you not to do well in life. This is a terrible chapter in our lives, but this is not your whole story,” I told them. My greatest wish was for them to have good lives and not let this pivotal moment, this terrible tragedy, define them. I want them to be happy, to be healthy, and to choose strength and healthy paths.
As my children got older, I always thought that they would grieve in different ways for what happened that day. I thought this because I knew as they matured they would understand things differently than they could at their ages of 9 and 13 when everything happened. Things can be bittersweet when you know that your dad will never be in Prom pictures or see you graduate from anything or walk you down the aisle. That’s a hard reality.
Our future is bright. We continue to cling tightly to our faith– it’s a mainstay. I am now remarried to a man who loves my children dearly, as they love him. My son calls him “Dad.” My daughter sometimes calls him with good news or for advice before she calls me. I’m okay with that. I’m delighted they both now have a positive fatherly role model in my husband, David. And I now have a healthy marriage full of unselfish love, laughter, mutual respect, complete support, and is a true partnership. While sometimes those “old ghosts” of grief and PTSD creep up on each of us, it gets better as time passes. My children are so strong, and I will never know anyone more courageous. They have used their stories to help others. We have every reason to expect great happiness in our lives. We have overcome so much. This tragedy is part of our lives, but we wrote what happened next, and we made sure it was a great continuing story.
I have picked up my pen again and started a blog http://melaniespickett.com/ a few years ago with the goal to encourage women who are in or have been in similar abusive or toxic relationships. I had no voice for many years, and I want now to inspire women to reclaim their voices, know their value, and rediscover who they are.
One of my main goals in my writing is to share what healthy relationships look like and don’t. People are often, as I was, confused or unaware of what some early red flags really mean. Many people misunderstand possessiveness and jealousy for flattery and love, for example. I want to educate people on how they deserve to be in healthy relationships while sharing what I’ve learned through my own experience and encourage the use of boundaries. I want women, in particular, to understand they are powerful, beautiful, and that no one else can determine their worth. We have strength beyond what we ever believe, and we need to believe in ourselves and our abilities.