My hands were shaking so badly I had a hard time holding onto the phone, but I managed to hit the three buttons to call for help.
I’d come home at 8 p.m. and walked straight into a horror movie. The house was dark, which confused me because his car was in the driveway. When I opened the door and called “hello,” there was silence. Dread tightened my stomach as I walked into the foyer where normally I’d find lights and music. All was silent this night. Something was off.
And sure enough, there he was down past the hall in the dining room. Hanging by the neck. With a spotlight shining on his body.
I turned on the bright overhead light after I’d found him. The light hurt my eyes. I was blinking so rapidly it seemed to strobe. I could hear myself gasping for air and the room was spinning. I was dizzy, weak in the knees—and cold, as if I’d suddenly fallen into ice water.
I was pacing in small frantic steps with the cordless phone in my hand.
“Please send an ambulance” I sputtered the words around the ragged sobs that seemed to be coming from my throat, “I came home and found my husband—he’s hanged himself.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone, but I filled the void with sounds I’d never made before. My legs were weak, like a noodle.
“Lady, this is 711. We’re repair. We can’t help you. Maybe you should try 911.” The male voice on the phone was matter-of-fact.
“Oh, of course, I’m sorry. I was trying to call 911. I’m upset. I’ll try again.” And I stared at the shaking phone in my hand as the numbers seemed to swirl beneath my woozy fingers and the shaking spread from my hands to my arms and vibrated through the rest of my being. My teeth were chattering. I had no sense of up or down. I hit three more numbers. And waited. Much longer this time. It was hard to breathe. I paced. Could I remain upright? I held the receiver to my ear.
Finally, I heard a woman’s voice and responded reflexively. “Please send an ambulance. My husband is dead. I came home and found him. He’s hanged himself. I don’t know what to do.”
“Ma’am, you’ve reached Directory Assistance–411. You need 911.”
“OH SHIT!” I said.
“Ma’am, don’t worry. I will put you through to 911. Just hold on.” She spoke with compassion and I was grateful.
I kept pacing, and shaking, and trying to breathe.
Then out in the driveway, on my knees, gravel cutting into my skin, there was another voice on the phone, a man who kept directing me, “Calm down Ma’am. Calm down.”
But no one ever calms down because someone tells them to. Wailing into the dark sky I cried to the moon above my head. I could not make the sounds stop.
I will never own that I’m a victim. I hate the word when applied to me. It sounds weak or fragile. And I’m neither. But if I’m honest, I must admit that for 17 years I lived with a man who terrified me with his fits of rage and violence. The night I told him I was getting a divorce, he killed himself in a theatrical-staged hanging in the living room.
And just as he had planned, I lost my mind—for a while.
It was late October, almost Halloween, and with the lights on, his hanging body could be seen through the living room picture window by anyone who happened to look our direction from the back of the house.
He’d spent time preparing. A paper bag with a receipt from the hardware store was still on the front seat of his truck in the driveway. He’d needed a rope and hardware for the noose he’d fashioned, the detective later explained.
The night was warm, but I couldn’t stop shaking. Police radios squawked and men in uniforms bustled through my home. A grim police detective in a polo shirt had instructed me to stay in my bedroom, under the watch of two officers in blue who stood alongside my bed. They remained silent, awkwardly staring at the ground and shifting their weight back and forth as the hours ticked by.
Men from the coroner’s office came and went.
I was questioned by the detective at various times. When had I last talked to him? A brief phone call in the afternoon. Had he made any threats? None. He’d sounded calm. He’d recently stopped therapy. I’d discussed divorce.
Friends from across the state and my three adult children arrived the next day. Everyone attempted to comfort me and help me find my footing, but nothing worked. Surreal hours blended into surreal days, then nights and weeks.
I couldn’t track conversations, and my words failed to link into coherent sentences when I tried to speak. My consciousness seemed altered in ways I’d never experienced before. Everything was strange and unfamiliar, as if I’d lost my self and was perceiving the world through some horrifying distorted funhouse mirror. How could Robert be dead, and how could he have done this awful thing? My thinking was muddled, and I experienced sensory overload if I tried to leave the house. My heartbeat would race intermittently, and I had frequent episodes of shortness of breath. I was lost in a maelstrom of misery unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
I was certain people could tell something was wrong just by looking at me. Driving a car was out of the question.
I’d fallen into emotional ice water when I’d found Robert’s body, and I continued to shiver for weeks.
I dressed in layers even though the temperature was in the ’80s. I wore thermal underwear covered with a flannel shirt, and a suede coat over that. Baggy flannel pants, and thick socks inside of Ugg boots. I wore this every day and night for weeks. I created my own cocoon, and I still laid under an electric blanket and shivered.
I cried and shook and retched. I spoke perseverative nonsense until my throat closed. The small hard ball that became my stomach refused to accept food, and my weight dropped. The gaunt stranger in the mirror frightened me and I tried not to look at her.
My son cut up pizza in small bites with a fork and fed me one bite at a time. My daughter drove me to therapy where I stared at the floor. Friends brought food that I couldn’t eat and didn’t want.
Sleep eluded me and was only possible for an hour here and there, through a haze of Ambien and sedatives. In dreams, I’d relive finding Robert’s body, but in a variety of circumstances where I was responsible for trying to save him or breathe him back to life. I became afraid to close my eyes.
It was terrifying to witness myself unraveling. I was an untethered astronaut floating backwards wide eyed into the darkness, knowing that my oxygen was thin and even though people were around, and they wanted to help no one knew how to get me more air. I kept drifting further and further away.
I burned white candles and talked to ghosts at night. I was convinced my house was haunted, and left messages for a psychic who never returned my calls. Friends were afraid to leave me untended, but no psychiatric hospitals would take me as I was not suicidal—a qualifier that is required by insurance companies these days to get inpatient treatment. I didn’t want to die; I just didn’t know how to live.
After a month it was clear I was not recovering, and I went to stay with my friends Janet and Michael, a married couple who are both psychologists. Janet and Michael turned their home into a haven for my healing, and after finding a therapist who understood aggressive suicide, the distorted lens started to clear, and I began to return to myself.
My first tendency now all these years later is still to blame myself—not for Robert’s death but for being in the relationship. I ask myself why I married him after noticing so many red flags. Robert broke things when he was frustrated. Fists through walls, head through the door, smashed appliances and televisions, even his guitar. He screamed, threatened, and destroyed —and always blamed me for his anger. On one occasion he kicked the family dog in the head. Any one of those events should have been enough of a reason for me to exit.
But I didn’t, not for 17 years anyway. And when I finally did he tried to make sure that the image he left burned on my retinas would ruin my life. I had tried to end the marriage on several other occasions but he’d promised me he loved me so much he’d never let me go.
A woman with her head on straight would have left sooner or never dated him at all. I ruminate about the flaws within myself that kept me connected to him and ponder why I kept quiet about his behavior.
My inner dialogue can be self-critical, something Robert certainly noticed and played upon effectively over the years. That’s the way the cycle of violence works. I stayed because on some level he convinced me that his awful behavior was my fault. If only I hadn’t complained about the music volume he wouldn’t have blown up and smashed the stereo seems an absurd thought to have now, but it was the way my mind worked back then. If I’m careful, he won’t get angry.
In the early years, I also believed he would change. I fully expected that the rageful, impulsive, and volatile part of him would fade away, leaving behind the warm, funny, and kind man I was attached to. I failed to understand that I was being manipulated, and that my naïve hopes about personality change were impossible.
What I know now that I didn’t know then is that some of my strongest personality qualities served as a flashing neon sign indicating an easy mark to such a manipulative man: my compassion and empathy, loyalty, my tendency to think the best of people, a naïve belief that people could transform—all are risk factors for exploitation in a pathological relationship.
Robert was 30 when I met him, and not gainfully employed even though he had a college degree in psychology and was healthy, intelligent, and charming. He’d been fired from every job he’d ever had usually for problems relating to anger.
When I’d met Robert, he was in debt and close to homelessness. But he had so much potential. He was outgoing, intelligent, and witty, a talented musician and writer—and he was invested in going to therapy. He had an abusive family background, so his problems with anger and impulsivity made sense to me. His father, a physician, had suicided at age 47 when he was just a little boy. His mother was a mean alcoholic with anger problems herself. Anger problems are to be expected in people who grew up with abusive parents, not to mention the loss of a parent by suicide. I knew this but didn’t understand back then how hardwired these things can be. I saw that Robert was brilliant and motivated to change. He had a psychology degree and a stated belief in therapy. His older brother was a successful brain surgeon, his sister a well-known attorney. I was convinced Robert would eventually find his path.
I was 27 and in grad school to become a therapist at the time and I believed in the transformative power of psychotherapy and the unlimited potential for personal growth. I realize now I was incredibly naïve and had embraced psychotherapy with a misguided fervor that was almost religious. I looked at Robert through the flawed lens of potential. I fell in love with the man I thought he would become.
And then there was the flattery and the attention he heaped on me. No one had ever adored me the way he did. He told me I was intelligent, and beautiful. He nurtured me. Except when he was angry of course, which was often. Then it was my role to calm him down and soothe him. After he was calm, he’d once again become a prince, and shower me with affection. This resulted in a very deep but pathological bond. From moment to moment I never knew which Robert I would find and I became very careful.
Even though I was a newly divorced young mother with three children, working full-time and attending grad school at night, I allowed Robert to move in with me without any clear commitment of what his financial contribution to the household would be. I assumed—erroneously—that he would be motivated to share expenses equally and be as motivated to achieve as I was. Even after his behavior proved this to be untrue I married him with the naive belief that eventually therapy would correct his lack of motivation. Of course, it did not.
Robert’s goal was to stay attached to me and he did whatever that took. He charmed most of the therapists he saw the same way he’d charmed me. Over the years I’d figured that out. I’d also figured out that psychotherapy is not magic and none of my goals for Robert had ever been his goals for himself.
It’s not easy to extricate yourself from a relationship with a man like this. Leaving is dangerous.
My brilliant strong friend Laura recently told me about her first husband and the father of their children:
“He was angry one day and I talked about leaving. He got his gun; he told me he was going to kill me and the kids, and then himself. I was terrified. I begged, I made promises–whatever it took to calm him down. I talked about God, and how only God should take life. I told him I’d make everything better. I comforted him. Then he cried, said he was sorry, and I held him.”
How many times have I heard a woman describe comforting a man who abused and terrorized her? More than I can count. It’s the classic theme in the cycle of intimate partner violence. Because in truth, there’s a duality to most abusive people. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde archetype is real. The raging monster has multiple ego states, some charming, some pathetic, and some murderous.
The charmer is seductive. The child is pathetic. And the monster may kill somebody. You may get all three characters on the same day.
I’m a member of a suicide survivor’s support group, and it’s common to hear women share stories of abusive men shooting themselves in the head in front of their wives during an argument. This behavior is not the self-annihilation of chronic depression, it’s the voice of rage and dominance. It’s the final “Live with this bitch” message of hatred.
And in the aftermath of the dirty bomb suicide, the women who survive are indeed broken, at least for a while. They are practiced at blaming themselves for his bad behavior, including the violent way the men chose to die.
Women have been socialized as caretakers, too often sacrificing our own needs and well-being to soothe an erratic partner. Taking on the responsibility of trying to create stability and peace for a man who could kill us on a bad day is to become a prisoner. The outcome can be lethal for someone when an exit from the relationship is attempted. It may be her, it may be him, it may be the children. Many women stay because they intuit this.
In September 2018, a new woman joined our group. An angry man she was in the process of divorcing drove 50 miles in the middle of the night to shoot himself in the face with a shotgun on her front doorstep. This kind of suicide is a hairsbreadth away from homicide. I understand this now.
My friends saved me. A month after Robert’s death when I went to stay in their home, they helped me find a therapist who understood this kind of suicide is about rage, power, and control. I never had the power to heal Robert. No therapist had the power to change his personality. It doesn’t work that way. There was an aspect of malevolence to him that was beyond my comprehension and I needed to understand that and feel anger about it to become protective of myself and my children.
Robert took his own life at age 47, the exact same age his father had been when he did the exact same thing. He killed himself, but he did not kill me.
I celebrate every day.
Shavaun Scott lives in Portland, Oregon and has been a psychotherapist for 30 years. She has written most often in clinical journals about the process of psychotherapy. Her book Game Addiction: The Experience and the Effects was published in 2009. She enjoys exploring unconventional paths and unorthodox bravery.