Domestic Violence – The Shame is Not Yours

I left my home state in 2013 after a marriage marred by emotional and verbal abuse escalated to the threat of physical abuse. There is no more sobering realization than accepting that the wall/door/kitchen island that cracks under punches and kicks could have been your face.

 

Both of my daughters supported my decision. They never said it out loud, but I suspect they wonder what took me so long.

The decision to move almost a 1000 miles away before I filed for divorce seemed wise when Kelly J Robarge of Charlestown NH disappeared the day she filed for divorce from her husband. He was eventually convicted of murdering her, but in our court system being convicted of murdering your wife or girlfriend is harder than you’d imagine. (Yes, I’m thinking of OJ Simpson).

On October 20, 2014 my daughter’s boyfriend, Caleb Linart of Walhalla, called me and asked me to come to his house to get my daughter as they’d been fighting and he couldn’t get her to leave. I arrived to find her half clothed, face down on the bedroom floor. I stayed on the phone with the 911 dispatcher as I attempted to start CPR, but she had been dead so long she was too stiff to even turn over. After the paramedics ushered me out of the house, and the police arrived I texted Caleb a short message, “Alana is dead.”

When he arrived back at his house, crying and distraught, I didn’t have a lot of questions. My mind reeled, thinking perhaps Alana had an accidental overdose of pain pills and alcohol from an injury she suffered a few weeks before. She’d returned home from a weekend with Caleb with a bruise that stretched over her entire side. It was so painful I wondered if she’d broken a rib and when I asked how it happened she’d had a plausible story: Caleb and her were moving a couch and he pushed it too hard and the arm of the couch hit her in the side.

I didn’t think twice about it.

A detective introduced himself to me and asked questions. I patiently waited on the lawn in the hot South Carolina sun, knowing my daughter’s lifeless body was behind the front door of the house I stood in front of and having no idea what to do next.

Eventually the medical examiner came out and asked if I wanted to come inside and see her before they moved her. She was in a black body bag, unzipped just enough so that I could see her face. I had no idea that underneath the bag her body was covered with bruises and markings from being beat. I had no idea they’d asked to photograph Caleb’s hands to document any evidence of his fists being the ones that beat her. I had no idea they’d bagged her fingernails to protect any evidence they might provide.

I had no idea.

The next day when the medical examiner drove up with a woman he said was the victim’s advocate assigned to Alana’s case, I was more than a little puzzled. It had never crossed my mind her death was to due to domestic violence. No clue her autopsy showed signs she had been both beaten and strangled.

They later told me she also had a lethal level of heroin in her system. Another surprise as she was not an addict.

Two medical examiners, two different outcomes. Both agreed she’d been beaten and strangled. The Oconee one said the heroin killed her before the strangulation. The other maintained she’d died of strangulation. On some level it didn’t matter, she was still dead.

And I will never know exactly how she died. The State of South Carolina Victim’s Assistance Fund heard the testimony of the detective in charge and paid for her funeral as a victim of violence. The court downgraded Caleb’s charge to attempted murder and eventually, after Caleb’s former girlfriend withdrew her statement that he had a history of domestic abuse, the solicitor encouraged me to file a civil complaint as we would not prevail in a criminal case. The police never found the heroin that contributed to her death, and even the pictures that Caleb snapped of her that morning, dead on his bedroom floor, didn’t show any drugs. By calling me to come to his house, he’d left open the defense that she had taken the drugs herself and I had covered it up.

As so often with murder victims, our court system would not extract a price for her death.

What I do know is the part I played in my daughter’s story of domestic violence. I, like so many other women, endured years of verbal and emotional abuse and explained it away. I was the one who made excuses, kept the peace, and normalized a relationship that was not normal.

Some of you may see yourself in those words. You tell your children things like daddy didn’t mean it or dad had a hard time at work or dad just had too much to drink, he really does love us. To you, I want to say stop.

Just stop.

Teach your daughters that they are deserving of relationships that are founded on love and respect. That alcohol or stress or jealously is no excuse for abuse. Be clear there is no acceptable level of abuse. Most of all, show by your example and if that means leaving an abusive relationship, seek the proper help so you and your children can escape without becoming victims of further violence.

Most of all, don’t blame yourself. On Alana’s facebook page she posted:  “So there were two choices: I could close myself off, resign myself to the fact that the world is an imperfect place and I could carry my hurt like a security blanket. Or, I could forgive myself. I could decide that loving people isn’t a weakness and trusting people isn’t a flaw. I could decide when others wrong me that’s a reflection on them, not me. That’s the beauty of it. Something that could have damaged me and made me bitter ended up opening my heart in ways I never knew. So yes, I believe there’s always a chance.”

Think on the line that says “when others wrong me, that’s a reflection on them, not me.”

It is not your fault. You do not deserve to be abused.

In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month and my daughter, who never got a chance to escape an abusive situation, consider donating to Safe Harbor, Turning Points, or any group providing services for victims of abuse.

If you are a victim of abuse, call The Domestic Violence Hotline  at 1−800−799−7233. Your mothers, your fathers, your sisters and brothers, and your children are all counting on you. You deserve the chance not to be another statistic in a government national domestic violence report. There are already too many women that are.

If You Ever Come Back

Sometimes when I’m missing Alana, I listen to the Script song “If You Ever Come Back.” I don’t believe in zombies or wish to attract ghosts, but I imagine what it would feel like if Alana Concetta walked in the door one day. Even though there have been so many milestones since her death, some silly like she would be pissed to have missed the Sons of Anarchy finale or at least Bobby’s death, and some I avoid thinking about, like how fiercely she would love her two nieces.

And what she would have been like as a mother.

When the song says, “I wish you could still give me a hard time,” I first thought it said “I wish you could give me a high five” which is a hearing impaired person’s inadvertent substitution. Our minds make up what our ears can’t hear. Still a high five would be more appropriate. Alana giving you a hard time was not a pleasant experience.

It’s strange how you can know someone is dead, either cremated or decomposing in the ground, and you could still imagine a situation where they could walk in the door and surprise you.

Unfortunately though the key might be in the same place, and the kettle on, life moves on. The longer someone has been dead the more jarring I imagine the experience would be. Imagine coming back never knowing smart phones, cable television, the internet, self-driving cars, Twitter, and a host of other technological and societal changes. It would be disorienting to say the least.

So though I like to think about Alana coming back, I know the world today is not the world she left. Wanting her back is selfish on my part.  She’s moved on.

I’d still like to hug her one more time and have, at least for a moment, the feeling that she had never gone.  Too bad that only happens in fantasies and songs.

al key west

Remembering Alana

 

I remember the night before Alana’s birth.  Two year old  Sarah snuggled in bed with me when a thought hit me so hard it was like someone narrating my life announced, “This is the last time there will only be two of you.”

It was a lie.

Four years ago I lay in bed planning the day. My house sitting vacation at Sarah’s complete, I braced myself for Monday at a job I hated.  On Sunday I’d attended a NAMI caregiver’s course and was eager to talk to Alana about it and what I’d learned.

If only the day had gone as planned.

Instead, on my commute to work, Alana’s boyfriend called me. I answered the call after almost blowing through a stop sign because of a thick, ground obscuring fog. I half listened as he rambled on that he and Alana had fought, but she couldn’t find her purse, and wouldn’t leave without it.  I neared the interstate ramp and pulled over and asked him what he wanted me to do. He told me to come over. He’d leave the door open for me.

Have you ever called 911 for someone you love? I mean real 911, like they’re not responsive and they’re not flexible, and they’re not warm, but you call 911 and start CPR because who knows…miracles happen.

Just not for me.

We prepare for the arrival of our children, but there is no what to expect when your child dies textbook to follow. There are no parenting discussion boards that cover cremation vs burial, church service or not, writing an obituary, and packing up a short life’s worth of belongs. The rituals of death are meant for the old and the sick, not for a vibrant 27 year old spending the weekend with her boyfriend.

When Alana was killed it killed a part of me that can’t be fixed. It took the spark of joy her smile summoned. The feel of her fingers pressed into my back when she hugged me tightly. A million text messages about things only we would find amusing. A belief that I could be happy.

I didn’t physically crawl into the casket with her the last time I saw her, but part of me might as well have. As much as I want to get over it and move on, no amount of therapy, medication, exercise, meditation, or positive thinking has helped. Instead I get up each day, put one foot in front of another, apply my happy mask and hope it doesn’t slip and expose the broken, sad person beneath.

And underneath all the pain, sadness, tears and despair, I can finally understand a small piece of Alana’s struggles with depression and marvel at the effort it took her each and every day to be the bright, smiling person she presented to the world.

If she were here I’d ask her forgiveness for the years I remained silent while family members discounted her mental illness as her being dramatic and bullied her about being unreliable and discounted her need for treatment. It wasn’t until late in her illness that I finally stepped up and became the mother she needed and deserved. I’d apologize for that, too.

Alana wanted me to write about living and loving children with mental illnesses. I wish I could honor her wish, but instead I’ll end with a Facebook post of Alana’s that illustrates why she would have been a great advocate for mental illness if only her life had not been cut short.

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I miss her today and everyday. Alana Concetta Carpenter 8/17/87 – 10/20/14

Somebody That I Used to Know

Since Alana Concetta’s death, I’ve felt unable to write. Yet life reminds me in so many ways that she wanted me to write. She encouraged me to write about her battles with mental illness and how I coped. She thought I could be a voice of hope in a world where too many parents ignore their child’s mental illness because they think it’s a reflection on their parenting.

She wrote “The stigma of mental illness is alive and well.”

But I have resisted writing and this resistance has made my grief even worse. Writing about my feelings helps me acknowledge and process them. Keeping them inside has made me feel like the proverbial elephant sitting on my chest.

It’s hard to breathe.

I keep them inside for fear my feelings will be used against me and used against Alana. But as the months pass, I keep going back to the fact that I raised my children in a family of secrets, of things we didn’t say and things we didn’t acknowledge. I took Nora Ephron’s advice late in life to “be the heroine in your story, not the victim.”

I left my marriage and New Hampshire after my ex husband kicked the kitchen island down and pinned me to a wall and told me I should consider myself lucky he took his anger out on the kitchen island rather than my face.

I decided I no longer wanted to be a victim.

But still I find myself eating my feelings and swallowing my words. I fear what my divorce lawyer might say when we end up in court again because my ex intends to drag this out until there is nothing left to fight over. I worry that my words will be used against me when Alana’s boyfriend finally goes to trial for her death. I ache at the thought I will hurt my remaining daughter with my words.

But I can’t keep it inside any longer.

Depression is a medical disease with a high mortality rate. Being hospitalized for depression is like being in an Intensive care unit as the person’s life hangs in the balance. These are the words Alana Concetta‘s psychiatrist at the Brattleboro Retreat told me and listening to these words gave me two more years with her.

I wish I could have had another fifty.

Instead she is dead and I don’t know how and I have accepted I never will. Two medical examiners have weighed in, both admit she was beaten, strangled, and had a lethal dose of heroin in her system. One states she died of strangulation, the other a heroin overdose.

Where the heroin came from is anyone’s guess.

The day she died, I went to her boyfriend’s house, at his request,  to pick her up. She was face down on the floor, her dog, Baxter, next to her. She was the last person I performed CPR on.

The part I struggle with is that we were working so hard on her mental illness. Taking classes with NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill). Understanding that her unreliability was a symptom of her illness rather than a lack of consideration. Figuring out that her reluctance to make plans wasn’t flakiness but rather an acknowledgement on her part that sometimes she didn’t know from day to day whether she could get out of bed and participate.

I understand all of that now.

Since my daughter’s death, depression is my constant companion. Anxiety and stress visit on a regular basis. I never know when something will trigger me to tears or despair.

My mental health is dependent on medications, exercise, yoga, and keeping busy.

See, if you keep busy it is harder to dwell on the pain.

Since Alana’s death I feel her pain. I feel the strength it takes to get out of bed each day and go on with my life. I understand how hard life was for her.

She was so much stronger than any of us gave her credit for her.

And so I will try to write to honor her and her struggles. Try to feel my feelings and speak my words. Let people know that having a child with mental illness isn’t something to be covered up and ignored.

It’s the least I can do.

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There Are No Tears For You

This morning I buckled down to go through all of the court papers, emails and bullshit of the divorce settlement that has dragged on for two years as my ex sporadically hires an attorney to file motions when his obstruction and non participation don’t work. I long ago decided not to spare another tear for him, and I’ve remained stoic each time a roadblock has been placed in the way of selling our properties in New Hampshire or getting money the court has ordered him to pay. When I left, I had no job, a $500.00 bonus check from work, a cashed in investment and the belief that anything was better than remaining near him.

Eventually, I thought, we’d come to an agreement to split what we’d both worked hard for over the years and I would have the money to buy a house, fix it up, take my daughters on vacation, have some fun.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

And I am crying today, not because of the thousands in legal fees I’ve had to pay while he’s ignored the court and made excuse after excuse not to do the right thing. I’m not sobbing because he ignored my pleas when he wasn’t paying the mortgage on our NH home which jeopardized my ability to buy a home here. I’m not even weeping because he told me “no one died on his watch” and I am responsible for the death of my daughter.

I don’t cry for him.

I cry because the last weekend of my daughter’s life, when she needed me, I was too busy going through the last minute papers he’d filed with the court for an upcoming hearing. Instead of having a little patience and time for her, I was sucked into the giant fucking abyss of his trying to get out of splitting our marital property when I should have been with her.

That is why I break down and dissolve into tears. Every court notice, response, email, and summons is a reminder that I wasted the last few days of my daughter’s life worrying about this man who lives on spite.

Alana and I dreamed of the day the divorce would finally be over. She talked about finding me a man who loved and respected me and twirled me around a dance floor. We fantasized about the trip we’d take to Key West, the place we had the best vacation ever, and the things we would do. We’d straighten out her school loans and get her back to college. We’d live the life we deserved, away from the belittling and bullying we’d lived under in New Hampshire.

Our lives, already better in South Carolina, would only get better.

And now, every moment spent on fighting my ex is a reminder of all the things Alana and I never got to do because, as the Taylor Swift song Alana said reminded her of her father goes, “he’s just mean.”

So today, through the blurriness of my tears and the despair in my soul, I dive into the dirty business of my divorce and pray that this will be over soon.But make no mistake, I don’t cry for my ex or what he has done, I cry for my daughter.

 

 

 

Family Rules

When we left New Hampshire, we left an environment where Alana’s mental illness was considered attention seeking and my support of her getting healthy was considered being a sucker.

As we settled into our new routine in South Carolina, Alana came home one day with a sign listing our new family rules. They were so unlike the ones we lived under before. We were used to criticism rather than compassion, angry explosions in place of laughter, bitter rants instead of gratitude. It wasn’t until we were out of that place that we could understand how unnatural it was.

With the upcoming arrival of a grand daughter who will never physically know her Aunt Alana, these are the things I learned from Alana and hope to pass on to the newest member of our family:

We use our words

We feel our feelings

We lick faces

We make mistakes

We practice being kind over being right

We celebrate little victories

We pop the bubble wrap

We’re never too old to play the floor is lava

We will hug you fiercely and we will love you forever