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.

The Fairness of Life

Khaleesi of our dog pack

Khaleesi of our dog pack

When I was 16, my  mother told  me that life wasn’t fair. Until that point I’d understood the lessons learned growing up poor but, at some point at least, I thought the scales would balance out and occasionally the good things in life would come my way.

My mother made it clear that was not to be.

Still, I went on to live a good life with ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and though luck always went to someone else, I was okay with that.

Until my daughter’s death.

Words can’t contain the enormity of the hole left behind by a child’s death. As a writer, I’ve spent the days since October 20, 2014 searching for the ones that will comfort me late at night when I lie in bed trying to find sleep instead of heartache. I haven’t found them yet.

In my parent’s grief group I hear the stories of other mothers and fathers who, too, struggle to get through each day while mourning the loss of their child. We talk about the boxes of belongings we can’t bear to part with. The items of clothing and jewelry we wear in a vain attempt to keep our dead child close. And then, the ones who have survived this pain the longest tell us it will never go away, but it will change.

Some day, they say, the smiles will outnumber the tears.

While I wait for that change to come, I remind  myself of the 27 years I had with her. Her exuberance for life. Her love of her family. The way she adored her dogs. How her smile brightened a room. How her tears could break your heart.  Her persistence. Her love of chocolate and Starbucks and Sonic. Her ability to be both wise and foolish in the same instant. Her transition into a woman who had been disappointed and had her heart broken more than a few times, but kept trying.

In my mind, I knew the adult she would turn out to be. I’ll never see that played out.

Life is unfair like that.

But  I also had 27 years to love her and that was worth every bit of pain I’ve suffered since her death. Maybe life isn’t so unfair after all.

Alana Concetta Carpenter 8/17/87 to 10/20/14

christmas part deux and brunch 004

Alana and sister Sarah Christmas 2010

Alana and sister Sarah Christmas 2010

Alana Carpenter on whale watch with her sister, Sarah

Alana Carpenter on whale watch with her sister, Sarah

Alana Carpenter at Calyx Farms.

Alana Carpenter at Calyx Farms.

Alana Carpenter at Greenville Sipping Safari

Alana Carpenter at Greenville Sipping Safari

Alana Carpenter with family at Greenville Zoo

Alana Carpenter with family at Greenville Zoo

“Sometimes, when chaos burns like wildfire around us, we have no other choice but to fall in love with the warmth.” Christopher Poindexter

Alana Concetta Carpenter was our warmth.

My Runaway Heart

Have you ever loved someone so much that you would suffer any indignity to remain with them? Someone you loved so fully you’d forgive them anything? Someone you couldn’t imagine living without?

I have. In time, I hope someone will love me with that level of intensity.

Leaving a relationship like that is hard. The mind is a great deceiver when the heart is involved. Sometimes to protect ourselves, we have to flee. And that’s what I did.

How many miles do you need to put between yourself and your broken heart? In my case it’s 1027 miles. That’s how far I had to run to allow my mind to accept what my heart had known for over five years.

It’s been a tough year. So tough that it’s been difficult to write and too dangerous to blog. Most of the venomous, mental vomit I’ve had to spew has been confined to composition books inked with my favorite Pilot G2 pens rather than committed to the internet to live on forever, a toxic reminder of a difficult time. Because even though I know leaving was the right thing, late at night my inner mean girl whispers that if I’d been stronger, I could have stayed and detached rather than running.

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But in leaving I found boldness and courage and the opportunity to remake my life into something I’m proud of. I’ve found that the things my old life told me I sucked at aren’t true. I can finish things. I can stick it out. I can take care of myself financially. I can be alone. I can make friends. I’m not great at everything I attempt, but I can ask for help. I make mistakes. I recover from them.

I’ve found my voice.

It amazes me how much of my old life was based on fear: fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of looking foolish, fear of being thought of as weak. Now I base my decision on my needs, and if things don’t work out the way I want them to, I make a new plan.

I’ve learned that even the worst plan can be reworked.

Most of all, I’ve realized that there is nothing worse than being with someone that makes you feel alone.

I left New Hampshire because I was weak. In leaving I discovered how strong I really am.

 

 

A Farewell to Dad

He wasn’t the best father, but he was my father.  When my sister called and asked me to accompany her and my brother to his deathbed, I went, even though I hadn’t spoken to my dad in 22 years. I did it, I thought, for my siblings. Turns out I really did it for me.

Our family picture after the death of my oldest brother, Rod.

Our family picture after the death of my oldest brother, Rod.

When we entered the room where my dad lay dying, he looked exactly like his father had 22 years before. His head, covered with silvery gray hair, was thrown back on the pillow, his mouth gaped open, and harsh, irregular breathing filled the room.  Though the nurses said he could hear us, he was unresponsive.

Unlike my grandfather, who died at home in his living room, my father began his death in an intensive medical care unit. Outside the unit a sign warned us to wear masks due to a flu outbreak.  He was on contact precautions so before we entered his room we added gowns and gloves to the masks that covered our faces. The constant beep of monitors and the intrusion of nurses to empty his catheter, titrate his medications, and turn and position him widened the space between us and him.

It was hard to break that space.

The death of a parent, even a parent that never embraced the traditional role and remained more of a Peter Pan man-child than a King Triton type of dad, is hard. When it’s a father you’ve only seen from a distance for the past 22 years, one you’ve ducked down grocery store aisles to avoid and maintained at least a one room separation from at family gatherings,  it’s a little harder.

In Al-Anon they say one can detach with love or detach with dynamite. I’d always seen my choice, dynamite, as irrevocable.  As I smoothed his hair, wrapped his hand around mine, and reminisced about our shared past, I realized I was wrong.

Even though it was too late to repair the damage done to our relationship, it wasn’t too late to remember the good times we once shared.

In the time we spent alone, I played him the songs we knew together and the ones I’d grown to love since then. Kenny Chesney sang “Boys of Summer” in the background and I talked about fall in New Hampshire, football games my older brother played in, and towns we had rivalries with. Willie Nelson crooned “Always on my Mind” while I told him about the toast  my youngest gave at her sister’s wedding and how it reminded me of him. Craig Morgan sang “Almost Home” as I retold stories of the friends and family that had predeceased him. Over and over, I told him it was okay to let go.

But, he hung on.

The palliative care nurse practitioner said he wouldn’t survive once they stopped the medications, but the medications stopped and he didn’t. Then they said the ambulance ride to the hospice might kill him. One last road trip, I murmured as the stretcher rolled into the Florida sun and bumped up into the ambulance, yet still he hung on.  We can keep him pain-free, they said at the hospice, but it might hasten his death. It doesn’t matter, we told them, yet in spite of the pain and anti anxiety medicine, he breathed on. We sat by his bedside and laughed, prayed, told stories, cried. We watched him take one agonizing breath after another and we held our breath each time they stopped. But he kept breathing.

It wasn’t until late the second night, with all of his children around his bed, that he opened his eyes, took one last breath, and died.

My clearest memory of childhood is my father’s lectures at the dinner table. He’d tell us look around this table, these are the only people you can trust. These are the only people who love you unconditionally and will love you even if you grow up to be a murderer, a rapist, or a thief. For years I joked about his low expectations for us instead of focusing on the other part, how much he loved us and how much he wanted us to love and look out for each other.

Perhaps he hung on to make sure we’d learned the lessons he’d taught us. Even me, the daughter who had ignored him for 22 years.

If we get to make our own heaven, I have no doubt he’s in a place where the Jameson flows freely and the stories and laughter never stop and he is surrounded by people who love him.

He wasn’t the best father, but he was my father, and, in the end, I loved him still.

Things to Worry About

The other night I lay in bed worrying about all of the out-of-control aspects of my life. My recent move to South Carolina, current unemployment, houseboat in need of repairs, and car problems have pushed my shoulders to a permanent position slightly below my ears and caused the left side of my jaw to clench. As a nurse, I know that stress can cause stomach problems, insomnia, elevated blood pressure, and chest pain. Lately, I’ve had them all.

My daughter restricts me to only worrying about three problems each day, but even the process of choosing three problems to focus on leads to palpitations and emotional paralysis. Is it any wonder I find it hard to sit down and write? Any surprise that after three weeks my clothes remain in a suitcase rather than hung up in my closet? I think not.

I’m embarrassed to admit (but some of you won’t be surprised to hear) that some of my anxiety is irrational. It’s one thing to be stressed about finding a plumber to replace a hot water heater on a houseboat, another to worry that poisonous insects will squirm up through the air conditioning vents and crawl into your ears while you sleep. Right? It’s normal to worry you’ll encounter a loose dog while walking your dogs and have to break up a dog fight, slightly crazy to think a black snake (googling a picture will haunt my dreams so I imagine an eight foot long snake as thick as my arm) will be lying in wait on the side of the road and attack me. My daughter tells me it must be hard to live in a world where I’m always waiting for the worst to happen. It is.

Pharmaceuticals aren’t helping nor is alcohol. I could try meditation, but worry some creature will scurry over me while I’m lying prone. In my mind, my South Carolina lakeside home is as dangerous as the Florida Everglades at night. That sums up my skewed thought processes.

In desperation, I’m trying a new strategy to deal with my stress. Instead of agonizing over it, I write it down on a white board titled “things to worry about.”  My list covers everything from a caterer to fire ants. It’s a grand conglomeration of every single thing I can think to worry about, no matter how insignificant or psycho it seems. It guarantees, unless someone sneaks into my house and erases it, that I don’t have to keep all of my worries at the forefront of my thoughts. Instead they are readily available and easily added on to.

Things to worry about. Must add snakes.

Things to worry about. Must add snakes.

Silly? Perhaps. Effective? Hell, yes. Since I’ve started the list, my muscles have untightened, my sleep improved, and I’ve even managed to pump out a blog post. Now if only I could make money off my brilliant idea…