Leaving an abuser can be dangerous, particularly for women. In 2017, the U.N. reported that 50,000 women are killed each year by intimate partners or relatives worldwide. Four out of five victims of intimate partner violence are women. And in cases where an abuser murders others before killing themselves, 94% of those murder victims are women.
No one at the time saw Top as an abuser. No one. He had a warm smile for everyone. He hosted my friends for free at his restaurant, delivering sumptuous three-course meals. He gave a car to an employee who needed one. He was soft-spoken and seemed easygoing. I was always amazed when people met him for the first time, how quickly they warmed to him. How open they became. How immediately they liked him.
He was charismatic.
But behind closed doors, he regularly threatened me with violence. He never included me in decisions that impacted both of us. When I asserted myself, he told me I thought too much. When that didn’t shut me up, he told me I was going to make him angry. And if I made him angry, he couldn’t control himself. He said he didn’t know what he might do. And then he stared me down until I was too afraid to continue the conversation.
He had initiated our relationship with a sexual assault. The first time I had tried to end it, he stalked me for months. Like all abusers, his game was control. But not so much that anyone outside the relationship would notice the extent of it. And like all abusers, he had two personae: a public one and a private, rage-filled one.
So no one understood the urgency or the need for safety. No one, not even myself, realized just how dangerous my escape attempt would be. I didn’t know what to expect this time.
I only knew that I had to be prepared.
* * *
Every weekend I visited my brother. He now lived in Bellevue, about 12 miles away, in a two-bedroom apartment with his roommate Mike. I stopped off for lunch, maybe some games, and then drove home. Top never came with me. He didn’t have the address. So the first stage of my plan was to pack a few belongings in a grocery bag each weekend and take it with me. Only the necessary stuff. Clothes. Mementos I wanted to keep. Toiletries.
I never took enough that Top would notice. I rearranged my remaining clothes so that if he looked in my closet, it wouldn’t appear half-empty. If he checked out my half of the medicine cabinet, there would still be deodorant, makeup, my toothbrush.
Once I had relocated enough of my belongings to Allan’s apartment that I felt I could make a go of it, I alerted my brother and his friends. I would meet them at a bus stop on 5th Avenue at a specific time on a predetermined Sunday afternoon. And if I wasn’t there, they were to come get me. I packed what remained of my belongings in a backpack and two garbage bags.
I was leaving behind three cherry bookcases loaded with fiction and college textbooks. I was leaving behind a Chinese scroll painting I had bought on a trip with Grandma. My art supplies. Mexican woodblock prints I had framed. My language textbooks. Trophies. Photo albums.
But I was saving myself.
I told Top after breakfast, right before his first shift of the day. I knew if he was late, Eddie would come upstairs and pound on the door until Top opened it.
I sat down on the arm of my futon, and I told him I was leaving him. I told him people were waiting for me.
It didn’t matter. I was leaving. He was not to even attempt to contact me until I reached out to get my stuff. It would be at least two months before he heard from me. No contact. I needed time to regroup before I came back for my things.
You can’t, he said. You’re my wife, he said.
That’s the first time you’ve ever called me that.
It’s true, he said. You’re my wife.
Not anymore. This hasn’t been a relationship for a long time. I’m not sure that, for me, it ever was.
What are you talking about? I gave you everything.
Everything but respect.
I respect you.
Then respect this. I have to go. They’re waiting for me.
You can’t leave like this. This is a decision we should make together. How can you leave without even talking to me about it? I’m your husband. You have to explain.
When have we ever made a decision together?
He didn’t have an answer.
I’m going now.
And then I opened the door and stepped out into the hallway and left.
We had been together for seven years.
* * *
By the time I reached the bus stop, my hands were shaking. I blew out a breath and dumped my garbage bags on the sidewalk and waited. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting him to have followed me.
I had looked forward to this day for months. I had expected it to be sunny. And it was. I had expected it to be liberating and joyous. And it wasn’t. I felt nothing but fear. Panic. Adrenaline.
Allan showed up with his friends Jonathan and Mike, who by now had become my friends, too. Each of them took a bag, and we boarded the next bus together. All of them confused by the fact that I had just left Top. All of them without the slightest idea of what I was doing or why. I didn’t know how to tell them. I didn’t know if they would believe me. I hadn’t yet connected words to my experiences: abuse, sexual assault, gaslighting.
I could only say that I wasn’t happy.
* * *
I slept on my brother’s couch for two months. I checked out a book on filing for divorce in Washington state. I added an online tutoring job to make ends meet so that I was, once again, working three jobs. I began attending a weekly writing group. I had begun working on a novel a year and a half earlier, and now finally, I was picking up speed with a new draft.
I played badminton with Mike at a local club. I went to coffee regularly with a friend from work. I traded off fixing dinners with Mike and Allan. We began to talk about adding me to the lease for a year or two while I figured out what was next. I checked out library books on grad school, on humanitarian jobs, on the Peace Corps. I asked the old psychology professor out on a date, and—thankfully—he said no.
I was beginning to feel alive again.
I hadn’t known I’d lost that feeling until it started to return.
The first hard tips of green buds sprouted on tree branches. Laurel bloomed along the sidewalks and smelled like jasmine. I walked everywhere back then, often passing through neighborhoods fragrant with lilacs. Everything was in bud.
Everything was new.
Everything was possible.
My story is my own and should not be taken as an example of how to safely leave an abuser. To make an effective safety plan or to help other abuse victims plan their escape when they are ready, please visit https://www.thehotline.org/help/path-to-safety/ for more information.