Back to Life

| by Bethany Robinson |  

My name is Bethany Robinson, a 34-year-old bassist, sister, aunt, daughter, music teacher, textbook first born, photographer, liver cancer survivor, and huge proponent of gratitude.  My entire life has been a (self-imposed) quest toward calculated goals and accomplishments, following the rules, pleasing those whom I call friends and family, and capturing the most beautiful moments of life in pictures along the way. I have come to realize this: When life’s autopilot is generally happy and productive and healthy, it is easy to forget a time when life was not that way.  Conversely, when life’s autopilot is survival, numbness, fear, and secrecy, it is also difficult to remember a time of happiness.

Toward the end of college, I knew the next culturally pre-programmed life step was to be married, so when my older established boyfriend of only three months proposed to me my senior year, on paper it seemed perfect.  I could check this box off the list, have a great wedding, look for a job, a house, and think about a family.  This boyfriend was not only my same religion but was also a youth pastor, so it could not have seemed more perfect.

Just a few days into the marriage, I began to have second thoughts.  Anger existed where there should have been patience, yelling where there should have been laughter, accusations and name-calling where there should have been love.  Flying home from the honeymoon, I sat in the middle seat. On one side, my new husband, quietly yet forcefully telling me all the ways I wasn’t measuring up to his expectations, and on the other side a woman–a perfect stranger–discreetly squeezing my hand while I cried.

In those moments of despair and panic and desperation, you can’t help but make decisions, even if the decisions are subconscious.  In my heart I knew I had chosen this person, and I could not bring the shame and embarrassment of divorce upon my family or myself. I also knew I could not have a child with this man, and to stay meant I would have to become two distinctly different people: the survivor at home, and the successful and happy woman outside the home.  I made all of these quiet and desperate decisions during what should have been the most blissful part of my life: the honeymoon.

Life kept moving.  I got a job teaching music, and kept eye cream in my desk for those long nights when I would endure the repeated berating and raging from my husband.  There was the weekly “Do you want a divorce? Do you not trust me?” which followed any time I would ask to be involved in the finances, cautiously ask about the latest creditor calling, or even seemingly mundane questions about schedules or calendar matters. I would worry all day about how to carefully phrase a simple question of having friends over for dinner or asking if I could accept an offer to play bass for an event, hoping that I could phrase it in such a way that he would grant me permission, hoping it wouldn’t trigger a huge fight if I could say it in just the right way.  In reality, each question, no matter how carefully or tactfully asked would result in another rage, another rant, another fight.

There were the occasions where we would leave a happy gathering of friends or family, and on the way home he would inform me that I was out of line when I said XYZ, and that everyone was upset with me, or I had embarrassed him.  Meeting with friends or family without him was usually worse and as soon as I got home, I got the third degree: Did I say anything bad about him? Did I say anything that could damage his reputation as a pastor? One stumble or tongue-tied stammer was all he needed to know I had disrespected him and his reputation and couldn’t be trusted, even if it was far from the truth.  My solution?  Avoid friends. Avoid family. Avoid playing music.

When you watch Dr. Phil hoping that something he says will give you the magic formula to change your situation…when your mother sends you a checklist of the signs of domestic abuse…when a friend recommends that you explain your situation to a trusted woman pastor and she says to leave when the yelling starts…you would think these clues would’ve been the collective catalyst I needed to leave.  But he often told me that leaving was cowardly, that it hurt him like it did when his mother left the family, that it wasn’t Godly….so I chose staying over what was actually more healthy for me.  I told myself that it wasn’t that bad, marriage wasn’t supposed to be easy, and after all, maybe if I were a better wife he could be a better husband. These lies helped me cope while simultaneously keeping me in the situation. Accepting the real truth was to admit failure and the alternative seemed too hard. It meant potential embarrassment and shame from anyone who thought I was religious and had it together.  It meant disappointing everyone. It meant starting over.  It meant financial ruin.  It meant changing my name and my students discovering my situation.  It meant career ruination for a youth pastor who staked everything on his reputation.  The truth was, I wasn’t ready to accept any of the inevitable changes that would come from leaving, so I stayed.

Year 5: still on auto-pilot, still numb, still surviving.  After the husband mentioned his frustrations with me to a trusted friend and pastor, the friend recommended a set of counselors for us.  He went into the counseling to fix me, and I went in to find any hope of salvaging our life together.  Within one session, my counselor recommended ANY book on emotional abuse I could pick up at a bookstore. This seemed wrong, disrespectful, even laughable. After all, he was a youth-pastor, so abuse couldn’t be a possibility.  Even so, I headed to my local bookstore and picked up a few books on the subject.  I can remember sitting down in the café and reading the opening quote of Chapter 1…

“Do whatever you want, because you’re going to do it anyway.”

It was the quote I heard monthly, weekly, daily…anytime I shared a dream, a thought, a home-improvement plan, a meal idea…that was often the response.  This relationship wasn’t a mutually respectful collaboration, it was always a line in the sand.  Me vs. him.  It was one of the saddest themes I can recall during the marriage.

This was the beginning of the end, but the beginning of a new chapter for me.  In the coming months, I did anything and everything this counselor recommended.  Reading books, secretly digging into our finances, checking bank statements, calling creditors.  I uncovered lie after lie after lie.  And the Lifetime movie didn’t end there.  I opened a secret bank account, packed up important items, purchased a PO box with cash, moved my direct deposit, and went to the counseling session with both counselors, myself, and my husband to tell him I would be leaving-and it was ugly.

Over the next 3 months of separation and before deciding to file for divorce, I continued the intense counseling. I learned what inside me had to change to be healthy. I also gained the tools to make wise decisions that had much less to do about meeting others’ expectations, and much more to do with what was best for me.  I learned that all the shame and embarrassment I expected actually turned out to be an outpouring of love from those who loved me, many of which knew I was in a terrible situation before I was able to see it myself. I learned to be healthy and kind to myself.  I forgave my husband. More importantly, I forgave myself.

Five years have passed since the divorce and it’s actually hard to recall the pain and numbness of those days.  I have recovered financially, have an incredible group of friends, travel all over the US–marveling at the beauty great and small. l even have a new love for my career of teaching, and was named Indiana Jazz Educator of the Year a few months ago.

That first birthday after the divorce, I hosted a party to thank those friends who had been so supportive through the tough journey.  My friend Sarah handed me a card with a gift certificate to make a photo book.  I began to cry.  In that moment it hit me.  While I had always loved photography, I stopped taking pictures during those six years of marriage.  I was unable to notice any beauty around me, because of the pain and numbness in my life.  From that moment on, I picked up the camera and haven’t put it down since. Today I have no less than ten photo books from the past five years, highlighting all the music and travel and friendship and family I find so much joy in.

Looking back, I wonder if there was something someone could have said to me that would have helped me sooner. Being supportive to someone trapped in an abusive relationship without driving that person away can be difficult.  It takes time for the person in the fog to realize what they’re really surrounded by, because it becomes their normal, and they’ve learned to adapt and survive in that environment.  What can you do as a friend? Let them know you support them no matter what decision they make.  That decision may change over time, or it may not.  Just be there. And when they are ready, your love and support might be that extra measure of courage they need to make the most difficult decision of their life.  For my journey, it required many bad days, good friends, supportive family members, hard decisions, overcoming fear, letting go of what my life “should’ve been,” seeing an excellent counselor, and finally picking up my camera to bring me back to life.

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