No one is sure where the idiom “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names (words, harsh words, criticisms) will never hurt me” comes from. It seems to have been born in the late 1800s although no one knows for sure. Parents and grandparents have sung it to kids who’d been taunted or teased or mocked by other kids in the mistaken idea it’ll make them feel better, or stronger, or something. But it doesn’t. Both activities hurt; but batterings from sticks and stones can heal; names, words, criticisms wound forever because they hurt our hearts, minds and souls.
Sidney suffered that kind of treatment by her husband for many years. She was being abused, and the weapon her husband Tom was using was not a stick or a stone or even his fists; it was his words. Her husband, who was in the medical profession, was beating her slowly to death just by use of his words. They hurt, and the pain simply never went away.
Born in Indiana six decades ago, Sidney grew up, graduated from Indiana University, received her Masters in Education, and all the while she sort of hoped to eventually meet a great man, to have a happy home, kids, all the American dream things. It wasn’t her only goal. Sid had other plans and dreams, but a great family life was in the mix.
“I remember meeting Tom,” says Sid. “We were freshmen in college in Ft. Wayne Indiana. He was so nice. I thought he was very sweet. We didn’t start to date for a couple of years because we were in different schools, but eventually ended up in the same town and school, so then began dating.
“He was just plain wonderful,” says Sid. “So kind. A sweet man. I thought I was so lucky.” After they were married she would be willing to put Tom through dental school. Six years total it would be, so he could specialize in children’s dentistry.
They married. Beautiful wedding. Both families liked each other. Niagara Falls honeymoon. Happiness. Perfection.
Until day 5 of their marriage. “It was the first incident of my husband’s odd remarks. He told me that men have egos and that I should be very careful of his. I remember thinking that women had egos too, but oh well, maybe it wasn’t a big deal, maybe this is what newlyweds did or said, and we’d learn from each other.”
And so Sid taught school for a few years, Kindergarten, first and second grades, and she loved it. She was happy.
The second incident didn’t come for another year or so. “We got into an argument about going to a friend’s wedding. It wasn’t the argument so much; it was how he used his words. I felt dismissed and that was the issue, not the argument. I thought ‘OK, that’s odd, but we’re young and married and we’ll work on it.’ I talked with Tom about it and he blew it off, never apologized. And as the incidents of his verbal attacks became closer and closer together and I’d try to discuss them with him, he would never apologize. He would never try to resolve this. I was always wrong, always. He would deliberately ignore what I was saying. In fact during our 35 years together, he apologized only once, even when he saw how his words were battering me. He began to do it more often, and I began to feel more and more beaten down. I knew he knew and I knew he enjoyed it.
“I began to understand that I was a product of the current culture. I had been taught, along with other women my age that it was up to women to make their husbands happy. It didn’t matter to my husband if I was happy, just if he was.”
By now they were living in Montana. Sid was working for her husband. He took verbal shots at her in front of employees, or friends, but Tom was clever and the remarks about Sid were just “funny” enough so that everyone could laugh them off. Sid understood that if she took a stand, stood up against him for this behavior, she would be labeled a shrew and that he’d get worse at these verbal attacks. She learned to keep silent.
When they were alone she tried to speak with her husband about these incidents. She told him that each time he did that, it was like a brick was placed between them and she tried to explain that a brick wall would be growing higher and higher, finally too high for her to climb over. No reaction. But once, he’d hurt her verbally so badly she lost it and began to beat on her husband, kicking him, screaming and crying. This time he reacted. He actually apologized and told her he’d never do it again, but just in case he did, for her to remind him. He actually wept! Sid was relieved. Perhaps the nightmare was ending.
It all quickly began again. The next time he verbally attacked her, she reminded him as he’d asked her to, but he became angry. The abuse just got worse. And then far worse. Tom was beating his wife to pieces with his mouth, he was clearly enjoying himself and had no intention of stopping. Sid was sinking deeper and deeper into a hole where she lived alone.
But Sid was beginning to watch her husband, and slowly, she saw a pattern. The remarks were no longer funny, they were now cruel and he only said them when they were alone, no witnesses. No one ever heard him shout, for example, “I told you to get brand X hairdryer and you brought home the wrong one!” Sid would answer “Yes, but they were out of that kind so I got…” “I don’t care what you got. Get back in the car and get the hairdryer I told you to get,” and Sid would understand there was no room for argument, so she’d go and find the right hairdryer, and if she took too long to bring it home, he’d shout at her for that, too. She could not win.
Predictably, Tom became more abusive. This kind of abuse, you see, begins slowly at first and as soon as the abuser knows you’re his, you are trapped, chained for life. It then escalates, the incidents coming closer together, the good times happening less and less, the bad times coming faster and his becoming more and yet more abusive.
Sid tried to talk about this to others, but no one would believe her because all they saw was this wonderful, beloved dentist who worked so well with kids and was so endlessly kind to everyone, all the time. She tried a psychiatrist, but it was not a good fit and the doctor didn’t seem to get what Sid was trying to explain.
But something was hatching in Sid. Slowly, before she even knew it was happening. “I’d think about going to visit my mother for six months and never returning, and it would be dishonest of me to say that I didn’t dream about pushing Tom off a cliff if we were hiking. Something. Anything. I was feeling so trapped, useless, helpless.”
Besides controlling the TV remote, for example, he controlled when Sid slept, what she ate, when she could talk on the phone; he controlled every aspect of her life. If arguments started, Tom forbad Sid to talk. He’d point a finger in her face. “Stop talking!!” he’d shout, “I said STOP TALKING!!!” And so she did. Sid’s voice began to falter, hesitate; even today it’s strained and very weak.
“After our youngest left for college, there was no longer a buffer in the home, and the abuse became intolerable.”
But quite suddenly there was a slight shift in Sid’s life. Was she aware of it? Perhaps not at first, but it was happening. Sid was in a bookstore on Valentine’s Day in 2002 and she happened on a book that would profoundly change her life. The name of it was “The Verbally Abusive Relationship,” by Patricia Evans and it was about, yes, the verbally abusive spouse.
“I know readers of this article will be wondering why I hadn’t clued into this before. I had, on some vague level. I just had never seen it in print, and when I did, the words leapt off the page and grabbed me. Remember now, this book was written before Oprah opened the topic or before ‘nice’ women spoke of such ‘hidden’ things. It was all still a dark secret, but that book showed me a sudden light.
“I had to get the book home from the store, but I couldn’t use a credit card. Tom would find out. I couldn’t write a check because he’d see the canceled check. I frantically dug through my purse to see if I had enough cash. I did! I then scanned all the cashiers to make sure none of them were parents of my husband’s patients. I paid and sneaked the book into my house.
“Among the first words I read were ‘verbal abusers never, ever change. Nothing the recipient can say or do will make the abuser stop. Something dramatic has to happen to the abusers to make them quit.’ Up until then I had always thought ‘I’m smart. I can fix this when I figure out the right solution.’ I kept reading, and reading, and gradually began to realize it was time for me to get out of this marriage. The book told me that people who are being verbally abused mostly don’t even know that the abuse has a name. The abuse is like being a frog alone in a pot of water over a flame. The water keeps getting hotter and hotter until finally the water is so hot, and the frog is so weak it cannot get out of the pot. Not ever.
“This remarkable book taught me that Tom would not change, that if there were to be changes, they had to come from me. My heart raced. Suddenly, a dark curtain was lifting. I knew I had to do something. Tom never would. Finally what was happening to me had a name: verbal abuse. I knew I had to leave. I had to get out of this marriage. At that point, I didn’t know how and I didn’t know when, I just knew that in order for me to survive, I had to get away from the abuse.
“But before that could happen, we were going on a business trip to Ireland. I had purchased the author’s sequel book on abuse and wanted to read it while on that trip. I could not let my husband see me reading this book as we traveled, so I went through every paperback we owned until I found one the exact same size of my new book, exchanged the covers on the 2 books, and went to Ireland, reading this life-saving book every inch of the way right under Tom’s nose. The abuse in Ireland continued of course, but the hot, hurtful words fell short because I was beginning to understand, to be aware. Tom never knew. I read and I learned. And, I began to plan.
“It was 2002. We came back from Ireland and my mind was full of plans, scary plans, wonderful plans. I wasn’t about to tell Tom that I wanted out of our marriage as I was still very afraid of his violent temper, the temper he never let anyone see except me, of course. Besides, whenever I had tried talking to him about his behavior, he was unbelievably good at making himself sound like the innocent victim and making me sound like the perpetrator.
“I got myself a Post Office box at a package mailing business and a storage unit. I selected a storage company that was hidden from public view, so I could go there unseen. I got my own credit card using our shared credit history. I was getting stronger. Was there a how-to book out there for me to follow? No. It was OJT, On the Job Training. It was amazing how things began to change for me, how ideas presented themselves out of the blue!
I xeroxed all of our financial records and put them back into the files without my husband knowing. I was afraid he’d try to hide money and ultimately he DID try to hide money. I bought a bed, sheets, blankets, and put them into storage. I bought dishes and kitchen items on sale. I emptied out the contents of boxes in our basement, the kind we all have with items we don’t use anymore. I replaced the contents with small things I’d need in the future. I kept the boxes positioned just as they were in our basement, complete with the labels showing the previous contents. Nothing could look amiss. I was amazed at how clever I’d suddenly become! I could do all this undetected because I was in charge of the office money, Tom in charge of the home money. Did I feel guilty? Never. I spent very little. Could I have left everything behind just to get away from this awful life? Yes, I was prepared to do that. But I didn’t have to. At first I didn’t even know I was entitled to anything if I left the marriage.
“I’m aware I had financial advantages allowing me to escape from my own private hell and that so many readers of this article don't. So many people everywhere don’t. I would encourage those people to find a way to get out---it takes a lot of courage I know-- but now there are shelters throughout the USA that are staffed with people who can help, advise and protect. Please find a way. There is one, I promise.
“While I was making my preparations, I could tell no one what I was doing. I couldn’t chance that Tom would find out. Only three people knew: my friend Sally, my counselor, and my attorney. I couldn’t even tell the small music group to which I belonged. I certainly did not tell our son and daughter as that would’ve been an unfair burden on them. Our son was an adult living in another state and our daughter was a senior in college in yet another state. It would have been selfish of me to tell them and then expect them to keep it a secret.
“Miraculously, one day Tom announced that he was soon going on a hiking trip in Peru for 12 days. That became my goal date. I had to have everything ready by then. I was excited, and frightened. There was no looking back now!
“The day came when I drove Tom to the airport for his hiking trip. Then I went home and changed my car insurance and health insurance into my own name. I spent most of those 12 days making sure my bookkeeping job for his office was square and that it was completely transferred and understood by someone in the accountant’s office. I never told them why I was transferring everything to them. I also wrote the next set of paychecks so Tom wouldn’t have to deal with payroll for a while. Even though Tom was now out of the country and couldn’t find out what I was doing, I still told no one. It was important to me that Tom shouldn’t have to return home to a town full of rumors. I decided that he could spin the story any way he wanted it heard; he still had to continue living in Billings. I didn’t. And besides, who would believe me anyway? No one.
“After Tom was out of the country, I arranged for a moving truck to come and take just my things from the house - no furniture - and the things I’d hidden in the storage unit. I also took my kids' important keepsakes to make sure their belongings were safe. I’d seen what had happened to stuff that was in his way for too long.
“At last September 19, 2002 arrived, my ‘Freedom and Peace Day.’ Tom was to come home from his trip. Every space in my small car was filled, under the seats, side to side, and clear to the top. What didn’t fit into my car was placed in storage with the moving company. They would store it until I had a home.
“In spite of all that had happened with my husband, I felt that Tom deserved the respect of our 35 years together to be told in person that I was leaving him. My friend Sally and I hid my car at a motel where Tom couldn’t find it, I then drove to the airport in his truck. Sally would hide in the bushes between our 2 homes with her cell phone ready to dial 911 if needed. It wasn’t. On the way to the airport I practiced my speech to him which I’d deliver when we got to our driveway. I was steady in my resolve.
“When we got home to our driveway, he noticed my car was missing and asked me three times where it was. I mumbled. I stopped the truck and got out, got myself positioned near the bushes, faced my husband, said the well-rehearsed, ‘I am leaving you and there’s not a chance that I’m ever coming back.’ I stepped into the bushes, met up with Sally, and we sprinted up the sidewalk to where she had hidden her car. We drove off to where my car was hidden, and I disappeared from Tom’s life forever.
“I gave up everything in Montana I cherished. I had wanted to keep our marriage together until after our daughter’s college graduation in the spring, but my chance to escape was now. But to where? Maine. Why Maine? I had never even been to New England. But Maine was it. It seemed to call to me and I was ready to answer!
“Sticks and stones may hurt, yes, but those kinds of wounds are visible, and can usually heal. Tom’s words were never visible to others, but I would heal from them and I now knew they would never hurt me again. Tom taught me a lot. I learned how to lie, but I also learned to be resourceful. And mostly I learned to be resilient. I owe him that. I slept in the motel that night, met with my lawyer in the morning, moved to another town in Montana to hide for a few weeks to get legal things done. I wanted to keep my married name as it was my children’s name, but my own middle name was easier to spell and pronounce, so I had them legally switched. I didn’t make Tom sell our house and move out. I was not trying to hurt him, only to make me safe. I wanted him to have as much normalcy as possible under the circumstances. As it turned out, he found my replacement before the divorce was even final on our 35 year marriage.
“Many times women react to my story by saying, ‘Well, if he had been my husband, I sure wouldn’t have let him get away with that behavior.’ But they don’t understand. The more I stood up for myself over the years, the more violent his abuse became: it was less painful to just give in. The price was just too high.
“It was time to go. I got into my car, pointed it east, and drove to Maine. When I crossed the Piscataqua River and saw the sign: ‘Maine The way life should be,’ I knew I was home.”
Email LC at firstname.lastname@example.org See her on “incredibleMAINE” on Saturdays at 10:30 AM on MPBN. Click on author's byline for bio.