We Just Want Peace
Jack and I moved to California together. We shared a hometown, had been set up by friends as we simultaneously started new jobs in separate Midwestern cities. Our early relationship consisted of long phone calls and travel plans. It was exciting at first. I had been raised by a Cluster B mom, so when the ridicule, drama, and control set in, it felt more familiar than alarming. I was career-focused and ignoring the red flags.
In California I started seeing things more clearly— it was never going to work. Each time I was breaking up with Jack he would lose his job so that ending the relationship would feel like throwing him out on the street with no home, no means to pay rent. He was hundreds of miles from relatives and had no reliable friends. What I really wanted was a family. Jack was in his 30’s, still partying hard and fucking up all the time. He was all about fun, which had been refreshing, until it wasn’t. I hated witnessing the aimlessness of it all. Still, again and again, I failed at ending the relationship.
Then, out of the blue it seemed, he claimed he was growing up, wanted to get serious, get married. I realize now he had been reading my emails to girlfriends, knew I had planned again to break up with him to get on with my life. He likely learned too how much I wanted to be a parent, that I had been researching possibilities for single-parent adoptions.
He got really into wedding planning; put on a good show of being engaged. But he couldn’t write wedding vows to save his life. I’d say his heart wasn’t in it but there didn’t seem to be a heart at all. Still, stupidly, I got caught up in being a bride and made the whole thing legal. I didn’t want to disappoint people. From the moment I met him I kept feeling that somehow it was my job to take care of him. If I just kept caring maybe it would be okay.
Two years later I was pregnant for our daughter. With the reality that our child was on the way Jack was unraveling completely. He kept saying, we don’t really have to do this do we, which was an especially concerning reaction to pregnancy that had been planned. The teacher for our birthing class pulled me aside and told me it was not to late to chose a new birthing partner. Jack was increasingly verbally and emotionally abusive yet always acting wounded, sure he had been the one victimized.
If I had morning sickness or the dizzy spells that come with a pregnancy, he told me I was a failure as a female and too weak to be a mother. If I tried to talk about a nursery for our baby, he would insist, to my horror and tears, that the room be decorated with toy airplanes. (My father had been killed in a plane crash years before.) He said I was pathetic and overly sensitive. When I registered for childproofing gadgets, he told me those things were stupid. I said they were to protect the baby. He answered “survival of the fittest.” Two nights after our daughter was born Jack was out clubbing again.
Searching for some way–anything–to make things better, I left my work in Los Angeles and bought a new home for our family two hours from my support system of amazing girlfriends and co-workers. It was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. At the time I told myself it was a path to the better family environment our daughter deserved. It was ultimately a disaster.
Jack had been having periods of anxiety and depression. I planned the move after he threatened that if he couldn’t “swim with the big fish” in wealthy enclaves of Santa Barbara, the only place he had ever been happy (he had gone to UC Santa Barbara; his grandparents had paid his bills), he might kill himself. Many narcissists threaten suicide to manipulate their targets but I didn’t know that at the time. I had an overwhelming feeling that I knew very little.
I worked hard to make our new home beautiful. We lived near excellent schools, parks, libraries, and beaches. But the 95 miles between my former home, my former office, felt like a million. While Jack busied himself going to real estate open houses (no matter how hard I worked our new home still wasn’t good enough for him) and test driving nicer cars, my little girl and I lived in isolation. A popular novel displayed in bookstore windows in our new hometown that winter was perfectly titled This Vacant Paradise.
Peace seemed like a distant dream.
Jack’s mask was slipping further. As the months and years went on he was rarely home, thankfully, but when he was our home became a war zone. In Los Angeles he had been covertly emotionally and financially abusive. Settled in Santa Barbara, he became blatantly abusive and fell into fits of crying and sobbing, yet his public persona was happier and more charming than ever. Our new “friends” and neighbors easily jumped to the conclusion I was the high conflict one.
Even with the new pattern of our lives, Jack had little to do with our daughter unless my family was in town or new friends were over. Then he was Father of the Year. On these occasions he made dinner, he washed sippy cups, he built Legos, he did laundry. People told me how lucky I was.
Strange things kept happening. I would say something completely normal to parents in our pre-school community, and they would answer me with a stern look or a raised eyebrow. I had unknowingly contradicted some tall tale Jack had told them. I wasn’t sure where he got this kind of energy – he seemed to have been in overdrive creating a world where my credibility was questioned. I had to put up a resistance to becoming uncomfortable in my own skin.
With a daughter to provide for and new home to pay for I needed to be as conservative financially as possible. Jack kept refusing to contribute to household expenses and our daughter’s school tuition. He made more money than I did– and far more than I knew because he hid or blew most of his income. I still had some savings left, he noted, and he did not, end of discussion.
If I refused to buy Jack some material thing he “needed” (a trail bike, expensive clothing, etc.) he would fall into a “depression” and take to the sofa for days crying like a spoiled teenager that his life had become worthless. The result was that repeatedly I ruined my financial stability with stupid purchases so that our daughter and the people around us wouldn’t have to see Jack so out of sorts. I hated myself for financing the farce.
Either way, of course, he was soon having full-on “mental breakdowns.” He was struggling, or so I thought. His employer allowed him to work from home, which usually equated to him not working at all. He spent hours every day (literally crying) on the phone to his mother; he was manipulative and convincing. Later I would learn that his mother wasn’t the only one he had been calling.
He had gone on an impression management campaign telling everyone who would listen that I was the one struggling mentally and he wasn’t sure he could stay married to someone who was “so broken” and “unfit to parent”. Everything Jack said was projection, of course, but few caught on. He wrote to college friends I hadn’t seen in a decade informing them that I was “in a bad state” and “needed a friend.”
The man who had never been remotely interested and our daughter’s classmates or schooling now had nearly every parent from elementary school on his Facebook page ensconced in his fabricated dramas. One of my daughter’s teammate’s mothers advised me to “get my side of the story out there.” Even if I was someone who lived personal dramas in public, I didn’t have any reserves of social energy. I was so tired. I ignored it all.
Jack’s gaslighting included his therapist. Every time I had a strong exit plan, his therapist told me he was too fragile to live alone. When I stopped listening to her and escaped with my daughter to a friend’s home in Manhattan Beach, my then-attorney screamed at me to get myself home or Jack would win financially.
I didn’t care about money or houses, I told him. Let Jack win financially– I only wanted to protect my baby from his abuse and insanity. The attorney told me I was a terrible client. Projection from him too.
These days away from Santa Barbara were essential self-care. My daughter, at age six, made gorgeous little drawings where she and I lived alone in the wilderness or alone in my car. Even a young child could see it. We needed distance, freedom, a way forward.
We just wanted peace.
Legal issues dragged on and on because narcissists thrive on chaos and conflict. Jack and I legally separated in 2010- still Jack refused to leave my house. I spent as little time at home as possible, keeping our away-from-home schedule full, enrolling my daughter in nearly every affordable activity in town.
I coached kids sporting teams, led the Brownie troop. Another mom confided in me later that I had appeared to her to have it all- a young family, a healthy, thoughtful child, an interesting career, a beautiful home, an active lifestyle, top-notch schools, excursions to LA. Those things were both real and a facade. I was exhausted in every way. I had learned to smile through the bad as well as the good.
The divorce was filed in 2011. Jack moved out under a court order in 2012. Our divorce was final in 2014. The court ordered joint legal and joint physical custody of our daughter. Jack received a bigger timeshare than he claimed he could handle. The court was concerned I was “gatekeeping” and intended to be sympathetic to a father who was “so obviously trying to do better.” During these years I would have dreams that battering rams were destroying the walls around my daughter and me. I would wake up sweating, scared, determined to protect her.
Throughout the process attorneys and judges kept talking of Father’s Rights. I could not understand why I was the only one demanding my daughter’s rights to a safe and normal childhood. What about Children’s Rights?
Predictably, Jack’s mental health became even more impaired after the divorce. Our daughter struggled knowing she would have to spend time with this unreliable man she barely knew. She dreaded his parenting time because she never knew which version of dad she was going to get. Did anyone care?
There was nothing resembling peace. When a narcissist has been exposed the vengeance is constant.
There were multiple police interventions, custody violation reports; there was relentless harassment, countless threats. There was stalking and gaslighting and new campaigns to discredit me as a parent. There was a custody evaluation, an evaluator sympathetic to “Jack’s struggle.” I have nine two-inch binders full of things that document it all. I feared for our safety and existed in a state of hypervigilance.
In those days the kids sang a song saying “everything is awesome” but in reality everything was horrendous for a long time.
When I finally confided in two neighborhood moms about the abuse I was surviving, they asked, “but it was not actual physical abuse, right?” As if only physical abuse counted. This is something survivors hear again and again. “But it wasn’t physical?” It wasn’t, save for a few times he threw wine glasses at me or lunged at me with hands in a choking motion. The threat of physical harm was simply there collecting with all the other threats.
There were low moments, I told them, when I actually wished he would hit me so that others would understand. Then again, Nicole Brown Simpson had a safety deposit box full of photos of black eyes and broken bones; an entire nation watched and failed to understand. Her evidence was clear but she ended up dead anyway, her children in the custody of her abuser. I wasn’t particularly fun to talk to, was I?
One year ago this month, on the longest day of my life, Jack took our daughter from her school in an attempt to abduct her to his mother’s home in Ohio. He got her to leave school with him by saying it was a family emergency and her favorite aunt had died. In reality, her favorite aunt was at home in Wisconsin watching CNN.
I would not know until later that he drove her to a cemetery to talk about death. Realizing something was very wrong, my daughter demanded to be taken home, demanded to speak to me. She kept throwing him off his game, so they had not left the county when police caught up with him. With the help of officers from two police departments, I was able to get her back after only a few hours, shaken but unharmed, thank God. Thank God. Thank God, thank God, thank God.
That event finally proved for the court how dangerous Jack was (and is), how justified my fears had been. Every time I read a murder-suicide story in the news, I shake with the knowledge that this could’ve been our story. It took years for the court to understand that I am not an alienator; he is a narcissist and a sociopath.
The abduction attempt resulted in a two-year protective order for our daughter and me, with sole legal and sole physical custody granted to me. She and I have been mostly free of Jack for more than 350 beautiful days. (“Mostly” because he has twice been arrested for restraining order violations.)
Without the up-close chaos and danger Jack infused into our daily lives, my daughter is thriving. She feels secure now, so much more sure of herself, able to enjoy school, to blossom in her friendships. It is something to behold.
We live in a small apartment now with very basic things—my former home and nicer possessions having been sold off over the years to finance my battle—and it is the happiest period of our lives so far.
I pray everyday that the court continues to honor my child’s right to a safe childhood. Our protective orders have a 2019 end-date. I pray hard that an extension will be granted. A knot forms in my stomach when I remember that this current better path is not yet permanent, could wash away with a storm. I fear that my judge, whose orders are finally protecting us, may leave the bench or leave my case. I need to stay strong for future battles, but it’s peace we want.
We just want peace.
I appeared in courtrooms eleven times in 2017 as Jack attempted to reverse custody by making numerous false and ridiculous claims against me. (I slashed his tires, I rerouted his mail, I neglected medical care.) Our courts have yet to label him a vexious litigant. Jack is under stay-away orders for our home, our schools, our dog. Family Court is the only forum where he is still allowed to attack me.
I just want the best for my daughter.
I want us to breathe fresh air.
I just want peace.