I was 19 the first time I held my inconsolable future husband as he recounted just a taste of his experience in war. He had come home from a deployment just a few months earlier, and slowly, the memories and fear and terror were emerging. We were in his Dad and step-mom’s house, upstairs in a freezing cold corner room. Sitting next to me on a stiff mattress covered with an loved-to-death quilt, he told me to leave. He told me it would never work, he’d seen too much, done too much. He explained in his own words that between the loss of his mom two years earlier and his months spent in a war zone, there was no way he could ever be a whole person again. He wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t touch me.
In that moment, with my quivering boyfriend hunched over on the bed next to me, sobbing, he was giving me his blessing. It was my out. My chance to save myself from whatever lay within his mind that he thought was too dark for me to ever understand. In that moment, I made the first decision of many to stand by him and his brokenness. I didn’t think about it too hard, it was a decision made out of young love and unchecked loyalty. Years later he would still talk about that night and how I didn’t leave when he begged me to, how I didn’t leave even though he warned me. It was a story he told proudly. He told that story so everyone would know, I was a good wife. Faithful, enduring, loyal, beautiful, even a saint sometimes. I would accept his praise, as if those hollow-feeling words made anything easier to endure. As if his calling me a saint made it any less traumatic and painful for me to be his emotional buffer. Onlookers would tell me how lucky I was to be so loved.
Part of me was naïve to the effects of war and violence and death, seeing and touching blood and gore, and what those experiences do to the human spirit. Another part of me was young and in love and nearly impossible to reason with. This man, who I had held on such a high pedestal for his courage and bravery and strength, was in a puddle before me, and it was disillusioning. In that moment, I was afraid. I was afraid of losing the person with whom I was in the midst of a whirlwind romance. I didn’t want to see the future and family and first house we’d talked about and planned in our late night teenage fantasies fall apart. I was afraid to lose the man I loved.
So with a great amount of confidence and even more determination, I told him that I would not go. I would not leave.
Hundreds more times I would choose to stand by him. I would stand by him when it meant denying myself. I would stand by him as I lied to my own family about why he seemed so angry and on the edge, brushing it off, trying to lighten the mood and quell suspicion so we could move on with the conversation and move the spotlight away from us. Because I knew that if the spotlight lingered too long, they might start to see. If they paid attention or listened in long enough, they might see that my soul was slowly decaying. They might start to see the pain beneath my bright facade, they might see that his off-days were not an occasional bad day here and there, but that his instability and anger were a part of him as much as his eyes and hands and the paratrooper tattoos down his arm.
I would stand by him the countless times that he told me he wanted a divorce. I would cry and feel betrayed and hurt, until he came back, saying he was sorry and would never leave me. I would accept his apology, while my mind was flashing between anger and confusion and pain. I would know instinctually that this wasn’t what love feels like, but with a few years marriage and kids under our belts, it became increasingly more difficult to be honest about it, even to myself. I would stand by him in his fits of rage, his pain, his trauma, and his hurled accusations and pleading apologies. I would pull him out of pit after pit, collapse at the end of the day from the exhausting toll of it all and then wake up the next day and do it all over again. I would help him clean up his bloody hand after he punched a perfect fist-shaped hole in the door of the linen closet, put an ice pack on his forehead after he bashed his face into a wall when he couldn’t find another outlet for his pain.
That freezing cold December night would play out so many times over the next few years that I would forget what it felt like to stand up for myself, my interests, my heart, my ideas, my soul. I would forget, until I began to remember. An avalanche of revelation would be triggered by a handful of small of moments of honesty and bravery and loyalty, but this time, to myself. And in my remembering, a vista would unfold before me and give me clear, discerning eyes. And I would think back to the very beginning, when I made the decision to stay.