Author, Attorney, Grief Counselor, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, Relationship Expert, Breakup Coach BA English Mount Holyoke College, magna cum laude, High Honors, Phi Beta Kappa M.Ed., Counseling Psychology, Cambridge College J.D. University of California, Berkeley Licensed to practice law in federal and state courts in NY. Licensed but Inactive in Texas and District of Columbia Creator of the Getting Past Your Past and Getting Past Your Breakup programs, seminars, workshops, bootcamps, videos, blogs and podcasts Author of Getting Past Your Breakup, Getting Back Out There and the GPYP Workbook
by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

“….in the spring becomes the rose…”

Please don’t give up the day before the miracle happens.

I ended my marriage at least 4 years after I wanted to. The reasons were varied and complicated, but most of it was about keeping my unresolved loss and my enormous grief and abandonment issues at bay. I held onto to a horrible marriage to keep the even more horrible memories from flooding in.

An Unstable Childhood

My first memory at age 3 or 4 was waking up from a nightmare where the “bad people” were coming to take me away. As a foster child I would fall asleep at night imagining evil, laughing creatures in dark, flowing garments grabbing me out of my bed. I could see my blond ringlets shaking as they sped down the street. I wanted to cry but I never did. I just lay awake at night, watching and waiting for them to come. I slept with a nightlight and would wake up for hours every night, convinced that in the shadows were the bad people waiting to whisk me away.

In foster care, I had no idea if the bad people really were going to take me away. I visited with my birth mother occasionally. I met my birth brothers and played with the oldest, Edward. I grew up in the Bronx but all of my doctors were in Manhattan at the Catholic Charities. Unlike my foster parents’ biological children or, for that matter, any children I knew, I saw social workers and counselors. My birth mother seemed aloof and uninterested in me, but I wanted to have a brother, someone who was related to me by blood. It was something other kids had and something I longed for, but I was torn between wanting to go home with my brother and wanting to stay with my foster family.

Of course the decision was made for me. I last saw my brother when I was 7 and my mother relinquished me for adoption. I went into the room at the Catholic Charities and my mother sat on the chair, my youngest brother next to her and Edward playing in the corner. I went over and silently played with the toys he brought. We didn’t talk but smiled at each other now and again. His eyes were a little sad, and he seemed like a kindred spirit. I had no idea that was the last time I would see him.

I thought that finally being adopted and out of the limbo of foster care would make me happy as I always dreamed it would. But all was not well at home and after the adoption, things seemed to get worse. My adoptive mother, the only person who had consistently been there for me, would get angry when my adoptive father drank and she would seethe. Most times he barely reacted to her and, in her frustration, she would storm out of the house threatening to throw herself in the river (she didn’t swim) or she would lock the bathroom door and threaten to swallow all the pills in the medicine cabinet. He still didn’t react and the suicide watch could go on for a long time.

Even when there were not big dramatic threats of suicide, the arguments would go on for hours until he walked out of the house. Then she would turn her wrath on us. We would scramble to clean things and have everything orderly. She would announce she was, “Going on a tear.” which meant that she was going to empty all the drawers and closets and make us clean them all up and put everything back “right.” Sometimes we came home from school and she would have been on a tear and the entire house would be in shambles. It was our job to put it back together as she barked orders at us. We imagined that there had been an earlier argument that my father had walked out on, leaving us with her unhappiness. She threw things and hit us with broomsticks and mop handles. When angry, she would not relent until you were sufficiently cowed.

I once read that growing up in an alcoholic home was like “living with an air raid a day” (Janet Woititz in Adult Children of Alcoholics) and to me it was exactly like that. You never knew when the siren would wail. Both of my parents tried to be better than their parents and because they had terrible parents—each of them had alcoholic fathers who were, for lack of a better word, bums—they succeeded at that. But they had so much unfinished business that they could not make the marriage work. There were no resources for adult children of alcoholics and the word “codependency” had not yet been invented so they were untreated co-conspirators in alcoholic family insanity.

My adoptive parents did know how to put on a good face to the world. Outside they were respected and liked in the community and the social workers and investigators had chosen this family to adopt me. We also had some good times when my parents were in sync. Forgetting about the horrible fights, we would be lulled into thinking that all was right with the world. Soon enough the screaming would pierce the calm and all would be chaos again. I learned to stop thinking that a nice night was really nice. It was just a pause in the fighting. If there was one thing I learned early on, nothing was as it appeared to be, but I wasn’t sure what it really was.

I thought all families were like this, that all mothers needed to be treated with kid gloves otherwise she would become abusive, or worse, suicidal. I thought that all fathers were either absent or fighting constantly with their wives. I thought that all kids lived through the quiet times waiting for the other shoe to drop. To me, this is what normal was.

Before my adoption I was waiting to be whisked away in the middle of the night. After my adoption I was watching and waiting for the big, terrible fight to start and for the day to come when my mother would finally take her own life and I would be abandoned once again. As a child I was often depressed and anxious, waiting for something awful to happen.

An Even More Unstable Adolescence

As a teenager I was attracted to people who were either abusive like my mother or absent like my father and my biological parents. I thought that all I really needed was to be wanted, truly wanted, but the closer I got to people, the worse they treated me. My first boyfriend pulled my hair when I tried to walk away from him. The next boyfriend kneed me in the solar plexus and left me gasping and wheezing in a lot in the Bronx at midnight. I actually told my family about it, hoping they would do something, but they didn’t. Their non-reaction led me to believe that what he had done wasn’t that bad or that I somehow deserved it.

In my next relationship the danger escalated and there was always the chance that he would actually kill me. One night we had an argument over orange juice, and to keep me from drinking the last of it, he pushed me into a closet and locked the door. He not only drank all the orange juice, taunting me and calling me names the entire time, but proceeded to drink a case of beer getting louder all the time. Occasionally he walked over to punch the closet door and unleash a string of profanities. Remaining silent, I listened to him argue with me as if I was in the conversation. Assigning ridiculous statements to me or telling me what I was thinking, all of which was against him, he began threatening to kill me if I tried to get out of the closet. In a fit of anger, brought on solely by his drunken imagination, he slammed out of the house and was gone for two days.

My time in the closet was a mixture of shock, pain, hallucinations and wondering if I was going to die in there. I was asleep when he came home and abruptly opened the closet without a word and then left again for a few hours. Trying to adjust to the light, I had no idea where I was or how long I had been in there. I drank some water, ate some food and then quickly started to pack my things, intent on getting away while he was out. Walking out onto the driveway, I couldn’t find my car. I walked across the lawn and looked up and down the street. As I stood there perplexed, my car suddenly came screaming down the street at top speed, hurtling toward the lawn. I scrambled toward the house but knew I wouldn’t make it. I darted across the driveway and grabbed onto the garden trellis, climbing up to get out of the way. He backed the car up and came dangerously close to mowing down the trellis as I hung on desperately. The trellis was angled so that he couldn’t really get to it without crashing the car. Finally he got tired and screeched off into the night. I went in and went to bed, sleeping fitfully.

When he returned he started talking to me as if nothing had happened, as if I hadn’t just spent days in the closet and he hadn’t tried to run me down with my own car. Like my parents, when things were good, I was just supposed to forget about the crazy times. I tried to put the closet incident out of my mind but for the next few months I would waking up screaming, thinking I was back there. The only way to combat the nightmares, I thought, was to never think about it again.

My First Marriage

And through the years, I didn’t.

He was arrested many times for assaulting me, once for attempted murder when he stabbed me.  While he was in jail, I snuck out of the state with a high school boyfriend knowing that if he got out, he would try to kill me once and for all.  My first husband was someone I believed to be “a good guy,” who had spent many many months pursuing me despite the fact that I had been so traumatized by my former boyfriend and didn’t really want to be in a relationship.  But he was relentless and he had defended me against this lunatic boyfriend. I never dreamed, in a million years, he would turn abusive too.  And when he did, and claimed it was all my fault, I – of course – believed him.

After we move decided to move in together, we found a lovely place to live and set out to decorate and make it a home. It was very nice, and I was hoping it was “happily ever after” even though neither of us knew what it looked like. So we played house, got married, had children and tried to be normal. But neither of us was normal, and throughout the relationship, there was nothing but turmoil. Even though I thought we were both trying and that I was giving him what he wanted (a home and family), after our second son was born he said he didn’t want to be married any more. Because he had spent so much time pursuing me, I was stunned.

It seemed sudden that he didn’t want to be married, but he wouldn’t move out. He fell into a pattern where he would tell me he didn’t want me, but he wouldn’t leave. He would stay and torture me. He would just go in and out of these phases, and I would be in torment until they ended. Each time I was sure that I had done something to cause it. Then suddenly, arbitrarily, he would decide to work it out with me. We would enter a honeymoon phase where everything was good. Like my parents and previous relationships, he kept me off my pins the entire time.

When my first son was born, he berated me for doing nothing right and for not tending to him immediately.  When my second son was born, he was colicky and I had him attached to me 24 hours a day.  He then stopped speaking to me for “spoiling the baby.”  It was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I had no clue what the “right” mix was. At the time I had no idea there would NEVER EVER be a right mix.

During a honeymoon phase, I became pregnant for the third time. He was angry about it because we were broke and trying to buy a house. By the time I was six months pregnant he had stopped speaking to me. He invited an 18-year old co-worker to our house to play video games every day after work while ignoring me the entire time. He insisted nothing was going on but what was going on was that he spent all his time with her and not with me. When I was 8-months pregnant, I came home one night and threw her out of the house. He ran after her and then he went over her house every night after that. I guess I showed them.

My due date was November 29th which was the Monday after Thanksgiving. I had hoped we would all spend a nice holiday together. Instead he took the two boys to his mother’s house for the weekend. Feeling the “nesting” instinct, I stayed home and cleaned and cleaned and could not stop cleaning. He came home on Sunday night, looked at the house and said sarcastically, “Did you make your mother come over and clean?” I told him that I had cleaned but he didn’t believe me. He dropped the boys off and, without even telling me, left, presumably to her house.

I gave the boys baths and got them ready for bed. About an hour later, I started cramping and bleeding. I had not bled with either of my other pregnancies and I didn’t know what was going on. Both my downstairs neighbors were gone for the weekend. My mother had gone to her Sunday night Bingo game. No one was available. I was alone in the house with two little kids, it was cold and rainy outside, I was in labor and bleeding.

I knew that sooner or later I would need to call my doctor and they would probably send an ambulance. But I didn’t want to frighten the boys, so I tried to hold off that scene as long as possible.

My mind was racing.

I didn’t want to harm the baby, I didn’t want to look like a drama queen, and I didn’t want to be criticized by my husband or family for how I handled this. I didn’t want the boys to be upset. I had no idea what to do.

According to my husband, it was my fault. It was my fault he was abusive, it was my fault he cheated. I was a bad mother, a bad wife and a gd awful human being. And I believed it. Here I was with my baby’s life in my hands and I had no idea what to do. I was so afraid of doing the wrong thing. I couldn’t move. I was frozen.

The boys had not seen me in a few days and would not settle down. So I brought them into bed with me, piled blankets on us and turned on the television hoping they would go to sleep and that by remaining still, I would slow the labor down. As hard as I tried to be calm, sometimes the panic would well up in me and I would grab the phone to try to call someone. I cried every now and again but didn’t want my sons see me cry. My little one was only 16 months old and my oldest was 5. Neither of them deserved to see me freaking out.  They also were going to see me and their newborn sibling die if something didn’t happen soon. I was at my wit’s end.

Eventually I caved in and called around to find out where he was. I called a mutual friend and said, “If you know where he is please ask him to come home.” Everyone claimed they did not know.

The hours crawled by.
The contractions got worse.
I was in a panic.

Eventually he came in and saw the blood on the floor and asked what happened. I was almost hysterical when I told him I was in labor. Right after he showed up, the downstairs neighbors came home and sat with the kids. He drove me to the hospital in angry silence.

The baby’s heartbeat kept decreasing with every labor pain and they were doing various tests on me. I could tell that the doctors were worried about the baby, and I was so scared. He was standing against the wall like he was waiting for a train. I asked him to come over next to me while the doctors poked and prodded and hooked me up to various machines but he sneered at me and said he was tired. I never hated anyone so much in my life as I hated him at that moment. They told him to put on scrubs as they thought the baby’s birth was imminent. As soon as he left the room, the baby was born in the labor bed. I was happy that he missed the birth. My son was born with the cord wrapped around his neck, but overall he was fine. But something in me was gone forever. I woke up the next morning and knew I would never feel the same way about him again. I knew it was over.

Four years later I was still holding that night against him, but inexplicably still with him. We reconciled a couple of months after the baby was born, bought our first house and fixed it up. There were nice moments and good times once again. But we had also had a few more bad stretches. One time, to punish me, he took off his wedding ring and wore it on a key chain for months. Another time he just stopped speaking to me for weeks and would not tell me why. There continued to be female coworkers with whom he had close relationships and we started to have physical altercations.

For some reason when I lost my job I couldn’t take any of it anymore. I had no idea why my tolerance just ran out. And when he realized he wasn’t gettting to me, he turned on the kids and the dog to get a rise out of me.  Which it did.  But probably not the one he wanted it to.   That was IT.  That was REALLY IT.  For me, it was OVER.

You can abuse me but not the kids and not the dog.  (Read Journey from Abuse HERE about that night)

Why did it take me so long to get out? What was I holding onto?

Unresolved Grief Comes Flooding In

I knew that this was why I had held on for those four years. The emptiness I was feeling after we broke up was what I had tried to avoid. After the separation, there was nothing to distract me from all these horrible thoughts, feelings and unfinished business that I had managed to keep at bay with the chaos. And now I was face-to-face with things that were too big to deal with: the separation from Edward, the craziness between my adoptive parents, the abusive boyfriends, the time in the closet, the fear when I was in labor. All of these things came flooding into the void created by his absence and the loss of my job. My depression deepened each day. Reeling from the flood of memories, I crawled over to the closet, opened the phone book and called a therapist. I explained my desperation to her and she told me to come in the next day.

I WAS A MESS. I could not sit still. I could not stop shaking. I could not stop crying. I WAS A MESS. I’ve shared about a lot of my therapy on here but understand that in those first few months, I was barely functioning. It was the darkest and most horrible time of my life. I never thought I’d recover. Ever.

I wanted to kill myself so many times in that first year, but I couldn’t imagine my kids growing up without me.  Their father had flitted off to be with some woman and her kids – and my kids had only me, really.  The ONLY thing that kept me going and trying to figure it all out – once and for all – was the feeling that I could not betray my kids by leaving them.  I just couldn’t.  So I chased it and tried this and that and another.

I tell people there was NO Google when I looked for help.  There wasn’t even a Self-Help section of a regular bookstore. I had to find books on codependency and recovery from abuse in “specialty” stores like the Sober Camel which carried mostly 12-step merchandise.  I tried so many things – workshops, seminars, retreats, bootcamps.  This support group, that support group…so many different things.  No idea what would work and what wouldn’t…but I had to keep going.  I just had to.

Through all this work, I have changed and grown and moved through all the pain, all the bad memories. All the things I thought I could not face, I faced. All the work that felt overwhelming and horrible, I did it. I chased it and chased it and chased it.

I’ve shared on here the things that have changed my life. The things people told me, the things that made me stop worrying about what they thought or did…I stopped trying to make sense of it and I stopped going to the dry well for water.

I try to share all that I learned on here and in my seminars and in my books.  Every piece of work in the GPYP workbook is work that I have done.  I have NEVER asked anyone to do work I haven’t done.  I am passionate about passing on what I have learned because I believe that if I can do it, anyone can.

I changed my entire life. I moved away from hurtful people and toward nurturing and loving people. Slowly I worked out the bad and worked in the good. That’s how it works.

I learned to raise my kids, be a good mother, go back to school and work through all my stuff until I had good enough self-esteem to find someone special and caring.  I found a man who adored me because I had a life that I was proud of.  As I beat the drum of “Hobbies, friends and interests” this is what he had and this is what I had and together we made a fierce and healthy couple.  It was absolutely wonderful.

Although I had done so much work, until I met Michael I slept with a night light on whenever I slept alone as an adult.  None of the men I had been with (even the relatively nice ones after my divorce) wanted to hear about my nightmares and night terrors that I somehow continued to have.  Every one was useless – even the most caring and empathic ones – in the middle of the night.

I had a nightmare at Michael’s house early in our relationship and my eyes slammed open.  He said, “Are you okay, hon?” I said yes and he reached across and patted my hand. I figured it was the blush of new love.  Nothing I could depend on. But I was wrong.  Through the years, I had to barely move or open my eyes and Michael was up like a shot. I never had to explain my discomfort or unease to him. He just knew and he comforted me. Before I knew it, I was no longer sleeping with a night light when I was alone and the night terrors were gone.

But most of my healing work was mine alone. I did my grief work, my abandonment work, my self-esteem work. I looked at all the abuse and all the abandonment and all my issues as an adoptee, a battered woman, an ACOA, a codependent, a woman who loved too much. I looked at the fact that I was not wanted by my families. My adoptive family or my birth family. Unloved and unwanted. What was WRONG with me and how did I fix it? I didn’t know if I could, but I wanted to try.

I looked at it all, painful as it was. I went to places where healing happened. And eventually I built a life that is second to none. I have good and loving people in my life because I will not settle for less.

Believe me, if you told me this when I ended my marriage I would not have believed you. I simply would not have.

I made mistakes. I made a TON of mistakes and through most of it I wasn’t even sure if what I was doing would work.

But someone told me to not give up the day before the miracle happens and I didn’t.

I’ve been sharing my recovery and my story on here for almost years now. I’ve seen people come here in tatters and slowly get better.  I see it in my clients, in my bootcampers, in my students and in the Facebook groups.  I see the miracles happen every day.

It can happen for you. Read the books, read the entries on this blog and all the comments, read the books I recommend, find a therapist, find a support group, find a 12 step group, come to the GPYB seminars or bootcamp but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE DO NOT GIVE UP!!!


Copyright Ⓒ Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
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