The inaccuracy of “You’ve left, so it’s over!” is never more apparent than it is now. It isn’t that the constant struggles with my self-confidence weren’t enough verification for me that the abyss delves deeper than any eye can see. It isn’t that the constant battles I have to wage against persistent PTSD triggers failed to convince me that I was going to need to expend more effort than I could have imagined to navigate each day of my life. It isn’t even the nagging physical symptoms I have left that failed to keep me in check as constant reminders that I really endured the brutal acts of violence he heaped upon me. It’s this thing that no one seems to want to acknowledge or talk about even as they criticize my slow progress. It’s this brick wall that stands between me and almost everything I both want and need to do in my life. It’s those dreaded chains holding me back, holding me down, as the intangible metal fetters cut into me every time I struggle to just move forward. I’m not greedily expecting a foot of leeway be extended to me each time I exert the effort. An inch would be nice. Even a modicum of progress would be appreciated. Not being buried in quicksand unable to breathe would be welcome.
I am referring to the side effects of financial abuse. To look at those words, some would assume it’s not so harmful. That it really can’t have tentacles pressing into the flesh so hard that all life is lost. That they couldn’t be so strong that they would prevent our breaking free. To look at those words, many assume that simply having a job is the cure. That if we learned responsibility, it wouldn’t be an issue. That it must be somehow our fault. Many go so far as to even dismiss the possibility that financial abuse could be a valid reason why it is so difficult for us to get out. Why are they so afraid, so adamant to even so much as entertain the plausibility of the fact that the damage of financial abuse can be so dramatic and far-reaching, it can actually keep us trapped in the one place we do not want to be?
On paper, I look like a failure. Any eye would look at me and judge me by the numbers, scoffing at my financial state as though I caused it. They don’t ask why, because the second they have looked upon it, I have been dissected, analyzed, catalogued, and dismissed as a risk, wasteful, juvenile, immature, and to some, unworthy. Few think to ask, “Why is just this small portion of her life such a mess? Why before now is there not one scratch? Why so serious when there was nothing before?” Why do they not ask what happened before jumping to conclusions and reacting to something that did not actually happen? Just because you see the numbers, it does not mean you know the story. Black and white is not always so clear and decipherable. Sometimes you actually need to see the equation worked out before you can arrive at an answer.
Financial abuse is one of the most often offered responses we give when others ask why we do not leave, and it is one of the more readily dismissed of them at the same time. “But you had a job! How can you not afford to leave?” “Saying you had children to worry about is an excuse.” “You’re just not accepting responsibility for the choices you made.” As if I need anyone staring me in the eye, finger waving in my face, telling me the many reasons I am to blame for my circumstances and what was done to me while I was abused. I promise you, I and many others have struggled with this self-blame on our own and do not require additional assistance in building it up any further. It’s overwhelming enough on its own. What we eventually come to learn is that we are not to blame for the circumstances we are left to shoulder as we battle for years to work on cleaning them up. If you would stop speaking long enough to not only HEAR but LISTEN AND CONSIDER what we are saying, those of you who insist on saying we are just making yet one more excuse would learn priceless information that could help reform laws governing this area of abuse and make it easier to hold the abusers accountable for this choice THEY made as well.
Some do not understand how financial abuse can occur or how it can become so restrictive that it actually becomes a deterrent to us leaving the abusive relationship. What they need to first recognize is, that just as the dynamics in the relationship all interplay with each other to create an impossible situation, so, too, do the methods used, their severity, and the duration. There is no ONE single contributor to being trapped and unable to leave. There is no ONE method of abuse employed. It is NEVER so simple. Financial abuse is just one thread in the tapestry the abuser weaves around us as they lock us in and immobilize us, but past the emotional damage and severe physical injury or death, it is one of the most catastrophic events to ever have to attempt to recover from, and society’s attitude toward it is but one influence among a myriad of them. Your financial life is one of the biggest determiners of the quality of life you are able to achieve: the home you are able to afford, the area you are able to live, a car in dependable condition, meals, utilities, clothing, education, the ability to get loans, bank accounts, entertainment, vacations, medical care, raising children. When you are financially abused, everything is pulled out from underneath you. Your options are literally severely limited or, if the financial abuse in combination with the other methods used is severe enough, they can be entirely stripped away from you leaving you just one step, one breath from disastrous financial hardship: having to choose between a necessary medication or a meal, how many you can afford to feed (how many parents have had to forgo meals so their children could eat?), having to walk because you lost the car and you either can’t afford even a bus pass or there could be no transit, utility shutoffs, and homelessness.
In my own experience, the financial abuse was devastating, even crippling, and the progression of his implementation of the forms of abuse was the perfect storm. It wasn’t a simple case of “Give me your paycheck!” and I just handed it over. Even though I was the only one working full-time (or when out of work receiving unemployment), due to the low cost of living, there was enough money to pay housing, utilities, phone, food, and have a car (a decent one) on the road and still have a little money left over. So what went wrong? Here are just a few of the factors that contributed to my current state:
- I was the only one bringing in steady money.
- He is incapable and unwilling to handle money responsibly and stick to a budget.
- He didn’t feel like he needed to stick to a budget, because he feels an overwhelming sense of entitlement.
- If he doesn’t get his way by willing cooperation, he will exact it by force.
- He stacks friends in the right places. This, as his choosing to abuse, is also deliberate and thought out and implemented in advance.
- He is physically far stronger, has about one hundred pounds on me, and is brutally violent.
- Even though everything in the apartment was secured by my money, he took control of everything and constantly called it his.
- He kept the keys to the car, and even though he would scream at me for not driving, he wouldn’t let me drive.
- He took my cell phone and would not allow me one of my own.
- He started slowly cutting me off from my family by not letting me visit them, not having them over, and then not letting me answer their calls or call them back.
- He started only allowing me to communicate with them when he would bully me into calling to ask for something: money, rides, food, etc. When my family got tired of this and I would call them by sneaking in a call when he had left a phone at home, they would not answer the phone. Not even when I started leaving voicemails telling them I wasn’t calling to ask for anything. I was calling for help to get out.
- One of his sisters knew detailed facts about the abuse and never attempted to intervene. She only warned me well after he had already began physically abusing me.
- He talked to others about me behind my back and lied to them about how horrible of a person I was. He would do the same to me about everyone else. Not only did I not know who I could trust, the probability they thought I was crazy and making it up was fairly high.
- He began using drugs and stole my card out of my wallet in the middle of the night and spent my paycheck and also overdrew the account $1000 before the ATM cut him off. When I approached the bank about this, as he had made himself well-known among the tellers, they refused to help, only telling me to tell him to be more careful. When I called the bank headquarters, they refused to hear me as well, and since I needed the money to pay rent, I agreed to a payment plan and they credited the next paycheck to the account instead of taking it in its entirety.
- He applied for assistance and sold food stamps for drugs.
- He would steal my paychecks by force. In other words, he would beat on me until I relented.
- I had to close out my 401K. Since after the second time he overdrew my account into the hole $1000 (despite me having the bank take off the overdraft protection) and I could not pay it back, I could not have a bank account. They seized what little was in the savings. We had the money with his sister, and I endured beatings for this money as well. When there wasn’t much left, he called her behind my back and told her I said he could have the money, and she transferred it to him without my permission.
- Because he was burning through the money, bills stopped getting paid. I was forced to quit college. I lost my life insurance. The phone was turned off.
- When were unable to pay a bill on time (which was every month for everyone), he made me call begging for more time and making excuses.
- The car insurance lapsed multiple times, resulting in suspension of my driving privileges and the registration on the vehicle. He continued driving it anyway.
- He sold my possessions to get drugs and allowed others to steal things and sell them as well.
- We were evicted 4 times.
- Once upon a time we lived in the car, parking overnight at a truck stop.
- He had people watching me, monitored calls, texts, and emails.
- The only person I was allowed to have contact with was his sister. Eventually that was cut off as well.
- I owed the State and the IRS back taxes to 2010 (now paid off).
I know some of these may not be so obvious to those of you who have no experience with abuse, but I also know those who have been through already have the clear picture in their head as to how they are all related. First it’s important to know that none of the other six types of abuse occur without verbal / emotional abuse first being employed. This is the priming method which renders us suitable to them, even malleable enough that they can move on and add fuel to the fire. We didn’t wake up one morning as say to ourselves, “Wow, I think stability and security is for losers. Let me set myself up for financial destruction!” They first have to cause a near-total loss of our self-esteem and manipulate our ability to reason and think clearly by implementing what at first manifests as a nearly impossible to see verbal onslaught aimed at breaking us down. As time passes it becomes more frequent and more cruel in nature, and the mental manipulation begins; once they have brought us to a place where we question what our intuition is telling us, they are free to step up their attacks by either using horrific levels of verbal and emotional violence, by adding another method, or by combining the increase of emotional abuse with another tactic. Why? Because they know that if they did these things out of order, that if they punched us in the face when we first began seeing them or they stole our debit card, for example, we wouldn’t stay.
Financial abuse wasn’t the second or even the third type of abuse used against me. This was round four and was only unleashed upon me after the verbal / emotional, physical, and sexual abuse had collectively taken a toll on me where I had nowhere to go. This is where all these things I listed above come into play, and some are obvious while others you may see as being entirely unrelated. Abusers attack first your self-esteem, because they need to take the fight out of, they need to strip you of your worth so that you will forget you deserve better, that someone else would want you, because they need you to stay. Because they want that power and control.
Once they have attacked your self-esteem and shattered it at your feet, they being to attack your sanity by employing what is called gas lighting (yes, named after the movie Gas Light) – making you think you are losing your mind. So you begin to question and doubt whether or not this treatment of you is really wrong. You begin to believe it is your fault and begin to chase after the illusion that if you could just fix yourself, it would stop. All the while, many of us mistakenly believe that we can change their behavior, that by staying we are showing faith in them. Part of the emotional abuse is being isolated from family and friends. The abuser forbids you to call or take calls, or communicate with them in any way. In the meantime, the abuser constantly belittles them and tells you all these reasons why they do not love you. Generally, we are led to believe that they have abandoned us. Why? Because they need to separate us from those who would help us if we asked. Abusers are not blind or foolish. Anything standing in the way of their power and control of you has to go: family, friends, school, work – nothing is safe.
They also recognize the need to instill fear as a means to help keep you under their control. While they never need to cross over into the next method of abuse to make you feel a very real fear for your life, it is generally not uncommon for the abuse to turn physical at this point. Why? Because at this point, who is going to stop them? You with your destroyed self-esteem? The family and friends you have been cut off from? How about the people he/she has lied to about you behind your back? They test it out first with an explosion of violence followed by a period of calm. Why? To see how you will react. If you stay they know they have you caught in the cycle and are free to continue their behavior as it spirals out of control.
By the time financial abuse was added to the dynamics of the abusive relationship I survived (by the end I had been put through all seven types), I was trapped in a mess I saw no way out of. You see, there are added pieces to the puzzle that not all of you know. And I am quite sure that one of the first questions that was asked was why I didn’t have him charged when he overdrew my account each time, all the times he beat me to get my money, etc. Recall in that list was “stacking friends in the right places.” While he proved to be a horrible husband (not to me), a horrible father (I didn’t have children with him), a horrible sibling and child (he used his family), and a bad employee, he was very conscientious at working with the authorities as an informant. He has ties to at least nine agencies in four states… that I know of so far. Every time he gets in up to his neck, he calls on one (or more than one) of them to bail him out, whether it’s with money or legal assistance. And they help him. I know, on paper this sort of thing doesn’t happen. I assure you in real life, though, it does. And I am a product of it.
When you see drug agencies in another county getting him out of trouble for an incident at my father’s involving my stepmother and an argument turned physical and a AUO (for those of you who don’t know, this is aggravated unlicensed operator AKA, driving without a license) because letters were written by officers in the agency AND the DA and the prosecutor says to the court “I’ve never seen anything like this!” and doesn’t contest the recommendation in the letters to let him go… When you see the judge state the record will be erased if he doesn’t get in trouble for six months (meaning he doesn’t get caught), and he is let go, you start to wonder how the scales are balanced. After time and time again, he has been free of charges from AUOs, driving without insurance, having a phony inspection sticker on the car, a phony emergency call, and numerous other charges, you see the pattern. Even taking into account the week before I left when the car was impounded. He was pulled over for failure to stop at a stop sign (bad clutch he wouldn’t fix) and subsequently ticketed for AUO, no insurance, suspended registration, bad muffler and or running the stop sign. There were drugs and paraphernalia in the car at the time. They even found someone else’s license plate he was planning to put on the car. Know how he got out of it? He signed up to be an informant for that department as well. The message to the rest of us: our safety is expendable in exchange for the hope of that “big bust.” I had no reason to believe that if I reported any of the instances of violence perpetrated against me that the same thing wouldn’t have happened in my case as well. Especially not since two of the towns we lived where the violence occurred, he was also signed up with the drug agencies there as an informant.
Add this to being cut off from my family and friends, denied access to the vehicle, and no money to go anywhere (where would I go anyway?), I was trapped.
So what does this have to do with my current financial state? Everything. When I finally left, I had to flee my residence with nothing. I didn’t even have the car, because it had been impounded the week before. He emptied out my account the day before on a drug binge. Because he controlled everything and did not work outside the house, I was unable to get any of my financial documents out of the house. Because the bank would not allow me to contest his overdrawing my accounts and I could not pay back the money, I am still unable to have an account. I had to pay fines and fees to reinstate my driving privileges. I had back taxes going back to 2010 (now paid off) and debts back to 2009 either entirely incurred because of him or that went unpaid, resulting in closed accounts, penalties, and fines, and defaulted student loans. Not that I am able to afford living back on my own yet, I am sure the four evictions on record will now be a hindrance. Many places are hesitant to rent to victims and survivors of abuse. I cannot get loans. I cannot afford to take vacation. I cannot do so many of the things I need and want to do for myself, and the cause of it is walking around free like he did nothing wrong. And he will do it again. There are few tools in place to actually help us remedy this, as we are left with the burden of cleaning up the mess. This will take years for me to clean up and move past. Yet all you will see when look at the numbers is your assumption of me. An assumption that is entirely false, an assumption that places the burden of the stigma on my shoulders. All for a mess I didn’t create.