The Gift of Leaving

This morning I was out in what I call my lilac “nest.” It’s the messy result of disinterest from the previous owner, or maybe it all just got away from him. Regardless, there I was, lopping off dead branches, searching out the ones with leaves, and liberating them from the vines that want to take over. With just minimal care and attention I know these lilacs will do better next year than this. I have followed this promise for two years now with my young oak, my apple trees, my maples and cedar hedge, and found it to be true. It’s the lilacs’ turn now. I hope for more blooms next year, but I will settle for more life and build on that. So, I speak encouraging words as I work, praising them for endurance and asking for understanding because while I’ve read stuff on the internet, I’m still new at this.  

I’m still new at so much—like believing I am safe in my life. I’m still new at believing I can invest in something as simple as lilacs and not turn my back once and have it all chopped down by my ex-husband, shrugging his shoulders at my horror and tears. Anything that might give me joy he would sniff out and destroy. The lawnmower would somehow take down the bed of lupins newly identified in the garden of our new house. The pussy willows I had celebrated coming out on my newly planted bush would be “pruned” away. The colourful dollar store bowls shaped like strawberries, watermelon, grapefruit, cantaloupes and bananas that put a smile on my face and made yoghurt a little more fun for my young sons were soon smashed—but never all of them. One or two survivors would sit in the cupboard as a warning never to relax into any moment of simple happiness. My favorite turtlenecks would disappear only to be found in his drawer, label cut off, stretched out of shape and smelling like him. Even my facecloth was not my own. I bought different colour towels so he wouldn’t get “mixed up.” It made no difference.

All this I endured, trying to talk things through and help him understand that I wasn’t really asking for much at all. It didn’t matter. I had NO IDEA what was actually going on. I was in the middle of a psychic war zone of lies, contempt and cowardice that was gathering steam every year and becoming more and more focussed on hurting me instead of the person who owned him, his covert abuser mother. I had no idea that while I and our sons were fully invested in our family, he was not. He was his mother’s slave, medicating himself by cultivating a secret life of sexual and sexualized activities, using his “busy” life as a minister as his excuse for being absent whether he was with us or not. I had no idea of this. I just didn’t understand why he kept ruining things.

For me, the decision to leave my marriage came after nearly three decades of hard work with virtually no improvements in my life. Like most abused women, I couldn’t see any of it that clearly while I was in it. After all, he didn’t hit me or shove me. I had been raised to work hard, and from an early age my mother had instilled the lesson of her own life into mine— “don’t expect too much from life.” Life was for men to enjoy and explore, and if I could just latch onto a good one, I might be able to watch something interesting from the sidelines. It was a small world, after all. When I married my husband, I truly believed I had already beaten those expectations. 

I did my best with it—swashbuckling my way through all those years of his mother’s unbridled jealousy, resentment, and punishing treatment, alongside his callous abandonment and over-developed sense of self-importance. He was her psychological slave, and she wasn’t going to give him up without someone paying for it. In this shitshow he was an arrogant coward, relieved to have another target take his place. He was never going to choose me and our children and clip those golden cords. So instead he created the myth of himself—an artist stifled by his pedestrian wife and family who didn’t understand his needs or enable his true destiny as a citizen of the world.

Yes, it was as stupid as that.

Even when I made the decision to leave, I didn’t see most of that clearly. I only knew that my life was disappearing into the black hole of their bottomless appetite for covert and overt abuse. When I chose to leave, I was choosing to grab the last quarter of my life and live it away from their shadowed souls. That’s all I knew. I just wanted to not face their abuse anymore. I wanted to be safe. It was a simple wish to be safe in my own life every day and every night.

I am safe now. I am safe to put out my favorite things and not fear they will be broken. I can look at the growing garden and trees and make an investment in them and the hope of what will come. I can look forward to a Christmas Eve and Christmas day dinner unspoiled by his moods or my ex-MIL snooping through my desk, asking me if there are any Christians in my church, and insulting my family. I am safe.

You’d think it would have been simple to get here but it was not. Before I was married, I sought help about his mother without knowing anything about covert abuse, but all of my concerns were turned back on me. I sought help after we were married, when her visits were about critiquing me down and renewing her emotionally incestuous relationship with her son. Still it was my fault. I sought help from four other ministers after the police came to our door with accusations that he was exposing himself and was offered silence.

I then sought help to get a job after I graduated so I could at least separate from him, but was set aside because, for example, I was married and didn’t need a ministry position. The four ministers who knew otherwise did nothing. I sought help from the mandated psychiatrist he saw for seven years and was reprimanded for interfering in his treatment. I endured one porn dday and gave him the second chance for which he literally begged me (after his demands that I should forgive him because it was Holy Week didn’t work). Then it happened again several years later. It was stunning to me that after I was shamed by the industry as being codependent/co-addict for giving him a second chance, they then quickly tried to bully me into giving him third one and shamed me for hesitating! You really can’t succeed no matter what you do when it comes to the treatment industry. They just twist and turn the facts inside out until you don’t recognize whose life they are discussing.  

I started to learn about the sham of the treatment industry and its therapeutic abuse of wives and partners. I began to see in this misogynous gang run by “recovered” sex addicts that there was never going to be any help for me from anyone. This was drilled down to basic questions of survival. If I stayed with him, he and his mother would never stop abusing me. I would die if not by their hand, then by my own. But if I left, I might be safe.

The gift of leaving that sticks out the most is that four letter word—safe. But it wasn’t guaranteed. When I finally got into my little two-bedroom townhouse he managed to get a key from my son by lying to him and going into my house. As soon as I came home I knew I’d been invaded. I could feel the violation of my safety. I didn’t know how or who to ask. Eventually he told me. (They like you to know that they have ways of getting to you.) But I explained to my son that if that ever happened, he needed to get permission from me before giving any key to his father. But still, for the first months I was like a terrified animal in the woods with a little animal path from the bedroom to the kitchen and to the car in the garage. I didn’t go into my living room for months.

Slowly, a sense of safety began to seep into my life. I was still thinking we would work this through and get back together. But every time he came over to talk, the change in the energy of my home was horribly apparent. He brought that joyless dark with him. In getting away from it, I began to see it more clearly and understand how it had stuck to me and invaded me and run me into the ground. There was no change in him. He was still his mother’s slave, but now he had new accomplices to abuse me—his CSAT therapist and his co-ed 12-step group. For a while I endured their judgements against me as I had endured his mother’s. He loved to drop them into our time together. And then, one day, I said quietly to myself, “I’m done.”

The next stage of safety was slowly established. It took time to see all the threads that made it possible for abuse to get to me. I just kept clipping them. Today things aren’t perfect. Life isn’t easy. And I still grieve the loss of three precious decades lost to him and his mother’s abuse. But with increasing safety came the slow steady remembering of “me.”

I am changed and in so many ways I am diminished by what they did to me. But I am also more. And I am safe enough to put out my pretty dishes without fear, to celebrate growing things without losing them later, to invest in my apple and lilac trees and look forward to their healing and growth next spring. I am safe enough to love again and be surprised at how easy and happy a thing love can be. I am safe enough to let go of others in my life who don’t want me to be this safe and this free. I am safe enough to take risks that are creative, serving, and challenging. I am safe enough to write this blog knowing that others want me to be ashamed of my truth and protect them from it—because after all, he conned them too. I am safe enough to endure the isolation of being the worst thing any woman can ever be—angry about the injustice done to her. I am safe enough to expect more from life, not less, for my faith promises an abundant life, not an onlooker spot for someone else’s.

I am safe now. Not from trouble. But from the lies that told me to be afraid, to be a “good little girl”, to seek the approval of those more terrified than me, to give benefit of the doubt to my abusers, to accept misogyny’s fingers around my throat, and to sacrifice my life for no redemptive value at all.  

I am safe now. The gift of leaving. 

Tomorrow I will start picking my apples. And I will be thinking of you.

with you,




Diane Strickland