The message of the ad isn’t obvious. At first watch, I thought it was a public service announcement reminding people there are dummies out there who call 911 for ridiculous non-emergencies, like wanting a pizza or asking a police officer to come over to make a child pick up his toys, or wanting to summon a paramedic someone thought was cute. It happens. I know, I used to live in Florida.
We don’t see the woman, but we hear her ordering a pizza as the camera pans over a home in disarray, photos tumbled on the floor. The dispatcher tries to be patient, reminding her it’s an emergency line she’s called. He asks firmly whether she has an emergency. I fully expected her to say, “Yes, I really want a pizza.” But, she only says “yes.” And quickly, the dispatcher understands.
She is a woman in the middle of a domestic violence assault. Her attacker – who? her husband? her boyfriend? – is in the house with her. She is afraid. Her voice doesn’t give away her fear, but I know. I used to live it.
The Super Bowl commercial for the organization No More causes my throat to grow tight, my eyes to well with tears, my stomach to flutter with nerves, and I find myself holding my breath. My physical reactions come automatically. My jaw tenses and my mind is sent back to those moments, many, many years ago, when I was young, just out of college and living far away from home from the first time, I was alone and adventurous. I was on my own and I thought I was so worldly. But I was naive. I still believed in fairy tales. The childhood of princess dreams still shaped my mind. I believed I could kiss the frog and turn him into a prince. I believed I was the beauty, strong and smart, who would tame the beast. The fantasies I cherished as a little girl had matured into fantasies often embraced by teen girls and young women – the allure of the bad boy, the dream I would be “the one” who could succeed where women before me had failed and turn the tough guy into a loyal house cat.
When it didn’t work, I couldn’t understand why. I was in love, stupidly, blindly in love. The first time my prince charming hit me, I was so stunned, I couldn’t see what had actually happened. He apologized quickly. He’d been drunk. He didn’t know what he was doing. He was so sorry. He cried and begged for my forgiveness. He promised it would never happen again. I said, OK. To my young, stupid mind, I was on my way to saving my “frog.”
And, so the pattern began. We’d go back to being in love. We’d get comfortable. He’d get drunk. He’d beat me. I’d leave, He’d apologize. I’d believe him, and we’d be in love again.
Almost no one knew this was happening, only a handful of close friends – some who opened their doors to me when I had to flee the violence. I never told my family, who were far away and far removed from the life I made as the wild child.
It is hard, even now, to admit I lived with domestic violence. It gave me shame, made me feel stupid. I worked hard to make everything about my relationship seem normal. And, for most people who knew us, it worked, I think. I’m sure we seemed like a fun couple that got along well. In many ways he was outwardly gentlemanly and old fashioned, opening doors for me and treating me to romantic gifts without any occasion. He cooked gourmet meals and helped around the house. He was funny, charming and handsome. Girlfriends told me I was lucky. We went to parties and dinners and had a wide circle of friends. He saved his explosions for when we were alone. They were sporadic and could be set off by any unexpected trigger, like the time at a party when I spent too long talking to a colleague about a work project. Or, they could be set off by nothing at all, like the time I came home from the gym to find him sloppily drunk and furious at life in general.
The shame of it kept me living in shadows for years. My outside world of colleagues and friends seemed solid and successful. Almost no one knew about what I lived with at home. I hid bruises under my clothing and makeup. If necessary, I called in sick to work.
The day came, finally, finally, when I woke up to see I was living absurdly, with a beast who would never be tamed and who, instead, had pulled me into his miserable cave. The awakening came after I became a mother. There’d been a long period where there had been peace in our home. The pregnancy had brought out the caretaker side of the man I loved. Experiencing our son’s birth together had brought us closer and filled me with hope for the future. But the respite didn’t last long. I came home with my infant son one evening to find him, again, furiously drunk. I ran from the house with my baby and our dog. Still far from family and with nowhere to go, we spent that cold night in my car. It was the lowest point I’d ever been in. Me? A college-educated woman with a respected career? How did I let this happen? Even now, I can’t fully understand it. It was a gradual, slippery slope that sent me downward. Sure, I’d always heard that if a man hits you once you need to walk away, but I didn’t believe it. I always told myself I was OK, even when I wasn’t. I didn’t want to admit that my foolishness, my childish belief in fairy tale plaudits like “love conquers all” and “good always triumphs,” had kept me from seeing the ridiculousness of the path I’d chosen. And, despite all, I still loved him. It was seemingly impossible to leave him, worried he’d never rescue himself.
But that night I spent in the cold, holding that innocent baby in my arms and even my dog looking at me with worry in his eyes, I realized I could never go back. I was overwhelmed with the need to protect my baby and to give him a home that would shelter him, to create a place for him that was safe, not one built on eggshells. I called my father and told him I needed to come home. For months, my father allowed me to heal and stayed with me as I walked away from my marriage, picked up the pieces of my life and rebuilt a new existence.
Years later, it’s hard to accept that I allowed myself to live in such terror. I fully accept that it was me that kept myself in that cage. Not everyone will understand that it’s not easy to walk away. It’s not easy to admit to yourself or to anyone that you are living in fear for your life, that the man who seems like a fun, ordinary guy most of the time is also a beast in the dark.
I wonder what really happened to the woman whose call inspired that ad. I read that the phone call we hear actually happened and that it wasn’t the first time police had been called to that address. Did this call save her? I mean, it probably saved her from terror that night, but did it save her from the terror she’d chosen to live with? Did it save her from herself?
It’s not easy to pull yourself out of the tumultuous churn of a violent relationship. It’s not easy to admit you’re in trouble. It’s not easy to finally, firmly walk away. But, it is possible. It can be done. I know.