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Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

Rihanna's Gift.

Leslie Morgan Steiner’s new memoir about abusive love, Crazy Love [1], comes out March 31st from St. Martin’s Press. View her reading from [2]Crazy Love on YouTube [3]. If you’d like to share your story (anonymously or publicly) please join The Crazy Love Project at www.lesliemorgansteiner.com. [4]

 

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Last month, my husband of 14 years gave me a shiny red iPod as an early Valentine’s gift. One afternoon, waiting for the kids to rush out the school door to my car, I had my headphones tuned to pop singer Rihanna’s “Live Your Life.” Soon after I heard that R&B star Chris Brown had attacked a young woman [5] in a silver Lamborghini in Los Angeles just hours before the 51st Grammys. The news about the “alleged victim” continues – Has she gone back to him? Are they recording a love song together? Taking a break? Rihanna probably doesn’t have the perspective right now to understand that she is a classic domestic violence victim. But from my view, almost 20 years after leaving my abuser, I can see that Rihanna is doing our country a great service by putting a very public, realistic face to domestic violence and the reality that it occurs among people of all income levels, races, religions, and ages.

 

Like the three million women the Department of Justice estimates are abused [6] in the U.S. each year, I found out that love sometimes literally hurts. In my 20s I was part of a golden couple myself. I’d just graduated from Harvard with a job at Seventeen Magazine in New York. One night on the subway, I met a charismatic Wall Street trader who also had an Ivy League degree and a bright future. In our world, we seemed as impossible as domestic violence victims as Chris Brown and Rihanna.

 

I was sympathetic but unconcerned when my funny, adoring, street-smart boyfriend, like Chris Brown, confessed he’d been abused by his stepfather as a young boy. I was on top of the world with my first American Express card, a funky New York City apartment, a bright future. Helping a man overcome a disturbing childhood and volatile temper seemed a cakewalk. That's what makes intimate partner violence so insidious -- by its nature, love is unrealistically optimistic and fiercely private. When a relationship turns vicious, a couple’s legitimate hopes battle the insidious silence and secrets required to hide bruises, broken bones and broken hearts.

 

Nearly five years after I met my husband, I finally left for good. My head-over-heels love story had devolved into life with a man who pushed me down stairs, poured coffee grinds on my head, and choked me when I yelled too loudly during our frequent disagreements. Post-breakup, my days felt like endless treks down a dim tunnel -- figuring out how to protect myself and my future by getting divorced when most of my friends had not yet married.

 

Eventually I moved hundreds of miles out of my ex-husband’s orbit to begin a second, far more humble life at 27, complete with an unlisted phone number and post office mailing address. I paid off our joint debts alone. You can imagine the downturn every second date took when I spilled the nasties about my dangerous ex. Whenever I started a new job one of my first stops was the security desk. Sure, it was hard. Once you’ve been abused, some people treat you like damaged goods, pitying you, and you may be tempted to treat yourself that way too. But no matter your exact experiences with crazy love, for most of us there comes a time when you look in the mirror, past the bruises, bad decisions, and missed opportunities, to see the strength you gain by leaving.

 

Ironically, we are the lucky ones; many women endure destructive relationship patterns for their entire existence, in the process passing their trauma onto their sons and daughters. Another priceless gift from my experience as an abused wife: learning exactly what love is not. Love is not unconditional, except perhaps when small children are involved. Love definitely doesn’t provide cover for someone who pulls the car keys out of the ignition as you are driving 55 miles down a highway. I have my ex to thank for that particular present. That, plus the belief that anyone who makes it out is more beautiful afterwards, no matter how many scars we have.

 

Look at me now, and you’d never imagine I had a secret first life filled with bruises and heartbreak. At 43, I have work I love, three munchkins, and a man so kind and trustworthy that for the past 12 years of career/motherhood chaos I’ve rarely gone grocery shopping, changed the cat litter or gassed up my car, and never worried -- for one nanosecond -- that he might harm me or our kids.

 

The best gift, however, was discovering my own voice. The voice I ignored when my ex choked me during sex, four months into our relationship. The one that spoke up during his final beating: “It’s your choice here – you or him – but you have to decide.” The same voice that whispered, a few years later, that I should go on a date with the nice, quiet man who is now my husband. I’m glad I learned to listen.


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