Saying What You Mean

I want to start this post by saying that I know how hard it is for a woman to extricate herself from a marriage that is abusive. I know it. Leaving is often harder than staying. It is much more complex than people on the outside can imagine.

Knowing that, however, does not make it any easier to watch signs of the abuse begin to resurface.

My sister promised me. She PROMISED.

When people promise me things I believe they mean what they say. That they have considered the ramifications of that promise. That they are not just throwing promises around willy nilly as a form of appeasement.

My sister was held at knifepoint by her alcoholic husband. He said in the police report made the following day that he wanted to kill her. They separated for a few months but they got back together. It has been over a year now and apparently, allegedly, he hasn’t had a single drink in that time.

Apparently, allegedly, they are happy.

I beg to differ.

My sister hates the fact that I am a writer because she says I notice things other people don’t. But it doesn’t take a person with an eye for detail to see the warning signs, believe me.

It’s the little things that become the big things.

My sister has a bad foot as a result of a skiing accident. It makes it difficult for her to do mundane things like balance on chairs and change lightbulbs. Round at her place the other day  8 out of 11 light fittings had no bulbs in them. I changed the bulbs, asked why her husband hadn’t changed them. He’s been too busy, was the reply. Too busy to change a lightbulb? Looks like he’s been too busy for months.

The second little thing was the box of empty beer bottles under the sink which I found when I was looking for the lightbulbs. My sister doesn’t drink beer. Never has.

The third little thing was cake. Or should I say cakes. Those cheap sponges you get from the supermarket filled with mock cream and too sweet strawberry jam. Six cakes in the pantry stacked on top of one another like library books waiting to be read. My sister always binges on cake when she is upset.

So I asked her. Point blank. If he was drinking again.

The silence between us should have been visible, it was so fraught with anguish.

Yes, she said.

I barely heard her reply. I wanted to pretend I hadn’t. God knows I’m sick of situations where one word changes everything.

You promised, I said.

I know, she said.

She did promise. I wasn’t imagining it. She promised that she would leave if he started drinking again. Immediately. She promised she would be strong enough not to sit and wait for him to start hitting her again. She promised for me and my Mum –  so that we wouldn’t dread the phone ringing at three in the morning. She promised so her sense of self would remain intact.

I knew without even asking that she wouldn’t keep her promise. Not to me, not to my mother, not to her friends, not to herself.

Please don’t tell Mum, she said. Promise me.

She was burning a stick of incense on the kitchen counter. Lavender. The scent of it rose imploringly. The space between us was full of promises that were never meant to be kept.

I won’t tell her, I said. For now.

So the burden comes back to me as it always does. Of knowing and not saying. Of holding on to promises that really should be thrown away.

If I tell my mother may not be able to handle the stress. If I don’t tell my sister may not be able to handle the rough hands and threats.

The sky is completely blue. Unflawed. I am astonished how clear the air is. I bet that sky has no truck with promises, kept or unkept. I bet it knows how dangerous the promise-making process can be.

I bet it always means what it says.

39 thoughts on “Saying What You Mean

  1. Oh god this is so so so difficult.
    If she isn’t going to leave him maybe she should consider going to Al Anon. (It’s support for families of alcoholic.) It may give her the push she needs to get out of the situation if she sees that others have done it.

    Hugs to you. This is so hard on everyone around.


  2. What an unimaginable burden to bear. I think the Al-Anon suggestion is a good one. She needs to meet people who have made it out the other side.


  3. I know it’s hard, BUT you can’t do more than you’ve done already (short of shooting her husband, and I don’t recommend that!)

    I know a Chaplain who once said to me, when I was trying to help a colleague with a gambling problem, and getting nowhere. ‘I have to keep reminding myself that you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped; if I didn’t do that, I’d have gone crazy years ago!’


  4. Yes, so difficult to watch someone else flounder like that when you can see things would be so much better if they escaped.

    But she has to decide for herself. Making promises she can’t keep is crazy but when you are at rock bottom and you need people it is too easy to do that to keep people on side, make sure they are there for you.

    The suggestion of getting her together with others who have been in the same situation and have escaped def sounds like a good one. But not sure how easy it would be unless you know someone. I can’t see you’d get her to a group. No-one would EVER get me to a group whatever was wrong!

    So awful for you and for her and for your mother. But remember you have to put your own wellbeing first and if keeping her secret puts stress on you or on your relationship with your mother, then you must do what seems best to you.

    Big hugs x


  5. I think your sister is addicted to her husband. He’s like a drug she can’t give up. Perhaps the promises she should be making are to herself and to their children. How very sad to read this. How hard for you Sel. I feel for you and I send hugs a plenty. Try to keep this all in prospective. No matter how hard it is to watch this play out, it is NOT your fault and you can’t do anything more to help than you already have. Take care friend. G


  6. In a toxic relationship many promises are made to many people that are not kept. The frustrating thing is knowing what you know does not change the situation, nor does breaking your promise and telling your mother. Al a non may be a great place to start for your sister, your self and even your mother. There are too many people out there who are in or who have been in the same situation who could help. If your sister won’t go, then you and your mom could go, there is much that can be learned and shared and doing this would be more of an impact then waiting for the next shoe to drop or in this case the next fist to hit. Blessings of love, wisdom and safety to you and your family.


  7. Oh it’s so hard on you all. I wish her the strength to finally leave. And I wish you strength that I hope you won’t need.



  8. Hi NAT:
    That is a really good suggestion. We have attempted to broach it with her but she denies there is a problem to that extent. I guess I just have to follow my usual course of action which is to stand back and see what happens. It is hard. I really, really appreciate the hug.

    Hi LIBBY:
    I will keep trying to get her there. I know it would help. She would feel less alone.

    That is so true. It just isn’t possible to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. I have learned that the hard way. Hopefully, she will eventually see the light.

    Hi RELUCS:
    My Mum is going on holiday to San Francisco next week and I plan to tell her when she gets back. Secrets make me ill. At the moment I don’t have the mental strength to cope with them.

    I think you are spot on with that one. There is definitely an addictive side to this whole thing which of course, is hard to break free from. Thanks for the hugs, G.

    Hi TOBEME:
    I will try and get my Mum along to a meeting. I think it would do us both a lot of good. It will at least provide us with some strategies for dealing with whatever might happen. Thank you for your advice.

    That candle is much appreciated. Thank you, hon!

    Hi KAREN:
    I know you do, hon. It’s hard.

    Hi DAOINE:
    Thank you for those wishes of strength. I will keep them close to me.


  9. Oh no. I remember when your sister went back to him. And, I remember you writing about her promise to leave him if he started drinking again. You did NOT imagine that.

    I don’t know what advice to give you. And I don’t know if you should tell your Mum what’s going on or not. It just breaks my heart to hear that you are dealing with this. AGAIN.



  10. It’s unimaginable how anyone can remain in an abusive relationship. It’s very sad the way alcohol can destroy some peoples lives and relationships the way it does. But, love is like a drug, hard to give up, whether it’s good love or bad love. Unfortunately. I don’t have much faith in promises. Is it sad to say that??


  11. Hi Selma.
    First let me know via private e-mail, if you are in the States(at your sister’s?), and perhaps we can do a meet-up(I’m in ATL area).
    I’m so sorry this has happened.
    I think Al-Anon(like an earlier commenter suggested) is a wonderful possibility.At the very least, your sis will not feel “alone” when she deals with her (drunk) husband.And she may–because of the company she’ll be keeping–feel empowered to leave.
    Peace & Prayers to you & your family.


  12. I have publicized both your blog, Selma, and also Meleah Rebeccah’s blog at my Facebook Wall tonight.
    Peace to you all.
    “Friend” me at Facebook, using “Lisa Nanette Allender”, if you wish.


  13. Al-Anon is a great idea, and the adiction side IS a real factor. Sometimes the substance abuser’s lack of strength to deal with their problem instills an empathetic sort of weakness to take positive action in those they live with. There are many factors, but LEAVING the situation is the only safe action. Sadly, as I’ve seen far too often, “It takes two to end a relationship. One person to leave, and the other person to let them go.” It’s as true today as it was in my university class so many decades ago. Best of luck in dealing with a dangerous and difficult problem.


  14. Hi Selma,
    I know how difficult this is. A lady I used to work with was and still is in a very similar relationship. I begged her to leave when she would come to work with a bruised cheek or bruised arms or even that black eye. I worried and worried he would do worse things to her.

    I even found phone numbers of help lines and looked up internet articles for her to read.
    It was hard but I found out I couldn’t make her mind up for her. The more I pushed the less she told me. The less I knew. But I knew. I knew on our hot Georgia days when no one else was wearing long sleeves and high neck shirts. I knew.

    She is still married to the drinking creep.


  15. This is an unspeakable situation. Yes, you have to tell your mom. It might be the only thing left you can do. Anyway, it’s not a secret you should have to bear alone. And having the two of you “in the know” may give your sister the strength to open her eyes and gather the strength to do something.

    Ultimately though, she’s a grown up. It’s her decision and she’s the only one who can change things. I have two sisters with whom I am very close, and I just can’t imagine what this might be like for you.



  16. What a difficult thing for you write about, but I’m glad you got it out there because, as you and I both know, writing is therapeutic. That doesn’t help your sister though, who is stuck in a codependent relationship (unhealthy emotional dependency) with her husband. I’d say don’t be too hard on her right now for not keeping her promise–she made it with the best intentions, but the fear she has of leaving him is greater than the fear she has of staying. That’s just the way it is. She needs professional help, (or 12-step) and anything you can do to steer her in that direction would be the best thing you could do right now.


  17. My wife left me 14 months after I started drinking, after not having had a drink in 8 years. Sure, there were subtle warnings, but one day, she just showed up with a truck and divorce papers and walked away from an 8 year marriage. I never saw her again. That was 13 years ago. Some times we can’t save everyone , and we can’t fix everything, we can only save ourselves. Sometimes we have to watch the house burn.
    I remember you writing about this before…I may sound cold, and I know she is your sister, but don’t let helping her affect your family life or your health. You can only do so much.
    I have a friend in his mid 50’s who has been laying on the couch for a week in an opiate haze. This is not the first time. His wife bitches at him everyday. I have trying to offer advice. All I say now (last night) when he is groaning is, “Think it hurts now, wait until you’re 60.” But he just wants to die . His wife should leave him, but they have been together since high school.I think soon ,she will have to bury him. Not all movies have a Hollywood ending. I hope yours does.
    Best wishes .


  18. PS: On a happier note, your widget instructions worked like a charm, thanks so much. Stop by soon to see… 😉

    More hugs (can we ever have too many?) G


  19. I can’t add much to what everyone has been saying, but the main thing is that you take care of yourself, because sometimes when a person is drowning they can take down those that try to save them.


  20. This is such a classic case of abuse that it’s hard to read. I’m sorry for your pain. And your sister’s.

    Unfortunately she has to make the decision for herself.

    I think the best way to approach it is tell her how much you love her, and that you’ll support her in what she does. Maybe your strength and your mother’s will give her the lift she needs.
    (So yes, I think your mom needs to know at some point)

    Take care.


  21. I can imagine what you must be going through – unable to put a stop to it. You just have to continue being her sister, supportive, helpful and be there when she needs it. Some people do not know when it is time to leave. She needs her sister. For when she decides to take that final step.

    Hugs to you and to your sis.


  22. Selma, I know that there are no words I can say to make things any better but I just wanted to say that you are in my thoughts and your sister in my prayers…
    I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for you but there are times when we do all we can do and the rest is up to people whose lives and well beings are at sake to decide…
    If only we could keep each and every promise we make…


  23. HI MELEAH:
    It’s hard to know what to do. I don’t think that keeping secrets actually helps in this case at all. I will tell my Mum when she comes back from her holiday. I really don’t want to ruin her trip. You give the best hugs!

    Hi ROWE:
    I don’t think it’s sad at all. I don’t, either. I have seen so many lives destroyed by alcohol. It’s just so depressing. And you’re right – love can also be an addiction.

    Hi LISA:
    Thanks for the shout out. I’m not in the US at the moment but may visit my sister (the happily married one) in 2011. She is in Alaska now but I could certainly make a detour down your way. Thanks for your kind suggestions.

    It is a cross we have to bear. I just hope we can reach a resolution soon.


  24. Hi MIKE S:
    I really appreciate you stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful, helpful comment. I do hope that both my sister and her husband find the strength to do the right thing.

    Hi PAM:
    Can I just say how delighted I am to have you visit? My son will be so excited. He loves your farm and all your animals.

    I am sorry to hear the lady you used to work with is still in such an awful situation. It is so hard to watch someone living like that. I hope that one day she finds the strength to leave.

    Thank you so much for visiting. You are one of my favourite bloggers!

    It is unspeakable. I can’t bear the burden of the secret. I’m already not sleeping as it is. I never thought my little sister would end up having a life like that. It’s hard to come to terms with.


  25. Hi TIMOTEO:
    It really did help me to write about it. Thank God for this blog, it has helped me in ways I never could have imagined. Co-dependency really is a horrible thing. I am presently trying to convince my sister to come to an Al-Anon meeting with me. I’m not going to give up!

    Hi LAURI:
    You are kind to say that. I can cope with it. I wish I didn’t have to but I am determined not to let it beat me!

    I’m sorry about your friend. That truly sucks. I had to watch my cousin fritter his life away in an opiate haze. It was such a waste. You’re right about not letting it affect my health and mental well-being. I just won’t let it. It’s not worth traumatising myself for.

    I know you get this, hon, and I just wanted to thank you for commenting. Your insight is invaluable.


    Yay for positive widget action. I hope you sell loads of your books, G. Your recipes are awesome!

    Like Dory in ‘Finding Nemo’ I’m going to ‘just keep swimming.’ No drowning for me. You’re right – these types of situations can become overwhelming. I will be careful.

    Hi MELEAH:
    You are the awesome sauce. Luv ya XXX

    That’s what’s shocked me the most. It is such a typical case. These things do seem to follow a certain pattern of behaviour that are difficult to break free from. I hope my sister can make the right decision.

    Hi ROSHAN:
    You’re right. Some people can’t see when enough is enough. I keep waiting for her to come to her senses but it just hasn’t happened. Thank you so much for your support.

    Hi LUA:
    It would be an amazing thing if we could all keep our promises, but I guess not keeping them is part of the human condition. You’re right – we just do what we can. The rest is up to the gods. Thank you for your support.


  27. When I was kicking Dope, no one felt sorry for me. They just brought toilet paper and soup and left. I did not expect sympathy nor did I want it. I did it to myself…That’s how it should be.Where I live , rehab is not an option. You get yourself into a jam…you get yourself out of of it …or die. If your sis leaves her husband, He’ll soon find himself with the same 2 options I did.
    There will be no one to hear you groaning because your muscles ache, no one to tell you it will be over soon. No doctors to taper you off. Heck, my connect wouldn’t even front me a little some some to help with the pain . He just let me lay there in agony. The phone didn’t ring for 2 weeks. I think that’s how it should be. You wanna play hard…expect it to hurt…and expect no help. Alcohol DT’s are pretty bad, I’ve seen them. A guy I know took a big dose of Flexiril and killed himself…Life goes on. Too bad booze is so easy to get…So when ya start hurting you can always prolong the inevitable with a stumble to the store…but sooner or later , 1 of 2 things will happen. If he has money , he should check into a lock down facility. I may sound hard. But I really wish the best for him, and everyone involved.


  28. Oh crap. I’m so sorry to hear she won’t leave him. Sorry that you’re having to shoulder it all again. It really isn’t fair, the roles we play in family, is it?

    Much love to you… ♥♥♥


    I hope you sell lots of copies.

    Do yourself a favour everyone and buy Geraldine’s book. She is a great cook. I have tried several of her recipes and they are really, really good!

    You don’t sound hard. You sound real. There is nothing pretty about alcoholism. Thanks once again for your insights.

    Hi TEX:
    Oh, you are so right. I wonder if my family even realise how hard it is for me to just keep myself together. I am a little overburdened by this. Hopefully, things will change soon. Thanks for the hearts.


  30. Selma, I’m really sorry to hear about what your sister is going through, and what you are going through. It’s awful. I have a cousin who is 27 and has been dating/living with her boyfriend for the past few years. He is a closet drinker — hides bottles of booze in the closet, under the sink and in other places where he hopes she won’t find them. He doesn’t want to do anything after work except lay on the couch and has pretty much told her that he doesn’t really want to stay together after their lease expires. And yet, she stays with him and neither my mother (who is close to her) nor I can figure out what’s keeping her there. It’s so confusing and complicated and hurtful for all involved. I can only hope that they don’t end up doing something foolish like getting married or having a child together — right now she still has a chance to get out with no real strings attached.


  31. Hi KATE:
    That is awful about your cousin. It is so worrying and hard to watch when a family member is affected. I really hope she manages to break free. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for her.


  32. I have never understood why people stay in abusive relationships. Maybe it’s because they have become so used to being on the receiving end, that they can’t imagine life any other way.
    There is no quick ‘n’ easy solution here my friend. All you can do is support her, talk to her, and maybe even have her speak to a counsellor. Someone professional who has experience dealing with women in domestic disputes. As difficult as it sounds, you can’t let the situation take control of your life. There is a point where you have to take a step back, otherwise you will be affected too.
    I think that you need to tell your mother. As difficult as it would be for her to hear this, it would feel much worse if she found out later, and found out that you knew and didn’t tell her.
    Whatever you choose to do, you have my thoughts and prayers with you.


  33. Hi MANOJ:
    Sorry for the late reply. I have been absolutely swamped. There definitely is no quick fix in this situation. At the moment all parties are attending counselling and it seems to be working. I am keeping my fingers crossed!


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