The door slammed. Footsteps trudged to the kitchen. The clink of the empty bottle against all the others, followed by the hiss of the next one cracking open, clearly indicated that it could turn out to be another one of those nights. I hoped tonight wouldn’t be the next explosion because, in all honesty, I was so damn tired and worn out. Six months of complicated pregnancy would wear anyone out. Chasing after three young children on top of caring for a baby could do a woman in. I wasn’t so lucky that night. The tirade of abuse started:
“You’re nothing but a black cloud in my life.”
“I could never afford to divorce you. If it ever comes to that, I will punch out of the military and just disappear.”
Dread filled me as I faced the truth once again; there was nowhere left to hide. I knew I should not be married to this man. He did not see me as a partner, let alone an equal. I was simply someone who bore his progeny and took care of everything at home because I was just a mother. Embarrassed, ashamed, and feeling “less than” once again, I’d learned that responding during the rages only made things worse. Staying quiet didn’t help much either, but the emotional degradation seemed to end sooner if I retreated into the comfort and busyness of motherhood.
It wasn’t the first time that I knew in my heart that I needed to get out, nor was it the first time I didn’t have the words or means to untangle myself from being dependent on and secondary to this man. There were moves, pregnancies, babies, sicknesses, deployments, special needs, career changes, alcohol, abuse, war; it was an awful mix, a messy quagmire of complicated rules and lonely years. It never felt like the right time for me to make a change for my own health, well-being, safety, and security. It never felt like the right time to make myself a priority.
Why didn’t I leave? Why doesn’t any abused woman ever leave? We are evergreen in our hope for reformation. We are peacemakers who unknowingly give up our independence to a person we thought would go to the ends of the earth for us and our partnership because we would for them. I wanted to leave so many times. So many times. But I had very young children and no money of my own. Money, our money, was something that belonged to him because he worked for it and I didn’t. As a military spouse, I had given up my career to support my husband and raise our children. Depending on your spouse for safety and security is risky, especially when children are involved. I wasn’t near my family and I had no financial resources to call my own. The words “I could never afford to divorce you…I’ll just disappear” reverberated in my head.
Ever the hopeful one, I prayed that maybe tomorrow or the day after would be the one where he got better. But it never got better. He never got better, and I stayed for so many more years. My biggest failure was not understanding that the timing would never be right. Those surviving in abusive situations understand the fragility and how repetitive time can start to seem. You live for the good times, and figure out the key to bringing more good times is to quickly get quiet and small when the sounds of the empty bottles rattle through the house.
In 2016, he departed for Europe on military orders. The children and I were to follow a few months later after a home in Italy became available for our family. Unbeknownst to me, he had cleared out our bank accounts and left us penniless. If the kids or I needed something, it had to go through him. I knew immediately that if I boarded that plane bound for Europe, I was writing my fate in stone. As every domestic abuse authority states, the most dangerous time for a victim is when they try to leave.
He had taken everything. I was left with four kids, six suitcases, two cats, a parrot, and an old shabby van. I had no home, no beds of our own, and no cash. I was saved by the personal relationships and friendships I had built along the way as a mom, a friend, and a military spouse. With their help, I did everything I could to secure our immediate needs. Stick by stick, I crafted a new home for my four children, our pets, and myself. The only people I allowed in were those I trusted.
It wasn’t until I was served with divorce papers that viciously accused me of abandoning him and demanded full custody of the children that I felt truly backed into a corner. But it’s always darkest before the dawn: his vicious attempt to control me one last time had had the exact opposite effect. As a mother of four, a teacher by trade, a woman who grew up in a military family, and a military spouse forced to reinvent herself with every move, I was used to being creative. Life has made me resourceful. While sitting in my car, it suddenly occurred to me that I could possibly work with other small business owners and executives as their part-time virtual assistant. All I needed was a high-speed internet connection, a can-do attitude, and the ability to squeeze in work between all the other demands of my life. And at that moment, while we were all fighting to stay alive in our own ways, Organized Q was officially born.
In less than three years, Organized Q went from a company of one to now employing twenty-five individuals: mostly highly qualified and determined women in need of flexible remote work. Not only have I been able to build my own sustainable professional growth and be the only parent my children really know, but I have also helped dozens of other military spouses and under-employed professionals secure flexible remote work that fits into their complicated lives.
Even though my ex ended up in court and eventually jail, there will still be battles to fight. I think it’s important to not over-glorify what that mountaintop can look like for some people. I kept myself alive. I kept my children safe. I kept us out of a homeless shelter. We didn’t go hungry. And my children have done well in school and are healthy. I created a business that has grown beyond what I ever thought possible. But damn, I’m tired.
This journey isn’t over. There’s always another mountain to climb once you reach the summit. But it’s okay to lie down and rest when you get to the top. Take a look around, and then settle in for a long delicious nap. When you wake up, you will see: the view is still the view. It won’t go away. And your strength is still within you. Take a long deep stretch, breathe in that fresh mountain air, and congratulate yourself on your survival.
And just keep going.
Gabriela Bell’s harrowing and courageous story is featured in the anthology, Deserts to Mountaintops: Our Collective Journey to (re)Claiming Our Voice, a collection of 22 women’s journeys from self-abandonment to self-love. These empowering stories of survival, tenacity, and resilience highlight how these women reclaimed their voices, chose themselves, and finally started to heal. The book released in early 2023.
Gabriela is now a successful CEO and founder of remote work company Organized Q, and one of Forbes #Next1000 inspiring entrepreneurs. Gabriela remains a fierce advocate for domestic abuse survivors.