We were teenagers when we first met.
The year was 1990, the first time I laid eyes on him was at a church youth group function. Set against the dusty rose carpet and wood paneling walls, he stood at the front of the church with his friends. He was wearing a mustard yellow and black shirt buttoned all the way up with dark Girbaud jeans. Hands in his pockets. Dark hair, hazel eyes, and a mischievous smile.
My first impression was that I didn’t like him. I should have trusted myself.
I was born fourteen years earlier to a teenage mother who never completed high school. Her first marriage was extremely, physically abusive. I was in third grade when we made our strategic exit from his grip. She remarried when I was in fourth grade, but their initially strong emotional connection quickly faded away and for many years they essentially lived separate lives. My mother was a survivor. I learned from her. Just survive. Keep going. But I didn’t want to be like her…
I came from a “broken” home, never knowing my biological father during my childhood. As a young girl, I dreamed of a fairytale life. I desired the IDEAL family – mom, dad, and children all happy living in the same house forever. You know, “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Brandie with a baby carriage” and all that jazz.
HIS family was the ideal, picture-perfect family. His parents were still married with three boys who always had Sunday lunch at home. His father was a beloved minister whom I grew very close to as a young teenager, calling him “Daddy” at his offering. Daddy was a wonderful man, fulfilling every expectation I had built up in the void that my father had created. I mentally reasoned that Daddy’s son would be my best shot at getting what I had always wanted growing up. I believed his son could provide me with a fairy tale life.
We dated off and on in high school. Then on Valentine’s Day of our junior year, we decided to make it official. He gave me an oval sapphire and diamond promise ring in our senior year. That was 1993.
Looking back to our dating years, there were plenty of
- Extreme Jealousy
- Controlling Behaviors
- Threats of suicide if I broke up with him
- Threats that he had people watching me at all times even when we were apart
- Dangerous and reckless driving with me in the car when we were arguing
- An explosive temper
But my dream-colored glasses blocked out many of the red flags flapping in the wind. All I could see was the promise of a dream come true. I believed that I was making a wise decision. I was eighteen years old after all…
My mom tried to warn me.
My boss tried to warn me.
I was an independent woman and had a headstrong spirit. I truly believed I had all the answers. The truth is, I wanted a break from our engagement, but breaking off the relationship meant losing my “Daddy” and losing the wonderful family that came along with the package.
His little brother had become MY little brother.
His sister-in-law had become MY big sister.
I was deeply invested in the wonderful relationships I had with these wonderful people. Surely, judging by his family of origin, he could deliver what I deeply craved….
At 18 years old, I was a married woman. We were a ministry family. His whole family was a ministry family, both widely regarded and deeply loved. We served as assistant youth pastors within our first few years of marriage, and later as Youth Pastors.
He played piano on the church worship team. I taught dancing to young girls and teenage girls. I was the Ladies’ Ministry President. We both preached and taught the word of God on Wednesday nights as well as some Sunday morning services and conferences. I felt church people looked up to us and counted on us.
I truly believed, as we were taught, that marriage is forever and divorce is not an option.
I NEVER wanted to be divorced. Other ministry couples who went through divorce were overtly judged and negatively spoken of.
In our home, scriptures such as, “God hates divorce” and “a wife should submit herself to her husband” and “your body is not your own” were used as weapons. Don’t get me wrong – these scriptures are all true and can be found in the Bible. The caveat here is that in situations where domestic violence is occurring, these scriptures are wielded as verbal weapons to assert the utmost control over the other spouse.
As a ministry family, we fought all the way to church, put on our “Christian masks” while at church, then fought the whole way home.
I felt as though I lived in a fishbowl–swimming around my little round glass bowl with the wavy top while people admired what they could see. You see, everyone in church knew me by name because of our ministry positions. There was nowhere I could go without someone recognizing me or speaking to me as if they really knew who I was.
Inside, I was so lonely and isolated and NO ONE knew the real me. I was conditioned to keep our private lives private. No counseling although I repeatedly begged for it. No one was to know what went on behind our closed doors.
The tactic of the abuser is to silence and alienate the abused. This is an attempt to maintain a happy outward image. The image of a happy home is very important to the abuser because it is HIS image.
When we spent time with friends, they observed his ill treatment of me. Many would make comments to him about the way he treated me. I was so embarrassed that my closest friends felt they needed to speak up for me. I was embarrassed because I had always projected an image of a tough girl that didn’t put up with crap.
I was also simultaneously relieved that others confirmed my feelings. I thought that just maybe hearing it from other people would make him realize he needed to change his ways. But it did not. It just led to more fighting. He hated that all of our friends ‘liked me better than him’ or ‘sided with me’. This led to accusations of me not ‘defending him’.
I am a perfectionist by nature; therefore, I felt I needed to rise up and start defending him. This catapulted the isolation.
You see, on the outside I never really showed signs of an abused woman.
Oh, there was that one time Mr. Earl noticed bruises on my upper arm and asked, “Is your husband hurting you?” I denied the concerned inquisition and turned it into a joke. Mr. Earl let it go and I was relieved. I learned to be more careful with my wardrobe choices. For the most part, my wounds were invisible to the eye.
For suffering women like me, abuse centered around control, intimidation and threats rather than black eyes and swollen lips. It can be more difficult to ascertain that what we are living in is indeed an abusive situation.
The dream-colored glasses I was wearing, the heavy cloak of being a minister, AND my deep devotion to God weighed heavily on me. I had to keep my marriage vows true before God. Those things really blocked out the vast amount of red flags continuously hoisted in the air with each passing year… all 15 of them. Red flags such as:
His expression of male supremacy and expectancy of female subservience
His control over the small budget he gave me for groceries and household items. Then he expected me to present the receipt to him whilst sitting behind his large vintage metal desk. Each item was scrutinized and I was fussed and scolded for my purchases like I was a child
Our biggest fight happened because I bought a 5 dollar pair of shoes without asking him
My face has been spit in
My boundaries were rarely respected
I had to beg to be allowed to spend time with my friends
I suffered an intensely painful miscarriage at home “alone” in the middle of the night while he slept – he always needed his sleep. He expected me to get up and go to work the next morning. He was quite upset that I felt I needed to stay home to rest and grieve. I also needed to go and see my doctor. I had scooped my baby out of the toilet with a slotted spoon, placed it inside a Ziploc bag, and placed my baby inside a brown paper lunch bag. He drove me to my doctor’s appointment, but I was still alone
I did 95% of the household chores and took care of the children. I did 100% when the children were sick, sleeping on the floor of their room with my blanket and pillow so he could get his rest
He called me his ‘concubine’ and his ‘good and faithful servant’
I learned that I couldn’t trust him with my deepest and most vibrant dreams. He would just squash them and ridicule me for having them – I could never be better than him, you know… competition was always in full gear
I was so very unhappy. I was not free.
As the old saying goes, “Three times’ a charm”.
The first time I mentioned a divorce, he conditioned me to stay by pointing a loaded and cocked .38 special in my face.
The second time, I verbally declared divorce. He surprised me and “changed”… for six months. That was until I became unexpectedly pregnant with our twins. Every bit of “change” went out the window. The moment I told him I was pregnant, I saw the switch flip in his eyes as plain as the light switch on the wall.
The third time I used the word ‘divorce’ was the last time… with a Petition for Divorce left for him to find on the dining room table. That was June of 2010. This time was very well planned and strategic. All firearms were packed along with all of my belongings in our Honda Pilot as I drove away from the home that I had put so much of myself into.
I wish that I could say that leaving was easy. It was not.
I wish that I could say that staying away was without turmoil. It was not.
I quickly learned a well-known fact in the world of domestic violence: the most dangerous time for an abused woman is when she leaves the relationship.
During the first two years after leaving,
· He stalked me
· He threatened me
· He damaged property
· He controlled me through the children
· He harassed me by telephone and text
· He forced his way into my home
· He threatened suicide
· He threatened homicide
· He pretended to call a hit man named “Ike” to ‘take care’ of me and my attorney
During that time, I told the people in my inner circle that if anything happened to me, HE did it.
In October of 2011, I finally got a restraining order against him when my co-worker texted me during my lunchtime therapy session with my counselor to say that he was sitting in his company truck down the street from my counselor’s office. I was so scared that my counselor called the police, and they came and escorted me back to my office. He crossed us on the way to my office. The police took my statement at my office and encouraged me to get a protective order asap. They had called him into the station for questioning and advised me that it would be the perfect time to have him served so they could fully explain what a protective order meant.
That finally seemed to sway the tide of control to my side. That is, except for the fact that in between the time that he was served with the temporary protective order and the mandatory hearing, he put a severed pig’s leg in my 2-year old twin boys’ diaper bag with a note saying that the boys wanted it for a souvenir. The pig’s leg was his display of deviance.
And even though he would continually violate the order, I was still unwilling to effectively enforce the consequences. I felt bad for him.
By the time charges would finally make it from the police to the District Attorney’s Office, it was months after the violation of the order or the stalking incident or the telephone harassment. He and I would be in a period of ‘peace’, which I did not want to be disturbed. He still had my kids overnight once or twice a week and I knew that if he was happy, then the kids were safe. I dropped all charges.
At this time, he became involved with a woman named Carmen. They went away on a beach trip the weekend after our divorce was finalized in September of 2011. She became pregnant, which I am quite certain was not any part of his plans.
They got married in December of 2011. After only four months, she moved out of their home in April of 2012 with police protection and immediately filed for divorce. She reached out to me in June following the birth of their son. She wanted her son to know his sister and brothers. So did I.
Carmen shared that he had been heavily verbally and emotionally abusive. He could not stand her snoring due to her pregnancy, so he made her sleep on the sofa. She knew enough about domestic violence from a previous relationship that the verbal abuse would eventually lead to physical abuse if she stayed. So she left.
Enter Stacey in April of 2012. Short courtship and quick cohabitation. They were married on July 13, 2013, which was the one year anniversary of my marriage to my current husband.
Each new relationship brought me a period of peace. He had a new object of his obsession. I believed he had changed, until Stacey reached out to me. She sent me a text one morning while I was bringing my daughter to school asking that I call her. When we spoke, the first question out of her mouth was, “Has he ever hit you?”
That marriage was also short lived. They split up on Christmas Eve that year. Stacey had a harder time making a clean break. She still loved him, and she thought she could fix him.
Enter girlfriends… exit girlfriends… they were always ‘crazy’ according to him.
Enter Anna in 2014. On Facebook, they were the perfect couple. They always looked so polished and prestigious. He was constantly declaring his love for her and calling her his ‘Queen’. They were always in the best restaurants and attending the best parties.
They were engaged during a lavish tropical vacation. There wasn’t anything he seemed to spare for her. He declared that he had crafted her a one of a kind engagement ring… all while he was in periods of unemployment and sinking farther and farther behind in child support payments.
As long as I did not speak up for myself, I kept the ‘peace’. Inside, I was sacrificing MY PEACE.
How dare I challenge his lifestyle? So there we were, appearing to successfully co-parent… appearing to others to be ‘friends’.
And then the dam broke…
I heard multiple stories of abusive incidents that had taken place between he and Anna. I had been praying for an opportunity to look her in the eyes and tell her the only phrases that God had released me to speak to her. “You deserve better. You deserve to be happy.”
In April of 2018, God ordained that opportunity. I looked her in the eyes and uttered those two sentences, and the floodgates opened up. She shared with me incidents of violence and that although they were engaged, that she was not planning to follow through with the marriage. She was making her exit plan.
I never imagined that she would be calling me the very next day. She told him she would need to extend the wedding date and he was in a fit of rage. He had threatened her and was at her place of business screaming and banging on the windows and doors. She and her assistant went into safety mode. They locked the doors, turned off the lights, and crawled on their hands and knees under their desks until he left.
Fearing for her life, Anna obtained a temporary protective order against him. She called upon the three ex-wives to testify in court about the past histories of abuse in support of her petition for the protective order. At first I said no. Then I realized that this was my ‘rise up’ moment.
We came together, as the Fab Four, to take a stand against him. I was full of fear, but I was even more fearful of doing nothing.
The year of 2018 was pivotal for me.
Seeing that the level of his violence had increased with each woman, and had extended to our three children, I knew that it was time to use my voice to protect them.
In the process, I reclaimed my life and reclaimed my freedom.
Through the services of the Family Justice Center, I obtained emergency ex-parte’ sole custody of my children. In July of 2018, I was granted permanent sole custody under Louisiana’s Post Separation Family Violence Relief Act. We were all granted permanent protective orders against my ex-husband. He was ordered into the family violence intervention program. My children get to see their dad in the safety of a supervised visitation center.
One of the most difficult and terrifying things that I have ever done was sit just feet across from him in the Hearing Officer’s office, giving testimony about the family violence that my children and I endured at his hands since 2010. After testifying, I had to sit out in the hallway with him while our attorneys argued our cases with the Hearing Officer.
I finally understood that I really did what was best for my children. They are my life, my mission and my reason for every breath that I take. I will do everything in my power to stop the statistical generational transfer of abusive behaviors to them.
After witnessing the tragedy, pain and utter chaos of not only myself and my children, but his second wife and his child with her, his third wife, and his ex-fiancee’, what has ignited within me is a fiery passion to eradicate domestic violence.
I’ve had this quote on my computer for years, “You are made for the place where your real passion meets compassion because there lies your real purpose.”
Eradicating Domestic Violence is my passion, which has led me to my purpose as Systems Change Chair for VOICES of Acadiana.
Instead of being swallowed up by my experience, I am bursting forth and using my voice to break the silence surrounding domestic violence.
Before I found my voice, I used to write about domestic violence. In October of 2017, I wrote an essay entitled, “The Use of Media as a Tool in the Fight Against Domestic Violence”. I often begin my essays with quotes. At that time, I was too ashamed and still too afraid to claim the quote as my own, so rather than cite the proper author, I chose to remain ‘Anonymous’.
“The beginning of the end was set in motion that autumn night as I stood in our bathroom staring into a cocked and loaded .38 special in the hands of my husband of ten years; the father of my cherub-faced daughter asleep in her bedroom only two rooms over. Oblivious to the fact that I was actually in an abusive marriage, I would stay for another five years and another two children before waking up to the life I was always meant to live.” ~Anonymous
I am ‘Anonymous’ No More!
My name is Brandie Stelly and I survived domestic violence. I am using my voice to break the silence. I am speaking up and speaking out to inspire others, to help other women, and to speak for those who have not found their own voices yet.
I will be your voice.