Happy birthday to me!
The morning I turned 40 years old, I got up and hurried to make the bed. After that, I took my toiletries to the shower only to find the door locked. I wondered how long the bathroom would be occupied, not sure how many women were already in line to use it.
There was a mirror in the hallway, and I stood before it to see if I looked any different. Maybe there was a little sagging around my eyes from lack of sleep and the beginning of crow’s feet at the edges, but otherwise I looked the same as I always did. I was sure there would have been something different about me, something fresh and new and inspired.
It was my 40th birthday... a milestone in any right, but it was more than that. I'd finally left my abusive husband of five years the night before and woke up in a shelter for victims of domestic violence.
Meeting My New Roommates
I’d gotten there so late there wasn’t time to meet any of my new roommates. I was barely sure what the rules were although I imagined there would be plenty. It would probably be better to keep a low profile until I found out.
The bathroom door opened, and I rushed to grab it. I came face to face with a young woman who offered me a weak smile and nod.
“Hi, my name is Emily,” she whispered. I told her mine, and she mumbled something about needing to wake up her kids. Kids? There were kids living in these shelters? It seemed like the saddest thing I’d ever heard.
By the time I got out of the shower, I heard the noise. It turned out Emily had three children, all under the age of seven. They almost knocked me over as I made my way back to my room. They jumped on the couches and shouted at the top of their lungs. It occurred to me that living in hiding would be even more challenging than I first imagined.
What Was I Doing There?
My husband had to be furious with me. I’d left while he was at work, loading anything I could fit into my Ford Escape and having to leave half of what I owned behind. I was willing to trade it all for a life with no screaming, no insults, no gaslighting, no pushing or shoving. Five years of abuse had left me half-crazy, not knowing which end was up. By that time, the truth about myself was what he told me it was, not what I felt inside.
At 40 years old, I had no idea who I really was.
He called me a scumbag, a loser, a whore so many times I started to believe it. He accused me of things I’d never think of doing and then leave me unsure whether I actually did them. He cheated and berated and lied hundreds of times, then trick me so he wouldn’t have to take responsibility. It worked, at least for a while.
Ironically, it was my ex-husband, the one I’d previously been married to for 16 years, who convinced me to leave. We shared two young boys, and I signed over custody of them when the situation in our house got too dangerous. I could get the kids away from the chaos even if I couldn’t save myself.
My ex reminded me of who I used to be. The kind of girl who would never put up with being called stupid or ugly and who would never cry over a man incapable of love or even human compassion. At first, I felt protective of my abuser and claimed to love him, but soon after that I realized I was in love with the idea of love, not the reality of the horrible situation I was in.
Learning The Ropes
My suspicions about the shelter were right. They handed me a two-page list of rules when I went up to the front office later that morning. We had to tell somebody when we were leaving and how long we’d be gone. We were not allowed to tell anybody where we were or let anyone follow us back to where we stayed. It was for our protection, which I fully understood, but it seemed hard to imagine living my life under such strict guidelines.
They then showed me to a back room loaded with groceries. The staff told me I could take anything I wanted. After gratefully gathering up a few things, they took me to another room where there were donated clothes piled up almost to the ceiling they allowed me to sort through. I didn’t really need any of them, but it made me teary to imagine that some women had escaped with only the clothes on their backs without money for anything to feed themselves or their children.
As bad as my current situation was, it upset me to think of women who had it much worse.
How I Spent My Special Day
I spent my birthday making plans. I still had a job and having a free place to stay for a while would make me able to save enough for an apartment and utilities. I reached out to friends I hadn’t talked to in years. Most of them stayed away from me, unable to watch what I was doing with my life or figure out why I stayed with such a horrible monster for so long.
I created a budget and got my affairs in order over the rest of the day, excited to get my new life started. Maybe my boys could live with me again in the future.There was so much to do to get out of the mess I created for myself, but with a new decade of my life there was new determination to make myself proud.
I still wasn’t sure how I would manage life in the shelter even on a temporary basis. There were several rows of small houses in the compound filled to the brim with women and children. Emily mentioned we were getting another family in our house to squeeze into the cramped quarters. I was already on stimulation overload with her kids and the other kids running around. How was I going to handle it?
Loneliness and self-pity took over later in the night. Turning 40 started to take its toll, and I sat in bed and lamented over how unfair it was. Most people had big parties on their birthdays or at least cake and presents. As far as the shelter was concerned, it was merely Friday. I had no husband anymore. I had no friends left. There was nobody to share their good wishes, and I began to feel sorry for myself.
I Thought About Changing My Mind
Maybe the whole shelter thing was a mistake. Maybe I should have stayed at home and tried to hide away money instead. Maybe I could have fought my abuser back. In that moment, anything seemed preferable to sleeping in a compound with a bunch of strangers who didn’t give a shit about me.
I walked out the front door of the little house, intending to get more clothes out of my car, when I saw it.
Emily was sitting in a folding chair right out front with her three kids cross-legged at her feet. For the first time since I’d met them, they were utterly silent. The four of them were staring into the night sky, their mouths agape.
Emily finally looked at me with a giant smile. “God is with us!” she announced as she pointed a finger up into the dark.
I couldn’t help but look even though I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I saw nothing at first, but Emily was insistent that she’d seen God in the sky. Her children seemed to agree wholeheartedly.
After a few seconds, I saw it. A bright star shot across the wide expanse, big enough so I couldn’t miss it. Emily told me it had been happening all night as they sat there and watched.
“God is with us,” she repeated, tears in her eyes.
I was in the right place. Emily reminded me that even with nothing tangible, there was always the grace of God. I crossed my legs and sat down next to her children and looked for more hope in the sky, finally realizing that it was not my strength that brought me to the shelter, but His.
It was the best birthday I’ve ever had.