Joanna – A Survivor’s Story of Deception & Gaslighting
Domestic abuse wears many faces: sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, financial. All are deadly. Emotional and verbal abuse leave no visible bruises, but they are nevertheless painful and damaging. This is one woman’s story about escaping such abuse. Names and some details have been changed for privacy and protection.
Steven was a former military fighter pilot and handsome commercial airline pilot who had stayed in great shape as a marathon runner in Colorado. Joanna was a flight attendant for the same airline. Her stunning beauty, with long legs and brunette hair to her waist, gave her the look of a runway model. The kindness and warmth in her blue eyes matched her smile. Even though Joanna exuded femininity, she admitted to being more masculine than some men. “I’m a runner, go to the gym every day, play a lot of golf, fish, and love watching sports.”
Joanna and Steven looked like the perfect couple.
When the relationship became serious, Steven kept his home in Colorado and commuted to his base in Dallas. Joanna, who was also based in Dallas, owned a home in a suburb there. They spent winters in Texas and summers in Colorado. Joanna and Steven were a model of people who succeed with long-distance, commuting relationships. The time apart, however, allowed Steven to live a lifestyle Joanna knew nothing about.
“When Steven and I first started dating,” Joanna recalled, “people told me he was a playboy and I shouldn’t get involved with him. One day, I found an anonymous note in my file at work. It read, ‘I heard you’re a nice person. He is not. He’s not who you think he is. He is evil.”
Joanna began shaking and went to the bathroom to throw up. She knew someone was trying to warn her but had no idea who it was.
“I showed my parents the note, and my dad said, ‘It’s from some jilted former girlfriend.”
Joanna went back and forth between the Steven she thought she knew and the note. She chose to ignore the note.
In the more than 18 years Joanna and Steven spent together, they traveled, shared a love of golf, and enjoyed her passion for cooking his favorite dishes. “Steven and I could talk for hours about politics, sports, and history,” Joanna remembered. “He was so interesting and stimulating. I admired the fact that he knew so much.”
Happy and content in the beginning of the relationship, Joanna recalled one of the couple’s many driving trips. “We barely turned the radio on because we talked to each other so much. Then, he might listen to NPR and I’d work on a crossword puzzle. It was such a peaceful time.”
“Steven gave me a beautiful diamond ring for Christmas with promises for a future together. Shortly after that he had retired and was spending more and more time in Colorado without me. When the airline announced our Denver base would be open for transfers, I immediately called Steven to share the good news. I told him I would put my house up for sale and transfer to Denver. He replied with a resounding no. ‘You know how you don’t like the cold and snow,’ he said in response to my initial shock.”
Before long, Steven began gaslighting Joanna, causing her to second-guess herself.
“We were talking on the phone one day and he said he was on his way to Honolulu. I was completely startled and said, ‘You’re what?”
Steven acted like Joanna was crazy for not remembering. “I already told you I’m going there to run a marathon,” he said.
“I second-guessed myself again and again, thinking, ‘I would have remembered that.’ He made me feel like I was going crazy.”
Such instances became common. Joanna learned much later that Steven had gone to Honolulu with another woman.
When Steven and Joanna were with other people, he was obvious about his pride in her and often presented her with gifts. “He always had to make a show,” Joanna recalled. “We would be with other couples, and I could tell he was proud of me. He bragged about how well I played golf.”
Only hours later, however, Joanna would become the target of one of Steven’s screaming rages. “Sometimes his rage was so out of control that I would literally cower on the floor. He would jump into my car and leave. One time, he wrecked it.”
Steven’s rages continued. “I asked him to help me hang wind chimes in the backyard. The result was a rage so loud I’m sure the neighbors could hear him screaming. When a police car appeared at the end of the driveway, Steven ran out and chatted with the police officer as though everything was hunky dory.” Joanna stood frozen in fear.
Watching a woman across the street throw her boyfriend’s clothes onto the front yard, Joanna remembered, “I felt so bad for her, but I never wanted to be one of those women. I didn’t want the neighbors to know what was really going on behind closed doors with Steven and me, so I kept a low profile. I wasn’t comfortable calling the police because the neighbors would know we were having serious problems.”
Between the gaslighting, the shows of affection, the rage and verbal abuse, the future hope, the beautiful gifts of jewelry, the cheating, and multiple apologies accompanied by wonderful behavior, the vicious cycle of abuse went on and on. It finally took a toll on Joanna’s health.
In 2012, as Joanna was walking though a Dallas airport, she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. The initial diagnosis was a stroke.
“I was on extreme overload from the stress,” Joanna recalled. “I had been in the hospital 24 hours when my doctor said, ‘Joanna, you might want to get rid of him.”
Joanna’s doctor subsequently called her work supervisor. That was the beginning of Joanna’s wake-up call.
Steven showed no concern about Joanna’s hospital stay. In fact, he used it against her. “He tried to make me think there was something wrong with me mentally. I had no idea someone could be so psychologically cruel.”
Joanna realized she had to begin taking baby steps to get out of the relationship. “I used to wonder why abused women stayed and didn’t leave immediately. I understand now.”
It would take a few more years for Joanna to make a final break.
One night, Joanna woke from a deep sleep, walked into her office area, and found Steven using her computer. She immediately saw a picture of a woman in the background on a popular dating site. Steven turned and jumped into the air with his arms outstretched in an attempt to hide the screen. He turned off the master power switch and started yelling, accusing Joanna of snooping. He expected her to forget the incident and return to bed. In a furious rage, Steven grabbed Joanna’s arm, told her never to check up on him again, and nearly shoved her off the bed.
The next morning, Joanna turned on her computer and it went directly to Steven’s dating profile from the night before. He used his middle name instead of his first name. When Joanna confronted him, he cried, told her how lonely he was living in the mountains, said the other women meant nothing to him, and told her she was the love of his life. She asked him to leave and they packed his things together. He promised to leave the next morning, however, during the night he unpacked his things, put them back in the closet, then drove to Colorado. Joanna was completely unaware. When she woke up she discovered what he had done. She called his cell phone several times and he never answered. When he called later that day, he said he couldn’t understand why she was so upset. “Of course my things are in your house, Joanna, I love you. Something is wrong. You need a glass of ice water. Sit down and drink some water.” Joanna stated that this was another one of his typical gaslighting techniques by making her think she’s going crazy. He wouldn’t let her end the relationship and wanted to keep her mentally off balance.
Joanna discovered Steven had been on the site a couple of years. She felt devastated. “He had 19 photos of himself on there, and I had taken 16 of them at places we visited together. You could tell where I was cut out of the photo. In the section where you describe what you’re looking for in a person, he described me to a T. I showed his profile to a friend who said, ‘He’s looking for you but already has you.”
Joanna felt tormented and blamed herself. “Why wasn’t I enough for him? What did I do wrong? I didn’t know how to recover. Deep down, I questioned what made me wake up out of a sound sleep and walk into the computer room at the exact moment he was on a dating site.”
Joanna took her first huge step. She instructed her financial adviser to take Steven’s name off her financial accounts. Her adviser asked if she was okay. Joanna felt a strong inner resolve kick in and replied, “I’m going to be.”
“I’m going to be”
“I was brought up in a wonderful close-knit family,” Joanna explained. “We were average, everyday, good Midwestern people. I’m a trusting person. I’m a person of my word and I can’t fathom why others aren’t. Not only did I get sucked in by Steven, but my parents did too.”
Joanna’s parents both passed away during her relationship with Steven. “Shortly before my dad passed, he suddenly sat up in bed, looked directly at me, and said, ‘He’ll never change, Joanna,’ and laid down again.
Joanna’s 83-year-old mother passed away only a few months after a diagnosis of several masses. Everyone, including Joanna, wondered why Steven wasn’t at the funeral. “I kept watching the door, hoping he would walk in. He said he was hunting in Louisiana, so I left him messages. I thought he would get them and be on his way here.”
Joanna later learned Steven was on vacation with another woman.
Joanna’s relationship with Steven ended shortly after her mother passed away. Joanna felt alone. “I didn’t have him to talk to about my mom or my mom to talk to about him.”
Thinking back to the beginning of her 18-year relationship with Steven, Joanna saw red flags that hadn’t stood out before. “In the beginning of the relationship, he asked all about my parents. Now that I look back on it, I think he was feeling me out to see if we would be on to him or not. I had a nice, safe childhood and I believe he preyed on that.”
Joanna grieved the end of the relationship. “I was with him 18 years. Everything I saw and did was related to him. I would see a river we fished on. I’d go to another city and remember we went there together. One time I had a panic attack walking through the Denver airport. It just seemed like everyone looked like him.”
Playing golf, Joanna scored a hole-in-one. “He was the first person who came to mind. I wanted to share my exciting news with him, but I couldn’t.”
When Joanna began to question what happened, she sought counseling. “Steven’s actions are his issues,” her counselor told her. “It’s not about you. You were in love with two different people. Steven was one person in the beginning of your relationship, but then his mask slipped.”
Joanna learned about love bombing, which is what Steven did to her their first two years together. “Our relationship was so wonderful that I couldn’t believe it,” Joanna commented. He gave me lots of gifts, and we were jet-setting all over the place taking great vacations. I felt like we were soulmates. What girl wouldn’t want that?”
Eventually Joanna’s sadness turned to anger – especially toward herself. “Many times, I would beat myself up for not seeing it. I felt stupid. I would tell myself I was just a pushover. I later realized my intuition had been telling me something all along. It was spot on from the beginning, but I ignored it.”
Because her thoughts were scattered, Joanna decided to write a timeline of her relationship with Steven. “I wrote out dates, times, and destinations. It was brutal and cathartic at the same time. It was the best thing I ever did.” She made a copy and put it in her safe.
“Writing it out in that way allowed me to see that everything he did was intentional. He did it on purpose. He was fully conscious. He’s a serial cheater and a pathological liar.”
Steven’s father confirmed Joanna’s conclusions.
“We used to take summer vacations to Wyoming to visit Steven’s dad, who always told me he was so glad his son had found me. Just before he died, however, he told me the truth about Steven. ‘My son is a liar, a cheat, and a thief,’ he said.”
Reading a blog about narcissistic abuse validated everything Joanna felt, thought, and experienced. “All these stories are identical. These people are all alike. It’s like they made a textbook on this kind of behavior. How did this happen?”
Joanna understood. “I felt toward the end that he wanted to destroy me. He wanted me to be penniless. I was petrified because he threatened to destroy me at work. It was classic narcissistic behavior.”
Joanna’s counselor added greater clarification. “Because you let him go, you were the enemy. Usually, they let you go.”
“Because I let him go, Steven constantly bad-mouthed me to others and sent nasty text messages. But I realized I had to stick to a rule of no contact. No matter what. I couldn’t acknowledge any communication from him.”
Thinking about her actions in the relationship, Joanna said, “I was a good friend and person to him the whole time. I was always kind and trusting. I believe what people say. I’m a person of my word and expect others to be the same.”
Joanna described her healing process as up and down with good days followed by bad days. “When I run and exercise, it is a good time to talk to God.”
Joanna finds comfort through reading spiritual books and has forgiven herself for allowing the abuse in her life. “I’ve learned a lot through being naïve.”
Knowing she needs strength to forgive what Steven did to her, Joanna asks God to heal his mental illness.
Joanna has been single for the past few years, hanging out with groups of girlfriends and playing golf from time to time with a platonic male friend. “I’m more independent now than I’ve ever been,” she says. “I really would like to meet someone who has the same interests as mine and enjoys being active.”
Although Joanna is out in public a lot, whether she’s on a plane, the golf course, the gym, or running, she says it’s not easy to meet the kind of man she’d like to have a relationship with.
“It really bothers me when people say I have to get out there. They ask me why I’m not dating like something is wrong with me. Well, I am out there all the time being active. It’s just not easy meeting someone I’m attracted to.”
One day, a woman approached Joanna in the airport. “She remarked that I always have a smile on my face and seem so happy. She’s right. I made it through some very dark times by myself. Today, I’m a much better person than I ever was. I am okay.”
Based on a true story as told to the author, Kelle Lynn. Any identical names and circumstances are only by coincidence.
copyright 2018 Justice Thru Storytelling, Inc
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