The Legal Years
Divine Lover and Heavenly King, have mercy on me, my children, and their father… please don’t let this be weaponized into bitterness and retaliation, but rather make it a piercing, purifying flame of truth that gives birth to contrition and conversion. Lord, hear my prayer…
At the separation hearing, I got my first taste of the American Justice system. I can’t say it’s an acquired taste, four years and multiple appearances later— but hey, some of the security guards were nice and seemed to have a genuine sympathy for me as I’d trudge in and out over the next many months, filing papers and such, especially once I was without legal representation. I bless them today for offering me a touch of humanity with gentle smiles as I came and went.
Here is some of the language used in that first declaration against me:
- “Her behavior is erratic and turbulent, such that the children and I feel confusion and anxiety around her because we are waiting to see what version of their mother we will get.”
- “This sort of manic behavior has become dangerously normal to our children…”
- “She has harassed my friends and coworkers, and all but terrorized me…”
- “Ellie is an unfit neglectful mother, and she is certainly no housekeeper…”
- “The incidents of child neglect under Ellie’s watch are far too many to recount.”
Words can never describe my horror upon reading this and the blatant lies and distortions that accompanied these words. Jesus, are You real?! Do You see me?! Can You hear me? Where are You?! But it was just beginning. Herded into the domestic relations docket—the real leveler of humankind, as we all squished like cattle to ogle over each other’s dirty laundry before our own skivvies were put on public display— The Commissioner told me to wean my baby and get a job. A Guardian ad Litem was (understandably) ordered to the case in light of these alarming claims. In addition to these recommendations, a 50/50 parenting plan was ordered, $2200/month was offered by way of support for myself and the seven children, and I was ordered to pay the mortgage and all the utilities on the home. Me. The woman who’d been out of the workforce for more than a decade and had been a stay-at-home wife and homeschooling mother while my husband had been building his career up for years. How is this possible, Lord?Additionally, I was only allowed to live in the home during my residential time. They call this a “nesting” situation and it was a highly imperfect and ineffective attempt to stabilize our children while their family was being torn in half. So, in other words, at this point in time, the children didn’t shift households… the parents did. When my husband was “off duty”, he had rented a private apartment to which he could retreat. When I was “off duty”, I had nowhere obvious to go. I remember scrolling through local campsite availability because I felt too ashamed to be a burden on my friends. But, people reached down into darkness and pulled me up from that thinking. I ended up bouncing between a couple friends’ homes who took me in and gave me space in their spare room. While living this nomadic life, living at home just 50% of the time, I was working as a hostess at a restaurant. I was 35 years old, being trained by a sweet, blonde 19 year old on how to handle customers, bus tables and attend to my apparently primitive eyebrows. (Incidentally, I am extremely grateful for the year spent in the restaurant industry; the life skills I learned there were significant and important.)
Some nights I would wake up from nightmares and be entirely disoriented, not knowing what was going on. It would take long minutes for me to get my bearings and rack my brain to remember where I was. I would stare at the ceiling numb—yet with a racing heart— trying to make sense of my body, my location, and my reality. In the early days of this arrangement, I would be unable to sleep— afflicted with aching breasts but no baby to relieve me. I tried pumping milk for a while, but the stress and pain had my milk supply drying up pretty fast. I had nothing left to give him and so, he was weaned. These were hard, unreal days, weeks, months, years…
My husband resigned from his position at the church, told me he had “lost” his job, and went back to federal civil service. I grieved for and with him. And it was all my fault. Rumors in our community were like wildfire during this phase, many of them untrue… and some true. Many friends tried to reach out to my husband. Many folks tried to approach him and me to help support our marriage. They were amputated from his social circle. But many, many others just tried to give us privacy and prayer in our struggles.
During the summer, my husband filed emergency orders to keep our children out of the little private school in which I had enrolled them. It was too closely entwined to the parish where he used to work. He had some very choice words to say about the community and insisted that the children would be in a much healthier place at the local, public schools. The judge split the baby. Two were allowed to attend the private school with Dominican sisters. The other two were sent to the public schools. During the next school year, I had five children in four separate schools on four separate bell schedules. It was a logistical nightmare. In September, I was preparing for a settlement conference… a David vs. Goliath type encounter of inexperienced, trembling me vs. a tenured lawyer in the last months of her career who had a reputation for being The Bulldog of the county. My proposed plan was very fair. His was not. We were unable to settle and the case was headed for trial.
Meanwhile, that same month, my second son was hospitalized for a stomach issue that had resulted from a previous surgery. I went to the hospital to be with him for a few days while he was in there. An out-of-state friend came to manage my household while I was gone and collaborated with other local friends to throw a birthday party for another child while I was with the infirmed one. I was accused of “abandoning my children”… to be with the sick one.
Throughout this year and into the next ones, so many people supported me financially. I would receive many anonymous envelopes of cash or folks who used the church to disperse a check to me, grocery gift cards stuffed into my purse. The whole community seemed to see the injustice. I felt like I was living in a fishbowl… only my water levels were dangerously low and the world saw it. I was stunned. Embarrassed. Each and every time a dollar was sent my way, I was shocked all over again. I don’t know how I would’ve made it without these unseen angels. I was able to purchase a small, used vehicle to drive. I was able to pay my bills. Stay alive. Family friends gave me a home with cheap rent to live in. I learned to stop blushing when I paid for my groceries with food stamps and begged the school for free tuition. And I clung like hell to my crucified Jesus. You are real. You do see me. Bind me now to Your Cross and never let me go.
During this phase, I reiterated to him that I was willing to reconcile. Willing to work on us. He refused. I had “annihilated our marriage” with how unstable I was. I didn’t understand.
On November 1st, my father died. He had finally succumbed to years and years of pain and illness and died surrounded by his wife and children. My older brother held his wrist feeling his pulse die out and my hand was on his heart as it faded into stillness.
I was a shell. Numb. Grieving the father I needed to protect me right then. And also grieving the relationship I never DID have with my father. But there was no time for sorrow. Trial was just a couple weeks later. I had represented myself through the summer but knew I couldn’t do trial alone. I took out a large, personal loan to hire someone for that.
During trial, he tried to double down on convincing the court that I was crazy. Court was not convinced. A parenting plan was rendered wherein I had custody of the children about 64% of the time. No one tells you how gross it is to dissect a home and make claims on joint goods. All I really wanted was the books, the art and the old vehicle. His lawyer had capitalized on my weariness and naivete and convinced me and the court that the home was a Zero asset, due to its age and condition. I knew it was worth more but God help me, I was so tired of fighting… I just wanted to walk away.
Not insisting to be granted some financial part of the home was the greatest monetary mistake of my life. I could’ve at least had my graduate studies and lawyer fees paid for instead of being very deeply in debt today. Just give me peace, Jesus. He can have the money; I want the peace.
Life was supposed to be beginning just then. 2017 had utterly demolished my ability to make sound decisions in my life. I was, in the most meaningful sense, a survivor of trauma in multiple domains. I had been homeless half the year. My husband, God forgive Him, had been verbally, emotionally and psychologically abusive to me and was quitting on the marriage. I was trying to mother seven children alone. And begged around for childcare while I worked in the restaurant. I had hired and fired lawyers and was under a form of systemic legal abuse that as of this writing, has still not ended. My father died. Father, my father…
2018 was normal— so long as one is comfortable calling a dystopia normal. During these years of my life, there could be whole novels written about the constant and intentionally hurtful messages sent. The acts of violation on multiple fronts. It seemed to never stop. Very many difficult parts of my life will remain untold during these years as this world simply can’t tolerate “But wait! There’s more!” to be played on repeat, ad eternum. Hide my children in your veil, Mother!
I began graduate studies to become a Mental Health Counselor. This forced me to quit my job. To make my life work, I just maxed out my student loans each semester for regular living expenses. Very quickly after the six month waiting period was over from the date of our Legal Separation, my husband converted our separation into a divorce on August 10th, 2018. I didn’t show up to court. I would have no say in the matter anyway. But he was successful in getting the judge to order me to pay his attorney fees for that day. Justice. So, I paid for a divorce hearing that I never wanted, didn’t attend, and fought like hell to avoid.
There were many struggles with my older children during this time. Single mothering teen boys going through trauma was not a particular skillset of mine. And I had no backup from their father, only a lot of undermining and triangulating. I made a lot of mistakes. Life was blisteringly hard. But my mental health studies were meaningful, helping me make sense of what I was experiencing, and I had hope. In the summer of 2019, I was served papers wherein he was asking for a parenting plan modification. He was asking for full custody of two of the teen boys only. Not the five other children. And he wanted the court to grant him this AND 100% of the weekends with all the children. In the State of Washington, to modify a parenting plan against another’s will requires extraordinary circumstances. The extraordinary circumstances he was citing were abuse. He declared that I was “physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive” to our children. He insisted that a Guardian ad Litem be appointed to investigate (again) and we were back in court. Maybe he really believed all the lies. Maybe his (inconsequential) phone calls to CPS on me were made in sincerity. Maybe he is more unwell than malevolent. This line of thinking has helped my heart to stay soft. It’s imperfect and tempts to harden… but I fight hard to keep it watered with humility and forgiveness. Pray for me.
The case dragged on for months. No movement. Everyone knew it was a junk case. He had no evidence and if I was really abusive, court would have been expedited and all my children removed from my care. But here in America, anyone can file anything they want and the court is required to go through the motions of entertaining the allegations at least. So the tension of my children being taken away from me was held over my head for an insufferably long time as I was in the middle of my clinical internship and final year of school. By the end of the year, I had begun serious discernment on moving back to my hometown a couple hours away. It was a painful decision. I knew I would have a job there. I knew I would have family there. And I knew I would have distance from the ever-present interference of someone who seemed always on the prowl for ways to punish me. I needed my family desperately. I no longer had a meaningful sense of “home” in that city. So I spent months in prayerful discernment, feeling the weight of what this decision would mean for my children.
In March of 2020, I filed for an Intention to Relocate. Prior to this, I had asked to have a conversation about it, wanting to collaborate on a parenting plan. He refused. I invited him to Dispute Resolution. He refused. Predictably, he filed an Objection to Relocation. More court. More money to hire a lawyer for a hearing. More gracious individuals helping me cover these costs. God, reward them! I was denied temporary orders to move so we were headed to Trial. Again. Unable to afford that representation for a two-day trial, I spent a lot of time preparing and studying on my own about what to do. I had all the notes from my paralegal friend who’d guided me before. I had a a capable mind and a foolishly courageous heart. I drove to Montana on a personal retreat to prepare for trial. I stood in wind storms, talked to cow herds, hiked through Glacier and watched YouTube videos on how to represent oneself at Trial. I was feeling pretty hopeless. An attorney who knew about my case stepped in at the 11th hour to help me, pro bono. Hope!
God bless him, but it was ineffective. Hopeless.
Trial went very, very poorly. My ex-husband’s performance was extraordinarily persuasive. And it was a performance. Suddenly, I wasn’t a terrible, abusive mother and it was being pushed that the children NEEDED me in close proximity to their dad! Lies were told. Sometimes directly. But usually, in the most insidious ways lies tend to flourish in our world: by mirroring so closely the truth that the counterfeit is nearly impossible to discern. My situation wasn’t adequately presented.
After his domination at trial, there was a painful interim period where more hearings needed to happen, temporary parenting plans here. Final orders there. I filed to move in March. Trial was in July. Temporary orders in August. I chose to represent myself at a final evidentiary trial in October. It was highly empowering. A decision was rendered in November… there are still loose ends today.
I wrote what follows this summer and never published it since I was afraid of how he’d use it against me before we had our 3rd trial. I will end Part Two of this saga with these important notes on my move:
(*Note that a very fair parenting plan was ultimately ordered, considering the circumstances. Blessed be God forever! But the financial disparity between us is still an inscrutable abomination. I make half as much money as he does and pay HIM more money in child support than he pays ME (though this will shift as the three oldest graduate high school). Additionally, I am on my own to pay tuition at the children’s school and there are still squabbles over me being forced to pay thousands of dollars for the GaL that he insisted on having to investigate my mothering. Bizarre beyond words. In this too, blessed be God forever! Also, I am grateful that my mother has loaned me money to combine with an offering from a friend to finance a safer, more reliable vehicle for us. Truly, I am blessed.)
(**I can not emphasize enough that this is a man that I have nothing but goodwill for. I have seen enough life and worked with enough disordered individuals to know that any one of us is capable of great evil, given the right situation, anomalies, and context. Please pray for him, and love him, and hope for wellbeing for all of us.**)
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
* * *
August 16th, 2020
Home. A word that hurts very much to me and one I’m still trying to make sense of.
I no longer live in the bustling, shipyard city where friendships were cultivated, babies were born and a marriage was broken. I made a home there for over 10 years and a part of me will always call that corner of Washington State home. Part of Whidbey Island, Washington is home. Part of Ventura County, California is home.
And full circle, I return to the place where that word became incarnate, and where a conceptualization of the word Family was first cobbled together.
Ouch. Both of those words are now knowingly and deliberately mutated as slurs against me for the sole purpose of causing pain.
So, here at the beginning again… I sift through my emotions in a wire mesh strainer, hunting for something recognizable. While terrible at many things, self-analysis is a strength of mine. Yet these large, stony things yielded in the strainer are foreign to me. Is it Defeat? Relief? Sorrow? Hope? Unsure, but likely an amalgam of these words and others. I suppose they’ll get categorized under Rilke’s “Things beyond words…” Again. And again. And again.
I didn’t want to leave.
Even after my marriage was dashed against the salty, jagged rocks in that county, I wanted to continue my life there. And I tried.
For my children, I tried.
When he found reasons to stay away from the house more and more, I still hoped.
(Maybe he was really busy.)
When he told me his relationship with another woman was a “non-negotiable,” I still hoped.
(Maybe I just didn’t get it.)
When he told me his marriage vows were a mistake and that he hadn’t loved me for “the better part of 15 years,” I still hoped.
(We all say regrettable things in anger.)
When he said he was no longer committed to me, I still hoped.
(Maybe he would change his mind.)
When he divorced me, I still hoped.
(Maybe… maybe… )
For my children, I tried. When my heart was no longer into it and it was just an extension of my marital duty, I tried. When reconciliation was denied to me time and again on both sides of the divorce, I tried.
Stepping over the broken olive branches, with a pride too vanquished and a desperation too strong to know better, I tried.
Wading through the gaslighting and the maltreatment that I was willing to endure, over and over again, I tried.
But when the harassment and hostility bore relentlessly into my mind and heart, with no end in sight, I could no longer try. When my very ‘home’ could no longer provide a sanctuary from his invasiveness, I could no longer try. At some point, for the sake of sheer self-preservation, one must close her arms around her mind and heart, stuff them into an iron cage… and simply run like hell.
Here is the quiet, insidious, nature of psychological abuse: It is hidden. It needs to remain hidden in order to continue. If a woman went about her daily life with the visible signs of physical wounds, people would not tolerate this. The outrage would be immediate. Not so with psychological abuse. The damage is deep and long-lasting in a way that even physical abuse typically is not. But you can’t see it. It alters your reality with others in a way that is common for all abuse to do. Beyond that, psychological abuse also alters your reality with yourself in a way that words here can never do justice. And when you succumb to the isolation and silence, out of fear, the chasm between you and the rest of the world becomes increasingly immense. People on the other side of the chasm sometimes support where they can (my gratitude is immeasurable), even without “getting it.” And there is guidance and advice that is sometimes helpful and sometimes not (thank you for caring). But the chasm still remains littered with omissions and misunderstandings, tin-can laughter and untimely tears, stifled anger and many, many dollars and hours spent in God-blessed therapy.
But the abuse remains as the unseen scourge that it is. Unbelievable: “It’s just so unlikely!” Especially if you want your perceptions in life to make sense and choose to accept only bits of information that align with the confirmation biases we all have: “People are generally good; how could this possibly be true?!” Malcolm Gladwell has a fantastic book that touches on this phenomenon. Humans deny, deny, deny… until the evidence is incontrovertible. And when the deception isn’t obvious, but comes to the party dressed up in just enough true-sounding facts to fool most people— the danger is all the more real. This is how darkness makes the most gains in life; it stays close enough to the light that the Truth is indistinguishable.
Screwtape to Wormwood: “Just a loaded adjective here, an artful omission there. A sprinkle of projection. A dash of minimization. Easy does it… subtle now…”
Unless you were there for the conversations, read through the court declarations, and strode through the manufactured narratives and nauseating manipulations that frequented your inbox every, single week for years, (Look the other way, now) I can understand the denial. He is a super “nice guy” in public so how could this be true?! For the average lay person, the dynamic of my situation doesn’t make sense. For those who’ve gone through this or who have the clinical training to recognize it: this is textbook.
But knowing what’s happening does not inoculate one from feeling the effects of it. And the wounds today are very, very real.
“I never said that.” (Black eye.)
“You’re delusional.” (Cut lip.)
“That never happened.” (Bruised ribs.)
“You’re unstable.” (Broken collar bone.)
“You’re abusive to our children.” (Bleeding. In. The. Brain.)
Can you see me?!
Can you hear me?!
I know this is not polite conversation.
I am not sorry.
But I weep that Truth comes so often dressed in Sorrow. And is so often misunderstood by those who mean well.
For being alone in Gethsemane.
And then betrayed at the praetorium.
And then crucified at Calvary.
For begging that this cup be taken from me. Every day.
For the need to choose forgiveness and conversion. Every day.
And yet blessing this intimate connection with the Ones who came before me: The Man of Sorrows. The Mother of Sorrows.
Moving to my hometown was done for my family’s sake. To provide for my children the best, and most secure future possible in profoundly sub-optimal circumstances, circumstances that—despite my very serious flaws and shortcomings—I never chose for them and that I fought hard to avoid. I didn’t want to leave.
And only four of the seven will come with me… the oldest boys left with grief under the protective mantle of Our Lady, Star of the Sea.
Today, I am in my mother’s home.
I am waiting to begin life all over again.
Again for the 3rd or 4th time.
So, I scroll mindlessly through new legal plans proposed to me: the one that suggests my children be entirely without me for a cruel and inhumane length of summer. (Blood flowing from my side.) The one that insist that if I want private school education, I alone pay for it (Damaged spine.) And I scroll blankly past falsely inflated child support calculations. Feeling no surprise that even as I rely on state aid programs, the generosity of subsidized rent, and car tires that compensate for their baldness with a combover of unabashed courage— and before I’ve had a chance to unpack my belongings, catch my breath, or earn a single dollar to provide for my children, there is a proposal to cut his child support obligation by over $1000 a month. (Punctured lungs.) Here. In the middle of a pandemic. Where I will be forced to work limited, evening shifts since I must guide our children’s remote learning in the daytime. Where I am attacked for trying to make adjustments in situations that were unforeseen to me. (Concussion.)
I’ve been entangled in steady court proceedings for over a year now and off and on for almost four years. No surprise and may the merciful blood of Jesus Christ sustain me during this war of attrition.
Please, oh sad, and ailing human… I know there is a soul in there somewhere. Here. Please take my cloak also. And those of my children. I assure you of my prayers. You may be able to buy many legal conquests, but my integrity isn’t for sale and my soul is beyond your reach.
As such, the ultimate victory is mine.
Will you look away?
Will you plug your ears?
Are you uncomfortable yet?
Blessed be God.
“I will rise.”
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.
“Still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Blessed be God in His angels and saints.
“Still, like air, I’ll rise.”
—Elizabeth Rose Augustine Clark, MA LMHCA, NCC