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The Star of Domestic Violence Class

During my worst relapse, I pulled a knife on my ex and was assigned domestic violence classes. The most terrifying part of it all? In some ways, I'm the healthiest one in the group.

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By Amy Dresner

02/03/12

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It’s a misty early Sunday morning, not even 8 am, and I'm speeding down the long, lonely highways of the San Fernando Valley, chainsmoking Newports and chugging Mountain Dew. Eighties music blasts from my stereo. I try not to think too much about what got me into this predicament, telling myself that it's better to focus my energy on how to get out of it. In this case, "it" is a year of domestic violence classes and 30 days of community service.

Last Christmas, in an Oxy-fueled fury, I pulled a knife on my soon-to-be ex-husband. He called the cops on me and I was promptly arrested for “felony spousal assault." I’d never been arrested before. And I do not recommend it. He never pressed charges but the city did and I eventually plead “no contest” to “misdemeanor assault and battery." So I now have a criminal record, as well as a restraining order against me. I really thought that, at 43, I had done all the stupid shit I’d ever do but it turns out that there are always new ways to fuck up your life. 

I park in front of the tiny counseling center off of La Cienega where I attend my weekly court-ordered class. Every Sunday, I sit there with a bunch of other ladies in similar situations while we  “process” our week and learn about boundaries, self-love, substance abuse and breathing. It is an odd and sundry group, a mixture of abused women attending voluntarily and abusers who are court-ordered to be there.

I plop down in a chair with a deep sigh, purse slung over my shoulder, soda in hand. I smell of sleep and cigarettes. It’s only 8:30 and I can already feel the tears coming. 

The therapist is a petite woman with glasses and a light accent. She is lovingly confrontational with a good sense of humor. I am, alarmingly, one of the star students—if only because I can spout off facets of cognitive behavioral therapy and AA. I sound great. My actions, on the hand, are another story.

For the first few months, anger bounced around the room: anger at the cops, anger our “victim” had called the cops, anger at ourselves for drinking, smoking, doping too much.

We take turns talking about the week. First up is a dumpy Brazilian woman who always wears skin tight sundresses and sunglasses, the bold print of her stretchy dress revealing her big stomach and drooping breasts. She is there for walking on her boyfriend’s Ferrari. She is a big stoner and comes to group high on more than one occasion. She isn’t the brightest cookie with the best English when she’s sober so you can imagine what she's like when she's baked and offering ridiculous and unsolicited advice. 

Next up is a working-class bleached blonde who got a DUI after a car accident. She has pointy teeth that make her look vaguely vampiric. After the accident, in her drunken rage, she had grabbed the other driver’s glasses and ground them into the pavement with her heel. Even now, months later, with a breathalyzer installed in her car, her idea of a “couple” of beers is six. She has a raspy smoker’s voice and rough hands. I like her.

There is a plump Indian woman whose husband will periodically ignore her for days at a time. She doesn’t talk much and what she does say is always about cooking or her children. Her English is poor and her stories are boring but I envy her domestic bliss, the bliss I tell myself I once had—and had destroyed in one fell swoop. 

There are two Orthodox Jewish women—one a tiny, slender brunette and the other heftier and actually black. Both are always clad in long skirts and other modest attire, both were abused by their husbands and both are there, to my astonishment, by choice to learn about domestic abuse and to find out how to stand up for themselves. I feel a kinship with the slender Jewish woman; we shoot each other knowing looks when the Brazilian goes off on a tirade. This Orthodox woman doesn’t ever seem to be offended by my brazen talk of sexuality or foul mouth while the other one is prone to giving me long, righteous sermons on self-esteem.

There is an older French woman who, after 27 years of marriage, had pinched her husband’s cheek in an argument and accidentally scratched him with her nail. She was immediately arrested and taken to jail. She is separated from the man now but still living in the same house. I can only imagine the silent scorn and tension in her home. She is demure, with long bangs, a low ponytail and chic shoes. She avoids her own feelings by immersing herself in her two children. It’s working. For now. She is quiet but occasionally laughs at the sarcastic marks I throw into the mix.

My least favorite woman is a hot-headed 50-year-old chainsmoker who pulled a knife on her daughter and threatened to kill her while 911 was on the line. She is constantly playing the victim, saying things like, “I’ve turned the other cheek my whole life—I won’t be stepped on anymore” and then, not two minutes later, recounting a heated episode with a stranger in the produce aisle. She uses the word “cunt” a lot. She also claims to be a “casual” (read: daily) pot smoker despite having been a raging crackhead for years.

“She takes all those prescription medications for her moods," she'll say, alluding to me if the therapist ever confronts her about her drug use. "I smoke pot. It’s my medicine. What’s the difference?” 

“Let’s stay on topic here," the therapist will respond. "There is a big difference between marijuana use and psychiatric medications."

“Yeah, nobody ever killed somebody on pot,” she said once.

“Don’t even fucking get me started on this,” I warned her. I crossed and uncrossed my legs. This was touchy for me.  

Her denial is thick. But isn’t that true for every drug addict? What really strikes me about the group is that it was just one wild impulse, one hot-headed moment, one too many drinks, that has landed most of us here. Wasn’t everyone capable of that? This isn’t a room full of murderers. This is a room full of people who had lost control, who had threatened and been called out. The remorse and shame hang heavy in the room. It is palpable. A box of tissues is freely passed around. Many tears are shed for the deeds we can’t undo and the horrible repercussions of those deeds.

I pretend that I’m better than these women. But the reality is I’m worse: I was more violent with a worse drug problem, a shorter and less successful marriage and I'm also mentally ill. I come from a privileged upbringing with loving parents and a crippling amount of money. I don’t have more excuses. I have fewer.

We are all very different but also so similar. And we are all still in shock that we ended up here. For the first few months, anger bounced around the room: anger at the cops, anger our “victim” had called the cops, anger at ourselves for drinking, smoking, doping too much. Eventually that veneer of denial fell away and the sadness surfaced as we struggled to take responsibility for our actions. I want to think that my meds were off or that I was high on painkillers—that this was why I had pulled a knife on my husband. But the ugly truth is that I’d been abusive for years. And to face and own that darkness will be a long journey for me.

Is the class helping us? I'm not entirely sure, but I do know that we're all grateful that this class (plus community service) will get the word "misdemeanor" expunged from our records. But I don’t see anybody besides me getting sober, despite the many threats from the facilitator who administers the drug tests. On the upside, I do think we've all learned our lesson (as expensive and heartbreaking as it’s been). But I guess only time will tell. I can only hope that when the rage rises again, as it inevitably will, that we will each remember to go on a walk, take a breath, make a call and remember this room.

Amy Dresner is sober comedian who liberally pulls material from her depressive illness and drug addiction. She's also written about sex and dating and managing chronic pain in sobriety, among many other topics, for The Fix.  

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