How Does Physical Abuse Grow? Chris Burns’ Hidden Rage

I’m sure Gavin will never forget it. Chris had swiftly walked out of our basement storage–I was calling 911 and had turned on my video on my phone. Gavin was sitting at his computer, and I told Gavin that everything was going to be okay while Chris was yelling, “He shouldn’t be seeing this! Get into our bedroom now!”

So much of what I remember is the small things I can’t remember. I can’t remember what started it. I can’t remember what set off the arguing, or the disagreements that would take hours to work through. I can’t remember how they ended. I remember the feeling. The feeling that embodies that time and many of my days even now is confusion. How did it start? I’m confused. What was the resolution? I don’t really know, I can’t define it, can’t tell you that I felt like I had a clearer understanding of our argument after it was talked out. 

I remember early on thinking, “I feel like I am in a mental chess match with Chris—and he always wins at chess.” Eventually, I attributed most of my confused feelings to him simply having a higher IQ than me; that what he said probably made sense and I just didn’t understand it. 

As a high school student, I made almost all A’s and was in honors classes. When I applied to college, I was chosen as one of ten females in my grade for a leadership scholarship, and I was awarded a scholarship based on my GPA. I never felt there weren’t concepts that I couldn’t eventually grasp. In fact, in many of my classes, I could express concepts better than my peers. I felt confident in my abilities to think, read philosophy, and engage in dialogue over ideas. But somehow, throughout the years, I truly began to believe that I wasn’t that person anymore.

I blamed it on pregnancies, or stress, or getting older, or childhood trauma…I sold myself justifications because eventually, it was too impossible to consider that the person I had committed my deepest loyalty to would ever belittle or deny the essence of who I was. Wasn’t that the person he had decided to marry and spend the rest of his life with? Isn’t that who he loved from the very beginning as teenagers?

And he was successful–sometimes I really did wonder how high his IQ must have been. He had passed his Series 6 exam after studying the material on his own. He never took a finance class. He just studied by himself to learn every detail there was to life insurance. He did have an amazing mentor–who always answered his questions, but Chris caught on pretty quickly. And he caught on to the business, the sales, pretty quickly too. 

Looking back though, I have found personal journal entries from those early days of his life insurance job, where he worries about money, “I feel shame. A lot of shame. About where we are at financially. I feel like our whole world is upended, and has been upended, by the lack of stability. It feels like death to me, and it permeates all aspects of our relationship. It’s the great black cloud over a chance for joy. It is death. I don’t know how to dream, how to look forward and make plans, with this history of failure…..Why risk dreaming if financial upheaval, and lack of stability, has been the cyclical reality. Not feeling like we financially going [sic] under is the exception in our relationship. WTF!! This must be solved for a future. It is suffocating me, it is suffocating our relationship.”

At one point he writes about how everyone in his office is excited because he is getting an $8,000 check–but what no one knows is that he owes $10,000 in bills. So he pretends to be excited about the big payday knowing it won’t even cover his debts.

I assumed because he had learned so much about managing finances to create a solid financial future for clients that he was doing that for us as well. In the beginning, I never imagined he was doing for others what he couldn’t do for himself, for his family.

Eventually, the life insurance almost seemed to bore him. We were settled, and he was making a great living for us, but he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to move up in the company faster than the company was willing to bring him up. Now I know that he would never have had the patience to wait for his turn. He believed he was better than the others he worked with and somewhere inside he wanted more. I remember his constant phrase, “there’s always more money out there, you just have to find it.” 

That hadn’t been my relationship to money, but I told myself what did I know about it? Even as I asked questions about our financial situation, like having a savings account, “Listen, Mer, I meet with millionaires every day, and they just have a different way of thinking about money. The way you think is middle class. You’ve got to get beyond that and start thinking about money like they do.” But he would never clearly explain the differences between me and the millionaires. I assumed he was right; I only knew to live within my means and save. I didn’t know how to invest or the intricacies of life insurance. I would hear him say these terms, and I would ask him to explain it. Sometimes he got a high off of writing out a diagram on a napkin in a restaurant to explain a concept to me, but most of the time, he would tell me it was too hard to explain it to me.

He decided that he wanted to start investing, so he changed jobs–one where he could do life insurance and some investments. But, he got himself fired from there–from wanting more. He went outside of his contract and made an investment outside of the company because it was going to have a huge payday. So he did it–knowing it would cost him his job. But I didn’t know until he came home early one Thursday.

He worked late every Tuesday and Thursday teaching seminars to potential clients. I had just gotten the kids’ dinner ready and was prepared to parent solo that night. Arabella was a baby, maybe a few months old, and the boys were in a highly bedtime-rambunctious stage of life. Tuesdays and Thursdays were long evenings, but it felt worth it to have a stable income.

I was hustling the kids up the stairs when I heard the garage door open. At first, I was scared–no one was supposed to be coming over, especially on a Thursday evening. I rushed the kids into their bedrooms to bounce around on their beds and held Arabella close to me as I snuck back down and around the corner of the stairs to check on the garage door. As I turned the corner, I saw Chris throwing his work bag on the counter; a wave of confusion mixed with relief rushed through my mind.

“Hey Hon!”

“Hey–what are you doing home so early? I thought you’d be gone another two hours?”

“Well, the good news is that I’ll be home on Tuesdays and Thursdays from now on.”

“Well that’s nice! What changed your boss’ mind? I mean, I’m happy to have you home more, but is everything okay?”

“Yes–everything is really good.” He started to loosen his tie and take off his jacket. I followed as he began walking up the stairs towards our bedroom.

“The thing is, I’m not going to be working there anymore.”

“Wait, what?”

“My boss found out about this investment I did, and he didn’t like it, so he doesn’t want me working there anymore.”

In silence, I had so many questions attacking my soul I couldn’t speak to steady myself. We just had a baby, we just purchased our home a few months earlier. We just bought the second car. We were making plans to begin some much needed renovations. Where was the money going to come from? We didn’t have any savings that I knew of. How were going to survive.

“How are we going to pay for our mortgage?” I blurted out.

“I’ll figure it out, don’t worry about it at all. The money is coming in, and it lets me do what I really want. I need to start my own business–that’s how you really make the money, not working for someone else. Plus, he was an asshole. I hated working for him. Now I can do my own thing and make more money than ever. You trust me right?”

I move ahead in time and realize now that was the beginning of the end. Chris starting his own business. Within four years the walls would be closing in on him, and I would be calling 911 over his erratic behavior–recording his rage for proof. Proof if there was a custody battle, proof if he needed to be checked into a clinic, proof that my life was not what it appeared to be even to my closest friends.

That day, I was telling Gavin it would be okay, but I was really trying to tell myself I would be okay. For hours I sat on the floor in our closet comforting Chris and trying hard to understand his overwhelming feelings, the sadness Chris was slurring out. Little did I know that within 10 minutes of hugging him, thinking the emotional intensity was settled enough for the rest of that evening, he would be slamming me up against a cement wall.

As I walked out of the closet, I was unaware that Chris morphed from sitting depressed in our closet to walking up the stairs and fueling his rage the farther he climbed. At about the tenth stair, his feet spun his body around, and he stumbled over those ten stairs running straight down to our storage area where we kept all of our legal documents. I quickly followed him into the dark storage room. There were no windows, and it was only 3 feet between the cement walls as I walked the down aisle towards him. His back was curled over the safe with his large hands scavenging through the documents.

“What are you looking for? I can help you find it.” I said timidly.

“Don’t help me. I’m done.”

“I don’t understand, we just talked and I thought you felt better.”

He turned around and was holding the manila folder that contained both our passports, our marriage certificate, both our birth certificates, our fingerprint cards from our adoption process, and our social security cards. He was getting ready to walk out of the room. He said he was leaving.

“You can’t take my documents.” I finally had an ounce of strength in my voice.

“I said, leave me alone and get out of my way.” He started walking towards me, but couldn’t get through the slim hallway without me moving. And I didn’t move. I stood in my own space, my own worth in that moment.

As he came closer I reached for the manila folder.

“Just give me my documents, and you can have your documents,” I said.

He pulled his shoulders back, his chest becoming a brick wall while his eyes lost any of the gentleness I had felt throughout the years of our marriage. They were dilated black and moving in and out of a deep focus and a reckless abandonment of reality.

 

All of a sudden I felt his arm below my throat across my chest. I was being turned at a ninety degree angle with my back shoved against the wall, and I was struggling to breathe. My body had been slammed aside, and I was pinned against the cement wall and couldn’t find air. The back of my head hit the wall with a thud, but I don’t remember feeling the pain; I remember feeling terror.

His arm leveled me like a mousetrap. The spring was fast and the lever was oppressive on my lungs. But, just as quickly, I was released. He was shaken. He was staring at me and suddenly passive.

I was the hunted now. All he needed to do was wait for my next move and without conscious thought, I sprinted, I ran terrified, and closed the door to the storage room. But he was just as fast. The moment I closed the door, it was kicked open and I was thrown back against another brick wall. My glasses broke, and the right side of my body was throbbing from the full-body explosion. I looked up, and Chris’ foot pounded down to the floor. I was cognizant that he had kicked open the door, and the power of his quad spread the force across my whole frame. My entire body took in 220 pounds of testosterone-filled gluteal muscles that he had been building every day with his kettlebell. 

I staggered out of the final storage entryway and started a video recording. My mind was a bowl full of water swishing around as I tried to get my sea legs to move under me. I do remember telling Gavin everything was okay. I remember dialing 911. I remember Chris walking past me as if nothing had happened, but commanding me to come into our bedroom only a few feet away from the storage room. 

I followed. I was recording. 

I turned the corner to walk into the room and immediately froze in place. Chris was staring at me, using his right fist to punch his jaw….over and over and over again. He just kept hitting the side of his head and was yelling, “Call the police. Who are they going to believe if I have all of these bruises on my face!” His face contorted with each blow, but somehow in between the hits his features showed no expression. He was blank, just punching himself erratically.

I begged him to please stop. I told him to please calm down. I asked him what was wrong. I stopped any tears of my own to try to lower the intensity. I hid them all inside to make myself safe, to make sure this stayed in the bedroom with me. That it wouldn’t bleed out to the kids. I just needed him to calm down, but I was beyond knowing how to help him anymore. My body was in shock and holding on for survival. 

He told me that if I stopped calling 911 and stopped the recording that he would stop. I did. I stopped. And he finally stopped. But, my breathing was still stopped. Somewhere in my body, I knew that this couldn’t go on. It needed to stop. 

But for that moment, it had stopped, and that was all the energy I had left for that day. He went into the bathroom and started staring in the mirror looking for marks.

I think we ordered pizza and watched a movie with the kids that night. I don’t fully remember. What I remember is wondering how I went from feeling terrorized to sitting eating pizza like it was a normal Friday, like this was a normal few hours, like this would be a new normal. 

He was gone about three weeks later, and so I did have a new normal. It wasn’t the one I expected on that Friday. Both would always include trauma, but I’ll take this trauma any day over the terror I felt living the appearance of a coveted lifestyle that felt more like a prison sentence.

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