Extract: How I Took Back My Power

Respected political analyst and academic Nompumelelo Runji seemed the picture of a successful black professional woman. Yet, like many, she privately battled personal demons. Dealing with the topical issue of trauma and mental health, Nompumelelo’s inspirational story resonates deeply.

The below extract has been republished with permission from the publishers.

I was engaged in the third of a series of conversations with my husband that I’d agreed to because I desperately wanted us to settle how we would parent our daughter in our new circumstances. It was the first week of January 2021, just over a month since I had left my marital home, on 30 November. By then it was clear that Sheffield and I disagreed on the extent of the breakdown of our marriage. He persisted in characterising our problems as growing pains, as a failure to resolve conflict amicably. On the positive side, he accepted that this was primarily because he had failed to be open and cooperative. He conceded that he’d made mistakes, but claimed that he now understood me better and was ready to make the necessary changes. However, he vehemently disagreed with any notion that his actions constituted abuse in any shape or form. 

I was frustrated with these conversations, which were facilitated by leaders of our congregation, the church pastor and first elder. We were not making much progress, let alone coming up with a parenting plan. This session had deteriorated into wrangling about how my husband and I interpreted and understood the temperature of our relationship – past and the present. The pattern was no different from that of the other discussions we’d had over the weeks since 26 October, when I had begun to initiate conversations, at home, at marriage counselling and – at Sheffield’s insistence – with the mentors, to air my true thoughts and feelings about our relationship.

Although I was uncomfortable with the idea of opening myself up to scrutiny in these meetings, and was advised not to do so by my therapist, I relished the opportunity to hold my husband to account. I thought it would be clear to those listening and observing that I was the victim; that Sheffield was largely responsible for the breakdown of our marriage. I guess it wasn’t as clear as I imagined. It was difficult to listen to my husband use my vulnerability as a rebuttal against my claims. At one point he portrayed me as someone with an aversion to commitment, telling the pastor and elder that I had a habit of walking away from people who didn’t agree with me, that I had a pattern of leaving. Knowing my history with my teenage boyfriends, Sheffield asserted that my penchant for leaving was demonstrated by the fact that I had ended all those relationships, which was true. The problem was that he omitted to mention any context or details. Also, having full knowledge of my troubled relationship with my mother and the difficulties in my family, he asked the pastor and elder to enquire why I was not on speaking terms with my mother or Mam’ncane, highlighting this as another example of my intolerance for others’ differing opinions – again without giving any context or details. I tried so hard to get us to focus on the core of our relationship problems, but it felt like a wasted effort. While he had admitted to his infidelity in private, he refused to make this same admission in the presence of the pastor and the elder. At some point he retorted, “There were only two people in Canada, me and that lady, and since that lady can’t be reached, you’ll have to take my word for it.” He neither denied nor confirmed my allegations.

For many years I’d kept quiet about what was happening in my marriage, partly because I was confused by the differences between who my husband was at home and who he was in public. Just when I’d be convinced that he was insensitive, inattentive, discourteous, arrogant, manipulative and deceptive, my conviction would be challenged by his charming, conscientious self emerging every Sabbath at church or when with his relatives or mine. Who would believe me if I told them this was not the person I lived with? I had confronted him so many times over the years that he had become a master of obfuscation and deflection. If I couldn’t win the argument with him, how would I convince others?

Even without having others, including Sheffield, question the veracity of my experience, it had been my own doubt, my silence, that had, in some ways, enabled the dichotomy in his behaviour to become established before I called it into question.

Now, having made the break, it was guilt that drove me to attend these meetings with my husband, where contempt and ridicule were all he had to give. I didn’t want, ever, to have to look back and wonder if I’d done enough. I still believed that everyone deserved another chance, the benefit of the doubt – even this man who had spent years showing me his true colours, while I determinedly shut my eyes. I felt guilty for breaking up my daughter’s home. I felt guilty for disappointing people’s expectations, and especially my own – but this was different from being disappointed in myself. Interestingly, I didn’t feel that I’d disappointed myself. I was more disappointed in Sheffield – beyond disappointed: disillusioned. He was supposed to be better than this. I guess this shows that I was overcoming self-blame. Nevertheless, true to form, I kept trying. I kept attending the meetings and talking to him until the harm to my psyche resulted in my second admission to Vista Clinic. It was time to face reality – that what had happened to me, what Sheffield had done to me, was not my fault.

I think one of the biggest struggles has been coming to terms with the fact that I am not the problem. Who I am is not the problem. I am as human and as imperfect as the next person; to expect me to be perfect and flawless according to my husband’s standards is to expect me to be superhuman.

For years, he had me convinced that the reason he had changed and become cold, distant and abrasive was that there was something wrong with me. It was debunking this myth that eventually led to my emancipation from a marriage that was oppressive, that crushed the fibre and essence of my being.

When I confronted him in the months before my leaving and the weeks thereafter, he presented rationalisations and rebuttals, arguing that there was something wrong with the way I interpreted his actions. I was either being irrational and oversensitive or didn’t have a correct understanding of relationships. His theory was that I was looking for a perfect marriage and didn’t understand that all marriages have problems, that what was happening with us was not exceptional. But I was not talking about the regular tiffs or disagreements that every couple may have from time to time. I was alleging abuse: a pattern of breaking me down with his words and actions, of causing me psychological harm over a prolonged period, during which he ignored my calls and pleas to stop hurting me. This marriage was destructive and it was destroying me.

Published by Tafelberg, the book is available at all good bookstores and online.