I discovered Tom Petty’s music during the worst part of my first marriage. Yeah, I was late to the show for a lot of reasons, but his ‘Full Moon Fever’ album had been released and his songs were always being played on the radio.
I bought a ‘Full Moon Fever’ cassette and absolutely loved every song on it. For months, I played the cassette at Mitchell Hosiery in Fort Payne while boarding socks until the tape was completely worn out. This album is a masterpiece and two of these songs gripped me like no other songs had at the time: ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and ‘Runnin Down a Dream.’ Each of these songs were monumental for my outlook on life, particularly with building my self-esteem, finding my self-worth, and getting out of a horrible marriage with a vile dream-crushing tyrant of a woman who was bent on shattering my mentality. Sadly, at that time, she had been overwhelmingly successful.
The lyrics of ‘I Won’t Back Down’ helped me understand that I didn’t have to take the mental and verbal abuse I had been suffering. I had been polite and silent during most of the time my first wife continually assaulted me with her vicious words. My silence had sometimes allowed her to stop her tirades simply because she felt victory at her display of dominance and my submissive behavior. I truly thought if I offered no argument or resistance to her abusive behavior that eventually the abuse would stop. It didn’t.
She had, in many ways, taken the place of my parents in her ridiculing behavior and her way of belittling me. It was strange how I had found a person who held the poorest qualities of my parents, but when I had first met her, she presented herself as a loving, affectionate person whose sole purpose was to make me feel like I was her perfect match. She had somehow managed to keep her evil traits hidden until two days after we had married. Then her true self emerged and the woman who had falsely portrayed herself as the ‘love of my life’ never reappeared. This had been a startling transformation that I had only wished I had seen one time before we exchanged our vows, but her manipulative nature kept these aspects hidden. Without self-esteem, I was at her mercy. Predators readily identify their vulnerable prey and pounce when least expected.
Shortly after my marriage my self-esteem plunged lower than ever, and I never imagined a way out. I never thought life would ever get better. I cannot put into words the misery I was pressed beneath. My world seemed shrouded by forever gray mists of defeat. However, the more I listened to the lyrics of ‘I Won’t Back Down,’ the more I convinced myself that I didn’t have to put up with her brutal behavior. So I began standing my ground. Instead of this making things better, it actually made matters much, much worse. Her words became more vicious and she shouted at me for the least little thing. She had convinced all her friends how horrible a person I was, she had even convinced me (gas-lighting), and every weekend we had to visit her family. Not mine, though. She pitched fits if I ever stopped by my mother’s house to visit my siblings after work. If she got word that I had visited without her, she’d accuse me that I hadn’t gone there and had, instead, been ‘seeing someone else.’ (If ONLY).
But I no longer took the abuse in silence. I spoke my mind and let her know she was the one who needed help, that the problems weren’t me. At first, it stunned her because she had known me to be timid, but within a week or so of pointing out her issues and her lies, her violence escalated. On two different occasions, she tried to stab me. Once with a dull knife, but on the second occasion, she shattered a picture frame and took a long piece of the jagged glass and came at me. That was when I knew I couldn’t stay with her. She was dangerous and unhinged.
Before these stabbing attempts, I had talked to our landlord. She was a retired teacher from DeKalb County public schools. Talking to her prompted my need to return to college. I had dropped out of college in 1986, but the idea of becoming a teacher seemed a promising and rewarding career. But with all the mental abuse I had endured up until that point, I wondered if I could do it. When I told my first wife about it, she became furious, which wasn’t the reaction I had expected. I thought she’d be thrilled, but instead she went into a rage.
“I’m not going to support you while you go to college,” she fumed.
“I don’t expect you to. I’ll still work full-time and take classes,” I replied.
But even that was appalling to her. She refused to accept it. Going to college was an abomination, at least in her mind. The one year of college education that I had already earned was something she constantly insulted me about, and I had been unable to complete my education, which must prove that I wasn’t that smart. She capitalized upon this, but my returning to college to finish my degree became a threat, as she could no longer throw this in my face.
Later, I discovered that she didn’t want me to go to college because she had been a D student in high school, and my earning a degree was an insult to her (not sure how, but that was her reasoning). She and her father had often made fun of me because I had been in college. When I had planted a garden at his house, he kept teasing me about how I had set up my rows in the garden.
“Is that how they teach you to plant a garden in college?” he asked with a mocking grin.
When harvest came, however, my rows outproduced his by over 50%. He was stunned because we ended up giving away produce to neighbors after we had filled our freezers. That was the last he mentioned anything derogatory about my college education.
But she didn’t let the issue go. When I finally mustered the courage to enroll in college, she insisted I move out. It made no sense to me at all. Regardless of my reassurances, she kept insisting I leave. So I did, and this was shortly after my little brother had died in 1991. I had to move back home with my mother.
The timing was the worst, too. It changed my financial aid status, which prevented me from enrolling in the Fall Quarter at Northeast. After redoing my financial aid, I was set to start classes when the Winter Quarter came.
I continued playing ‘Full Moon Fever’ while working in the evenings at Sunrise Hosiery in Fort Payne, and the song ‘Runnin Down a Dream’ captured me. For over two and a half years, I had suffered mental abuse from a woman with a severe mental disorder. Her doctor had insisted she was bi-polar, and prescribed Prozac, which didn’t help. It was many years later before what she had was fully understood. But the abuse had affected me in ways I hadn’t recognized at the time. It wasn’t until I had freed myself from her mental grasp that I learned something about myself and how strong my mind and self-preservation were.
During the two and a half years I had been trapped in that horrible relationship, my mind had shut down to protect me. Basically, I had been on cruise control, so to speak. I functioned only to survive. I ate, worked, and slept. Seriously. Everything else seemed bottled up in my head and tucked away. Only a few weeks before I had enrolled in college, I feared that I had forgotten the essentials I needed to take Pre-calculus and my English composition classes. Then, one day, a strange thing happened at work.
I boarded socks, which was a mindless occupation. Each eight hour shift gave me plenty of time to sort through my issues and concerns. Then suddenly, my mind unlocked. Mathematical formulas surfaced from my memories. I was shocked. Things I had learned over the years unraveled, and it was the oddest sensation. I had not forgotten anything. It was there, but my mind had placed a barrier to prevent me from suffering further abuse, to protect my inner core.
‘Runnin Down a Dream’ became my theme song at that particular time. I knew to get ahead in life, I needed my college education. I thought about Berea College and how living on campus had been a greater necessity than I had realized when I had been a student there nearly six years earlier. I reapplied, got accepted in 1992, and then moved back to Berea. Doing so, changed my life in so many ways. I lived outside her reach and had secured freedom my mind needed. I could breathe again. I was able to restructure myself and set my goals and dreams. Bit by bit, I started building my self-esteem. I made new friends. I decided not to isolate myself or be timid. Instead, I became courageous enough to ask out women that I was interested in. This was something I had never done during my first year. But I had chosen to be bolder and not fear taking chances.
Needless to say, her abuse didn’t stop after our divorce. She still attempted to cause me problems. Midway through my first semester I made the tragic mistake of giving her my campus phone number. She called one evening and immediately started trying to pick a fight with me over the phone. Living on campus three states away had given me a luxury I had not had before. I simply hung up the phone and left my dorm room. Problem solved. When I returned two hours later, my phone was still ringing. One of the students that lived in the room next to mine looked at me with a rather odd expression while I was unlocking my door.
“How long has that been ringing?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “Nearly two hours nonstop.”
I picked up the phone, hung it up without saying a word, and then I took it off the hook, setting it on the desk. I’m truly thankful cellphones hadn’t existed back then.
Music and song lyrics inspire and motivate us. Tom Petty’s words in these two songs were powerful messages that helped me during the lowest points in my life. Discovering ‘Full Moon Fever’ was an unexpected gift that came at the perfect time. Tom Petty will always have a special place in my heart. Physically, he’s gone but his words and spirit live on. R.I.P. Tom Petty. Keep rocking, as I’m certain you are.