Recently, while attending an abuse conference, I was discussing with another attendee the suffering of those who are having to put on the good face for their mission supporters back home while being tormented by their missionary spouse on the field.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for mission leaders to be abusive to spouses, children, and mission subordinates.
We discussed that there are many seemingly insurmountable difficulties in getting free from an abusive spouse. But when that also involves living in a foreign country and being dependent on mission supporters for income, there seems to be another layer of the insurmountable.
Lisa’s story has a happy ending but it meant years and years of torment for her.
Lisa told me that when she was eleven years old, she knew that God was calling her to be a missionary. She had seen an old black-and-white film about African mission work and she immediately knew it was for her.
She spent the years following that childhood dream leading others to Christ and never imagined being married. She would be married to Christ on the mission field.
But then she met Byron who had aborted his university undergraduate degree in order to embark on a seven-year theological studies course. His seeming commitment to Christ and a future as a missionary “touched” her and they were married.
What she didn’t know until much later was Byron’s developing addiction to alcohol and later drugs.
He had been working at a vineyard while doing his theological studies and had full access to the wine cellar. It likely started with “just a small sip of free wine” which Lisa imagined he would describe as “the perfect solution to cope with the stress of the high demands he was subjected to, together with his studies.”
In addition, his smoking, which she did know about, drove her crazy. Lisa explained, “He took an oath on the day we got married, he would stop smoking.”
Lisa and Byron went on the African mission field.
The smoking didn’t stop. In fact, Byron began to shame Lisa that she wasn’t doing enough to help him kick the habit. He told her that she had “failed to help him properly” . . . shifting the blame . . . in spite of his vow at their wedding. She did all she could, even attending a group with him to help him stop.
Then as they pursued the Lord’s work on the mission field he began using tranquilizers. She explained to me,
“As head of the missionary outpost he had free access to the medications of the small mission hospital. Although all missionaries could not have any alcohol whatsoever in their homes, I only years later discovered that Byron always asked visitors from afar, to ‘quietly bring me some alcohol from the village – just please, don’t let Lisa see’ and hid it somewhere.”
Byron insisted, according to Lisa, that every afternoon he needed to sleep and he used the drugs to help him forget his difficulties on the mission.
Lisa sought to convince Byron to exercise and eat healthy foods to help with his stress but he responded, “I simply swallow something – that’s much easier, faster and more effective!”
Brain Damaged Wife
Lisa had two brain aneurisms after nearly 30 years of marriage. She suffered through a 15-hour surgery that saved her life. Their congregation had prayed fervently and they considered it a miracle that she pulled through.
Byron, on the other hand, was now angry that his well-trained wife could not do all she had formerly done for him. Initially, Lisa saw everything double and could not remember things of which she always used to remind him.
“Byron had no sympathy, just anger about what I left undone, and he angrily humiliated me as ‘brain damaged’ and presented himself as the poor husband of the brain damaged wife, eventually starting to beat me.”
The Physical Abuse
Lisa told me that when she said anything about addiction or dependence he would beat and even kick her. She eventually had “three orthopedic operations: a torn biceps in one arm, a torn triceps in the other arm and a torn knee ligament leading to a full knee replacement.”
“He often used his fists on me when we were alone, still presenting himself as the ‘victim of the brain damaged wife’ for his escalating anger and sarcasm.”
She said, “I was a prisoner in my own house. I did not want my children to know.”
But she held out hope that once Byron “understood the danger of the addiction he was gambling with, he would be willing to go for rehab. This, however, never happened.”
Lisa sought out help from counselors for the physical abuse but she was continually advised to just “love him more.” If a therapist said anything else to the couple, Byron would refuse to see him again, claiming they “don’t know what they are talking about.”
She was not realizing that Byron was “completely addicted and not at all interested in rehab.”
“As his beatings became more severe, twice a doctor reported physical abuse to the police, who wanted to arrest him. I refused for the sake of my children, and the officer assured me that the case always remains legal and valid and may be presented at any later sign of abuse. He said, ‘And he will be arrested immediately and sleep in the tjoekie – he must learn!'”
This finally put the physical abuse of decades to an end.
At the young age of 56 Byron was “respectfully requested” to resign from the mission due to the decline in his work because Lisa was unable to prop up his ministry anymore.
Lisa explained to me, “The children sensed the tension and anger in the house.” Byron kept on emphasizing his wife’s ‘brain damage’ as an explanation for the escalating tension in the house.
But, when the children or anyone visited, Lisa said Byron was the “friendly, good-natured father and loving husband.”
But he “immediately turned into a monster once everyone left.”
Others could see, however. Once a professional she confided in told her, “Lisa, I see nothing of Jesus in Byron! He is a total addict!”
In time, Lisa was able to put a name to the abusive missionary husband. She described him as a “covert narcissist.” She studied the traits of narcissism and realized that he had all of the traits described in the literature.
And there was the physical abuse and the addictions on top of that.
What she learned was that a narcissist is a perfect actor and liar. He was quite “convincing how much he adored his beautiful wife while abusing her behind closed doors.”
“In the end I had to inform my children of the dark truth that their father is a narcissist, of his addiction and his beatings of me, leading to the orthopedic operations that always ‘had other names.’ It was a huge shock for them, and Byron immediately started doing what all narcissists do: He twisted truths and sadly even told outright lies about me to isolate me from my children . . . leaning on the fact that he is their father and they have a bond of blood with him.”
Lisa sadly said that initially he successfully alienated the children from her, isolating her from them to enable him to posess and control the family.
No More Harm
Lisa noted that what we sow, we reap.
Lisa told me,
“I often prayed to God, relying on the assurance from God that He lets ‘all things work together for our good’ (as promised in Romans 8:28). When I started praising Him for that as in Philippians 4:6, I realized that God had actually allowed and then actually used Byron’s addition and resulting illness in my favor . . . to let him reap what he has sown all his life and now helplessly and harmlessly sit on an oxygen machine and in a wheelchair! Praise Him!”
She said, “Byron’s addiction and lifestyle of 60 years finally led to two heart attacks, ending in heart failure, kidney failure, severe emphyzema, eventually requiring him to be on oxygen full time due to less than 25% lung capacity.”
He now lives in a nursing home, moving about in a wheelchair in which he is pushed outside to get a smoke, then returned “urgently to his oxygen afterwards.”
But now, Byron can no longer harm Lisa.
She takes him his medication or cigarettes every eight days or so and if he makes a “sarcastic remark” she takes her leave.
He can no longer harm Lisa.
She exclaimed, “I am free!”
“The very thing that was my cross for so many years – his addiction and his abuse – has now borne fruit for him to set me free.”
Lisa knows that she did all she could to help Byron.
“And now, after more than a year in the nursing home on oxygen, I can in fact slowly start praying for him, releasing him, for my own sanity, as God teaches me. Because, just like the cruel and sarcastic Roman soldiers mockingly nailing the Son of God, Jesus Christ, to the cross, he has no idea whatsoever what he is doing.”
Lisa said, “I must just let go.”