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Hiding from Reality

My Story of Love, Loss, and Finding the Courage Within

About The Book

Taylor Armstrong, star of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills on Bravo, pulls back the curtain on the years she suffered in silence through domestic violence in this searingly honest account of her troubled marriage to the late Russell Armstrong.

The terrible truth is that I felt lost without the control that Russell had imposed on me for the nearly six years that we were married. Disturbingly, I missed that control. I didn’t know what to do once I had no one there to tell me how to dress, act, and behave; what to want; and who, even, to be. In some ways, I missed the abuse. I missed the pain. I missed being scared. Not because I liked feeling any of that. But because it was the life I had become accustomed to, and without anyone to be afraid of, to apologize to, and to cover for, I felt completely lost.

Reality hit Taylor Armstrong hard one tragic evening last August when she found the body of her estranged husband, Russell, hanging in his California home. Fans across the country were shocked at the horrific news of his death and even more shocked to discover that behind the glittering “reality” of Taylor’s life on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills lurked a painful story of emotional and physical abuse that she had been terrified to tell.
To the outside world, the Armstrongs lived like royalty, throwing lavish parties—including a memorable tea party for their daughter’s fourth birthday—and mingling with their privileged Housewives co-stars. It was impossible to hide the cracks in their marriage from the cameras forever, though, and their darkest secrets slowly began to seep through the gilded façade.

With searing honesty, Taylor candidly examines her difficult journey from the abusive home in which she was born to the low self-esteem that kept her constantly on the run from herself, to the tumultuous marriage that ended in suicide, and ultimately to her realization that only by sharing her moving story could she help other women.


Hiding From Reality chapter one Unworthy of Love
My earliest childhood memory is also my clearest childhood memory. In some ways, it’s the only one that really matters because it laid the foundation for who I am and everything that came later in my life.

I was two years old, wearing royal blue zip-up footed pajamas with white plastic feet and a white teddy bear embroidered on the left side. I was sleeping in my parents’ bed with my mom when my dad rushed in, yelling, and started punching my mom in the face. Shaking with fear, I jumped up on the bed. I pulled his brown, curly hair, desperately trying to get him to stop beating my mother, who was curled up at the head of the bed, trying to shield herself from his blows.

The carpet was seventies issue brown, and there was a red rotary telephone on a table by the door, but we didn’t call for help. We got away from my father and ran out the bedroom’s sliding glass door, and then my mom drove to my aunt’s house.

My mom has told me that my dad was very jealous, and that when he was violent it was usually because he had made up a scenario where she had been with someone else. I can remember him yelling at her when I was just a little older. My mom had divorced him by the time I was three.

My mom moved us to an apartment, and from then on, she struggled. She and my father had been high school sweethearts, and she was only twenty-one when she had me. Though she was beautiful and thin, with blond hair and blue eyes, and so much going for her, she didn’t really date or have much of a social life. She had to work multiple jobs to take care of us, and I’m sure she must have been very lonely. She always seemed to be crying, and I felt guilty from a very young age for being a part of the reason why she was so unhappy. It seemed to me like she had been forced to waste her youth on taking care of me, and that if I hadn’t been born, her life would have been better because she could have been out really living. Obviously, now that I’m a mother myself, I recognize that my mother didn’t feel like that at all, but I carried that guilt with me for years.

No matter how hard things were, I knew it was better for us to be away from my father, and I never had a longing to be with him. He remarried quickly and started a new family, and I visited them enough times to see that he hadn’t changed. Even now, the vague memories I have of him fill me with dread. He used to always flex his muscles and have me hang from his arm to show me how strong he was. It didn’t make me feel safe, like my dad was there to protect me. I felt intimidated, like he was just letting me know what he could do if I made him mad. I also can remember him saying my birth name when he was angry—Shana Lynette Hughes—and I think this association is one of the reasons why I’ve always hated my name. I never felt like Shana Lynnette Hughes. And because I didn’t like who I was, or the life I’d been born into, I always felt like there was someone else I needed to be.

When I was in elementary school, I used to ask my teacher if I could trade names with my friend Melissa for the day, and I would write her name on my papers instead of my own. Melissa was my best friend in first grade, and I wanted nothing more than to be her—a normal kid from a normal American family that had two parents, two cars, a two-story house with a white picket fence, siblings, and a dog. When I went over to her house to play, I always felt different, like I didn’t belong there. I didn’t want her or my other friends to come over to my house.

Instead of my dream childhood, I had a single mom, and we lived on fish sticks and macaroni and cheese, and I was embarrassed about all of it. I was ashamed that it was just my mom and me, living almost like sisters. Not only that, but we always seemed to be moving, as my mom tried to keep on top of our finances. This transient lifestyle made me feel even more unsettled and insecure. I think this lack of predictability in my early years created much of the anxiety that has plagued me throughout my life.

It was hard for me to go back to school after breaks and hear about my classmates’ magical Christmases, with their whole family together at their big, festively decorated houses, and the summer vacations their families had taken from where we lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma to Hawaii or California. We could never afford any of that, and I couldn’t be home alone all day while my mom was at work. During my school vacations, I went to stay with my grandparents in Cherryvale, Kansas—Betty White’s hometown, which was so small it didn’t have a movie theater or a McDonald’s, and when my grandfather died a few years ago, we sold his house for less than $10,000.

My grandparents were wonderful people who did so much to help raise me, and I loved spending time with them, but I was also aware of how different this made me from the other kids, and of all I was missing out on. Part of me loved staying with them and never wanted to leave because it was such a simple life, and I could see that for them, it was all they needed to be happy. I think I wished I could be satisfied with that kind of existence, too. But my dreams were already much grander than that. From a young age, I wanted very much to travel and have the kind of big life I felt shut out from at the time. I really looked up to my aunt, who was single and worked in the music industry. She traveled frequently, had beautiful clothes, and lived what seemed to me like an incredibly glamorous life.

To make up for what she couldn’t give me as a single parent, my mom overindulged me in other ways. She threw me the most lavish birthday parties we could afford. I’ve had horrible nightmares my entire life, but especially growing up. My mom let me sleep with her every night. Even in high school, I slept with her most nights, until I went away to college. I know that all of this was her way of loving me, but now that I’m raising a young daughter of my own, I understand that children need structure and consistency to feel safe, and that the lack of either in my early life only added to my problems. The absence of consistent guidelines in our household actually amplified the instability and vulnerability I already felt from the abuse I had witnessed, the ensuing divorce, and my father’s absence.

In retrospect, I’m sure there were many other kids in the same situation as I, but I wasn’t aware of them at the time. This may have been because this was Oklahoma, which has always been a more traditional state. Back in the seventies, domestic abuse wasn’t discussed. There was no outlet or escape, and women and children lived in quiet fear. Divorce was less common, and there were probably fewer single parents there than there were in other, more progressive places. And it wasn’t just that I felt different because I didn’t have a dad who loved me enough to be a part of my life beyond the $150 a month he paid my mom in child support. I didn’t love or value myself, and I felt unworthy of love.

Now that I’m an adult, I’ve been able to finally forgive my dad and really appreciate how hard my mom worked to provide for me in his absence. I’ve come to understand the significance of the fact that he was only twenty-one years old when I was born, that they were without resources, that he didn’t have the tools to make the marriage work or to be a real father to me. But as a child, all I knew was the trauma of the abuse I had witnessed, and the sorrow caused by not having a dad.

Unfortunately, my mom didn’t think to look for these warning signs because the window of abuse had been so small, and I didn’t actively miss my father’s presence in my life. And of course, I didn’t tell my mom what I was really feeling because I didn’t want to upset her or make things any harder for her. I don’t know that I could have articulated what I was feeling anyhow. So she had no idea of the crippling insecurities and deficiencies in self-esteem that were consuming my personality and that would haunt me throughout my adult relationships with men and eventually cause me to re-create the domestic abuse I had witnessed in my own life. Even if she had realized that I needed help, we didn’t have the means to afford therapy, which wasn’t exactly a common practice among the people we knew in Oklahoma at the time anyhow.

By not addressing my significant abandonment issues and low self-esteem, I was prone to trouble with boys from a young age. I needed constant validation from boys, and I began having long-term relationships as early as sixth grade. When my first boyfriend, Kevin, moved away after we had been together for a year, I was so shaken that I considered throwing myself in front of the school bus. The night when he left, I walked around my neighborhood in a pair of socks until there were holes in the bottoms. Of course, first love and its ensuing heartbreak are always particularly intense, but my personal history and psychological scars magnified my grief. It was as though I were being abandoned all over again, and it felt like the biggest loss of my life. And although I have to search my memory to recall this boy’s name now, at the time I was convinced my life was over. I was sure that I’d never meet anyone else, and certainly never care about anyone as much as I had cared about him. I didn’t want to live without him, but since my life did in fact go on, I had to find another boyfriend.

And so began a lifelong pattern: I always had to have a boyfriend. Without the force of a guy in my life, I became more insecure, nervous, and introverted.

In junior high, my mom moved us to Tennessee so she could take a job in the music industry. We moved back to Tulsa in eighth grade, and my new boyfriend in ninth grade, Jack, was the first boyfriend who made me feel bad about myself.

On Friday nights we often hung out at the high school’s football games. Even when Jack and I had made plans to meet, I always felt nervous as I approached him and his friends. I was desperate for any kind of acknowledgment from Jack, but he only looked away while making a joke about me to his friends. He was a cool kid, and that was his way of showing off, but it still hurt. Even though his behavior made me feel horrible about myself, I hung around, hoping for some kind of recognition from him. Instead of getting fed up by his meanness, it only made me want him more. Because I felt worthless, I thought the fact that he treated me as such must make him even more special and desirable. Whenever he pushed me away, I became desperate to do whatever I could to please him.

When pleasing him wasn’t enough to make him or any of my later boyfriends stay, I would literally run after them, crying.

“Please, don’t leave me,” I said, grabbing onto Jack’s hand as he tried to shake me off, a disgusted look on his face.

“Please, please, please,” I said to boyfriend after boyfriend, again and again, throughout my life.

It’s humiliating and painful for me to think back on behavior like this, but it’s who I was for years, including throughout my marriage to Russell.

Of course, the problem was that these kinds of relationships only lessened my tenuous feeling of self-worth even more. Because I didn’t believe there was anything worth liking about me, I always suspected that the guys stayed only because they felt bad that I was upset, and that they’d just have some new reason to leave next week.

Jack was kind of a wild kid, and I found myself experimenting with alcohol at an earlier age than I probably would have otherwise, because I felt a lot of pressure to be who he needed me to be. He also pressured me into going further than I felt ready for by telling me about a girl we were friends with who had done what he wanted me to do with one of our guy friends. When I still resisted, he teased me.

“If you’re too much of a baby, I’ll go out with someone else,” he said, turning away from me.

As he made a move to get up and leave me, I panicked and gave in. These moments occurred frequently after school because I was a latchkey kid, and some of my friends didn’t have parental supervision then, either. Looking back, I feel so lucky that none of us ended up in any kind of trouble. It certainly could have happened.

Even after Jack and I broke up, and I dated several boys in high school who were nicer to me than he had been, I never felt that I could relax and be myself. I always went along with whatever they wanted me to do, including sneaking out of my house at night to join them. I know that in some ways this was just typical high school behavior, but because I didn’t have the strength or confidence to stand up for myself, it’s fortunate for me that those boyfriends were basically good guys, or else I could have ended up in some bad situations.

Sometimes my insecurity showed up in fairly harmless ways. I had two boyfriends in high school, John and Sam, who were into sports. I instantly volunteered to help out with the teams so I could be around them all the time. Then, when my next high school boyfriend went off to college, I always went up to visit him on the weekends. Supposedly I was staying with my girlfriends who attended the same college, but of course I went straight to his dorm room and stayed with him all weekend. Thankfully, he was also a really nice, respectful guy, because had he not been, I honestly believe I would have gone along with whatever he wanted me to do to maintain the relationship. That’s another time I feel lucky that I didn’t get myself into more trouble than I did.

At other times my insecurity led me to do things I wasn’t proud of then, and I’m even less proud of now. One time, I was on a church ski trip with a large group of kids, one of whom was my friend’s boyfriend. My friend wasn’t there, and her boyfriend made a pass at me. My boyfriend had just broken up with me. With my self-esteem at an all-time low, getting that attention from this other guy was more important to me than anything else. My need for his approval at that moment was so great that I was unable to honor my friendship by making the decision I knew was right. My girlfriend found out that I had been with her boyfriend behind her back, and it destroyed one of my closest friendships forever.

This was only one of the many ways I sabotaged my friendships when I was growing up. It was scary for me to be emotionally close to people, and I was totally incapable of creating or enforcing any kind of personal boundaries, so I always felt that the girls in my life walked all over me as much as the boys did. Finally, at some point in pretty much every friendship I had, I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t return phone calls; I agreed to go to the movies and then canceled at the last minute. Sometimes this was because I hadn’t really wanted to see that particular movie but had been too insecure to speak up. And sometimes it was because I felt so uncomfortable and nervous around other people, because of my constant need to please them, that I preferred being alone to facing the stress of even a friendly social interaction.

I never had the self-esteem to think that people could like me for who I was, and so it always seemed like so much work to keep people happy in the way I felt I needed to in order to maintain friendships. Not to mention that I’ve always been a total conflict avoider, so anytime a female friend became upset or angry with me, I would avoid the situation rather than talk about it. As I said, with guys I cried and begged them not to be mad and not to leave me. I think I was a disappointment to my friends growing up because I wasn’t dependable, and I honestly haven’t maintained many long-term friendships.

I couldn’t let people get to know me; because I didn’t like me, I figured there was no way they could like me, either. As far was I was concerned, I was damaged, imperfect, unlovable. And while I know that these almost sound like textbook descriptions of an abandonment complex, it also occurs to me that they’re in the textbooks for a reason.

My whole childhood felt very gray to me. Maybe that’s because Oklahoma isn’t exactly a bright, sunny place. While it’s beautiful in many ways—with its wide-open spaces—it was far from the lush, exotic locales to which I dreamed of escaping. In high school I became obsessed with fashion, and I papered the walls of my bedroom with black-and-white images from fashion magazines, trying to create the glamour I craved, which was in such stark contrast to my surroundings.

Although I adored fashion, I was also stubborn, so when our guidance counselor tested our career compatibility in high school, and my results led them to direct me toward the areas of fashion and photography, I felt offended because this seemed like a stereotypical direction for a girl. I decided to show them just what I was capable of and go in the completely opposite direction. At about this time I had a science teacher who really inspired me, and I decided to turn my focus to science.

Of course, doing things in reaction to other people is never a good idea, and by the time I’d earned my bachelor’s degree in biology, and entered a master’s program at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, I realized I didn’t know how I had gotten there, or why I had chosen this path. More than that, I also think I had been trying to prove that I could be good enough to be a nurse or doctor and fit into the kind of successful mainstream life I had always felt shut out from as a child. I realized, way too late, that I did want to help people, just not in a clinical setting. But that’s how badly I wanted to fit in as a teenager and young adult; I went so far as to choose a career that wasn’t right for me just to prove I belonged.

Of course, as a teenager, I didn’t have the money to indulge my love of fashion. But my grandparents were generous enough to send me an allowance every month, and I immediately bought the hottest, newest thing that everyone else already had. During my school years, Ralph Lauren Polo was all the rage, and it really was a big deal to wear Polo shirts to school. I had a limited ability to have those, but I did the best I could to keep up and look as good as I could.

Thankfully, I became a cheerleader, which kept me out of a lot of trouble I might have gotten into otherwise. I had cheerleading practice early in the morning. And when we were preparing for the national championships, we practiced again after school until 5:30 p.m., which was closer to when my mom got home from work. And because our squad won a national championship in high school, and then another one in college, that opened doors for me to start traveling and have some of the adventures I had dreamed of for so long.

During the summer, I taught at cheerleading camps run by the National Cheerleading Association, and when we traveled, I found myself gravitating toward the older staff members I met. When I was eighteen, it made me feel safe to date someone who was twenty-two. I didn’t understand that it actually made me vulnerable to pressure from guys who were at a different place in their development than I was, and it also further alienated me from people my own age.

Another problem was that as I became busy with my own social life as a teenager, I was keenly aware of my mom’s sadness, and I felt guilty about leaving her alone. I could see that she was really struggling and didn’t have much of a life of her own, and this was really painful for me. It often felt like she was trying to be my friend because she was young and wanted to have fun, too, but I didn’t need another friend. What I really needed, more than anything else, was a mother.

Because I was a cheerleader and on the student council in high school, I think many people saw me as being very confident and secure. But inside I was really struggling. I felt totally out of control emotionally, so I sought to regulate my exterior reality as much as I could. I started controlling my food intake when I was in high school. Partially this was because we had a weigh-in every week during the cheerleading season. But I took my diet way beyond what was reasonable or healthy and struggled with my eating from when I was sixteen to twenty-three.

When I was in college, I used to wet cereal with milk, and then squeeze out all the milk and eat just the cereal. And then I had it down to a science where I could spread out one of those little packages of crackers stuffed with peanut butter to be the only food I ate throughout the day. Finally it got to the point where I tried not to eat at all. On days when we had weigh-ins, I also controlled my liquids because I thought of water as extra weight. I probably had exercise bulimia; I worked out compulsively, twice a day, and for so many hours that I often became injured.

Looking back, I can see what a horrible thing this was to do to myself. It wasn’t just about control. My feelings of self-loathing made me hate my body. And my fear of being alone made me worry that if I wasn’t physically attractive, I’d never keep a boyfriend. I couldn’t believe that guys could like me for any other reason. Because there was obviously nothing good enough about me to love on the inside, I had to make sure I looked good enough on the outside to be desired. Sadly, these were beliefs that would stay with me for a lifetime.

About The Author

Taylor Armstrong was a star of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills on Bravo. She currently lives with her daughter in California.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (October 16, 2012)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476704623

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