"I literally walked around on eggshells," Jana Kramer tells PEOPLE of her first marriage

By Elizabeth Leonard
Updated July 18, 2017 08:45 PM
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Even though Jana Kramer‘s first husband, Michael Gambino, regularly beat and choked her during most of their marriage, she did something that is not uncommon among battered women — she stayed.

“I was so ashamed,” says the 32-year-old country star, opening up for the first time about her painful history of domestic abuse that ultimately landed Gambino in prison for attempted murder in 2005.

“I literally walked around on eggshells, terrified to tell anybody, because I was so ashamed of the situation I had put myself in. I was like I put myself in this and now I have to figure out how to get out of it, or stay in it and make it better.”

It didn’t get better. In fact, the abuse, which escalated from pushing and verbal haranguing soon after their 2004 wedding, to regular beatings, “just got worse and worse,” says Kramer, now 32.

Seventeen years her senior, Gambino developed a harrowing routine that led his young wife to sleep in her car some nights or hide in the bushes until he calmed down. Easily angered and frequently jealous, “he’d come home at 3 o’clock in the morning and pick me up out of bed, throw me onto the ground and start yelling and hitting,” says Kramer, who hid bruises with makeup.

“Then the next morning he’d be like, ‘Hey, baby,’ as if nothing had happened. … My self-confidence went down each time he was abusive.”

She says her early childhood — particularly a strained relationship with her father, Martin Kramer — helped set the tone for her relationships with men later in life.

“Nothing was ever good enough for my father,” she says. “I was always trying yo get his attention and, through therapy, I realized that followed through into my relationships …. When I met Mike, he was that older guy I was trying to impress.”

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Things with Gambino escalated to a breaking point on Aug. 6, 2005, when he choked her into unconsciousness and left her bleeding on the gravel outside their L.A. home.

“I remember praying that night, ‘Please, just take me away, I don’t want to be here anymore,’ ” says Kramer, who has small scars on her shoulder and arm from that night.

Gambino was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to six years in prison. He was released in 2010 and committed suicide two years later.

Jana Cruder; California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Even after his death, Kramer was haunted by guilt and shame.

“All I’ve ever wanted is to be loved, to love someone and to have a family,” says Kramer, who separated from her current husband, former NFL tight end Mike Caussin, in August.

“I don’t have everything figured out obviously, but I feel like I’m in a place where I don’t have to be ashamed. I don’t want to play the victim.”

“Even though my past isn’t pretty, it’s shaped me into the person I am today, and now I want to help people. I want to help women out of bad situations.”

For more information or to seek help for domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE or go to thehotline.org.