My mom endured emotional abuse at the hands of my alcoholic father for 13 years. She secured a restraining order after the only time he hit her, a scene I watched while clutching the cordless phone, my fear of him dwarfed by the fear of what might happen if I were to call the police as my mother had instructed. I was 11 years old.
I was paralyzed, so she grabbed the phone, ran outside, and called them herself. He moved out, we qualified for food stamps, the house went into foreclosure, and she ate half a yogurt at meals, relinquishing most of her allotted food portions to her three growing children.
One day, we pulled into the driveway to see two bags of groceries propped against the garage door, a balloon tied to the handle. I’ll never forget it. Upon seeing the supplies, my mother immediately burst into tears, crumbling from relief and thanks. They were from her friends, both named Judy, each of whom had divorced their own abusive spouses some years before and were now raising kids on their own and supporting my mother through her own shift toward freedom.
My mother’s common story echoes the cycle of abuse, one that typically resembles the slow incline and sharp drop of a roller coaster. Tension builds on the upward crawl toward a heated and sometimes violent incident at the peak before dissipating upon reconciliation. Elements of violence, control, and oppression characterize these relationships, though it’s not always evident from the beginning of one that it will eventually turn abusive. I am so grateful to the women who validated my mother’s decision to protect her family by letting her know she’d at least be fed.
Two years ago, my friend Esperanza (whose name has been changed) left her abuser for the final time to begin her new life. I met Esperanza in April 2012. (I’ll refer to her as Espe.) I wanted to write about her, and with her permission, DC SAFE, the organization that aided her transition by providing therapy, grocery money, emergency shelter, and a link to permanent housing, gave me her email address. Espe said she thought it would help her healing process to tell her story in its entirety to me, a “clean slate.”
When we first met, it had only been six months since she left him. Over the 18 months since then, I’ve watched my now-close friend evolve from a woman who blamed her experience on a personal flaw to one who wears what happened like a badge, attributing some aspects of why she stayed to latent issues unearthed by time and therapy.
There are some factors that can increase risk for abuse, like witnessing domestic abuse as a child, prevalent substance use, and depression, but one in four women experiences domestic physical violence at some point in her life, a statistic that transcends demographics and circumstance.
“People say to you, it can happen to anyone. But when you hear that, you try to picture it happening to a lot of people that you know and you don’t think it’s possible because you know them, you know their character,” Espe told me. “A lot of people that came to know what happened to me would’ve said the same thing about me.”
You might have a hard time picturing someone bulldozing Espe if you knew her; she is not meek. She’s a very impressive person, accomplished academically and professionally. She’s empathetic, giving and sincere. She has a great sense of humor and a ton of lovable quirks.
Espe immigrated to the United States from Venezuela as a teen and met her abuser while living in New York City a few years ago. At the time she was falling out of love with her husband, whom she supported financially as he tried to become a writer. They grew further apart after he started a job as a server, his routine rooted in the industry’s late-night culture. A man at work began paying attention to her, and she became so enamored with him that she left her husband and moved into her new suitor’s apartment. He began isolating her from the world she knew — at his urging, she procured a restraining order against her mother and sister after they nudged her to leave him and told friends to stop contacting her.
“It was like I was drugged,” she said.
When I first met Espe, she told me she took solace that at her core she always knew the way he was treating her was wrong, and that she didn’t deserve it, and that her family still loved her despite her refusal to communicate with them. Embarrassment, shame, and an implanted feeling of overall worthlessness kept her from considering her option to leave. Love and fear further complicated things. She stayed. Two years passed.
In 2010, he moved her to Alexandria, Virginia, for his new job. Her family had no idea where she’d gone, and it was there that he beat her for the first time, confining her further within this unfamiliar place. He controlled her finances and where she fixed her gaze when they were in public, forbidding her to look anyone in the face. She kept her head down. He forced her to remain logged in to Skype all day while he was at work and she was home, and when she got a job as a teacher in Washington, D.C., he watched her in her classroom.
Her family eventually found her and surprised her at school with a bouquet of flowers. She left with them, and they took her back to Venezuela. Within a few days, he arrived there to take her back, and she returned to the U.S. with him.
Between her family’s initial intervention and leaving for good, he beat her so badly she required hospitalization, and it was there she learned of a nearby shelter that would accept her in a time of crisis. Another time, she truly feared for her life, grabbed the car keys, and ran from the house. She drove the car up and down streets seeking hints of the same shelter. While that night she found it, she returned to him the next day.
On average a survivor will leave her abuser five to seven times before it becomes permanent. For Espe, it took five. “Isn’t it crazy how the textbook sometimes turns out to be right?” I asked her. She’s comforted by the statistic, she said.
“I had to be the one who left him,” she told me. “It couldn’t be like a rescue.”
Espe continues to emphasize that because she was so isolated, she had no idea what resources were available to her should she choose to leave. It was a “gap in her knowledge” that calling the police, something she then deemed too “final,” could simply put them on alert; he wouldn’t necessarily go directly to jail. They’d quell the situation and buy her some time.
Three of every four people know someone who has been abused. With this in mind, we as family and friends must be the ones to inform and empower our loved ones to make choices that save their lives. We must reinforce that we accept them whether they choose to leave or not. Our openness and willingness to listen may be what saves them. We must give them the option.
For Espe, her family planted the seed. While they were pleased when she readily followed them to Venezuela, knowing that she’d return to her abuser, something they’d sought guidance to learn, was key to her eventual success.
“Friends and family members of victims get their hopes so high on their first attempt, and then they become disappointed, because it’s human nature,” Espe said recently. You should expect her (or him) to go back, she said. “What you need to do is arm yourself with patience and always be there as an option, as a support system, for whenever the person decides to make that choice.”
Her family implemented a safety plan by giving her a cell phone to keep hidden at work that they filled with minutes. They impressed upon her that no matter her choices, they would not judge her, and they would love her always and unconditionally. While Espe had felt like a burden to her family, emphasis of their love for her counteracted the guilt that controlled her.
Ultimately, she went to the principal at her school and told her, I can’t go home tonight, I need a place to stay, I can never go back there, and he has me on Skype in the classroom right now. The principal told Espe to return to her classroom and teach like nothing was wrong while she made some phone calls. Espe had a temporary restraining order within a few hours, and she never went back.
Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness in the U.S., and experts in pockets of the country are currently working to decrease the amount of DV cases that end in homicide, though the movement is hardly widespread. While Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act this year, in 2012, the House of Representatives shuttered its passage because of provisions to offer aide to Native Americans, the LGBT community, and immigrants, whom Espe said made up the majority of women in the shelter where she stayed. Facts and figures like these can be disheartening and overwhelming, but we can look to women like Martha Hunt, who was inspired to open her own shelter after helping a neighbor who showed up at her door.
When I met Espe, she described the first day she was free from her abuser, how wonderful it felt to buy herself a coffee. “I was just looking at everybody, right in their faces,” she said. She moved into a tiny room in a group house and kept a rabbit given to her by the shelter as a pet. Now, she lives with one roommate in a house near school. She’s traveled to Spain and vacationed at the beach. She’s close with her family and fellow teachers. I hesitate to call her lucky, but she is.
Rebecca is a writer based in Washington, D.C. You can reach her on Twitter, and you're welcome to stay with her if you need to.