October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but really we should be trying to be more aware every day. The statistics are shocking- 1 in 4 women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime. Please take the time to read and share this post so that together, we can help that number dwindle.
Our very good friend, Emily, is one of the strongest women I know. She handles motherhood so naturally, while holding down a full time job as a women’s health nurse practitioner, where she offers not only her medical expertise, but her unwavering support for her patients and still has love and energy for her family and friends. She is one of the strongest and most loving sources of support in our circle of friends, so I am not surprised that she wants to share her story to help other women.
The two things I remember most about that night were relief, and hearing the neighbors sliding their chain across the latch as I screamed for help. Relief because there was no more denying that this was abuse. The sound of the chain because it was in that moment I realized how alone I really was.
All the rest sort of floats around these two memories. The sound of his key in the lock. His smashing my head against the wall, slapping me across the face, kicking my gut as I gathered his belongings into a garbage bag. The heinous names. His hands around my throat as I punched with all my strength to get him off me, the fingerprint bruises on my neck.
Relief, and the chain. Those are what stand out, the clearest of all the memories.
Of course, it didn’t start with the events of that night. It never does. It started out well, probably even too well. It usually does. When the first insults came, the experience was akin to walking peacefully along a beautiful pedestrian cobblestone street, window shopping, sipping a latte, and then suddenly being struck from behind by a motor vehicle. At first, I had no idea where it came from, what I had done, how I could have foreseen or prevented the crash. Then, little by little, I started to sense that danger was lurking in unpredictable corners. I would still walk the pedestrian street, but now I would look both ways before crossing.
How did this happen? I am a strong, smart, educated woman. He was bright, funny, on track for an impressive career. I have also always been an accommodator, and until the dissolution of that relationship, was often willing to bend my needs somewhat to meet the needs of someone else. In bending those needs within that relationship, my insecurities grew. And I began to believe some of what he said to me: the names he called me, the cutting insults. The rational side of me knew he was being abusive and mean, but the seedling of doubt that lived in my gut let way to full-grown blossoms. When his jealousy and control took over, I let him convince me that it was because of how strongly he felt, how special I was. I made excuses, I made compromises, I bent and swayed until at times I no longer recognized my vital self; I turned from friends and loved ones on his demand, I isolated, I gave in.
It took a time of separation, after he had graduated from college and I stayed on to finish another semester, for me to let real anger set in. My anger, and the hardening which came with it, were what allowed me to extricate little by little. By the time that night came, it was all the push I needed to free up any doubt or hesitation about ending the relationship. There were incidents even during our semester apart, but until the physical violence bubbled up and over, all I had were words and feelings as evidence. I will never again understate the power of emotional and psychological abuse. The physical is painful and glaring, but the other cuts deep into the soul.
When that night finally came, it followed a jealous episode in which he had shown up at the restaurant where I was working. Though the potential for the attack had been there all along, the more he sensed my pulling away, the closer he got to lashing out. He was losing control, and as often happens with abusive people, my growing disillusionment was the tipping point.
When that night finally came, there were no sirens. My neighbors slid their chain locks, no one called the police. Though after it was over, after he had gone the police did come – in response to my father’s desperate call from Vermont. My dad had been on the phone with me when the key slid in the lock and the shouting began. He gave the police all the information they needed to locate me. After taking my statement, they arrested my attacker at dawn, in his family home three miles away.
Around that same time in my life, I met the man I would marry. To say he saved me is inaccurate. To say he loved me completely is true. Loved me, trusted me, and has never needed to know everything about my every move, never needed to control me. Still, my husband did not save me. Nor did my father, or the police.
I saved myself when I wrote out my victim’s statement, and when I refused to recant my story a few months later. When I stood up in court during sentencing and requested my attacker be required to complete the Emerge Program for Abusive Men as part of his probation so that, hopefully, any future partners might be spared. I saved myself when I refused to go back to the relationship despite his begging. When I became a nurse practitioner: working with women, advocating for them, connecting them to services, empathizing with them in a deeper way than they will ever understand. When I gave birth to four boys I am parenting as positively as I can so they may grow up to be respectful, kind, non-abusive men and partners.
In those early days following the attack and subsequent separation, I would have flashbacks at any given moment, almost as a dream flies through your mind while in deep sleep. It was as though bits of myself, my childhood, my essential being, were crashing back into my mind, heart and soul as I began to realize I was safe again. Safe to cross the pedestrian street without looking both ways.
This is my story, but it is not rare or unique. I share this 12 years later because I simply could not have shared it sooner. Right after the attack, several people close to me knew what had happened. However, as I have moved on, have grown a new circle of friends, gotten married, had my children, I don’t tend to bring this up in casual conversation. I share it today because it is important that those who see me and know me now – a competent, confident, professional mother of boys, a musician, politically vocal woman, and friend – will know I was once stuck in an abusive relationship.
Every one of us knows someone or has been a victim of partner abuse. The statistics are daunting, and the only way we will overcome these numbers is by teaching our children how to not be abusers, themselves, and how to stand up to abuse when they recognize it. We need to help them understand that they cannot control or demean others; to teach them what it is to hit below the belt, and to help them understand why it is important never to go there. We need to teach them not to bully or make fun of others, even behind their backs; teach them that name calling is unacceptable, and that they are never to perpetrate violence, especially against someone physically weaker than they are.
If you know of someone in an abusive situation, or are concerned about a loved one, know that they need you even when they push you away. They are either being forced to isolate by their abuser, or they are not ready to leave and are afraid you will judge them. Be their friend, their family, even if you can’t understand what keeps them stuck. You are not there to push them out of their corner; only they can do that. Give them the Lundy Bancroft book, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry Men, so they can read it and know they are not crazy, they are validated. And, no matter what their partner says, there is no justification for abusive behavior. At the end of the day, never be the neighbor who slides the chain across the lock when someone screams or whispers for help. In dangerous situations, calling the police, even anonymously, is perfectly acceptable. Otherwise, open the door, be the friend, be the family, don’t back down. Someday, they will likely find their way to the surface and they will need you in their corner as they heal and come back to themselves.
If you need help, please check out these resources:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)
Safelink Hotline 1-877-785-2020
Emily Swisher-Rosa lives south of Boston with her husband and 4 amazing sons. When she’s not seeing patients, she keeps busy taxiing her boys to activities, playing the violin, and singing in her church choir.