October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but the people who experience it want you to be aware of it all of the time.
My first personal experience with a victim of domestic abuse was in my early twenties. I met a stunning woman who worked at my office and we became friends. Betty (not her real name) had dark hair worn full and glossy to her shoulders, porcelain skin, beautiful dark blue eyes, and a slender, feminine figure. We were talking one day and I expressed admiration at how lovely she was. She looked at me with a strange grimace on her face and said, “I didn’t always look like this.”
I laughed and said, “What, a little gilding on the lily?” She grew very quiet and pensive and I suddenly realized this was hard for her. I quickly assured her I didn’t mean to pry and she said, “No, you are a friend,” and she shared her story.
She married young to a man who was ten years older. Although she had no idea at the time that this was not the usual way to express love, he spent the next five years of their marriage isolating and tearing her down through emotional abuse. By the time they had a child, the abuse had become physical, but she was afraid to leave because he told her he would kill her if she ever left him and she believed him.
One night when her son was about four, the physical abuse affected him as well and she finally fought back. She never had before and she said, “It was like it was what he had been waiting for.”
He beat her until she was nearly unconscious and then when she came back to consciousness, he started again. A neighbor called in the disturbance and when the police came and saw the pitiful wreck he had left of her on the floor of their living room, they arrested her husband and called an ambulance for her. Their son was a few feet away, screaming and crying as he hid behind the couch.
Her husband had fractured her jaw, her orbital sockets on both eyes, broken several of her ribs, her collarbone, two bones in her arm and had punched her so hard in the mouth that most of the upper teeth were dislodged. Her sight would forever be compromised in one eye and the months of surgery it took to restore her to functionality were only eclipsed by the years of surgeries she would require to recover her appearance.
He served three years of a ten-year sentence and then began trying to find her.
She changed her name, her occupation, her appearance, protected her son any way she could and avoided public photography of any kind…just in case.
Betty told me this story, mostly with her head down, as if she was afraid to meet my eyes and see some kind of condemnation there. I learned later from my friends at Texas Advocacy Project and Survive2Thrive that this is not uncommon.
Many people don’t understand how fear of the unknown (loss of security, income, support for children, even access to a car) can be more frightening than violence or abuse.
The fear of the known…”He will kill me and my children if I try to leave,” is even worse. Women who have not experienced violence or abuse often think it is because they are smarter, stronger, or more informed and that this somehow shields them. They don’t understand why an abused woman would stay with her abuser or how she could even be attracted to him. They also don’t realize that abusive relationship patterns surface as early as high school.
I assure you, it can happen to anyone. It can happen to me, to you, your sister, your mother, your daughter…anyone. Just ask the woman next to you. Odds are that one in four women will experience abuse or assault, (sexual, emotional, physical) in her lifetime.
Learn more, get involved, talk about dating and domestic abuse openly with your children (Particularly as they become teens and don’t think this is just a woman’s issue – men can be abused as well!), and doing something to help where you can.
The odds are just too high for us to ignore.