Surviving and Thriving – Thanks to a Little Help
|by Kelly Eckert, November 2013|
If you didn’t know Maggie,* you would have no idea that she was a survivor of domestic violence. She wears no bruises, no physical scars. In fact, she radiates a self-confidence and warmth that are both inspiring and comforting. Well-educated – she is a registered nurse – and amiable, as we chatted about our children’s college application experiences it was easy to forget why I was speaking with Maggie in the first place: to hear how she went from being a victim of domestic violence (DV) to championing and advocating for other DV survivors.
The first question I asked was the one question every DV survivor dreads: “Why didn’t you leave sooner?”
“I didn’t think I was smart enough to leave,” Maggie said.
It’s easy for those of us who have never experienced domestic violence to think: If he did that to me, I’d be out of there. But Maggie shared how the road of domestic violence is paved with a gradual and insidious chipping away of your self-esteem. As with many victims of DV it started slow and it started small, with her husband asking for the grocery receipts. It felt a bit weird, but part of Maggie was happy to establish a division of labor in the household. Her husband would manage the money, and she would manage the house and the kids.
With time, that division of labor turned into iron-fisted control. Soon she was forbidden to access their bank accounts; she needed permission for the smallest of purchases; her access to communication and information was curtailed. Maggie’s self-esteem was whittled away to nothing.
This is the ultimate tool of the DV perpetrator: to destroy your belief in yourself. How can you leave when you don’t believe you are valuable, intelligent, and capable enough to leave? Lisa Hannum, director of outreach and education at Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern PA, says that one of the hardest things about helping victims of domestic violence is that most people simply don’t understand what domestic violence is—even people experiencing it.
When most of us think of domestic violence, we think of physical violence but that isn’t the only form. There are four types: physical, psychological, sexual and economic, and it can happen with anyone with whom you have an intimate – sexual or otherwise - relationship.
While the expression of violence may be different, the root and the goal are always the same: power. Domestic violence is about one person’s attempt to have absolute power over another. Exerting that power can be in the form of hitting, kicking or punching; verbal abuse; forcing sex or withholding sex; and controlling and withholding money.
Maggie’s experience with domestic violence was economic and psychological. From the outside, it appeared she had the “perfect” life - a handsome husband, two great kids, a beautiful home, lots of “friends”. In public, her husband was well-known, admired, and the “life of the party.” He was charming and enjoyed showing off their nice furniture and her expensive clothes and jewelry.
In private, he did all he could to tear Maggie down, and to denigrate, belittle, and control her. No matter what she did, she “just couldn’t do anything right.” Given a strict budget for groceries and clothes for the children, her husband would become furious – in front of their children – for small “mis-steps” such as purchasing jeans for her son without asking permission. Maggie’s income from her nursing job went straight into the checking account that was “joint” in name only: Maggie had no access to her own money.
Over the course of 25 years of marriage, Maggie’s husband isolated her from her family and friends. “Their” friends were in reality his friends, and they all thought he was a “great guy.” Maggie was further secluded by not being permitted to use the home computer. She got her first email address and did her first Google search after leaving just five years ago.
Having been raised in a religious family that didn’t approve of divorce, Maggie was too ashamed to reach out to her family. Though she discovered later her family suspected something was amiss, like most victims, while Maggie was in the midst of the abuse, she believed that somehow it was all her fault—that she deserved what she was getting. Maggie still struggles with shame—about how she could fall in love with a man like that to begin with, about how she didn’t stand up for herself sooner, about why it took her so long to leave.
Maggie laughs when she explains what finally got her to leave: a pork roast. On New Year’s Eve several years ago, Maggie’s husband berated her for serving the roast on the “wrong platter, with the wrong knife.” That tiny thing was the proverbial straw that broke Maggie’s back . . . for good. Something clicked, and she felt a quiet strength growing in her as he humiliated her in front of their guests. She was shaking and scared but knew she couldn’t take it any more. She did the dishes, then, without saying a word or taking anything with her, drove to her mother’s house and never went back.
Lisa Hannum explains that leaving is a huge step for survivors of DV, but it is just the first step on what is often a difficult road to freedom and recovery. This is where Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern PA plays a huge role. DVSSP helps victims of domestic violence navigate the court system and learn the skills they need to live on their own. They provide 24-hour hotlines and offer appointments for individual empowerment counseling. Legal advocates assist victims of domestic violence—both women and men—with filing Protection from Abuse orders in court. Women—and their children—can seek emergency shelter in Washington or Fayette Counties. And women can apply for DVSSP’s Fresh Start transitional housing and training program.
In the last fiscal year, DVSSP provided 9,185 nights of emergency shelter to 592 women and children, averaging almost 25 people per night. Twenty-three women and 36 children were enrolled in the Fresh Start program during the last fiscal year, and 12 of the women, and their children, “graduated” with enough strength and support to continue on their own.
Maggie says the people at DVSSP were essential in rebuilding her life. Through their support groups, Maggie discovered she was not alone and that she was definitely not “the only person in the world going through this.” DVSSP helped her learn how to manage her own finances, how to get through the legal system and how to rebuild her confidence and self-esteem.
Maggie recently bought a house of her own. She now volunteers at a DVSSP shelter and has begun giving presentations to create awareness about domestic violence. The biggest message Maggie wants to share with other women is that “domestic violence can happen to anybody.” She is on a mission to make sure girls get an education and learn how to be self-supportive. She wants women of all ages know “They don’t need a man to be happy; they can value themselves and take care of themselves; they should listen to their gut!”
*To protect “Maggie’s” privacy, a pseudonym has been used.
If you are inspired to help, DVSSP is always grateful for unrestricted monetary donations. In addition to funds, they currently have a need in their shelters and transitional housing for:
- Standard size bed pillows
- Microwaves, Upright vacuum cleaners
- Women’s robes of all sizes
- Curling irons, Blow dryers
- Body lotion, ody wash, deodorant
- Regular size conditioner, hairspray, hair gel
- 3 pk ladies panties, ladies socks
- Small gifts for moms, small toy for children
- Toilet paper, paper towels, or napkins
DVSSP will be accepting donation of goods at the Wise Women “Strong for the Holidays” event on November 18, 6 – 9 pm at the Crowne Plaza South. Bring in any one of the items above and we will throw in a few free raffle tickets for your evening “auction” pleasure!
More info at www.wisewomenlife.com