She was a woman who smiled back at me when I smiled at people in the hallways at work. She was a woman who worked arm in arm with us in a department that you're constantly getting people who are more than likely mentally ill screaming at you, calling you names, and berating you over the phone for things that we cannot change. But, like the rest of us, she came back, day after day, sometimes even with a smile from across the hallway as she passed you.
Her life was cut short this week. She had stories behind that smile that I guess we'll never know, because she was murdered by her husband (who had assaulted her several times before) who then killed himself. According to the newspaper in town she had previously prosecuted and then dropped charges stemming from a stabbing she endured at the hands of this drug-taking, alcoholic abuser. She even had an order of protection, which she dropped. Ironically, his parole was being revoked on Monday--he killed her and himself on Friday or Saturday.
In talking to coworkers, I've heard the same thing over and over again--"Why didn't she just leave him when he stabbed her the first time?"
And here's what I know.
I grew up with an alcoholic, abusive step-mother. This abuse led me to a drug-using, abusive girlfriend when I turned 17. And no matter what my friends told me, I would not believe that the mental abuse was occurring. We moved in together when I was 18, and the downward spiral escalated, with the controlling behaviors engulfing me and physical abuse beginning. After a particularly bad night of abuse and cheating (while I was in bed with her!) I left... with bruises. I still for some reason felt drawn back to her, like she would be the only one that could protect me or understand me. The abuse cycle never ceased, as I immediately hooked up with another domineering, alcoholic girlfriend. This time, the abuse only once got physical, but the mental abuse was so severe I was actually convinced at one point I was bipolar because she had told me I was bipolar, over and over. She decided to move on to the next victim and I was left with no sense of self, no friends, and no family (because she decided I needed none of these). It was then that I decided that I wasn't going to let my past predict my future, and I was going to let the abuse stop.
I began thinking about Yvonne, about how stuck she must have felt to defend this monster in court. The line most people are familiar with is "It's just not that easy to leave." And it's not. There are financial considerations, physical needs to be met, and then the emotional consequences of just being alone (or on the bad side of the abuser). The community can provide shelters like ours in town, Harmony House, and all of the new laws it wants to help protect victims, but it is really up to the victim and this emotional need that will cause change for abused people. Until an abused person feels emotionally separated from the abuser, which can take a lot of therapy or a really emotionally stable personality to begin with, it's not likely that true change will occur.
I remember thinking about leaving my first girlfriend, and my second girlfriend, long before we actually parted ways. The reasons why I never "just left" at the urging of my family? I felt that stability was had of some sort in the relationship. I knew my place, I knew who I was in the context of the relationship, and my identity was too wrapped up in being the other half of a person to feel comfortable defining myself in any other way. To be frank, I had no self-image or esteem and felt better when I was told what self-image and esteem to have rather than having to work to find it. I can't speak for every abused person in an abusive relationship, but using the terms "stability in its instability" sometimes fits for the emotional context as to why it's just not that easy to keep up the strength to leave.
And that's why police officers are called back, day after day, responding to domestic assaults of the same individuals. That's why abuse charges are dropped (I dropped my assault charges against my first girlfriend, too). That's why orders of protection are little else but a piece of paper. That's why Yvonne's boyfriend became her husband AFTER he began beating her. That's why he isn't in jail.
That's why her smile is missing in the hallway.
If you know of domestic abuse going on, it's not okay to remain silent. Even though it may seem like an abused person doesn't want to leave, it doesn't make it right to stand idly by. Letting the abused person know about resources available, therapists available for limited cost, or just support can go a long way towards moving on with life and avoiding tragic loss of health, limb, or life. Please do what you can to protect yourselves and each other.
For more information on domestic violence, please visit:
The Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
The Domestic Violence Awareness Handbook