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JULY 14, 2011 8:21PM

Her Smile is Gone

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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
domesticviolence.org
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Battered Men
The Domestic Violence Awareness Handbook

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I am very sorry about what happened to her. I was involved with an emotionally abusive girlfriend and ended up ODing and in the ER; stomach pumped, I am still here. I never told her about it (She was off with another man at the time.) I finally left, but not soon enough to prevent a possible tragedy that would have hurt my son immeasurably. It is a kind of addiction to an abusive person that keeps you in the relationship--at least, that's one possible factor behind it...
A tragedy. I have a friend whose life shares the same basic pattern as yours--an abusive stepmother (who was so outwardly charming that everyone accused my friend of being a liar when she tried to report the abuse) followed by several abusive relationships. She's now struggling to get out of her current marriage to a man who has physically and emotionally manipulated her for years. This is a story that needs to be told and addressed more often.
I had a friend who got engaged to a charming man who turned out in relatively short order to be mentally abusive and showed signs of being physically abusive around when she got out.

She said the best advice she got was from someone who'd been in abusive relationships. The advice was, when you need to leave all you need to take is your car keys and your dog. My friend commented that as a result, she got in the habit of knowing where her car keys were, and that was what really drove her to recognize that her wonderful fiance was a toxic loser.

I think if I had a family member in an abusive relationship, I'd tell them that they could come stay with me as long as they needed and arrive in the middle of the night. No questions asked.
I took emotional abuse. Just Jesse and I- ended friendships for him. I took sexual abuse. But, the day he hit me with an electric cord was the day I left. I was seven months pregnant. The morning after I go to counseling center and ask for them to help me to leave him.

Now, JL doesn't know her dad. I worry about this, but I know keeping her away from degradation to me or to her from him and from booze was smart. Not easy, but smart.

I always ask women and ask again and again. I don't pry, but I let them know I care and that I notice them- good days and bad.

Thanks for the numbers and links.
I am so sorry for your loss and for her loss of control and life. As someone who hasn't been in that sort of situation, I can only try to understand it. But I know it happens way too often and wears all sorts of different guises.
I am glad you shared her story and the resources at the bottom of the post. It could very well help someone on OS.
Tragic story about your co-worker. I agree with Patrick's comment -- abusive relationships can be addictive. Trauma Bonds. I knew my relationship with my (emotionally abusive) ex was toxic, but I married him anyway. We have two kids together, so he's still a terrorist, just from afar. I'm glad you were able to extricate yourself from the abusive relationship cycle.
I'm so sorry about happened to your co-worker -- and yourself. I recently lost a co-worker, too. Her husband killed her. She wanted to leave, but had good reasons not to. In retrospect, it was a fatal mistake. We must insist that our friends and loved ones leave such relationships. Period.
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I read an interesting case study on this, the book "confessions of a video vixen" by karrine steffans. theres a movie out about her life which paints a different story than the book. and shes a blogger on here, so unfortunately not-active though. if anyone's curious, maybe write a comment on her blog & encourage her to blog more, I personally wish she would, even though she's deleted so #@%& many of my comments, haha... no hard feelings... or at least, not too many anyway.... :p
Great post- I know these dynamics oh too well and was very close to being murdered by a boyfriend- the worst part- even after this happened I went back to him- I understand this scenario very well- people who haven't been there have trouble understanding and often prefer to share judgement rather empathy
You are an old soul.
Be gentle on yourself. It will lead you to many others who will be touched.
It fucking sucks. I work as a counselor/advocate at a rape/crisis org. That's the second time I have typed that in response to a post today. You have a really good grasp on what is going on, and this essay is vital because you allow people to know that you, too, are a survivor.
I am so sorry about your coworker. What can I say? The restraining orders work in many cases, as do protection orders. But there is a pattern of abuse that can be really hard to break.
My agency, through some great grant writing, now has a liason with the police, which has been enormously helpful for getting people to use the system to their benefit - e.g. restraining orders.
Thanks for the links and for speaking out clearly about a very, very hidden crime. Not sure if this has been mentioned, but the economic crisis has made the statistics jump...there's more cases being called in, emergency situations - and it really, really sucks.
I grew up being told that if a man hits you, you end the relationship immediately because it will always happen again.

Even so, it was very difficult to get out of my first and only physically abusive relationship. The military, the law, and even my family and friends protected him at my expense over and over. Ultimately, I only succeeded because I moved across the country (twice), changed my name (twice), cut off my relationships with people who kept telling him where I was, and finally, aggressively and successfully went after him with his superior officers until THEY made him stop. They only helped me then because his career had stalled and he'd made substantial mistakes other than those he made with me. My request for their help was not as unwelcome as it had been 15 years prior.

When a determined abuser gets his hooks in, getting out can be extremely dangerous and complicated. I'm educated, self-supporting, completely intolerant of being beaten and threatened and stalked, and I methodically did everything possible to get this person out of my life, but it still took me 15 years and many big life changes to finally accomplish it.

Yes, sometimes women go back to their abusers repeatedly after a lot of people have gone to a lot of trouble to help her get away. I don't have answers for that. Sometimes the abused person has deep emotional and financial problems, as well as children, that make it a lot harder to break away than it was for me. I've heard the stories.

I try not to be quick to judge.
Thank you for sharing this post and links...I am so sorry what happend to your coworker. You and your workplace must be in shock, and so sad. Thank you also for sharing your personal experiences...I am sorry you had to go through those.

Alsoknownas' comment is so sweet...I agree.

You and Patrick also bring up the point that women are also abusive, and as aim says, the economy and more stress can push people over their limits, people who might otherwise not act out against their loved ones. These are good reminders to get help for ourselves or our loved ones if we/they are having problems with too much stress, anger, subtstance abuse. Everyne has their own limits, and times where they need help from others. And as you and louisa say, never, ever, ever give up, whether getting help for yourself or someone you love in coping with stress or depression; or getting protection for yourself or someone you love. Sometimes it is hard to find help, but it is out there. You just can't give up. Thanks so much for sharing this great post, and everybody's comments.
Thank you for your honesty and self-disclosures. I grew up in an alcoholic home. I relate to your story.

When I read your headline I wondered if you were from MA since I know people who knew a woman who was killed there by her husband recently who then killed himself. But yours is a different case.

How many of these "incidents" are happening out there?

What horrifying stories exist behind the smiles in the halls from so many? We put on those same smiles at times, don't we? Good to remove the mask. Strong of you to do that. Ty.
There are LOTS of reasons why domestic abuse victims don't leave, or at least don't leave right away. I HIGHLY recommend checking out this excellent list, which I just came across yesterday: http://pervocracy.blogspot.com/2011/07/why-does-she-stay-with-that-jerk.html

It's by no means complete - for example, financial constraints are a HUGE reason for many people. Abusers often limit their victim's access to money for just this reason.

For me personally, it was a combination of many things. Finances were a big factor - he'd forced me into bankruptcy by stealing and running up expenses on my credit cards and checking account. Add in a touch of #1, healthy doses of 3 and 5, a touch of #9, a hint of #11, and oh, #12 - yes, I knew you well! #13, yep, in the last few years I made a conscious decision to "live within the system" because it was safer to stay and manage him, than to leave and not know what he might pull THIS time. Throw in #16, 19, and - oh yes, I see you there #20 - and it's quite a potent mix of factors that makes it really hard to leave.
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Thank you so much everyone for the comments. I apologize I have missed commenting back sooner. It's been a long week. @Patrick Frank: I think you definitely have a point there. @Felicia Lee: Direct her to me, I'll be happy to help her find resources and share anything she needs to find the path out of the rut. It's a sneaky hate-spiral that can consume an otherwise wonderful life. @Malusinka: It's funny the things we "hold onto" as part of recovery. I'm glad you are a safe haven for others... that's a good net to provide. @Mango Sherbert: My mother left my biological father before I was born, and I think it was wiser for me to not know my abusive father until I was able to comprehend him. Honesty and integrity go a long way. You honestly don't know whose lives you're saving. @Isalina Herself: I certainly hope so. @divorcedpauline: I think clawing our way out of the abuse is the only way to find a path to higher ground. I sometimes wonder if there is an easier way, but I haven't found it yet. Don't let the terrorists win! @Patti Green: It's sad that it happens to so many of our friends, coworkers, family. As long as we're there to stand up, maybe in at least one life we can make that difference. @vzn: I'd be interested in finding out more. Thanks for the heads up. @Hayley Rose: It's that push-pull cycle that draws us back in. I know. It's hard to see the forest for the trees sometimes. Those who counsel trauma know that it's "not that easy." And of course as survivors we all know and can support one another. @alsoknownas: Thank you for such kind words. I certainly hope I can be easier on myself once in a while. @aim: Couldn't have put it better myself. And yes, it's worse with the economy, especially around rural areas and semi-urban like ours that haven't necessarily caught up to its size. It's horrible. And it's not going away. And something has to be done, but it has to start from each of us doing something if we can instead of sitting back and letting child abuse, domestic violence, and ultimately violent crime and murder catch up to the urban rates around us. @LouisaFinnell: I'm glad you can see things from both sides. That's what it takes to help someone else who could be on the other side of the fence looking out toward freedom who needs a non-judgemental hand to help them. I'm sorry to hear of your past pain and wish you a better future. @clay ball: Thank you so much for your comment. You've said it all so concisely--never, ever give up on yourself or others. Life is too much worth living, whether you can see it or not. @libbyliberalnyc: Wow. I'm so sorry for their loss. It's horrible to know that this is occurring in tandem, playing out scene after scene in states all across the country. I can only wish that as we all take off our masks that we can help those who can't just yet. @NOLA viajera: Great link. I agree, it's not exhaustive, but it's got a lot of them listed. For each one, I can tell someone why it's not a good reason! It's a reason, certainly, but I've got a balance beam on the other end that holds the other aspects of life that I think once people realize is there they cannot see the rationale anymore behind those reasons, which is why judgement comes into play for so many other women who have not been abused.
Again, to everyone who has commented, I thank you so much for sharing your experiences and kind words... it has meant a lot to me and I apologize for my delayed response. Tough week.