The last thing that I remember before falling down the stairs was my husband’s hand wrapped so tightly around my throat that the edges of my vision had begun to turn black, and my desperately clawing at his face in an attempt to do anything needed to get away.
Then suddenly I was lying at the bottom of the stairs, and as he stepped on my pregnant body to make his way out the front door, he stopped to face me, looking down upon the crumpled heap of his wife and unborn child, and said, “You can either live in my house, or you can die in it. And if you call the police, I’ll tell them that you scratched my face first, and I’ll have you arrested.”
When I saw his car turn the corner at the end of the street, I began to frantically pack a bag before gathering up my sleeping two-year-old, and pulling out of my driveway for what I thought might be the very last time.
I couldn’t live in that house with him, and I certainly didn’t want to die in it.
But then, terrified of what my husband might do when he found out that we had left, I stopped and called the police. I told them of the fight that had transpired, and I wanted them to know that I was taking my daughter somewhere safe overnight, and that I would figure out the rest in the morning.
“Ma’am,” came the voice on the other end of the phone, “if you take your daughter and leave, and your husband reports it, you can be charged with kidnapping. And if he does have facial injuries that you admit were caused by you, we may have to arrest you and let a judge sort it out.”
I’d like to say that it was the first time that I had tried to leave him and gone back, but it wasn’t.
I went back that night to him, to the home I feared I might die in.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and I’m telling my story in hope that by raising awareness and raising my voice in support of victims, fewer women will have to feel as alone and trapped as I did.
Because I did go back that night. Because despite all the times I’d heard people talking about domestic violence, and all the reasons why I knew I should leave, I couldn’t figure out how.
I couldn’t get his voice out of my head — the one that told me I’d never leave him, and I’d never take our kids. “Drew Peterson hid a body,” he’d remind me at night after I’d turned out the lights, “and if he can do it, I can do it too.”
After my own family made it clear that divorce was too shameful for them, and that they would not assist me in my attempts to leave, I called the shelter, because I figured that was what I was supposed to do. I asked them, if I came to stay, what my next steps would be.
I was saddened to learn that, aside from getting some counseling and possibly an order of protection, there really were no next steps. I could stay there for a few weeks, and as long as my husband didn’t file anything against me, our children could stay too. But without a long-term legal plan, I would forever be tied to him, and we would always share custody of our children.
Contrary to popular belief, most shelters do not provide legal services that help victims get divorced. In my town, there was no service within the shelter to help me file for divorce, and no one to help me fight a custody battle. I would be left all alone, navigating a complicated legal system that I didn’t understand. And, more shocking than that was this fact: Even when the courts know about abuse, the abusers will win a custody battle 70 percent of the time.
It’s a myth that claiming abuse will automatically win victims custody of their children.
Even if I wanted to hire an attorney to fight the one my husband surely could afford, I couldn’t. I had no money for an attorney, no job to make that money, no childcare to get a job, no money for childcare, and because I was still married and linked to my husband’s income, I did not qualify for any state services until we had begun the legal separation process.
But how was I supposed to legally separate from him if I couldn’t afford an attorney? How could I even start the process on my own, with the odds stacked against me when it came to retaining the custody of my children?
I could never leave without my children.
So I stayed. I went home with my children, as many, many women do, because I couldn’t figure out how to legally get us out.
Less than a year later, my husband gave my infant son a black eye, and shortly after I took him to the hospital, my husband disappeared. Abused and abandoned, I found an attorney who had mercy on my soul and got me divorced, nearly free of charge. But not everyone is that lucky.
Now it’s four years — and a blessed lifetime — later. During that time I’ve watched my fellow domestic violence victims not only lose custody of their children to their abusers but also die in marriages that they couldn’t get out of, because there was no next step to help them after they initially left. There was no next step after they went to the shelter where everyone told them to go, and for many of those victims, there wasn’t even that first step.
Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women and children in the U.S., because there are more victims than there are shelters with available space.
And for those women who did try to “just leave” with their children, many of them still died, because leaving is actually the most dangerous thing that an abuse victim can do. It’s so dangerous in fact, that even after all of the beatings and abuses combined, a victim is still 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving the relationship than if they had stayed.
That is unacceptable.
These victims, who had heard from their abusers time and time again, “You will never leave me,” “You can’t leave me,” “No one will help you,” “No one wants to help you,” “You are worth nothing,” and had finally been able to take the brave step to shut that voice out and leave, often found themselves standing there alone, where no one could hear their weak and weary voices calling for help.
I needed help.
But I couldn’t hear the voices of the people who wanted me to leave, because I couldn’t hear over my husband’s screaming, raging voice. And even when I tried, that voice that I needed to hear, the one that said, “I can help you,” well, it wasn’t even there.
Sometimes the help just simply isn’t there.
People tell me all the time that my writing about the terrifying truths of leaving a domestic violence relationship is going to scare victims away from trying to leave, and I hate that thought — but I’m not sure how else to get the word out that people are dying because no one knows the truth.
The victims know the truth, and just because we don’t talk about it doesn’t make it any less real.
We need to raise our voices so that when a victim makes the brave choice to leave her abuser, she can hear us calling her, because we knew that she needed help.
We need to be louder, because the myths are still out there, and they are hurting victims.
In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, let us all pledge to be louder — and loud about the right things. We are not doing enough to save the staggering number of victims, and we won’t know that unless we talk about it.
We need to be louder than the abusers, because right now, they are screaming the loudest, and we are silencing the truth.
Four years later, I’m doing alright. My kids are 5 and 8, and they have no contact with their father. I’ve gotten back on my feet, navigated the crazy world of single parenting, and founded a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to women in domestic violence shelters, so that they can have the same chance at the future that someone gave to me.
I lived the truth, and I won’t be quiet just because people don’t want to hear about it.
We need to be loud — louder than abuse.
Change comes from the voices that are willing to fight for it.
I’m willing to fight for it.
I fought my way out, and I’m not leaving my fellow soldiers behind.
I’m loud, because they need me.
Be loud, because they need you too.