Recently I was asked to talk to a group of women about the effects of Domestic Violencethe family. After much thought and reflection on how Domestic Violence affected my family along with so many others I wrote the below speech which is now a new blog. 🙂
Advocating to end Domestic Violence has become a very important issue for me. You may ask, “why”? Why would you speak so loudly about ending something that so many still want to sweep under the carpet and look the other way? Well it could be because it affects 1 in 4 women in our Country. Or it could be that 1 billion women world wide will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime or perhaps it is because every 6 days a woman is killed in our Country by her partner or former partner. Or simply it could be because it happened to me.
I never thought I would end up in an abusive marriage. I was raised in a Christian home where nothing was solved with violence. We talked out our issues and I remember only being spanked once as a child. Family violence was an unknown to me.
I met my ex in the mid 90’s. He was quiet, sweet, attentive, good looking and he swept me off of my feet the first time I met him. I knew then and there that I was going to marry him one day. I was in love. We talked on the phone for hours, spent all of our free time together and for me my whole world started to revolve around him. I never knew that underneath all of the niceness was a man who was quietly listening to me, observing me and figuring out my weaknesses so that he could one day use them against me. I had no idea the trap he was setting for me.
In 2002 we were married. We had three beautiful children, two girls and a son, owned a home, lived in a small town and both of us were involved in the Community. He was a volunteer firefighter, I was a Sunday school teacher. We faithfully attended Church and planned to raise our children in a Christian upbringing. We both worked, had pensions and savings. To the outside world we looked like we had it all, but we didn’t. Behind closed doors it was a whole different story. Behind closed doors there was screaming that was gradually increasing to a point where it was happening daily. I was being called horrible degrading names and the physical abuse was increasing. For example my fingers were crushed in a door one day because in his eyes I wasn’t listening and I needed to be punished. There were chairs, tools, steel toed boots and cutlery thrown at me if I “stepped out of line.” I was slammed into walls if I defied him in anyway and near the end, my life was threatened more than once. My life became, what I call, a giant “Cat and Mouse” game of survival. I was always trying to stay 10 steps ahead of him to survive. My head was constantly spinning and I struggled to focus. As each year passed I felt myself drowning just a little bit more. We separated in 2010.
Let us not forget that in amongst all of this chaos there were three little people who were trying to understand what was going on. They witnessed the name calling, they heard their father tell them that their mum was stupid and that they should never listen to her. They had their security shaken daily. They saw dad hit mom. They saw mom hiding in the pantry crying hoping no one would hear her. They saw mom not eating and losing weight at a dangerous level. They saw moms hair falling out in clumps. They saw the woman that always saved them slipping away. As a child they did not understand what was happening, but they knew how it made them feel. They couldn’t put it all into words, but they could wet their beds and have nightmares. They could struggle at school due to a lack of focus. Who can focus on learning their ABC’s when they are worried about what dad will do next? Would he be scary daddy today and hit their little brother. Or would he be fun daddy who took them swimming and out for supper? Every day was a throw of the dice, never quite knowing what you would get.
For optimal development, children and young people need to grow up in a secure and loving environment. Where domestic or family violence exists, the home is not safe or secure and children are scared about what might happen to them and the people they love.
Studies show that children who have witnessed domestic violence are more likely to:
- show aggressive behaviour
- develop phobias and insomnia
- experience anxiety
- show symptoms of depression
- have diminished self esteem
- demonstrate poor academic performance and problem solving skills
- have reduced social competence skills, including low levels of empathy
- show emotional distress
- have physical complaints.
For my oldest, who is now 14 yrs old, she built walls around her feelings and has struggled to express them and have empathy for others. You see she was my exes favourite. He took her everywhere with him, bought her extra gifts and as some said to me later, he treated her more like his wife than he did me. She was put on a pedestal and I was at the bottom. He took her to events and left me at home. Always having an excuse as to why I had to stay home with the younger two and we could not get a babysitter. Later I learned all about grooming a victim and that this is what he was doing with her. Child grooming is befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, to lower the child’s inhibitions for further abuse. She admitted to me later that she played her part well just to keep herself safe. She went along with him and did all he asked to save herself from his wrath. In doing that she learned how to hide her true feelings and now she struggles to express them.
My daughter remained his favourite until one day she stood up for me. After witnessing me receiving a verbal lashing she asked her dad why he treated me so bad? Up to that point no one had ever stood up to him in his life. He had been a bully through school, caused many fights and his family enabled his behaviour, as had I. He did not know what to make of her question. His face turned white and he has barely acknowledged her since. You see abuse is all about one person wanting power and control over another person. In this moment his control over her and over me was being challenged. To avoid having to take responsibility or deal with his need for control it was easier for him to just toss her to the way side.
This changed my daughter. For many years she kept many people at arms length. It was only last year that her walls started to crack. I believe the love of my family and having God so strongly in her life has helped her heal. For that I am grateful.
For my middle child, my second daughter, the journey has been difficult in a different way. When she was six years old she was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is common in children aged 5-12 yrs old who have experienced violence in their home. Prior to her diagnosis I vaguely knew what PTSD was. I knew it was something soldiers could get after being at war, but beyond that I really had no clue. I learned that PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a life-threatening event such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, domestic violence or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood. 50% of abused children will be diagnosed with PTSD, 45% of abused women will also share this diagnosis, compared to 30% of soldiers after being in combat. I believe the higher rate in children and battered women is due to the fact that they are often defenseless and the one hurting them is someone they love and are supposed to trust. They do not have weapons to fight with and they do not get down time away from combat like a soldier does. They have to be on alert for danger 24/7.
My youngest daughter was diagnosed with PTSD after experiencing nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, a severe lack of focus, memory loss, noise sensitivity and she was acting out. Her acting out included bed-wetting, peeing in garbage cans and laundry hampers. She was screaming out for help. Help was given to her. My second daughter now has a child Psychiatrist, sees the school counselor and has a Mental Health worker for more intense counselling, She is also on medication that eases her anxiety and helps her sleep while fighting the nightmares. I have to say it has been a heartbreaking road as a mother to watch. To see my little girl struggle to remember a sentence at school, needing to sit right next to her teacher just to feel safe because she fears her dad coming to school to kill her. To watch her go catatonic when her father was mentioned in passing and to know that there is probably abuse that I still do not know about is hard to bear. I pray though. A lot. I and her professionals know that she caries secrets that only time, strength and maturity will reveal. We patiently wait as this tangled ball of yarn unravels and all of us will be there to help her sort it out as it comes. There have been some break through’s where she has come out of her cocoon. I have watched her take Karate, make friends at Girl Guides and find her love for God at Bible Camp. It has been amazing to watch her blossom.
My daughter is now 10 years old, Her PTSD still flares from time to time. Something will trigger a memory and the nightmares will come back full blast, She will start coming into my room at night crying because she is so afraid, or I will get a call from school that she is scared and they need me to come and calm her. With her I live a life of reassuring her every day that she is safe. I have become safety to her which is very common in young children who are abused. They will attach themselves to the non abusive parent. They will be extra clingy which is something I deal with daily with both her and her younger brother. Patience and love is how I deal with that. Reassuring both that they are safe, that I love them and that nothing bad is going to happen to them or to me. My second daughter still needs a nightlight to feel safe as pure darkness will send her into a panic attack and her sister and her both struggle when they have rooms apart from each other. Security and safety is their concern in every situation of their life. They are healing though. Every day is a step forward. It may be a life time of healing but they have learned that abuse from a man is unacceptable and they will not accept it in their future relationships. I have worked hard to empower my daughters and build their self esteem so that they will not accept anything but the best from a future spouse. I am determined to break the cycle.
My son was three when my ex and I separated. He is now 8 years old. He was physically abused by my ex from the age of 16 mths to 4 years old. Being that his abuse was during most of the “preverbal years” it has been hard for him to express his thoughts and feelings about it all. Often he would physically attack me if he was scared or if something happened that triggered a memory. At the age of 7 he would physically attack all of us almost daily. His mind was releasing the memories since he had matured, but because they happened before he could really speak he acted his feelings out physically like a toddler would,. He too saw the school counselor and a Mental Health Worker. There we learned that you can never go back to preverbal times and put words to those memories, but he has learned how to manage his emotions, how to put words to the feelings he has now and we learned how to deal with his OCD tendencies, also common in someone who is experiencing abuse. Due to the stress of the old memories surfacing he was trying to find control in his day to day by having OCD tendencies. He needed to kiss me goodbye with a certain amount of kisses and in a specific pattern. If he did not do this he would become hysterical. Through therapy he learned that no matter how many kisses he gives me I will still come home at the end of the day and neither he nor I will get hurt. It was a difficult year, but with the proper support we did get through it as a family and he is an amazing little boy who is truly loving life now.
I am so proud of all of my children. They had a hard start to their life, but I had promised them that I would get them away from the abuse and I did just that. There have been many counselling sessions, support from family, friends and our Priest that have helped us on our journey. Somehow we have made it through the last five years and I am starting to see three amazing children laugh and just be kids having normal kids problems. It is so wonderful to see. I still praise God when I hear them laugh. It is a true blessing after so much darkness.
Now without breaking the cycle of abuse, my daughters would have had a high chance of picking an abusive partner. My son would have had a high chance of becoming an abuser himself. That risk is still there being they saw abusive behaviour in their formative years, but with each new coping skill that is taught, with each counselling session they attend, with each day passing of not seeing their father their chances of being abused or being an abuser decreases.
For me, as a woman and as their mother, being a victim of Domestic Violence has changed everything about me. As I said before I did not grow up with violence. I did have a low self esteem when I met my ex and he knew that. I was an easy victim. He listened and learned about my weaknesses and he learned what I wanted out of life. He became the man I always wanted. At first. He was a great manipulator and had me snowed for many years. Abusers will do that. They will wear a “nice” mask for all to see. To the outside world he was a boyfriend who was completely taken with me, but as the years passed “the mask” started to slip. Imagine for a moment how exhausting it is to pretend being someone that you are not. It is not so hard when you are dating someone because there are times when you are apart and you can be who you truly are. When you live together though you have to pretend 24/7. In time that gets tiring and annoying. So the mask slips. The odd outburst of anger is quickly put down to him having a bad day, but slowly those bad days turn into bad weeks and then one day you realize it has been a bad year or decade. By then you are married, have three children, a mortgage and are so focused on trying to make him happy that you have lost yourself. Your world revolves around his moods, watching his body language, you become an expert on predicting his next move because you just want to survive another day. You no longer live. You simply exist. Slowly he isolates you from your family and friends. Slowly he is the only person you have and you start to think you must deserve this abuse. You believe him when he says, “well if you weren’t so stupid I wouldn’t have to treat you this way.” You believe that if you just listen better tomorrow and love him just a little bit more it will all get better one day.
Then are good days when you are so glad you made it through the bad days. There are moments where he makes you laugh and you remember that nice guy you first met years ago. Little do you realize though that those good days are just there to pull you back in. To manipulate back into staying committed to your relationship. You remember how seriously you took your marriage vows. You promised till death do you part, but then one day you realize death may come at the hands of the one you promised to love. You also realize that he has broken every marriage vow he ever made so in the eyes of God are you really married anymore? You spin and try to figure out how to break free safely because you learn that the threat to a woman’s life goes up 75% when she is leaving or has left the relationship. You have been under his control for so long that you no longer know how to make a decision on your own. You believe him when he calls you an idiot so how could you possibly escape and raise three children on your own? How would you afford it? What would your family think? Or his family? Will they stand by you? Life becomes one great big unknown. And then one day when you finally collapse, and as your knees hit the floor, you call out to God asking him to save you. It’s then that you realize He has been there all along. He has seen you cry. He has seen you shake in fear. He has seen you paste a smile on your face so that no one suspects the abuse. He has seen you step in and take a beating over your son. He reminds you of your strength, He wraps you in His Holy Spirit and somehow you find the strength to end it. With God by your side you end your marriage and take steps towards freedom.
On average a woman will leave 7 times before she finally ends the abusive relationship. Some never get the chance to end it, their partner or former partner ends it for them. Permanently. Their children are often left with their abuser or are put into foster care. Often their futures are not bright and they are faced with a high chance of fighting a drug or alcohol addiction, being a runaway and possibly falling into prostitution.
The number one group of homeless people is women and children fleeing Domestic Violence. Many have no where to go because their abuser has isolated them from family and friends and often finances are tight. Many return to their abuser or live on the streets. Shelters are often too violent or there are no available beds. On April 15th 2010 Statistics Canada asked all shelters in Canada to note how many women they had to turn away. In total 426 women across our Country were turned away. The number one reason was due to overcapacity. Other reasons noted were mental health concerns, drugs and alcohol abuse. The number one reason women gave for being in the shelter was that they wanted to protect their children. Finding housing, after being a shelter, is hard to do in our Province. Some shelters offer transitional housing, but for many women that option is not available, CMHC reports that, in October 2013, the rental vacancy rate in Regina was just 1.8 per cent, and the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment in the Queen City is now $1,018. The rental vacancy rate in Saskatoon was slightly better, at 2.7 per cent — but unfortunately, rents were higher as well, at $1,041. And women looking for accommodation in Estevan was doubly messed with average rents of $1,175 and an effective 0 per cent vacancy rate on two-bedroom apartments, the minimum apartment size for women with children (Prairie Dog).
Lack of finances is the number one reason many women stay. For many the finances have been completely controlled by their abuser. Many are not allowed to work and their names are not put on the land titles or bank accounts. Myself, I did work. I worked for SaskTel for 15 years and I made a comfortable living. My ex did abuse me financially despite my job. Over time he came up with excuses as to why he couldn’t work and many times out of fear I said nothing. I went along with his excuses. This left things very tight financially. During one maternity leave he refused to work so we only lived on my maternity leave payments. This left me sneaking food from our Churches food-bank just so I could feed my girls. He also created a lot of credit card debt in my name which has completely ruined my credit. This has changed my plans for retirement and how I am paying for my kids continuing education. I am no longer able to work at SaskTel. In 2011 I too was diagnosed with PTSD. Suddenly I fit into another statistic, one where 1 in 5 women who are abused by a partner will be diagnosed with PTSD. I was suffering terrifying night terrors, I had zero task for the simplest job, I was falling asleep at my desk at work and when a customer called me from the time they said their name and why they were calling I had no memory of what they said. I was terrified. The diagnosis was hard to accept, but I do my best now to manage it with medication and my own counselling. Due to my PTSD my doctors had to remove me from work permanently. At 41yrs of age I was accepted to receive Long Term Disability. By no means was this where I planned to be in my 40’s, but it is what it is.
Fear, intimidation, and manipulation kept me in this cycle far longer than I should have, but being I am a good person I wanted to believe that he too would one day be a good person. That he would get help. I also believed my kids would be worse off being from a broken family due to divorce. Not realizing at the time that our home was already broken.
You can’t make a person change when they do not want to. My ex has been arrested twice for assaulting me and once for my son. We have been on an exhausting journey within our Court system. Since 2009 I have been seeking justice and safety. It has been a hard and very long journey but I do not regret one step of it. Yes I have been re victimized by the Court and yes my kids were ordered on visits with my ex that never should have happened. All simply because the Courts wanted to see if this time my ex would behave. I soon learned this is very common when dealing with Domestic Violence in our Courts. The abusers are often given far too many chances and the victims are blamed. I have never stopped fighting though and I still have some fighting ahead of me. I am happy to report that there have been some victories. My kids live with me full time and at this time they have no contact with their father. I also have a restraining order against him. For all of these things I am relieved.
As a family we are healing. The stats may sound grim, but we are a family who is determined to prove those stats wrong, My kids are not going to be run aways living on the streets or the school yard bully. We are all learning ways to manage our anxiety, to calm our fears and to talk about our feelings rather than act them out violently. We have also been becoming a new family. I have a wonderful new partner in my life. We were high school sweethearts who reconnected and in many ways saved each other. He has taught my children and retaught me that not all men are violent. He has built us up rather than tearing us down and he has loved us all unconditionally. It is not easy to come into a family that has been abused. There are memories and triggers that you do not know or understand. There are fears that make no sense, but with ongoing communication, prayer and guidance from others we are becoming a loving family. I am so glad to have this second chance and to give my kids a healthy family to grow up in.
I strongly feel Domestic Violence can end, but we all have to play a part in ending it. If we see it we need to report it. If we suspect it we need to reach out to the victims. During the last year of my marriage I had a coworker suspecting something was not right. She asked me one day if I was ok. I do not know why but for some reason that was the moment where I broke my silence. I started to tell her what was happening at home. She remained my daily confident for over a year. Without her and other friends who just listened I do believe I may not have been able to leave when I did. Knowing that others see the abuse, hearing from them that it is wrong, having your pain validated by another gives a victim strength and helps them become a Survivor. We need to help the victim who desperately wants out. Help them regain some of their power and control and please do not turn a blind eye. Domestic Violence is not a private marriage problem. Domestic Violence is an epidemic in our society and trust me the victims do want out. Many just do not know how to do it. I challenge you to reach out and be that hand offering hand.