Hillary Holladay June 24, 2019
She is a tall, middle-aged woman with dark circles under her eyes. Dressed for work, she will head to her job later in the day. For now, she is seated at a table with Cindy Hedges, executive director of Services to Abused Families, Inc. (SAFE), the regional program for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault.
She has agreed to talk, anonymously, about her life as a survivor of domestic violence. As she speaks, her voice rises; her eyes shine. Vying with her anger and grief is determination. With the help of Hedges and the SAFE staff, she is learning to see beyond the horrors of her past and make viable plans for the future.
For SAFE, she is a tangible success story. The nonprofit agency often loses track of the women and men it helps, because, as Hedges says, they don’t want to revisit a traumatic time in their lives. But this woman has stayed in touch. She speaks eloquently about her newfound ability to see the patterns of violence in her past.
The trouble started when she was a very young child and her mother died. Not long after, she lost an older sister. Soon, her father married a “monstrous” woman who “would literally beat me black and blue.” Her stepmother also berated her and insisted no man would ever find her attractive. When the girl told her father what was going on, she says he did nothing.
As a young woman, she gravitated toward “terrible” relationships, because that’s what she was used to. With counseling, she has come to realize the pattern: “When you go through horrible abuse, you push away good relationships. You don’t allow yourself success,” she says.
She describes her first husband as a “raging” alcoholic and drug addict: “He would put a needle in his arm and inject just about anything, including alcohol.”
Bent on escaping him and making a better life for herself and her children, she enrolled in school. The program she chose led to a good job and the financial independence she needed. But not long before she graduated, she says her children experienced unspeakable trauma that continued for years, trauma that inevitably affected her as well. (To reveal the details would be to risk exposing her identity.)
“This has been a lifetime of abuse,” she says—“one big, taxing trial.”
She divorced her husband and went on to other relationships and two more marriages. She had more children. She experimented with street drugs. She took psychology classes in hopes of understanding herself and the people around her.
She got divorced a second time, and then a third. Last year, one of her ex-husbands threatened to hurt her.
“I believed him, and he scared me. I was in a very vulnerable situation. They took me in here,” she says, nodding toward Hedges.
She and Hedges trade smiles when they talk about the “countless” calls it took before she showed up in person.
There was one week when she called several times, always early in the morning. She would say she was OK one day, not OK the next.
“Just come and talk to us, so we can work through this,” Hedges urged her.
Finally, she paid a visit.
“I was a train wreck,” she says now.
To her amazement, SAFE offered her much more than a secure place to stay while she got her bearings and decided on her next move. She lived in the SAFE house for about a month, participated in the agency’s group therapy sessions and talked at length to individual staff members, including Hedges. All of SAFE's services are free and confidential.
Gentle in demeanor and careful never to shame anyone, Hedges nevertheless insists on being firm and direct.
“If you’re self-sabotaging,” she says, “I’ll tell you.”
Commenting on the woman she has gotten to know well over the past year, Hedges says, “She would get angry and tell me I didn’t know what she was going through.”
But as they became acquainted, the woman saw that Hedges understood a lot. And the director of SAFE would not coddle her.
“She needed truth,” Hedges says. “She doesn’t do well with patronizing at all. There were days when I would just look at her and say, ‘Nope, this is not the way it is. You’re not doing it this way.’”
Glancing at Hedges, who has become a trusted friend, the woman says, “You were 200% right.”
Through therapy and many conversations with SAFE staff, she says, “You get better at seeing red flags.”
“You listen to that internal voice,” Hedges puts in.
“If you don’t listen to it,” the woman adds, “you’re going to end up in a bad situation. Listen to that internal voice, and you’re going to be OK.”
The two agree that a history of abuse can make it hard to recognize a dangerous person or a bad relationship. But that ability can be regained, if you’re willing to trust your instincts and listen to your gut.
With the continuing support of the SAFE staff, the woman is determined to stay on track and focus on giving to others in need. Even though she recently lost a child to a drug overdose, she refuses to give up.
To others in danger, she has a message: “You have to reach out; that’s the biggest thing.”
She says it’s also important to know that even after you escape domestic abuse, you won’t feel OK, at least not anytime soon.
“Even though you aren’t actively living in an abusive situation at the moment—say you’re living alone, but you’ve been in this cycle for your entire life—you’re still affected. It affects your career, your job, your education, your emotions, your everything.
“You have to get counseling, therapy,” she continues. “This program [at SAFE] was amazing for me. I wasn’t even here that long, but it was long enough to get talked off the ledge enough times and then get strong.”