From victim to survivor
by Rhonda Campbell Clay
It shouldn’t have been me. I was an educated, upwardly mobile professional. How could I have ended up in a courtroom, waiting to file an order of protection against my husband for domestic abuse?
Let me start from the beginning. Ours was a storybook romance: fell in love in high school, separated by colleges in different states, reconnected years later to marry and have the storybook family. Outwardly everything looked great. I was a mid-level manager at my job, on track with promotions, traveling across the world for work, with a nice car, a nice house, two children and a dog. Except that I was suffering from verbal and mental abuse. I was constantly talked down to and yelled at if other men looked at me or said I was attractive.
Everything came to a head after my husband threw something at me while I was holding our 6-month-old son, because I questioned him about going out that evening. “When I get back, I am going to beat your a**,” he told me. It was then I decided that I would not raise my son in that environment and that I was leaving. However, it was not that simple.
I did leave that night, taking only a few clothes and items for my son. I checked into a hotel and hid out for a couple of days until I worked up the nerve to tell my mother that I had left him and why. I thought that by filing for divorce it would be a smooth process. It was anything but. The next two years were a nightmare.prices are imposed.”
Know the patterns
You may be familiar with statistics showing that the most dangerous time for a woman in a domestic violence situation is when she leaves her abuser. It was true for me. Once I made the decision to leave, the verbal and mental abuse turned physical.
One night he kicked in my door and held me at gunpoint while our son was sleeping in his room. He held the phone (which he had snatched from me) and told me that he planned to shoot me and then himself, but he would allow me to call 911 so that someone could come find the baby. He asked me if there was anything I wanted to say before he did that. I told him I wanted to pray. As I sat on the floor, quietly crying and praying out loud, asking God to protect my son and comfort my parents, I even found the words to pray for my abuser. He was not “big into God,” as he said and scoffed at my prayer. I prayed for at least 10 minutes and as I prayed, I felt lighter. When I finished praying, he was gone. But that was not the end of the story.
My mother began to stay with me. My days went something like this: I got up in the morning with my mom and took my son to his daycare provider. My good friend met me there and we drove to work. At the end of the workday, we drove back to the daycare provider. My mom met us there and went home with my son and me and spent the night. This went on for months. My friend and I constantly looked in the rearview mirror for vehicles to see if my husband was following us. One morning we did see him and detoured to the nearest police station to report him.
For two years my ex-husband stalked, hounded and harassed my son and me. He jumped out of bushes, hid in my backyard, kicked in my front door and held me at gunpoint several times.
Advocates are important
I was able to obtain an order of protection (after going to court repeatedly) when my friend who is a police officer referred me to an agency housed in her precinct. As I sat on her couch, crying, frustrated by the process of trying to obtain an order of protection, I heard her say: “There is a lady whom I work with...I think she can help you.” The woman, Tara, was a domestic violence advocate with Family Rescue. She (and another woman named Jennifer) shepherded me through the process of obtaining the order and the subsequent court appearances.
If I had to describe Tara, I would say that she is a 6-foot 5-inch, 300-pound, fearless bulldog, housed in a petite 5-foot 1-inch woman. She stood next to me in hallways, courtrooms, parking lots and any time I felt afraid. She answered my calls at all hours of the day and night. She went with me to court when the judge threw out my order of protection because he said if I had answered the phone when my ex called, he wouldn’t have come to my house to beat me, drag me down concrete stairs and try to kidnap our child. She wiped my tears as I cried that day. She helped me through counseling for my son and me as we began to recover from the trauma of abuse.
Then there was the Sunday morning when I decided that I was going to take my life back and stop living in fear. I was sitting in church with my mom. It was the Sunday after Easter, and a seminary student was preaching about the disciples waiting in the upper room -- waiting to hear what had happened to Jesus. As the student talked about what it must have been like in that room until the Holy Spirit arrived and blew through all of them, I thought about how I often sat in my room at night, sleepless, waiting to hear a car drive by or footsteps on my porch, wondering if tonight was the night that he would get in and kill me. That morning I decided I would no longer live that way. I prayed for God to protect my son, my family and me. I prayed that I would accept God’s will. After church I told my mom she could go home to my dad. She refers to that day as the day I “got brave.”
As scary as all of this was, I had a wonderful support system. My workplace allowed me to take the time I needed to go to court (repeatedly over an extended period) to pursue charges and my divorce. His picture was posted with human resources and security officers in the building so that when he tried to come to my office (and he did try), both building security and the police department were on call to handle him. My friends were supportive, providing places for my son and me to stay when we were afraid, even opening their homes in the middle of the night. My parents stood by me, even when I couldn’t stand on my own. My pastor was supportive and even came to court with me on one occasion. Most important, all of these people prayed for and with me.
What can you do?People often ask how to help when they suspect that a loved one is in an abusive situation. My advice? Offer them a non-judgmental place to talk. Help them think through an escape plan. Most important, pray with and for them.
My friends told me: “If you need a place to go, I am here for you.” “If you need to talk, I am here for you.”
They never asked, “Why do you stay?” They never judged me before or after I left.
Find out what resources are available in your area. Help your loved one to access those resources. My biggest fear was that I might have to go into a shelter with my son.
My friends and family made sure that I didn’t have to -- even when it meant hiding my car and me so that I could be safe. As I look back on that time in my life, I often say that the only way I survived those years was through the grace of God, my family and my domestic violence advocates, Tara and Jennifer.
Today I have moved through the storm. I no longer view myself as a victim of domestic violence. I am a survivor. I am happily married to a good Christian man (Lutheran, like me), who loves my son and me unconditionally. He’s accepted me with all of my baggage attached. He’s loved me through all of my doubts that I could be loved and my fears that things would never be different. He prays for our family without ceasing. He is my promise in the rainbow.
I’ve learned something that everyone should learn: Domestic violence does not discriminate. It affects people in all walks of life, every race or ethnicity, every social and economic level, and every gender. Anyone can fall victim to abuse. It is my hope that after reading this story, someone else will become a survivor.
To my sisters in the struggle who have not yet crossed the threshold to survivor, stay strong, keep praying and reach out for help. I know from experience that there are good people in good organizations who will help you get out. Most important, stay safe.
ResourcesThe National Domestic Violence Hotline. Visit www.thehotline.orgor call 800-799-SAFE (7233).
National Network to End Domestic Violence. Find resources and local organizations online at www.nnedv.org
Visit www.loveisrespect.org, call 866-331-9474, or text loveis to 22522
Rhonda Campbell Clay, a communication and fundraising professional, is a native of Chicago who now resides in Knoxville, Tenn., with her awesome 16-year-old son and her loving, supportive husband. (back to top)
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