Roadmap to survival

Natalie Handy

By Natalie Handy

Community News Editor

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The Facts

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Editor’s Note: First names have been changed and surnames are omitted in this report in order to provide anonymity to those directly involved in this domestic situation.

ST. ALBANS — In small communities, serious issues like domestic violence can be overlooked when they are not often discussed. After enduring years of domestic abuse, one local survivor, Emily, found peace and hope through the services offered by Voices Against Violence/Laurie’s House in St. Albans.

Voices Against Violence is an organization that provides domestic violence sufferers a safe haven from their abusers, along with the means to build a brighter future for themselves and their families. With the support of Voices, Emily says she turned her life around, and hopes her experience will encourage other sufferers to do the same.

Emily grew up in Franklin County and is a single mother of three children under the age of 12. She got married young, and says that for five years was subjected to emotional, verbal and physical abuse from her ex-husband, Dan.

“I grew up thinking [abuse] was normal,” Emily says. “My ex-husband watched his father abuse his mother, and he grew up thinking it was OK, too.” she says.

Dan was a drug user, and the drugs fueled his predisposition to abuse. It can be hard to understand why victims of domestic violence don’t simply leave their attackers, but Emily explained it’s because of the “mental” aspect. Abusers take advantage of the weakened mental states of their victims, and convince them they’ll be nothing if they try to leave.

“For a long time, I was made to feel I wasn’t good enough. I was told, ‘You have three kids, who would want you? You can’t go anywhere, what would you be without me? No one else is going to be with you the way I am.’” After being told for so long that you’re not good enough, you start to believe it,” she says.

Abusive relationships are not always cut and dried, Emily explains. The warning signs are usually small and can be difficult to recognize. Victims are conditioned to blame themselves for any infractions in their relationships, so they take personal responsibility for the way they’re treated in return.

“It started simple: it was emotional and it was mental. And I didn’t look at that as violence or as damaging to me. I thought: he’s not physically hurting me. But he was, in a way. The way I felt about myself was decreasing every single day. He wasn’t putting his hands on me, but he was hurting me. Being called names, being degraded, all of the mental and emotional anguish, is abuse,” she says.

Emily withstood mental and emotional anguish for two years before her husband put his hands on her. It went from the occasional fingerprints on her arm, to bruises from being pushed, and eventually, a black eye. The violence continued to progress and took an exhausting toll on Emily and her family.

Downward cycle

“You start to say to yourself, ‘He’s right. I have three kids; no one is going to want me. No one is going to want to take on that mess. I don’t want to be alone, so at least I’m not alone,” she says.

Emily was trapped in a pattern of back and forth with Dan. The cycle worsened with time, and instead of leaving her husband for attacking her, Emily convinced herself the violence was her own doing.

“You’re made to feel like you’re the problem. You’re the one that created the issues. You’re the one who made him smack you. You’re the one who has to make things better because you’re the one who’s always screwing up,” Emily says.

Although her children were never directly exposed to the abuse, Emily knew they were affected. Her daughters would see or hear her cry, and she didn’t want them to think that it was OK. Wanting to be strong for her children is what ultimately pulled her out of her rut, Emily says.

“My girls were getting to an age where they were taking everything in like a sponge. I didn’t want them growing up thinking that that’s what love is. I didn’t want them thinking that it was OK and I didn’t want them to go through this either. And I didn’t want my son to think that it’s OK to treat women like that,” she says.

The daily abuse affected Emily’s entire life. Miserable and depressed, she had difficulty eating or functioning at all. Like many sufferers of domestic violence, Emily tried to hide her problems from the rest of the world.

“I was good at bottling everything inside, putting on that happy face, and making people believe that everything was fine. I had the perfect little family life, and that’s what I portrayed to everyone. But what people didn’t realize was that I was slowly dying inside,” she says.

The police were forced to intervene in Emily and Dan’s constant fights over the years, and after what would be Dan’s final blowout, they were served with an eviction notice by their landlord. After getting kicked out of their apartment, Emily decided she finally had enough, and walked away from her unhealthy marriage once and for all.

Although it takes great courage to finally leave an abusive situation, once the victim is on their own, they often face a new set of problems, say those who counsel them. Abusers make it difficult for victims to survive independently, and Emily was no exception.

She lost almost everything after leaving Dan, and had only what she could fit in her car. Suddenly homeless with three children, Emily went to Franklin/Grand Isle Community Action, who in turn directed her to Voices Against Violence.

When Emily contacted Voices Against Violence, she immediately got a meeting with the housing coordinator, Sherry Westover, and was put in a transitional housing apartment.

Emily’s ongoing cycle of abuse finally came to a halt and the struggle to get her life on track began.

She was in the transitional housing program with Voices for 18 months. During her stay, Voices helped put her on the waiting list for a Section 8 housing voucher, which she was approved for after 16 months.

The voucher meant Emily’s monthly rent would be based on her income, and she could live on her own with her children. In addition to housing, Voices helped Emily jumpstart a career path.

“I did a couple of trainings for careers, and [Voices] completely supported me. If I had a problem or question at all, all I had to do was call, and they immediately would be there for me. I can’t tell you how many times I called up Sherry crying, or e-mailed her because I was a mess. No matter what it was, no matter what day, even on her day off, she would always email or call me back,” Emily says.

While transitional housing was a major improvement from Emily’s prior living situation, it was still tough on her and her children.

“I got looked down upon and was made to feel less than what I was. A couple of times I heard, ‘Well, what did you do to deserve that? Nine times out of 10 it was men saying, ‘Maybe you deserved it.’ And at first I believed them – maybe I did. It took a while to realize that I didn’t.” she says.

Emily says she was afraid to tell anyone she was in Voices or transitional housing, because of the judgment associated with being a domestic violence survivor.

“I was afraid to tell anybody I was getting a Section 8 voucher list because there is such a stigma attached to it. Especially with state benefits, there are people that abuse the system and I was afraid to be put in the category of, ‘Oh, there’s another useless mom, she’s lazy, she’s on state assistance.’ People need to understand that you can’t always judge a book by its cover,” she says.

Independence

With her Section 8 voucher, Emily is currently living independently in her own house with her children. The whole family is thriving from the positive changes accompanying their new living situation.

“I have more good days than bad days,” Emily says. “Having stability is a great thing. Being able to come home and know that it is my home and that it’s not going anywhere is one of the best things to feel.”

Before becoming involved in the transitional housing program, Emily’s children struggled in school and were emotionally wrought from the constant drama. Now that they are moved into their new home, her children are happy and stable. They love their new house, Emily says, and are excelling academically.

Emily’s children are not the only ones succeeding in school. Emily is one semester away from graduating with an associate’s degree, and has plans to move on to Champlain or UVM to get her Bachelors in social work, eventually even getting her Masters.

“I want to be a counselor for women,” Emily says. “Sherry was life changing for me, she saw me at my weakest and was right there for me when I got stronger. She was part of a life changing process, and I want to be a part of that process for someone. I want someone to look up to me like I looked up to her, and say to me: ‘Because of you, I didn’t give up,’” Emily says.

Now, Emily wants to help other victims gain the strength to leave their attackers. When she was in the depths of her abuse, she had no idea that programs like Voices Against Violence existed, and she knows firsthand how important raising awareness is.

“I think we need to make more awareness so women who are in emotionally abusive relationships have people to talk to and know that they’re not alone before it gets worse – because it’s going to get worse. People need to know the warning sides before it gets to that point. When it does, it’s going to get harder to get out,” Emily says.

The women at Voices brought Emily out of her darkness, and to this day are still involved in her life. Thanks to their help, domestic violence sufferers do not have to face their battles alone.

“I don’t think people fully realize the impact that domestic violence has,” Emily says. “ … I thought that if I left, I would have to go through that by myself. And that’s why I stayed for so long – I had no idea how to get out and take care of my kids at the same time. But there is always an out and there are women who can help you, support groups that can help you deal with your feelings. You’re never alone,” Emily says.

Emily is now completely free of abuse, and is no longer worried for her or her children’s safety. It has been three years since she left her relationship, and even though she still has bad days, she is stronger than she ever thought possible, she says.

“I feel more confident and determined to prove to everybody that I can succeed. I’m not going to allow what happened to me to shape who I am or who I’m going to be for the rest of my life. I can take one of the most horrible things in my life and turn into something positive and be a success,” she says.
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More about Voices Against Violence is available online (www.voicesagainstviolence.org). The 24-hour crisis line is (802) 524-6575. There is also an e-mail address (voices@cvoeo.org).