October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
This month, we speak about domestic violence and raise awareness, to help reduce its frequency and effect. Domestic violence affects as many as 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men. It occurs when someone is physically hurt by their partner. Emotional abuse and manipulation is even more common. Domestic violence is broad – it affects people of all educational levels, salaries, races, religions…
But I’m not writing to give you statistics or be pedantic. I’m writing to share my own story. I was married during medical school, when my life was extremely stressful and I was working a lot. I had my first child in medical school, as well. Life got to be so busy, and my partner and I argued over the stress. He started to hit me – but only when we were really stressed. I would put a limit afterwards, and things would settle down. It got to the point in residency, after our second child was born, that I told him I would leave him unless we went to therapy. So we went to therapy, which helped, but whenever we stopped therapy, it would start up again.
Why did I stay?! Why did I have 3 children with this man? Hindsight is 20/20, and I know that I did not deserve to experience any of this. But after he hit me, things would settle down for a while – almost long enough that I could convince myself it wouldn’t happen again. Then he would tell me that our kids needed their father, that leaving and separating him from the kids would be worse for them. I have had enough support and education focused on this in the past few years, that it’s still hard for me to understand why I stayed. A family therapist helped me to understand this better, with this explanation: a person in a relationship like mine is like a frog in hot water – if you threw the frog into boiling hot water, it would struggle against it and try to get out; if you put a frog into tepid water and slowly heated the water to a boil, the frog would not struggle and would slowly heat up and be boiled. This was my experience – at first my partner was supportive and loving. His family was kind to me. Then things gradually got worse. I was also isolated – my work was so busy and my relationship with friends and family became more distant. Isolation is common in abusive relations.
My story did not end well. I tried to stick it out for my children, thinking that it was best for them to have a father involved. Unfortunately, as my children got older, he turned on my children and abused them. When this happened, when I found out – the clouds parted immediately for me and I was able to see how wrong the whole situation was. Escaping from such a relationship is also a challenge and requires support and a back-up plan. For me, that plan involved speaking with my son’s therapist, who helped me make a plan. The plan included taking my son to see his doctor and then his doctor reported the concerns to child protective services. I also spoke with a family attorney, who gave my guidance. He encouraged me to write down all of the times that my partner had hit or pushed me, with the specific dates and any added descriptions I could remember. Together with the lawyer and CPS, we formulated a safety plan, and I filed for a protective order. I subsequently filed for divorce. This became a long process. During the process, I was particularly grateful that I was able to stay in a safe space with family. I was also lucky that I had a great job and career. Therapy for me and my children was incredibly helpful.
Everyone’s story is different, and everyone’s path out of it will also vary. The first step is generally admitting to yourself that this is not okay and that you don’t want to live this way. Leaving is complicated, especially if there are children involved, so preparing is important. Start by documenting events – try to write down specific details of when the violence occurred. You may need this later for legal action. Also, begin securing a financial safety net – having an account in only your name and setting aside cash. Make sure you have access to important documents – birth certificates, social security cards, deeds for car or home. If you are married or have children, legal support is also important. You can reach out to legal aid or make appointments with local family attorneys who are experienced in domestic violence. They may guide you to get a protective order. Also, think about a safe space where you can escape if things become increasingly heated. If you do not have local family or friends where you feel safe, then reach out to the local domestic violence shelter – most communities have one.
My plea to you – If you or someone close to you is in an abusive relationship, you do not deserve to be in this situation. Help is available. If you are reading this, now is the time to get help. Abuse is insidious – it doesn’t go away or get better on it’s own, but help is available to you.
Local resources may be most helpful, such as community leaders (religious leader, doctor, teacher, social worker, family lawyer) and local community resources, like a domestic violence house.
Here are some additional resources:
- National Domestic Violence Helpline – 800-799-7233; sms 88788, thehotline.org
- Police – 911
- Child Protective Services (if your children have witness the abuse, this is child abuse)
For a more extensive list of resources: http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/resources/national-domestic-violence-organizations/