October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Over the years I have shared my deeply personal experiences with the blessing and permission of my mother, a survivor. I credit her for teaching me that even in troubled times, to never be ashamed of my story. I share these words in hopes that they bring compassion and perspective about intimate partner violence and its rippling effect on families.
People have stigmas about domestic violence — how it happens and to whom — so I’ve struggled through writing this to be clear about ways it has hurt my friends, my family. I now know we are not alone in our struggle to escape violence. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence most recent data on domestic violence. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During the course of one year, this equates to more than 10 million people. Every 9 seconds in the US, a woman is assaulted or beaten.
I have personally struggled with the question, “Why do women stay?” It often takes me back to the few years my mom spent with Mr. (an alias because his real name isn’t as important to the story as the fact he served time in prison for murdering his first wife) that taught me fear, anger, and escalation. Busted walls, broken dishes, brandished firearms eventually resulted in the shattering of my mother’s ankle with the stock of a shotgun. At an early age, I learned to recognize his growing rage and when to tip-toe my way around. “Why don’t we just leave, Momma?” was my first question at any sign of trouble.
When I was old enough to make my own poor relationship decisions, I found myself twisted up in an increasingly hostile situation. I knew the signs all too well. He began by breaking his things, then he moved on to breaking my things. By the time it turned to throwing my dining room chair, I knew his behavior was careening down a familiar path. I was next. Escaping his jealous rage was not easy; I was embarrassed for years to admit I had stayed around for so long.
I realized that year that there are so many reasons why people stay. An all too familiar list published by WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise addresses some of the most common.
Conflicting emotions. “Abusers use verbal, emotional, and physical violence along with apologies, promises, and affection to control their victims.”
Shame. “Victims often feel tremendous shame and embarrassment and use denial as a way of coping with the abuse.”
Safety concerns. “In many cases, the abuser has threatened to kill his partner, himself, or the children if his partner tries to leave. (This is also true of men who are abused.)”
Lack of money and resources. “Money is often tightly controlled, so a woman may fear losing financial support and may question how she will be able to support herself and her children. Women who are elderly or have disabilities may not feel they have any other options than to stay with the abusive partner.”
Depression and isolation. “Abuse can leave victims depressed and emotionally drained. This can make it hard to act. And abusers try to isolate victims from family and friends so victims do not have anyone to support them if they do leave.”
Cultural or religious pressures. “In some cases, religious counselors, relatives, or friends may encourage women to stay to keep the family together no matter what.”
Custody worries. “A woman may worry about losing custody of her children if she leaves.”
Fear of being deported. “Immigrant women might stay in an abusive relationship because their partners have threatened to have them deported. Not being fluent in English might also be a challenge.”
My mother’s strength gave me the courage to leave. She even helped me pack my things the day I decided that I would not be the next thing “broken” in my home. We knew all too well what intimate partner abuse looks, feels, and sounds like, but many don’t know the warning signs. Education is key. This month as agencies host vigils for those who lost their lives to intimate partner violence, my question isn’t why didn’t they leave, but rather what are we doing to stop the abuse before it begins and promote healthy behaviors in relationships?
There are 96 organizations in North Carolina that provide domestic violence services at some level. Will you join us in our pledge to stop the violence in your home, your neighborhood, your workplace and anywhere you see, hear or suspect it. Need to talk? Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, available 24/7. TTY: 1-800-787-3224 or visit nccdav.org.
Antionette Kerr is a media correspondent, author and publisher