I began the journey by volunteering at the Battered Women's Shelter in Dallas. I was singing jazz at the Fairmont Hotel bar. My night would end at 1:00 a.m. The shelter needed someone for the 2:00 - 6:00 a.m. crisis intervention line on the Sunday morning shift.
I was up. I had experienced abuse myself. So it seemed like a great fit.
I began what would change my life forever. I ended not only manning the crisis line, but training other volunteers.
I got to know the women.
I watched as one smart, insightful young girl went back to her husband, children in tow. He had thrown her out of a pickup truck, going full speed down the highway. I listened, while men screamed over the phone, "Quit protecting my wife and tell me where the shelter is. I'm coming to get her." That wife would stay a few days, get a sweet call from the same man, and return home. I heard the shelter director talk to countless women who were going back about how to protect themselves from the worst of what could happen to them.
Others that swore this was it.
I have now worked with many women, who have been screamed at and belittled, knocked around, pushed, shoved, slapped, even forced to have sex. They quietly go about getting things in order. They develop an exit plan. And they leave.
I have worked with men, whose wives have spit out terribly cruel words, violently raged against them, destroyed meaningful things, or lied about being hurt themselves. They can finally come to a place, after years of this abuse, of having had it. And they leave.
What is so hard about leaving?
To help potential volunteers at the shelter gain understanding, we asked them to go through an exercise. We had all spent the day together and had built a kind of camaraderie. We had told our own stories and knew the reasons we were invested in helping victims. We felt a bond.
It might be interesting for you to actually try the exercise while reading.
"First, write down the three most valuable things in your life. Put them on three separate pieces of paper. It could be your faith. It could be a child or a pet. It could be your integrity or your honesty. It could be a partner or spouse. But it has to be your top three."
And we would wait a few minutes.
"Now, imagine that you are on a boat, with all the other people sitting in this room. You have been told it is a safe boat, and you are traveling a long way. So you have three pieces of luggage with you - symbolized by those three pieces of paper in your hands."
Victims fear that they will lose things that are very dear to them, maybe even intrinsic to who they are - and for what? Will their lives really be different? Or worse? Their emotions run deep as they consider how or when. They have been told, over and over, that they are at fault. They are ashamed they didn't leave the first time the abuse happened. Or the second. Or the third. And if they go, they will feel responsible for everyone's life changing. Even the life of their perpetrator, whom they often still love. They know that the abuser may escalate if they leave, and become more violent toward the victim, or toward themselves. They may have acted as a protector or a buffer for the children. What's going to happen if a divorce occurs, and they aren't there to protect the kids?
Some of you who are reading this are in emotionally or physically abusive relationships. If you are, please consider that there is another way to live.
It is possible.
But it's far, far from easy.
Domestic violence shelters usually run groups that are open to the public. Find out the number for the shelter in your area. Call and attend a group. If you can't do that, call the local abuse hotline or the National Abuse Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE.
Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In 2012, she began blogging, focusing on mental health topics. Her work can be seen on The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, Better After 50 and Readers Digest. She also has published one eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.” You can listen to Dr. Rutherford on her podcast, SelfWork!