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‘He always kept his hooks in me’

Area domestic violence survivors discuss early signs of abuse

 

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on domestic violence awareness.

Domestic violence is defined as the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically.

On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. During one year, that equals out to more than 10 million women and men.

While there are certainly instances of men being the victims of domestic violence, statistics overwhelming show that the majority of victims in domestic violence assaults and murders are women. According to the NCADV, 72 percent of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner, and 94 percent of the victims in those murder-suicides are female.

Domestic violence crosses just about every socioeconomic barrier there is: age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion and nationality. Every situation is different, and it is not always easy to determine in the early stages of a relationship if one person will become abusive.

Multiple people affected by domestic violence in some way — whether personally or professionally — sat down with the Tribune to talk about what domestic violence is, how it affects everyone and what needs to change with how it’s handled and discussed.

‘I let him make a lot of my decisions’

When Stephani Adams was 15, she thought she had met the love of her life, and he seemed to feel the same way.

She was attending the Area Learning Center when it used to be located at the former Albert Lea High School site when she met him; he was the same age and was always hanging out in Central Park. Adams, now 33, said she was instantly attracted to him, and the two started hanging out, smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol together. Both growing up with abuse in their childhood homes, Adams said neither one of them really had any rules as teenagers. She said she fell in love with him almost immediately, and would spend nights at his house and skip school to be with him.

“He made it seem like I was the only one for him and he was the only one for me, right away, and that we were the best thing for each other,” she said.

At 16 Adams became pregnant — something she said neither of their sets of parents were happy about — but the situation left the young couple relatively unfazed. She eventually miscarried, and around that time she first took notice of the volatile nature of their relationship. Adams said she thinks the abuse initially revolved a lot around his level of alcohol consumption, but in hindsight realizes he had been controlling from the start of their relationship.

“I didn’t think a lot for myself. I let other people make decisions for me all the time, and I let him make a lot of my decisions,” she said. “Because I had a low self-esteem to begin with, he really took advantage of that. He made it seem like I was nothing — nothing — without him.”

The couple lived together and continued to abuse drugs and alcohol, Adams said, and at 18 she was pregnant again. Her pregnancy didn’t deter the abuse, she said, as she can remember getting into an argument at one point where she told him she wasn’t afraid to leave him. He responded by throwing her against a wall, punching her and then kicking her in the stomach when she fell to the ground, she said.

When Adams did have the baby, he was working odd jobs and she stayed at home with their son. The substance abuse continued for both of them, while she said his drug use seemed to be blamed on stress from them having a child — even though he tended to leave her alone for days at a time with the baby.

“That’s hard to talk about, because I didn’t make a lot of good choices either,” she said. “Because I wanted to continue to use and abuse alcohol and drugs, I stayed in that relationship.”

The most extreme bouts of violence or other abuse always seemed to happen when the two would be coming down off of a high, Adams said. They’d also spike when the couple would argue and she’d say she was done or that she didn’t want to be with him anymore.

“There were times when I would just lay on the floor — like after he would head butt me or punch me or throw me down — that I would act dead, because I was in pain and I didn’t want to feel that anymore, so I would pretend like I was knocked out,” she said. “Even then, he wouldn’t snap out of it.”

Adams said she called the police on him multiple times and eventually got an order for protection against him, which he would often violate when trying to talk her back into being with him. Eventually he went to jail for one of the OFP violations. While Adams said there was some relief from being free of the abuse, she continued her own substance abuse and said she didn’t try to better herself or her son’s life initially.

“It wasn’t forced, it was my choice,” she said. “I chose to keep making poor choices.”

When she finally hit her bottom, Adams said her family helped take care of her son, who was 3 or 4 by that time, while she finally started to focus on building her life back up. For the time being, her son’s father seemed to disappear.

‘I thought that I was special’

For safety reasons, one local domestic violence survivor cannot publish her entire full name. She will be referred to as Beth throughout the rest of this series.

Beth, now in her 30s, is originally from north of Albert Lea, and met the father of her child when she was 19. He was a year or two older than her and they worked together. She said she remembers thinking he was cute and they would spend time together every now and then, but there was nothing romantic between them at first.

Eventually she switched jobs and moved, and they lost touch for some time, before he made efforts to track her down. Beth said she remembers being in a bubble bath while living in her parents’ home, and her mother yelled to her that he was on the phone. By that point he had started to annoy her with how often he’d try to call her, and she frustratedly and sarcastically told her mother to tell him she was dead. Her mom admonished her and told her to take the call.

“I look back on it and think, ‘God I really wish someone had just told him I was dead,’ and he would’ve went away,” she said. “But he didn’t go away.”

In retrospect, Beth said that he was grooming her from the start to be under his control. They were friends again and were flirting, but nothing romantic had started quite yet. He had a girlfriend at the time, and would later go to prison for false imprisonment after abusing that girlfriend and barricading her in a room.

“I thought that I was special, and that that wasn’t going to happen to me,” Beth said. “It’s so hard to explain.”

Things started getting more romantic between the two, even though they were involved elsewhere. Beth helped him move at one point, into what was obviously another woman’s apartment. He explained it to her in a way that somehow made her accept it, she said, and she now knows the term for what he did is referred to as gas-lighting.

“It’s a person who deliberately says things to make another person think they’re crazy or wrong or lying when they’re telling the truth,” she said. “He always kept his hooks in me.”

Graphic by National Task Force to End Domestic Violence

Graphic by National Task Force to End Domestic Violence

When Beth broke up with the boyfriend she had at the time, she called him crying and he came right over. He never really left after that, she said. At the time, she said she felt loved and protected and thought he was her best friend, and she fell in love with him. It would be a few months later that he’d go to prison for assaulting his previous girlfriend.

“It was pretty incredible,” Beth said. “How can you fall in love with someone who’s on their way to prison for beating and tying up another woman?”

The two had known each other three or four years by that time, and the relationship gradually turned tumultuous and volatile. He’d show up to where Beth worked and stalk her — sit and watch her, leave notes on her car, get violent in the workplace and leave messages on the business’ answering machine calling her horrible names and using all sorts of profanity.

Beth said that at that time she was trying to move on from being with him, but he’d use different ways to bring her back, such as threatening suicide if she didn’t talk to him. She later learned that most perpetrators go after a woman’s place of work when they can’t get to her at home. She said they’ll do anything they can to ruin their chances of employment so that they’re financially dependent on them.

He was a frequent probation violator, so he was in and out of jail. Following one of the times he was released — about six years into them knowing each other — Beth got pregnant.

“I didn’t know if I wanted to have a baby,” she said. “I knew I didn’t want to have his baby. I knew eventually I was going to be on my own raising (my child).”

Beth’s parents weren’t thrilled, and her mother made a number of appointments for her at Planned Parenthood. Beth would tell him she wasn’t sure she wanted to have the baby and — while he wasn’t happy about the pregnancy, either, and hid it from his family — he’d scream at her and fight with her when she said it, once while throwing a soda in her face.

There was a lot of enabling in his family, according to Beth, and she said he had grown up watching his parents abuse each other — to the point that he eventually lived with his grandparents, and still stayed with them as an adult.

“I think there’s a lineage there of domestic violence and abuse,” she said.

Beth decided to keep the baby, and was living in a small apartment owned by what she called a “slumlord” during her pregnancy. The couple didn’t technically live together — his name was never on any lease — but he was usually there, she said. He’d frequently spend the rent money and when he’d disappear for days at a time and try to come back into the apartment, Beth said she remembers shutting off all the lights and hiding under her windows so he’d think she wasn’t home and would go away. She said there was one time where he broke one of her windows with his head while trying to break in while screaming at her, and his yelling eventually led to a fight with one of Beth’s neighbors.

Beth had a friend in another neighbor who shared her kitchen wall, and she said the two had a system: If Beth was ever in trouble or scared or needed help, she’d bang on the wall and her neighbor would call the police. Beth’s boyfriend eventually tried to break into that neighbor’s apartment. When the neighbor called the police on him, he was picked up but eventually released due to a lack of evidence. When he returned, Beth remembers him sitting in the bathroom in a rage, crying and holding a knife, just staring at her. She was about six or seven months pregnant at the time, and remembers waiting until he fell asleep that night so that she could sneak out to a park nearby, lay on a bench and look at the stars.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “I was terrified and couldn’t sleep and didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t know.”

Eventually Beth gave birth to her daughter after moving into another apartment. There were still acts of violence and threats of violence, she said, even while she was pregnant, and even still after their baby was born. He would throw things at Beth and break her phone, and scare her by blocking the doorway or yanking her back into the apartment. There were times when he would snatch their daughter out of Beth’s arms, and there were times when he’d throw the baby to the couch, Beth said.

“I feel like on some level he loved her, but really it was just another way to control me, which is really sad because she just loves him so much,” she said. “In a way, I think he was showing me he could hurt her, too; he could get rid of her, too. That’s what that said to me.”

‘He’s talking about killing you’

Diane Lenway grew up in a home with domestic violence and was in a social work peer counseling group in high school. After an intervention for her parents when she was in high school, she thought that would be the last time she would ever have violence in her life.

When she was a senior she met her future husband, who was a few years older. The two dated for about 2 1/2 years, before getting married and moving in together. She noticed a change immediately.

“Within the first week he was a whole different person,” she said.

Lenway, now 53, said her husband would drink to excess and was into different kinds of drugs — something he had hidden very well from her before the couple started living together after getting married. Coming from a religious family that didn’t believe in divorce, Lenway decided she was going to make it work.

“I decided I was going to fix it, fix him,” she said. “The more I tried things that I thought would work, the more angry he would become with me.”

Initially, she said his anger toward her resonated in emotional and verbal abuse. She didn’t see it at the time, but he gradually isolated her from her friends and family — to the point that the only other people she had regular contact with were his friends, who he didn’t trust her with anyway. Within the couple’s first year of being married, Lenway became pregnant.

“I really naively thought that he wanted a child really badly and that it was going to turn things around … but it got worse,” she said. “During my pregnancy is when things started getting really physical.”

Lenway said she remembers him pushing her down a flight of stairs during an argument. The unfinished, wooden stairs scraped the skin off of her back and from her neck down to her knees. She laid at the bottom of the stairs until she was able to call her father, who took her to the hospital. She couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone but her dad what had happened.

“I still thought it was my fault because I wasn’t trying hard enough,” she said.

It became a routine of hers to try and gauge his mood when he’d come home, and she never brought up his drinking or drug use. Lenway said she just tried to survive her pregnancy, hoping that the birth of their baby would make everything better.

When she eventually had their child, her husband wasn’t present for the labor but made it to the emergency cesarean section. Lenway stayed in the hospital for seven days along with their newborn daughter, during which time her husband visited the baby once, but never saw Lenway. When it came time for the mother and baby to return home, he said he’d be there to pick them up but never showed. After sitting in the hospital entryway in a wheelchair with her baby for an hour and a half, Lenway called her dad and he took her home.

“I knew then that this was my baby to take care of,” she said. “The more attention I gave to her, the more angry he got with me, the more drinking and drugs — which thankfully he didn’t do any of that at home. It became a relief just to see him go.”

Her husband would disappear for hours and sometimes days at a time, and his friends — who Lenway said knew what he had been putting her through — would usually call her to let her know when he was on his way home.

Lenway said the emotional abuse, the brainwashing to the point of losing her sense of self, was worse than ever being hit. She felt that as long as she was the only one being hurt, she could fix everything. It was when things started to overflow onto her daughter that her mindset started to change.

Once she went back to work after giving birth, Lenway worked days while her husband was supposed to be home with the baby before working at night. She happened to come home for lunch one day to find her infant daughter at home alone, crying in a playpen with a dirty diaper.

“I don’t know how long she was there alone before that happened,” she said. “That was a real wake-up call to me.”

Lenway then called in to work to say she wouldn’t be coming back and waited for her husband to return. She had come home for lunch at noon, and he didn’t return until about 10 minutes to 3 p.m. — when Lenway normally returned home from work.

She eventually found out — due to being denied medical insurance during a doctor’s visit for her daughter — that her husband had been fired and had been unemployed for nearly two months, during which time he started using heroin. All the times he was supposedly at work those past months, he had really been out drinking and using drugs. People started coming around the house when Lenway’s husband wasn’t there because he either owed them money or he was selling them something. One time a man showed up at the door and threatened Lenway, telling her that if he didn’t get what he was supposed to, he’d be back to hurt her and her daughter. She waited, terrified, for her husband to return. By the time he did, she was furious and hysterical. She said he hit her in the head with a frying pan after she confronted him, said he was sick of dealing with her and all of her problems, and then he stormed out.

“I was terrified. I hadn’t really told anyone, so I really didn’t know what to do,” she said. “The minute he left, I just knew that if I didn’t leave before he got back, I felt I would die that night.”

Once her husband left, Lenway called the number of a victims crisis center she found in a phonebook. She told them what was going on, that she wanted someone to tell her what to do. Lenway said she felt ashamed and embarrassed, and was afraid no one would believe her. She hadn’t told her family or friends about what had been going on in the year and a half she had been married — who was going to all of a sudden believe her? The man Lenway talked to on the phone from the crisis center offered a rescue meet, telling her there was an anonymous women’s shelter at that point that he would take her to. Lenway said she became terrified all over again about what her husband would do if he knew she was making plans to leave, and quickly hung up. She would change her mind later that night.

“One of his friends called me and said, ‘You need to get out of the house now,’” she said. “‘Take the clothes on your back and get out. He’s strung out on heroin and he’s talking about killing you.’”

Look to Monday’s Tribune and albertleatribune.com for the second part of the series, with more input from domestic violence survivors as well as those involved with advocacy and the justice and law enforcement system.

Read the second part of the series here.

Read the third part of series here.

See a video of interviews from the series here.

About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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