The writer is a member of the Montgomery County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.
Nearly three decades ago, I almost lost my life at the hands of my ex-husband. He beat me, choked me, shot flea spray in my eyes and, on the night I finally left, dragged me across the floor and stuck my arms into a lit oven. The abuse had gone on for almost 10 years before I escaped.
The first time I left, it was Thanksgiving eve. I was cooking a turkey, and my ex-husband became angry because I didn’t put enough onions in the stuffing. He took the turkey out of the oven and threw it at the wall. I went to a friend’s house, then returned the next day and finished making Thanksgiving dinner.
The second, third and fourth times I left, I went to my office, shut the door and spent the night alone. Embarrassed and frightened, I hid my shame. I thought that if I let anyone in on my secret and then went back to my abuser, I would be ridiculed and misunderstood.
There would be no elevator video to reveal the gravity of my situation to all. It was only because a friend noticed changes in my behavior that I was able to leave. I was working in a fairly high-level position at a nonprofit organization and had just been elected to the school board in my community. I wrote a column periodically for one of the daily newspapers, held officer positions in a few professional organizations and had won awards for my work. I lived in a big house, drove a new car and wore nice clothes. But I was black and blue from the neck down.
I developed a pattern of camouflage to disguise my pain from the outside world. I concealed my hurt from friends, co-workers and family. Eventually, I was able to deceive even myself.
I became adept at hiding my wounds and my psychological hurt. However, telltale signs were caught by an observant few unwilling to avert their eyes. I stopped inviting people to my house. I wore long sleeves and long pants, even in the heat of summer. My teenage daughter spent the night at a friend’s house more than was necessary.
And then on March 10, 1985, sensing danger, I made a call to my daughter’s friend’s mother, asking if my daughter could spend the night with them. That wise woman paused, and then asked the pivotal question: “You’re being hurt, aren’t you? Can I help you?”
In that moment, I let down at least a small piece of my guard. I said I was in a bad situation and that it was getting worse. I promised that night I would sleep in my daughter’s room with a phone nearby.
When I returned home, I was, in fact, badly beaten. I remember thinking, please, let there be some sign that someone cares about me — forgetting my earlier conversation.
Afterward, I made my way into a guest room. I was so drained I fell on the floor and slept. My husband, drunk, had passed out in another room.
A few hours later, I heard frantic pounding on the front door. It was my daughter’s friend’s mother and a police officer. She had tried to call to see how I was, and I didn’t hear the phone. She had cared.
The next day my daughter and I moved into our friend’s house for a short time, and then we went out on our own. A lot has happened since.
My daughter now has a wonderful life and is married happily with two children of her own. For 25 years, I have been married to a kind, honest and decent man. I have a wonderful job, a supportive family and another great daughter we adopted 21 years ago.
Why am I telling you this now, when stories about domestic violence are everywhere in the news, when at last, it seems, the terrible problem of domestic abuse is getting the attention it deserves? Because I run across women and men who still avert their eyes. Because most times there won’t be any video to show what’s happening. And because I know that sometimes all it takes to make a difference in an abused person’s life is someone who makes the effort not to judge but to care.
A number of years ago I was back in the state where my abuse occurred and visited my friend. We talked, laughed and caught up on stuff. As I was leaving, I turned and met her eyes.
“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks for saving our lives.” My wish is that someone can say that to you.