By Ashley Fountain
Walking on crushed eggs shells, concealing bruises, scared to breathe around him. These are a few ways that victims of domestic violence described their experience living with an abuser.
Domestic violence can happen to anyone, according to experts of the Windsor County, Vermont’s The Family Place Special Investigations Unit. They said this unrelenting cycle of abuse stems from the pattern of power and control. “Being a witness to the controlling cycle of domestic violence is as damaging as being directly trapped in the middle of violent situations,” said Nancy Theriault, of the Windsor County SIU and Child Advocacy Center Program Coordinator. “Commonly with domestic violence, we see the cycle repeat for generations within families as the cycle becomes part of their family systems. Our role within the Special Investigations Unit is to work with law enforcement and the State’s Attorneys Office to try to prosecute abusers and work with the families to find services to help end the battering patterns and cycle of violence.”
Massachusetts, like Vermont, faces domestic violence issues. A report disclosed by Jane Doe Inc. concluded that domestic violence in Massachusetts claimed the lives of 334 people over 10 years and accounted for 14 percent of all homicide deaths in the state from 2003 to 2012.
“Domestic violence can come in many forms. It is verbal, emotional and psychological,” said Massachusetts survivor of domestic abuse, Alexis, whose name has been changed for safety reasons. “It can damage a victim sexually, leave you with visible wounds from repeated physical assault. It financially empties you and repulsive words puncture your mind and soul. Before you realize it, there is no way to emotionally repair yourself into the person you once were prior to meeting him.”
The Second Step, a Newtonville, Mass.- based organization, works to provide adult and child survivors of domestic violence with a supportive community to help identify pathways to physical and emotional healing, while finding safe housing and providing financial security to survivors and their children, said Andrew Parvey, the organization’s president.
Second Step references Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, in defining domestic violence as a pattern of coercive control that one person exercises over another in an intimate relationship.
Domestic violence survivor, Jennifer, whose name has also been changed for safety reasons, said she entered her relationship with her abuser in 2011. Her relationship became progressively worse over the next three years . Jennifer said her abuser damaged her physically, sexually, and left her with great financial instability. Her ongoing pain from the trauma, she said, led her to develop severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychosis.
Jennifer said living with PTSD makes her feel permanently damaged. She explained that re-experiencing trauma through vivid flashbacks from her terror-filled past debilitates her everyday life. The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience states that people can be diagnosed with PTSD if they have been a victim, or witness to trauma, violent criminal acts, rape, or torturous experiences. Researchers of the institute note some people may develop PTSD as a result of experiencing psychosis. Victims such as Jennifer, who suffer with psychosis, may regularly fear and hallucinate that others are trying to harm them, leaving sufferers of the illness to constantly feel threatened.
“In cases with our deepest trauma we see higher levels of children exhibiting greater signs of PTSD, especially if they have been sexually abused and living with the perpetrator prior to their disclosure. PTSD can follow survivors of abuse for many years,” said Theriault. “At the SIU we always refer those we work with to counselors who focus specifically on trauma based therapy and have greater experience in sexual abuse cases. Our role is to provide victims of extensive trauma with wrap around support within their family to address mental health because the cases we see involve such a high level of chronic stress. Our biggest role is providing an outlet where victims of sexual abuse can be believed, listened to and supported for their conditions and advocated for.”
Studies show that domestic violence can be a major contributor to the physical and mental health decline in some women. Jennifer called the cycle of violence in domestic abuse a circular trap of guilt, shame, isolation, excuses and justification. “Abusive relationships have a destructive pattern,” she said. “It all starts with abuse. They belittle you, take full control of you and after abusing you they will justify their behavior,” she added. “He always said he was sorry and that he would never do it again. The excuses become staggering… My abuser was good at making me feel like they were going to change but it only got worse.”
The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey of Massachusetts, reported nearly 1 in 3 women in Massachusetts has experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lives. More than 1 in 7 women has experienced rape.
“It is challenging to leave an abusive relationship,” Jennifer said, adding, “breaking free is not as easy as opening the door and walking out. I thought everything would stop if I just did what he told me to do. I always worried that I would be killed if I asked for help or that he would harm my family as retaliation.” Jennifer noted, “In many ways when you’re living the abuse you feel responsible for it, so staying feels like your only option… I still fear for my life that he will return one day.”
“The task of ending violence, of healing trauma, of reuniting families that have been torn apart can feel overwhelming, but stemming the tide of violence that threatens to destroy entire families across generations is a solvable problem, one that we can address right here in our own community,” said Parvey. “As The Second Step enters our 25th year, we take pride in the part we’ve played in transforming the lives of thousands of survivors of domestic violence and addressing the root causes of violence to end it in our time.”
The Network for Public Health Law indicated homelessness in Massachusetts and domestic violence can be interconnected. The network published facts and statistics sharing that 63 percent of homeless women, who have experienced severe physical and/or sexual abuse, share that they were abused by an intimate partner. The statistics also show how Massachusetts is protecting victims through the use of the State Address Confidentiality Program.
Massachusetts survivor of domestic abuse, Alexis shared the importance of Massachusetts’ Address Confidentiality Program. “Without the use of adequate intervention, supportive services and outreach programs, domestic violence is a permanent lethal injection of mind, body and spirit,” said, Alexis. “Remaining confidential is the only safety barrier I have for my child and I.”