October 2015

Why We Stay

Author: Courtney Hampson

I can still remember “walking” up the three flights of stairs, on my rear end, to my office in the renovated Officer’s Quarters on Sandy Hook, dragging my casted leg, and my crutches. Like it was yesterday, I can see myself stopping at the first landing, catching my breath, and thinking, “What the hell are you doing. Why do you stay?”

He didn’t push me down the stairs. I was chasing him, after he said something hurtful, again. I made the turn at the landing, in high heels, heard the pop, and fell the rest of the way. I know I was screaming in pain. He looked back at me for just a second and walked out the door. I called my mom and I was crying so hard I know she thought the worst. I remember her saying, “I can’t understand you. I can’t understand you. What happened?” My dad came and took me to the emergency room. “I fell down the stairs. No, he didn’t push me. I’m fine.”

Why would I tolerate someone hurting me that way? The emotional abuse was probably worse than any time he put his hands on me or pushed me out of the way. But I put up with that too. And I guess I believed him. Believed that I was smaller and weaker than I really was. Believed that I needed him. Believed that I couldn’t walk away. He tried to control me, to intimidate me, to accuse me, and he called me every four-letter word in the book.

And I stayed.

Even before we moved in together, I saw the signs. Like the night we had a fight when we were out, both got in our cars, and he cut me off to try to stop me and I ran into a telephone pole. Try explaining that to you parents. Or the night he came to my house and vandalized my car. The same car he eventually stole.

The morning I finally decided to leave, I called my mom again, hysterically crying. She and my Uncle Billy were at my house in what seemed like five minutes, even though they were easily an hour away. Uncle Billy just started loading furniture into his truck. Never asked a question. Never said a word, in fact. I was actually reminded of that moment about six months ago, after my grandmother died. My mom, Uncle Billy and I cleaned out her apartment. We worked efficiently and silently for a day. I wondered many times if they remembered the last time we’d tackled a similar somber task, two decades prior.

Soon, I stood in front of a judge in an attempt to get a restraining order. The harassing phone calls only got worse. He would call my office (at a small non-profit where we didn’t have individual phone lines) 20, 30 times a day. Over. And over. And over. Again. And then he would call the house. Over. And over. And over. Again. And then he would drive by the house. Over. And over. And over. Again.

He strode into the courtroom, cocky as ever, with a smirk on his face that I know my dad (who was with me that day) wanted to smack off. And when the judge told me, “No. I won’t grant a restraining order. This isn’t harassment,” and then compared my situation to a squirrel in his yard that was simply pestering him, I thought my dad would rush the bench. Even the judge, who should know better, belittled me in that moment.
I am not weak

No one wants to believe they are a victim. Or weak. I am a strong, successful, independent woman, but it still happened.

I’m sure a lot of women feel that way. In fact, statistics show that one in every four women will be a victim of abuse: physical, sexual, financial or emotional. Look around you right now—your neighbor, your colleague, your friend, your mother, your sister, your daughter.

In 2014, South Carolina’s Coalition Against Domestic Violence And Sexual Assaults’ domestic violence member organizations across the state provided shelter to 2,729 individuals. They also provided non-shelter services including counseling, court advocacy, and support services to 15,786 individuals, and answered over 20,990 hotline calls. The Attorney General’s office has noted that more than 36,000 victims report a domestic violence incident to law enforcement statewide annually. This is staggering considering that many victims never call or make a report to law enforcement.

Just a couple weeks ago, the Violence Policy Center released their report, “When Men Murder Women,” a compilation and analysis of 2013 statistics (yes, these reports run slow). In short, sadly, South Carolina again ranks number one in the nation for women killed by men. This boils down to 57 homicides; 96 percent of those female victims (52 out of 54) were murdered by someone they knew. Of the homicide victims who knew their offenders, 62 percent (22 victims) were murdered by a husband, common-law husband, ex-husband, or boyfriend.

While the statistics—and the rate at which they are compiled—suggest stagnation, our lawmakers are moving ahead. In June, Governor Nikki Haley signed a domestic violence reform bill. Dubbed S-3, the bill toughened South Carolina’s domestic-violence laws, including a lifetime ban on possessing guns for some convicted batterers, doubling the potential prison time for domestic abuse to as long as 20 years, moving cases from magistrate court (where traffic tickets are fought), and requiring the teaching of domestic-violence prevention to middle-schoolers (this is huge, and a story in itself, stay tuned).

South Carolina Attorney General Alan G. Wilson, who has led the charge, summarized it best: “This battle has been about creating a better tomorrow for all South Carolinians. Our laws reflect our values, and until recently, our values were not accurately represented by our laws. This year, South Carolinians said ‘no more.’ We will no longer tolerate being ranked one of the most dangerous states in the nation when it comes to domestic violence. While this problem won’t be overcome with legislation alone, South Carolina has taken its first giant step in the long journey to changing the culture of violence.”

The Department of Justice defines domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.

Why we stay

It is hard for some to understand why a woman would stay in this kind of relationship. And honestly, it isn’t easy to explain. The idea for this story came from a victim herself, Lynette Rush. Rush suffered years of mental and emotional from her ex-husband and said she constantly asked herself what she was doing wrong, how she could be better. “You doubt who you are,” she said. Only when someone realizes it is not their fault, when they are finally willing to walk away, will you be able to help them.

People ask, “Why didn’t you just walk away?” Well, it’s not that easy. “You didn’t just walk in,” Rush said. You go through a series of scenarios. You try to create a plan. You ask, how will I live? How can I take care of myself? Can I be on my own? Am I really being mentally abused? And before you answer each of these questions on your own, you hear the abuser’s voice in your head convincing you that no, no, no, you can’t do this alone.

“I think part of it … is an addiction to love,” Rush said, “and it can happen to anyone.” This isn’t an issue that affects just one socio-economic group, or race, or level of education. It is almost as if the more educated, the more successful, the more high-profile the woman, the more power the abuser feels he has. “For a man with an ego to take a successful woman and take control, and make her feel less…” Rush trailed off.

Statistics say that most victims will leave their partners seven times before they leave permanently. Seven times. According to Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse (CODA), an abuser is relentless, and a “successful” abuser will use multiple methods to achieve control. Abusers are skilled at manipulation and finding what types of abuse will work most effectively with each victim.

It is a vicious cycle. A cycle of highs and lows. A violent episode, which may be verbal, sexual or physical, marks the “explosion” phase. Following the explosion the “honeymoon” phase of apologies and promises of change begins. The abuser’s remorse may be genuine. He truly does not want to lose the person he is attempting to control. However, when his world is once more secure, the courting stops and life returns to normal. And then fear, and the lows again as the victim recognizes signs of approaching trouble as the “tension-building” phase begins, and an explosion is imminent. And so it goes, without escape.

But there is help. There is hope. In 1986, a group of citizens in Beaufort, South Carolina, recognized the danger facing many women and children victimized by domestic violence. Initially, victims were sheltered in the homes of these compassionate people who became known as Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse (CODA). As the organization grew, a trailer and, later, a small home were purchased for use as a shelter. In 1998, a 6,000-square-foot addition was built to create a comfortable, home-like, contemporary refuge with the ability to sleep a total of 24 women and children. 

CODA services are available to residents of Beaufort, Colleton, Jasper and Hampton counties, an area covering over 2,800 square miles. Its inhabitants range from the very wealthy to those struggling with rural poverty. CODA clients are representative of the economic and racial diversity found in the Lowcountry. Because of community support, all of CODA’s services are free of charge. If you think you—or someone you know—may be caught in the cycle, visit codalowcountry.org.

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