Flight To Safety

Women struggle to rebuild after escaping violent relationships

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Every morning, 48-year-old Paula wakes up with a smile. Although her small, dimly lit studio apartment has only a few hand-me-down possessions and she doesn’t yet have a full-time job or relationship, Paula says she’s happier than she can ever remember.

After years of abuse, Paula says her head is finally clear of clouds of doubt and fear.

Paula, who asked that we not reveal her identity, is in transitional housing at the Time Out Shelter. She is one of 10 women that have graduated from a shared room at the shelter to their own space across the street.

While the room isn’t much, it offers a new start and a way out.

For those embroiled in domestic violence, the possibility of a new and better life often feels impossible. Taking the first step, which often involves escaping to a shelter like Time Out, takes all their courage. Deciding to stay and battle their demons can seem even more daunting.

Many women, including one woman we met at the shelter recently with two small children, didn’t think she would stay. She struggled with the fear she could not support her children on her own after her seemingly remorseful spouse urged her to return to her former life. Counselors say such a dynamic explains why so many women return to those violent relationships.

In Part 3 of our series on domestic violence, we look at the journey Paula and other women take once arriving at the shelter. Many say the discovery they actually can make it through the pain, is literally life changing and many times life saving.

Paula says she couldn’t have escaped her abuser without the support of Time Out’s staff and volunteers, most veterans of violent relationships themselves.

After moving 20 times in the last three years, Paula said Time Out has offered a true home for the first time in years.

“I have come a long way since I walked in their doors Feb. 4, 2011,” she said. “I was a wreck then.”

Not only abuse free, Paula is also clean and sober. She says drugs and alcohol were partly to blame for why she stayed around an abusive family member for so long. She also didn’t really understand the nature of the abuse she suffered.

She thought domestic violence only happened to women in intimate relationships. If it’s a family member, you just put up with it.

But as the verbal lashings escalated, Paula said she couldn’t take it anymore.

She didn’t know if Time Out would take her in. When they did, she promised to take every class they offered, listen to every piece of advice and work the program.

“I have gotten so much out of being here,” she said. “My dream was to make it across the street” into the transitional housing.

As she watched women move to long-term housing, get jobs and regain their freedom, she resolved to do the same.

With Time Out’s help, which provides free transportation, Paula secured a job and is saving up money to get her own home.

Jamie Ludtke, who oversees Time Out’s transitional housing, said Paula attends nearly every seminar the center offers and has made a remarkable change.

Like most of the women in transition, Paula has good and bad days.

But when you are rebuilding an entire life that is expected, she said.

“We are getting to watch them grow,” she said. “The goal is to get the good days to outweigh the bad.”

While Time Out provides the tools for a better life, it is up to the resident to see it through. Ludtke said she stops herself from getting too involved in a woman’s recovery because making decisions for them doesn’t help them learn.

She mostly listens.

For Paula, Time Out has offered more than just a place to cry, it has set her up with a new life — complete with goals and boundaries.

If she ever gets into a relationship, she will now recognize those first signs of abuse.

And that’s good because statistically, Paula is likely to run into another abuser.

In fact, women are more likely to experience violence in intimate relationships than under any other circumstance.

And for many women, love mixed in with dollop of denial and a splash of hope lets them stay in a violent, destructive relationship long after they should have left.

The staff at the Time Out Shelter know the pattern all too well and many watch another “statistic” walk through the doors nearly every day — often with little statistics in tow.

None of them report they left at the first sign of abuse. Most stayed until the last possible moment — up until they feared murder.

But why do they stay so long? Is it a lack of education, social support, financial backing or self-esteem?

Time Out staff says all those things play a role, coupled with simple denial that they’re among the 25 percent of women who experience domestic violence in their lifetimes.

Deanna Watkins and Jeri Johnson DeCola say they are the face of that statistic.

Both endured years of abuse as a result of their stubborn denial.

DeCola said at first, her boyfriend was everything she ever wanted in a man.

“We loved to dance, travel, it just seemed perfect,” she said.

Friends gushed that they made such a handsome a couple. “I was so proud to be on this man’s arm.”

Three months into relationship, little hints of jealousy appeared.

“Whenever I would look at a man, he would ask if I wanted him.”

Finally, the abuse crescendoed in a hotel room, when her boyfriend found what he thought was a washcloth with sperm from another man on it.

It was, in fact, tortilla chip residue that DeCola had wiped off.

Still, he “proceeded to beat me,” she said.

DeCola stayed.

“The worst part of it was that I felt it was my fault — it was my fault that he did what he did,” DeCola said recently at Time Out’s annual meeting. “I don’t know how many of you girls go through that, but if you do, you need to get away.”

Watkins said she lived through years of abuse at the hands of three husbands.

“When I came here, my whole life had involved domestic violence,” she said. “But it was normal and I didn’t call it abuse.”

She said when women first arrive at the shelter, they often don’t see the point of staying since the shelter is no Taj Mahal and their abusers often beg for their return.

Watkins said she was so scared when she arrived because she didn’t know what a life without abuse looked like.

Before she could start over, she had to tear down everything she had built her life upon.

“I had to relearn everything,” she said, “how to talk to my kids, deal with people, myself.”

Although she had wanted to leave countless times, she stayed in the belief the relationship offered the only safety.

Time Out gave her the immediate protection she needed from her abuser and the tools she needed to build a new life. She learned how to handle her emotions in group sessions, worked on her relationship with her children and got the help she needed to find a job, a car and a home.

And she got all of this without anyone looking down on her or pitying her. Time Out became a home. She left that home on her own — and returned as a volunteer.

Part 4: A look at life after leaving the shelter and what role men can play in ending domestic violence.

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