Suzy Tubbs-Avakian, Payson Town Council member, real estate agent and president of Payson Community Kids — still struggles to understand why she tolerated domestic violence.
She stayed after her ex took her car.
She stayed when he took control of all the money.
She stayed when he locked her in the house with their children.
She even stayed after he put a gun to her head.
But when he tried to suffocate her son, something finally clicked.
“I just threw on a shirt and I grabbed the kids and went running,” she said.
At the time, her son was 2 and her daughter a few months old.
Tubbs-Avakian didn’t know it at the time, but leaving that abusive violent relationship gave her children a precious gift.
Research now shows that exposure to physical and psychological abuse affects children down to their very genes. Just witnessing abuse puts them at higher risk of a host of mental and physical challenges including heart disease, obesity, cognitive decline, diabetes, mental illness and poor health — not to mention poor relationships and a life of crime.
Experts estimate every year 15 million children in the United States witness domestic violence and many suffer lifelong effects, which they may not connect to that childhood experience.
The World Health Organization calls domestic violence the “world’s hidden health crisis,” where the “home is the most dangerous place for a woman.”
Research suggests witnessing or experiencing domestic violence increases the odds a child will one day commit suicide an astonishing sixfold. They’re 50 percent more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and 74 percent more likely to commit a violent crime, according to an online summary of research on the Childhood Domestic Violence Association website (https://cdv.org/what-is-cdv/the-impact/).
Many women say they remain in violent relationships because they don’t want to separate their children from their father or fear the effect of the divorce or poverty on the children. But a growing body of research shows that simply witnessing violence in the home can have a lasting effect on children.
For Tubbs-Avakian, her violent husband had to turn his anger directly on the children before she fully understood their danger.
“I had no idea when I met him, but I grew up in love with Jon Bon Jovi and he looked just like him. He was so handsome at the time. He had this hair ... just like Bon Jovi’s,” she said.
The two married at 19. Tubbs-Avakian already had her son — and that also played into her attraction.
“Everyone told me I was so lucky: He treated my son as his own,” she said.
But as soon as the ring was on her finger, everything changed.
“It started immediately after we got married — not wanting me to work or not wanting me to have friends,” she said.
Then she got pregnant and things escalated.
“He controlled all the money,” she said. “He made me hand over my car. When we moved into this apartment, he immediately changed the locks. Except he changed the deadbolt into a double-sided key lock. I thought it was normal ... It wasn’t that it was all at once. It was very methodical. It was so well planned.”
Tubbs-Avakian looks back and wonders if something in her upbringing allowed her to tolerate the abuse her ex heaped on her.
“I took sacred vows ... I married this person for better or worse,” she said. “I grew up very religious. My mom did what my dad said. It was a very old-school upbringing ... he spanked me. It made me respect my dad ... (but) he never hurt us kids.”
But Tubbs-Avakian knew her dad loved her. She knew he would never treat her as her ex did.
When she was pregnant, her husband left her and her 15-month-old son locked in the apartment without a phone for up to 10 hours a day.
“It was a sick cycle,” said Tubbs-Avakian. “There were other women. He started raising his voice and throwing things.”
Then he started hitting her. One time sticks out in her mind.
“I remember I was wearing a salmon-colored shirt. I don’t know where the blood came from ... it may have been my nose or my lip.”
After this violent outburst, a friend came over to help.
“She saw blood all over my pregnant body,” said Tubbs-Avakian.
Then it got worse.
“Three months into it, he somehow got a gun,” she said.
He repeatedly put the gun to her temple and threatened to kill her if she did not do exactly what he demanded. She told herself, “I didn’t care about me. I just thought, ‘Go ahead kill me.’”
Finally, he went too far.
He came home late. He’d forgotten his key, so he broke into a window. Tubbs-Avakian had fallen asleep on the couch under that window. She screamed out of terror.
That set him off.
“That got me nicely slapped and he took me by the hair into the bedroom with the gun,” she said. “He told me if I didn’t do what he said he would shoot me or my son.”
Then her ex did with her what he wanted, so she sobbed.
“It was those hysterical sobs where you lose your breath,” she said. “He told me, ‘If you wake those kids up, I’m not just going to kill you, but those kids, too.’”
At that point, her son walked in the door.
“He grabbed him, threw him onto the waterbed, put a pillow on his face and sat on it,” she said. “I screamed bloody murder. As I did, it was like, I don’t know — a lightbulb went off.”
Fortunately, he jumped up, grabbed his pants and fled, leaving the door open.
That’s when Tubbs-Avakian tossed on a shirt, grabbed her two kids and ran out the door.
“I didn’t know where to go so we hid behind the soda machines all night,” she said.
The next day she called her mother and went to live with her parents.
Today, Tubbs-Avakian is remarried to what she calls the sweetest man.
“He lets me be in charge,” she said.
She also spent years in therapy trying to figure out why she had put herself and her children in such danger.
“Years ago, I would let people say awful things to me and walk away with my tail between my legs — fearful, thinking it was the way it was supposed to be ... (and) I felt it was all my fault,” she said.
Her children saved her as she saved them.
“My self-esteem was so low, I thought, ‘Just do what you want to me,’ but the minute he did that to my son, I had a voice to speak.”
And she’s not stopped speaking out since. No one who meets Tubbs-Avakian today would ever imagine her trapped in an apartment like a caged animal.
“I can’t look back at the person I was without wondering, ‘What was it that allowed me to think this was OK?’ I was always thinking about other people,” she said.
Counseling helped her find “my voice and finding out what personality I have.
“I always had that strength and didn’t know it was there.”