‘Shelley’s’ life was normal: she was terrified
“Shelley” said the physical abuse started when she was in the womb.
Is that difficult to believe? Not really, Shelley said, when you consider that pregnancy, for women who are abused by violent husbands or significant others (sometimes ironically called boyfriends), is the second most dangerous time of their lives: the most dangerous time is when they try to run away.
Shelley was born premature, and therefore robbed even more of a normal life. She came into the world “not quite ready for it,” and it was a mighty strange world.
While most infants are held tight, kissed and caressed, Shelley was usually left alone. The violence her father inflicted on her mother included economic violence. Shelley’s mom was not allowed to spend money on child care, so Shelley stayed in her crib all day, alone.
She learned early on that, “If you cried, it hurt.” So, to avoid unwarranted punishment, she kept quiet. She didn’t cry. She just slept.
She was cruelly kept isolated with little or no human interaction. Mealtime was nothing special. Within weeks, she learned to drink from a cup; she learned to eat off the table. Good manners were nonexistant. She eventually developed physical problems: bad nutrition, underdeveloped bowel, an extended rib cage, eventually anorexia.
As a child, she was physically and sexually abused. When parents are abusive, 30 to 50 percent of their children are victims, Shelley said.
She was vulnerable and afraid of violence all the time, but especially at night, when it usually happened. She had to be ready, so she slept under the bed or in a closet. Whenever her father beat up her mother, Shelley felt guilty. She figured that somehow it was her fault, something that she had done.
That’s not unusual for children who live in homes filled with domestic violence. Shelley said that 3.3 million kids witness some kind of violence in their homes each year, and so most of them grow up thinking that’s normal family behavior. The repercussions are profound and last a lifetime — often several lifetimes. It’s an insidious, self-perpetuating family situation and results in more of the same kinds of abuse in the next generation, and the next, unless it’s stopped.
Shelley didn’t want to go out to play with other children, but she didn’t want to come inside either, because she was afraid of the violence. She wondered to herself how other kids in her school coped with the violence in their homes, but she was afraid to talk with them. She thought everyone lived the nightmare that she did. She was hypervigilant, hypersenstive and walked on eggshells. She had migraine headaches from the time she was 8.
Dinner was awful, she said, because that’s when the violence usually started. Usually her dad said dinner wasn’t on time or it wasn’t fixed right. Sometimes dinner was thrown on the wall. Sometimes Shelley ate dog food. She thought her father loved the family dog more than her.
Nights were nightmarish. Shelley couldn’t understand why her mom would wind up alone outside in her nightgown, even in winter. Her mom left home five or six times, only to come back. She eventually gathered the courage to leave for good, only to get involved with other violent men.
It happens all the time, but it doesn’t have to.
Shelley, as you can understand, was often depressed. She couldn’t concentrate in school, but she didn’t dare do anything that would attract attention to her — that would just cause more pain — so she was a good student. Each time officials became suspicious about her family, they’d move. Shelley went to a lot of different grade schools.
Shelley was molested by at least 10 perpetrators, and when she was 13, she had her first child, prematurely. Guess who the father was. Yes, her father. The baby was stillborn. Her mother wrapped it up in a cloth and threw it in a dumpster. It was a long time before others convinced Shelley that her child was in heaven, not a dumpster.
Shelley wanted desperately to tell a trusted member of her family about the incest, so she told her aunt. Her father, she discovered, had also victimized the aunt.
Believe it or not, Shelley’s first date was abusive. That, too, isn’t uncommon. Young women who grow up in a violent home have a 50 percent chance of being a victim on a “date.”
Amazingly, Shelley went to college. The one thing Shelley’s parents did for her was to encourage her to go to school, but even then she suffered flashbacks. Shelley was out of college and doing social work before she realized that not all families behaved like hers, meaning that if you disagree with someone, you slug them.
Is there any hope for women like Shelley, is there any hope for the perhaps three out of every 10 women who live with violence every day? Shelley says yes, because she’s living proof. Actually, she’s a walking miracle. She said she’s no longer caught in the hellish existence of sexual abuse and domestic violence, which she thought was normal. “The good thing is, it stopped,” she said. “That’s my victory.”
Now 31, she’s confronted the evil in her life through years of therapy, and she’s happily married to “a wonderful man.” She works out of the Center for Women and Families in Scottsburg, helping women like herself get out of abusive relationships with monstrous men.
To help, she said, we must:
1. Raise public awareness about the horrors of domestic violence. “Don’t look away,” she said.
2. Know what to look for.
3. Know the laws, know what you can report when you see signs of violence.
4. Know what services are available and who can help.
5. Educate your peers. The abuse you suffer doesn’t have to be a secret. Tell someone.
6. Be a mentor, as with Big Brothers and Sisters.
7. Choose to have a violence-free life.
Many women live like Shelley. It’s difficult for them to get help because they live in fear. Documentation is often difficult, especially with psychological abuse. Successful prosecution can be embarassing and it requires a collaborative, team effort by local authorities. But women don’t have to live like this. They can get help.
If you’re caught in this trap, call 1-888-883-1959 or 1-877-803-7577.