NOTE: This story contains graphic descriptions of domestic violence. At her request, Capital News Service has chosen not to use the name of the victim.
WASHINGTON – She says she’d been beaten, threatened, choked and harassed.
He’d said he was sorry and promised to never hit her again. They’d just welcomed their second son.
But now he’d sent her to the hospital.
Lying in sterile, white sheets more than 15 years ago with a bruised face, swollen and distorted with stitches and a dislocated jaw, the Maryland mother looked down at her broken ankle and thought about what he had done to put her there.
“He’d proceeded to punch me… It knocked me off the curb and rendered me unconscious. As I was laying there in a pool of my own blood, my oldest son, who was 3 at the time, was standing on the porch seeing all this,” said the woman, who requested that her name not be used.
Later she learned from a neighbor that her son had been screaming: “My daddy killed my mommy. I need a new mommy. Someone get me a new mommy.”
That memory stuck with her for years, until she finally left him, choosing to go from victim to survivor. Like the Maryland woman, many domestic violence victims repeatedly suffer through psychological and physical abuse before they make the decision, and have the means, to leave, if they ever do, experts say.
Domestic violence has received more attention recently after several highly publicized incidents, the most prominent being that of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was caught on camera punching his then fiancé, Janay Palmer, in a casino elevator.
The woman, now Janay Rice, stayed in the relationship and has since married Ray Rice, prompting many to ask why someone would stay in such a violent relationship.
Victims of abuse are often caught up in a cycle of power and control and can find coming to the decision to leave extremely difficult for many reasons, said Michaele Cohen, executive director of The Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
Victims often return to their abusers more than once before leaving, said Jeanne Yeager, executive director of Mid-Shore Council on Family Violence on the Eastern Shore.
Many victims go back to their abusers out of love, fear or because they have children together or don’t know where to go. Most of the time they don’t want the relationship to end, they just want the violence to stop.
It was reasons like these that kept the Maryland mother in her abusive relationship for years, she said.
“On one hand I was scared to death, but he would go from completely horrible to absolutely charming, which was the reason I fell in love with him in the beginning,” she said.
Eventually the reasons for her to leave became greater than those to stay.
“I compare it to a switch literally being clicked on in my head and I just got it. I woke up,” she said.
She was leaving for herself.
“It was agonizing. It was tormenting. It was hell. I did whatever I could do to mask the situation at hand so that nobody at work would know. I was ashamed and felt like people would judge and criticize me or think less of me if they knew what I was going through,” she said.
She was leaving for her children.
Her oldest was being verbally abused and she was scared her husband would come through on his threats to leave with their kids when she was at work.
She was leaving because he wasn’t stopping.
“A large majority of abusers are not prosecuted,” said Dr. Karen O’Brien who sits on the board of directors of the Family Crisis Center of Prince George’s County and has been working with abuse victims for more than 30 years.
In their lifetimes, 1 in 3 women (and 1 in 4 men) reported experiencing intimate partner violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
On one occasion he’d “pulled big chunks of my hair out, he’d bit me, it was apparent that he had abused me. But they (police) did not press charges. They simply asked him to leave and vacate the home,” the Maryland woman said.
He attended anger management classes after she was hospitalized, and they helped, but the abuse continued. Experts say he should have instead been sent to a more appropriate and more intensive abuser intervention program, rather than anger management.
These reasons and so many more led to that switch “clicking” in her head.
“I finally realized I deserved better, I was worthy of a good life, and I or my children didn’t deserve a life of fear and suffering. It was in that moment that I finally decided to make the change and break away, and that is when I secretly started looking for an apartment for myself and two young sons,” she said.
“I remember hugging my boys and promising them that mommy was going to make things better and that they wouldn’t have to be afraid or upset anymore,” she said.
One of the most dangerous times for someone in an abusive relationship is when they’re trying to leave, O’Brien said.
One week after she’d secretly secured an apartment, the woman woke up in the morning and and her husband’s demeanor had changed. He looked at her and said, “today’s the day,” and she knew he’d found out, she said.
She didn’t know what he was doing, but this time she wasn’t staying to find out.
She called police, who later served him with a protective order and took him out of the house.
That’s when she was put in contact with her local shelter, which, free of charge, appointed her a victim’s advocate and attorney.
“The advocates I had assisting me were so compassionate, caring, understanding, patient and supportive. I never felt alone through the process. They were like guardian angels,” she said.
Within two years she’d been granted a divorce and custody of her two children.
Even after she left, things weren’t easy. One son suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety issues because of the abuse, and she herself suffers from anxiety.
However, with counseling and support from her family, she’s begun a new life.
She went to school and started a new career that she’d never been able to pursue before. And she remarried.
Her new husband gave her sons his last name and they had two sons of their own. He is an excellent father to all four boys, she said.
Recently, she got a job working for the same agency that helped her escape her own abuse.
“I don’t consider myself a victim in any way. I consider myself a survivor. There is light after abuse and it does get better.”
If you live in Maryland and you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship you can get help. Contact The Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence at 1-800-634-3577 to find out about services in your area.
If you’re not a Maryland resident you can contact the National Network To End Domestic Violence at 1-800-799-7233 to find resources in your state.