Healing the Trauma of Emotional Abuse: A Survivor’s Story

The bottle of hydrocodone stood on the bedside table. She eyed it somberly. After years of torment and heartache, the thought came readily:  ‘I can’t do this anymore…there has to be something better.’

For 30 years Dee had barely existed in a relationship dominated by her husband. Every facet of her life – from how she decorated her home, to her personal comfort, to bathroom habits – was regulated by her husband, who used religion, biblical doctrine, money and extreme mental abuse to control and abuse her.

When the thought of suicide entered her mind, Dee knew she needed help.

Religion as abuse

As a church deacon, Dee’s husband presented himself to the community as a kind-hearted godly man with a penchant for hard work. Within the home, however, he was his wife’s tormentor.

“He would chase me around the house with a bible telling me it said I needed to be submissive,” Dee recalled. “He told me that my place here on Earth was not for myself. I was placed here on Earth for him, to be submissive and subservient, and that if I didn’t I was being rebellious and was going to hell.”

As a result of that repeated message of condemnation, Dee said, she was “submissive and subservient” for years.

In a Washington Post blog Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, former president of Chicago Theological Seminary, observed that a primary connection between religion and domestic violence is the religiously-sanctioned subordination of women.

“Submission itself is institutionalized violence – a structure of unequal power that puts women in a vulnerable position in the home,” says Thistlethwaite. “The front door of such a ‘religious’ home becomes a doorway to violence.”

Dee knew her husband’s extreme control wasn’t right but she felt powerless.

“I loved the Lord and I didn’t want to let God down,” she said. “I was going to do anything. I thought if I opened my mouth he would lose work, and he didn’t ever want the church to know.”

Feeling crazy

Dee wasn’t allowed to purchase home furnishings or keep the heat above 60 degrees in winter (no warmer than 38 at night). She was expected to wait on her husband and she wasn’t allowed to leave the house on Sabbath.

During the winter, after her husband would leave the house, she would turn the heat up, desperate for warmth for herself and her children. One day her husband came home and realized something was amiss.

“He leaned on the radiator to take off his shoes and felt that it was warm,” Dee said. “All hell broke loose. The next day he got a lock box for the thermostat.”

When Dee would ask for money for groceries or gas or the doctor, she would have to “pick the perfect moment” to ask.

“If he was watching TV I’d have to ask during a commercial and wait for his answer,” she said. “Sometimes the answer would come 20 minutes later, sometimes two hours. He’d finally look over and say, ‘Oh did you want something?’ Sometimes he’d throw the money at me. Sometimes I wouldn’t get it at all.”

When Dee tried to talk to her husband about his behavior, he would deny it or tell her it was her fault.

“I felt crazy,” she said. “I wanted to go for counseling. I so badly wanted someone to see what I was going through. But I knew I would be the bad person if I went forward. He would tell me I was schizophrenic and if I said anything all I’d do was prove I was crazy.”

The final straw

Eventually, the constant barrage of mental abuse, her husband’s blackout alcoholism, his double life, all took its toll on Dee’s mind and body.

“I couldn’t function,” she said. “I was having terrible anxiety attacks. He wouldn’t let me go to counseling because counselors were ‘the work of the devil.’”

Depression set in.

“I had a really hard time getting up,” she said. “The depression was supposedly my fault because I was being punished for allowing Satan to take over my thoughts. I just couldn’t take any more. I wanted to die. I really wanted to die.”

In March 2011, Dee came down with the flu. Shaky and weak, she had asked her husband to get her a soda. Instead of bringing it to her, she found the beverage on the kitchen table hours later.

“He said, ‘Oh yeah, there’s your f-ing ginger ale,’” Dee recalled. “’I was going to bring it to you at half time.’”

Back in her room Dee looked at her night stand and considered the bottle of hydrocodone, the powerful pain reliever she used for neck and back pain.

“In that moment I physically, emotionally and mentally couldn’t live like that anymore,” she said. “I didn’t have the strength. I kept thinking to myself if this really is what I was put here on Earth for, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face another day.”

Then she remembered the hotline.

Reaching out for help

At some point – possibly years before that moment – Dee had come across a YWCA Mohawk Valley brochure featuring a 24-hour domestic and sexual violence hotline number. She tucked it away.

For a long time she thought of calling but worried that, if she did, someone would immediately come to her home and arrest her husband.

But on that day when suicide became an option, Dee decided it no longer mattered if her husband was arrested and exposed for the abuser he was.

Leaving abuse behind

When she told her husband she was leaving he laughed.

“He told me, ‘You’ll be back and you’ll be so wounded it’ll look like you slid through gravel,’” Dee said. “He told me again I was going to go to hell. I told him I don’t believe my God wants me to live like this.”

But as Dee sat outside the offices of Willow Commons, the YWCA’s transitional housing program for homeless victims of domestic violence, she hesitated.

“I was scared,” she said. “I thought, ‘Am I gonna burn in hell? Maybe I should just suck it up.’ I didn’t want to take funding away from someone else who needed it.”

As Willow Commons staff gave Dee encouragement and support, she ultimately separated from her husband. In July 2011, she successfully made the move into her own apartment.

Still healing

At 48, Dee is experiencing a freedom she hasn’t known since age 17.

She has been in the Willow Commons program for more than a year and her divorce was official in August. The change, she says, is “surreal.”

“I still have the sensation that I’m gonna have to go back someday, that I’m going to fail,” Dee said. “I really haven’t been able to totally let go and believe I’m out of there.”

Dee is working with a case manager and therapist and is taking life one day at a time. Healing is occurring, she says, even if slowly.

“It’s trying to feel that I’m worth it and I have value,” she said. “The brainwashing part of it makes you believe that you aren’t your own person.”

But there are good days.

Recently, Dee was walking down a hallway in her apartment and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She stopped and examined her face closely, then said aloud, ‘It’s nice to meet you.’

“It was like I was seeing myself for the first time in years,” she said. “I saw that I was a real person, a real individual, not just somebody’s servant.”

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 Emotional abuse in domestic violence: A therapist’s perspective

There is an unfortunate misconception that physical abuse is the only form of domestic violence. If a person isn’t being battered or physically threatened, some falsely believe that person isn’t being victimized.

But Bernadette McDaniels, MSW, Primary Therapist for the YWCA Mohawk Valley’s transitional housing program for homeless victims of domestic violence draws this analogy:

“Physical abuse is like being bound with rope while emotional/psychological abuse is like being bound with dental floss. We all see the rope, the scars and bruises, but dental floss is so fine, almost invisible. Even so, it is just as debilitating, if not more. The abuser, slowly, systematically chips away at the victim’s very sense of self, thereby diminishing them to ‘nothing.’”

What is domestic violence? It’s abusive behavior – emotional, psychological, physical, or sexual – that one person in an intimate relationship uses in order to control the other. It takes many forms and includes behaviors such as threats, name-calling, preventing contact with family or friends, withholding money, actual or threatened physical harm, and sexual assault. Stalking can also be a form of domestic violence.

If you need help or information, someone is available 24-hours a day. In Oneida County, call the YWCA’s hotline at (315) 797-7740. In Herkimer County, call Catholic Charities at (315) 866-0458.