As an advocate for domestic violence, one of my biggest pet peeves is when people say, “Why don’t they just leave?” The more thoughtful questioner doesn’t blame the victim and tries to truly understand. They ask: What are the reasons that make it difficult to leave?
I am not just an advocate but a survivor of domestic violence. My ex-husband could have written the book on abuse. Prior to meeting him, I was a strong person. I made my own choices and was fearless.
However, shortly after he moved in, my whole being, my whole life, changed. We were together for three years before I eventually left. What’s important to know is that in those three years I tried to leave one time — before I actually left.
One time was all it took to teach me that my life was on the line if I left him.
The night started out as usual. He began drinking and started becoming filled with rage. He accused me of cheating on him. It was really more like interrogation. He repeated the same questions over and over.
I gave the same answer that I had not cheated on him. And with each admission that I had done no wrong came violence. His hands were strong. He would grab my hands and squeeze them until I felt like he broke my fingers.
He would ask again; I would deny; and then he grabbed my hair. Twisted it around his hand and pulled me to the floor and put his knee in the middle of my back.
He asked again if I had cheated, and I said no again. He pulled me to the bed by my hair and lifted me onto the bed. He asked me again the same questions, and again I denied what he said.
This time he had a knife, which I didn’t realize he had hidden in his arm sleeve, and he traced my face with the blade. Full of fear and full of tears, I assured him I would tell him the truth if he would just let me go to the bathroom and wash my face. I told him I just wanted to be calm.
For all the screaming and crying, all I knew was I needed to leave, or he would eventually kill me. Surprisingly, he let me get up to go to the bathroom. As I was heading to the bathroom, I ran. I ran for the door. But he was right behind me with his knife and sliced my hand open and stabbed me in my forearm. Blood was everywhere.
Even though I had never cheated on him, I told him I did, so he would stop. I couldn’t go to the hospital. I couldn’t call the police. I couldn’t do anything. Except tell him what he wanted to hear.
What he told me then I will never forget to this day: “This is your fault. If you had just told me the truth to begin with, this wouldn’t have happened. If you lie to me again, if you try to leave again when I’m talking to you, I will kill you.”
Although this was the first time I tried to leave, it was not the last time he abused me. His abuse was physical, emotional, sexual and financial. He even put a knife to my mother and told her, “She will never leave me.” He put a fear in me that I have never known in my entire life. His message was clear, and he acted upon it to prove that he would end my life if I left him.
Eventually I did leave. In October 2008, while he was in prison, his sister encouraged me to “leave now because this is your only chance.” It was the first choice I made for myself in three years.
Leaving was not easy. Every day for about two years I waited for him to come. I was in constant fear that he would kidnap my children to lure me back. I was always looking over my shoulder and convinced he would kill me. It is now five years later, and I don’t feel unsafe any more.
My hope for people reading this is to think the next time they wonder why someone doesn’t leave. It’s not simple. Leaving doesn’t end the fear or stop abusers. The reality is people who live within the walls of abuse do stay. And while it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, it makes sense to me.
Billie-Jean Niedorowski is an advocate at Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance in Bangor. This is the first in a series of OpEds about domestic violence that will appear during October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.