‘Don’t be afraid to accept help’: Domestic violence survivor speaks up about her experience
For two days, he held her captive.
He threatened to kill her and then himself if she left. He’d been violent before, but nothing like this.
For Rachel — the Tribune is withholding her real name to protect her identity — it was the wake-up call in a string of domestic violence relationships starting when she was just 17.
“It really spiraled out of control pretty violently,” said Rachel. “If I stayed I was going to die.”
Rachel eventually escaped and went to the police.
Looking back now, she can see the warning signs: jealousy, possessiveness, aggression. She remembers the moment when she first questioned his intentions.
“One day something had made him jealous. I think it was me talking to one of his male friends. Afterwards he said, ‘I’m only jealous because I love you. Jealousy is a sign of love.’ There was this sinking feeling in my stomach where I knew something was very, very off,” explained Rachel.
“But I kind of pushed that aside and accepted that response. I was raised in a household where I don’t know if I got a lot of attention like that. Being a young adult, any attention was good attention at that point in my personal development, so I was willing to override that gut feeling.”
The court proceedings against her ex-boyfriend, though painful, would come to be a pivotal experience in her life. (He went to jail with five felony counts.)
“I had to go to a series of court hearings to testify against him. I remember walking out of them feeling like I was the stupidest person on the planet. After two hours on the stand I was cracking. I felt like I was doing a poor job. I was questioning my own memories,” she recalled. “I was trying to hold myself together, but afterwards I went into this bathroom and just lost it.”
As she was crying, someone handed her tissues from the stall next to her.
“I didn’t know anyone was in the bathroom, and I just remember this lady’s voice saying, ‘It’s OK. You did great,’” said Rachel. “She was a victim advocate that worked for the prosecution’s office. We talked for a while. She was just so nice. She told me about the field of social work.”
After that experience, Rachel changed her degree from business administration to social work. Many years later, it’s hard for her to believe she was once that same young woman who endured three abusive relationships.
“I don’t even relate to that person anymore. I know that I was her, but so much has changed.”
But there are things she wished she had known back then.
“I would tell myself that I was worthy — that I am worthy — of love and respect. I would also want to tell myself to have patience in life — that life will unfold as you live it. Sometimes you’ll be alone, and sometimes you’ll have tons of supportive people around you, but it’s OK to be able to just sit with yourself.”
Today, Rachel is in grad school and continuing in the field of social service. She’s had healthy relationships and continues to work on herself in therapy.
“Don’t forget to love yourself. Even if you can’t love yourself today, hold onto the belief that someday you can love that person,” she said. “There are so many people in this community and so many resources. Don’t be scared to accept help.”
Rachel’s story is just one of the thousands of cases of domestic abuse that take place every year across the country. And in South Lake Tahoe, those instances of violence are much higher.
According to the most recent survey by Barton Health, 19.4 percent of adults in South Lake Tahoe have been physically assaulted by a romantic partner. The national average is 13.5 percent.
Live Violence Free has worked to address domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse in South Lake Tahoe for 40 years.
“Our name is our mission,” said Jane Flavin, executive director of the organization.
Live Violence Free started as a rape crisis hotline due to increasing instances of sexual assault in the community. Today, the organization still maintains its 24-hour call center and has expanded its services to include an emergency shelter, transitional housing, legal services, and age-appropriate education to grades K-12, among other programs.
“Most of our grants are going to help people with counseling, whether it’s individual or group,” said Flavin.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month — an important reminder for men, women and children to speak up when they are in unsafe situations, said Flavin.
“So often people stay in their relationships for financial reasons,” continued Flavin. “What are they going to do? What’s going to happen? How are their kids going to eat? Where are they going to live?”
These are all uncertainties that Live Violence Free works to address.
From July 2016 through June 2017, Live Violence Free provided services to 849 survivors of domestic abuse. The organization facilitated 929 nights in the emergency shelter or a motel, provided 650 nights in transitional and short-term housing, gave emergency clothing 909 times, served 28,562 meals to victims and their children, fielded 314 calls on the crisis hotline, provided legal service 985 times and offered counseling to survivors 985 times.
“People need to understand that there is help,” said Flavin. “It’s so important that they speak up.”
To reach Live Violence Free’s 24-hour crisis hotline, called 530-544-4444. If there is immediate danger, call 911.
To make a donation to Live Violence Free, visit http://www.liveviolencefree.org and click on the “Donate” tab.