Self-image abused when women involved in domestic violence
Reporter’s note: “Jane Doe” is a fictitious name used to protect the identity of one of the women quoted in this story.
A controlled childhood surrounded by drug use and four years in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship left Lisa Payne deflated.
As in many cases of domestic violence, it took years for Payne to repair the damage caused by longtime abuse.
When her parents divorced, Payne said she became “the rock” of the family, forcing herself to remain strong, never cry.
“Then I got into an abusive relationship and I wasn’t thinking about my self-image,” Payne said. “Each time I’d give him a little more of myself and not even think about it. Four years later, the rock was a pit. I was so empty.”
Self-esteem and image issues exist throughout the cycle of abuse, according to Lois Denowitz, community educator at the South Lake Tahoe Women’s Center.
Profiles indicate women who get involved in an abusive or overly controlling relationship generally have a low sense of self-worth when they meet their abuser. Confidence and self-image are greatly diminished throughout the relationship and if a woman chooses to leave her situation, she carries tremendous emotional baggage.
“Before coming to counseling I had no self-respect,” survivor Dana Taylor said. “I would walk around with my hands crossed in front of my chest, with my head down, not looking at anyone. Now I have confidence and I can hold my head high.”
But Taylor said she is not interested in getting into a new relationship.
“I’m giving myself one year with no relationships to focus on myself and my son,” she said. “There is so much I want to do and it’s time for my little wings to fly. I never thought I deserved someone great. I didn’t think I deserved to be loved, to be treated with respect and dignity. Now I won’t settle for anything less.”
But new-found empowerment can easily revert to fear and self-doubt. Denowitz said certain situations can trigger a former sense of weakness for survivors of domestic violence.
“They will always go back to doubting themselves,” Denowitz said. “But it’s only for that moment.”
Most domestic violence victims have to go through some sort of court process, such as divorce or custody hearings. Without legal representation, women often feel bullied and meek, which reinforces helplessness, hopelessness.
“Representation gives them empowerment,” said Denowitz, adding that many victims of abuse cannot afford lawyers and there is a great need for attorneys willing to represent these women free of charge. “I really want to thank (attorney) Amy Tobin for that and I put a challenge out to any other attorneys who are interested in helping these women by volunteering to represent them.”
Motherhood adds a factor into the cycle of abuse as victims fear for their children’s lives, as well as their own.
A group of survivors at the Women’s Center agreed that protecting their children and being a good mother is their main priority.
“When I first came (to the Women’s Center) after I got out of the relationship my son was a 4-year-old kid that couldn’t let go of his mom’s leg,” said Payne, who is now happily remarried. “(My son) couldn’t look anyone in the eye. But me making changes for myself made a big difference for him and now you wouldn’t be able to tell him apart from any other first-grader, except maybe he’s a little cuter.”
“Jane Doe” survived a childhood of emotional abuse and neglect, two abusive marriages, alcohol addiction, a custody-related jail sentence and having her children taken away from her.
“I didn’t have any self-worth growing up,” the woman said. “I was never taught that. I always had a false image of myself.”
Jane Doe said her first husband was wealthy, powerful and mentally abusive. Her second husband beat her and held a gun to her head.
“I felt that money and prestige would fix me, give me image,” the woman said of her first marriage. “But I felt terrible inside. Nothing was ever good enough for him and I ended up divorcing him. I got into a worse abusive relationship right away. I saw it but I stayed because I had no self-esteem. He gave me nothing. He gave me no love. It got to the point where I knew he was going to kill me and I had to go.”
When Jane Doe chose to leave her relationship she felt completely broken.
“I was just a shell of a person but I still had a glimmer of hope, of inner-strength,” she said. “I have come a long way but sometimes I still feel kind of lonely. I don’t have much trust but I am starting to trust myself.”
Achieving longtime sobriety, finding faith in God and getting partial custody of her children back has encouraged Jane Doe to stay strong. She has a job she loves and said her esteem continues to build with each day.
“The more I improve my self-image and my self-esteem, the more I can improve my child’s,” she said.
In the aftermath of years of abuse, Payne, Taylor and Jane Doe are taking their lives back.
So how do they feel now?
“Happy,” Jane Doe said.
“Empowered,” Dana Taylor said.
“Satisfied,” Lisa Payne said.
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