Sunday, September 30, 2018

28 Reasons

photo:  CC Shaw Air Force Base
Everyone knows that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Everyone knows someone who has been affected by breast cancer. Everyone knows what those pink t-shirts, socks, and ribbons represent.   However, how many people know that October is also Domestic Violence Awareness month?

I used to work with a teacher who had scars on her arms. When she wore a shirt that didn’t come up to her neck, a scar was visible on her chest. I had always assumed she’d been in a car accident until we had a conversation one day and she shared the story behind her scars.

For Domestic Violence Awareness month, I asked my friend if I could share her story with my readers. She was eager to share her tale in the hopes it might help one of the many women trying to escape domestic violence and their children who are unwittingly caught up in it. In fact, she not only granted me permission, but thanked me for helping her to get the word out, saying that people need to know it could happen to anyone.

Here's her story.

*Names have been changed for protection.

Maria meets Joe

Maria began her story by indicating the prominent scars on her chest, head, and arms, saying, "I have 28 reasons which are proof that God loves me." Those 28 reasons are 28 gruesome stab wounds inflicted by her husband who left her to die after his brutal attack in 2015.

At the time she was living in Puerto Rico with her young daughter, Isabella when she found Joe on an online dating site. Maria is an educated woman. She's a teacher and a businesswoman who owned her own daycare business when the two met in July of 2013. She had recently broken up with Isabella's dad and wasn't searching for a serious relationship, but she had never liked being alone and was looking for companionship. The two started talking on the phone and felt like they had chemistry. "He seemed like a very loving dad and was family oriented, " Maria recalls. They went to a movie on their first date then took a romantic stroll in historic Old San Juan. In the months that followed, he slowly began coming over and hanging out with Maria and her daughter, usually bringing his son along as well. "I loved the fact that he was a 'man.' He was willing to step in as a father figure to Isabella, he was protective, and he made me feel desirable. He was so amazing with Isabella that you would never be able to tell that he wasn't her biological father." The couple moved in together that fall.

Things Begin to Change

About six months into their relationship, Maria discovered Joe had a drinking problem. He disappeared for the weekend without a word of his whereabouts. When he returned, he was apologetic, promising not to do it again, but it soon became a pattern. Every couple weeks, he'd disappear for several days on a drinking binge.

Over the months, it became increasingly apparent that Joe was controlling. He wouldn't let Maria walk out of the apartment if he didn't like the way she was dressed. He would take her car so she couldn't leave. He stalked Isabella's father, irrationally convinced that he and Maria were still in a relationship. Over time, she found herself losing control of the relationship and her finances. He slowly separated her from her family, controlled her every move, constantly checked her phone, and showed up where she worked to make sure she was there. "I recall one time when he called to ask me where I was. I told him I was buying coffee at McDonald's across the street from the school where I worked. He said, 'I know,' and as I looked across the street, he was passing by in his car." But Joe had never laid a finger on her so Maria never put a name to his actions; she didn't consider it abuse.

Eight months after meeting, Maria filed what would be the first of many orders of protection. Despite the fact that he'd never physically touched her, his words and actions were starting to scare her. Still, she stayed in the relationship. "I know what people think. I know how they judge, saying things like, 'Why didn't she just leave?' But unless they've been in a situation like this, they don't know. Any time I talked about ending it, he'd threaten me. He not only intimidated me, but he threatened to hurt my family. I feared for my family's safety. I was too scared to leave." And that's the reason so many women endure abuse. As scary as the relationship may be, it's even scarier to think of what might happen if they ended it.

He promised to get help for his drinking, and the couple started attending AA and Al Anon meetings. Maria agreed to marry him in December, 2014, believing that would help the situation. He was finally getting help going to AA and she thought he was changing.

Unfortunately, after they were married, things rapidly went downhill. The controlling behavior didn't improve, in fact, he insisted they have children together and made doctor appointments for Maria, forcing her to go through fertility treatments. Joe disappeared for days at a time, and would return obviously under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Then Maria learned a chilling truth about Joe's family. His twin brother had been abusive as well. When his wife tried to leave, he killed her and then committed suicide in front of their young children.

In the fall of 2015, Joe returned to the apartment after stealing money from her daycare business and going on a weekend bender. Maria packed his belongings and changed the lock on the gate that covered the entrance to the apartment. 

"I knew when he came back, he was going to be mad about the fact I was kicking him out. He was 100% financially dependent on me. Whenever he got mad he would threaten me, saying stuff like, ' Don't you dare call the cops because they will not always be there to protect you,' 'You'll see what happens if I have to sleep in my car,' and other things like that. I had seen what he was capable of doing when he was mad and he scared me. But I couldn't keep going like this."

In fact, Maria was so scared upon his return that she hid in a closet and called his sister with whom she had a close relationship.  "I could hear him outside the apartment, trying to get in. I was talking to his sister while I was in the closet waiting for him to leave." He didn't go. Once his sister got out of work she and her husband came to the apartment to escort Maria out. Joe looked like he had been possessed by the devil, Maria recalls. "He even knelt and swore I would pay for this. Both his sister and her husband had to stand between us because he had this face that made me think he could really kill me. I felt like he had stolen my confidence and my backbone so I had to rely on his sister and his mom to help deal with him regularly.

He was arrested that night, but threatened Maria that if he had to stay in jail even one day that he'd hunt her and her whole family down as soon as he got out. Knowing he wouldn't be kept in jail for long, fearing what he might be capable of doing when he was released, and believing she had no other choice, Maria gave his mother $500 to bail him out. But this was the last straw. She knew she had to find some way to leave.

Trying to Get Out

Maria packed up his belongings, and the day after Thanksgiving he came to get them, but he didn't leave peacefully. He refused to give her his keys to the apartment, finally relenting and saying he would trade them for her wedding ring which she gave him. As soon as he left, Maria called her mom and told her she needed to take Isabella someplace where Joe wouldn't find her. She knew he was mad and predicted he'd be back. Her biggest concern was making sure her daughter was safe.

On Saturday, Joe called her, asking where she was. She told him she was getting her car inspected at a gas station. He showed up there and stayed, following her when she left to run errands. "He actually behaved that day and we were able to talk. I tried to appease him and told him we didn't have to get divorced, but we needed to separate and he needed to get help. I just kept trying to keep it friendly. I was scared of what he might do so I was wanted to make sure he didn't get mad. I thought if I could keep him calm, he would leave.

He stayed that night in her apartment because he insisted he didn't have anyplace to sleep. "It's an awful feeling to be stuck in a situation like this. On the one hand, I was scared to have him around. Yet, on the other hand, I think I was even more scared to think of what he might do if I made him leave." Thankfully, the night was uneventful and in the morning, he left. Maria breathed a sigh of relief, but at the same time something in the back of her head made her nervous that she hadn't seen the last of him.

For the first time in their relationship, Maria was determined to end it. After looking up information about domestic violence support groups and deciding that she wanted to join the church again, Maria got a call from her mom that Saturday night. "I remember telling her that if something happens, she needs to take care of Isabella. She warned me to be careful and said she didn't want to get a phone call and have to come see me in a body bag." It was a premonition that would prove to be a little too accurate.

"Sunday morning I awoke early, about 4:00am, and decided to clean. I cleaned my apartment like I had never cleaned before. It was as if I was trying to clean his smell and presence out of it." When her kitchen was spotless, the counter tops devoid of all dishes and utensils, she got ready to do some laundry. "I lived on the 10th floor of an apartment building, and we didn't have a washer or dryer in the apartment. I left my apartment door open while I went to the laundry room. While I was taking the clothes across the hall, I saw his car out of the sliding doors on the balcony. I called him to see if he was out there in his car. When he answered, I could tell he was drunk." Maria quickly walked back to her apartment. He was already there. In her apartment. And he looked like he was on drugs.

He told her he needed sleep as he couldn't drive, and asked if he could stay. She told him he needed to leave. He started snooping around her apartment, searching as if she was hiding something. At this point, prompted by a gut feeling, Maria turned the ringer off her phone and discreetly tucked it behind a picture frame. "I knew then and there that I had to make a choice. I either take him back and continue the cycle, or stand my ground and fight to get my life back. I was preparing myself for that confrontation. I knew there was a probability I would have to fight for my freedom. Looking back, I believe God was there giving me courage and strength. 

Joe asked Maria to go out to breakfast with him. She declined. He asked if he could make a quesadilla and she finally acquiesced, just wanting to keep him calm and hoping he'd leave after he ate. When he finished the quesadilla he'd made, she once again told him he needed to leave. He pleaded with her for a cup of coffee. When she walked into the kitchen and poured him a cup, he followed her, asking her about her plans for the day.

The Unthinkable Happens

She didn't get the chance to answer. A blinding pain crashed through her skull as Joe took the hot skillet he'd used to make the quesadilla and bashed her across the head. From behind, he wrapped his hands around her throat and choked her. She couldn't breathe. As the corners of her vision darkened, she went limp and fell to the floor. He grabbed a serrated knife from the counter. Maria remembers thinking, "The counters had been completely clear, I know because I had thoroughly cleaned the kitchen that morning. He'd purposely gotten out that knife and had left it where he could easily grab it. In this moment I knew he was going to kill me." He pointed the knife at her as she pleaded with him not kill her. In tears, she promised to stay with him. 

She eyed the door to her apartment which was located in the kitchen. Desperate to get away from her attacker, she reached out with her left hand and frantically grasped the handle. He slashed out with the knife, stabbing her in the forearm. She reached for the knife, trying to wrench it from him, but the serrated blade tore through her flesh, slicing through muscle and tendon. He continued to attack, relentlessly stabbing her chest, arms, head, face, back, and neck.

She recalls two thoughts going through her head at that time. "I'm never going to see my daughter again, and I'm going to burn in hell because my relationship with Jesus wasn't right back then."

And Joe wasn't done with her. He dragged her from the kitchen to the hallway, screaming at her to go inside her bedroom. She resisted which fueled his anger. He punched her in the face then swung a heavy toaster oven, connecting with her head. He continued punching, smashing his fist into her already bleeding and battered body again and again. "I remember pleading with him to please stop as I briefly lost consciousness, slumping to the floor." He threw her on her daughter's bed; she lay there playing dead.

When she heard him leave, she summoned the strength to get up. Her purse and keys were gone. His car was still in the parking lot, but she saw her SUV pulling away. "I remembered that I had my iPhone hidden behind a picture frame, and stumbled my way to the other room to get it. My brain was spinning and I couldn't remember my passcode to unlock it so I tried unlocking it with my fingerprint, but my hands were covered in blood so the phone didn't register my fingerprint. I remember licking my thumb, trying to clear away enough blood to unlock my phone."

She dialed 911, and told the operator she'd been stabbed multiple times and was scared her husband was going to go get a gun so he could come back and kill her. For extra security, these apartments had metal gates across the doors that could be locked and opened from the outside. When Joe left, he had closed the gate and locked it so she couldn't get out of her apartment. She slowly dragged a chair over to her door and wedged it under the door knob all while talking to the operator and waiting for the the paramedics to arrive. Maria muses, "I know that chair wouldn't have actually stopped him, but I wasn't thinking clearly at the time."

She told the operator that she couldn't breathe and was really cold. She would later learn that the stab wound in her chest had caused her lung to collapse. "I was so scared I was going to die right there before the ambulance got to me. I live 10 minutes away from the fire station, but it took them 30 minutes to get to me," she recalls. 

The 911 operator informed her that the paramedics had arrived, but they weren't sure which apartment was hers as the doors didn't have numbers on them. Maria couldn't open the locked door and she couldn't get enough breath to scream. She summed what strength she had and tried to bang on her apartment door to alert the emergency responders to her location.

The emergency workers were finally able to cut the lock and get into her apartment. The next few minutes were a blur of activity and questions as they worked to ascertain the extent of Maria's injuries, and get a picture of her husband and vehicle so they could find him.

She recalls, "They kept saying that they needed to see the wound on my chest, but I told them, 'No, if I take my hand off it, I'll die.' A police officer put pressure on that wound with his own bare hand. My neighbor, who was my grandma's friend, came over and I remember asking her if I was going to die. She just told me that I needed to pray."

On the way to the hospital, they were able to get ahold of Maria's father. He asked if she was going to be okay. She answered, "I don't know." She talked to her mother, told her she loved her, and again asked her to hide Isabella. 

By the time Maria arrived at the hospital, she was cold and vomiting blood. She was covered in bruises and stab wounds. She had been so brutally attacked, they did a rape kit on her. As the doctors huddled around, stitching the many stab wounds on her arms, head, neck, and chest, she asked her grandmother's friend again, "Am I going to die?" The neighbor gently responded that it was up to God's will. Maria remembered, "She encouraged me to ask for forgiveness, and she stayed by my side praying with me and singing hymns. 

Looking back, Maria remembers that time. "As I was praying with my grandma's friend and having the uncertainty if I was going to live through this, I remembered these two Bible verses:

Psalm 23:4 Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.

1 Peter 5:8-9 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

I just kept thinking, I'm not done yet. I have a daughter to raise. I can't die yet."

Maria's father showed up at the hospital. Upon seeing his daughter lying there, beaten and bleeding, he broke down sobbing. "My heart broke; I had never seen him cry before," Maria recollected. Her father was ushered out of the room and Maria was quickly turned on her side so doctors could insert a chest tube for her collapsed lung. Soon after, she was wheeled to the operating room.

The Aftermath

Maria survived her multiple injuries and was released from the hospital a week later while Joe was still at large with a 1.5 million dollar fixed bond. It would take several more chapters to adequately describe the living hell Maria went through over the next several months. The short version is that Joe was finally found, arrested, tried, and sentenced to 15 years in jail. But this story isn't about him. 

It's about an educated business owner from a good family. A mom. A teacher. A woman like you. Or me. An educated business owner, mom, and teacher from a good family who got caught in the debilitating cycle of domestic violence. A woman with physical scars over much of her body. A woman with emotional scars that extend even deeper still. A woman who, to this day, has an anxiety attack when she's in a kitchen with another person. But a woman who is strong. Stronger than the violence thrust upon her. A woman who is brave enough to tell her story in the hopes of helping someone else. A survivor. A woman who, despite the brutal attack by someone she loved, has faith that God can use even the most horrific circumstances for good. This is her story.

"That man destroyed the strong, independent, and resilient woman I was raised to be. However, I am in a healing journey just like many women all over the world. I am slowly regaining my self worth and my sense of identity. Now I can look at myself in the mirror and not feel ashamed of all the scars. They are a reminder that domestic violence is something that can happen to anybody, but it can be stopped. You will face many defeats in your life, but never let yourself be defeated - Maya Angelou. I refuse to be defeated!"


*  Florida Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-500-1119
*  List of centers in Florida Florida Coaliton Against Domestic Violence
Harbor House of Central Florida  407-886-2856

Wings (Women in Need Growing Stronger)  847-221-5680

*  The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)
*  List of national resources: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

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