If you read this blog regularly than you know that speaking out about the crime of domestic violence is important to me. For years I worked in a shelter for women and children. Holding hands. Playing Candyland. Listening to stories of violence. Talking about parenting. Helping. Not always knowing how to help.
Wishing that my job wasn't needed anymore. Knowing that it will always be needed.
It's a fine line to walk when you are good at that job. Because in order to be good at it, you have to care about the people. But you have to be careful. Because caring can also lead you into the sadness.
I was pretty good at leaving my job at the door. Coming home and enjoying the life that I was living watching TV and walking my dog. Partying with my friends. Dating and kissing boys. Never once feeling like one of them might hurt me the way that I know can happen. Always aware of those red flags. I walked away a few times because of them.
But I learned fast that letting a client in was important because they know if you are full of shit. My aim was to never be full of shit. I missed the mark sometimes but I aimed to always be true. Real. Never better than. Human.
This was never more tested in me than when I met her for the first time. She was rough. Angry. Loud. She had three kids and she yelled at them a lot. Most people she came to meet were put off by her or treated her as less than. She spoke in slang, broke rules and was battling a monster of a crack addiction. She was easy to write off. And that's what most people did. She wore her bruises like battle scars claiming she earned them. She said that she always fought back and I never doubted that.
It took weeks, but one day in my office I broke through her walls. I saw her. Scared. Raw. Unhinged. Afraid of ruining her children's lives. Vulnerable and childlike. Of course this really pissed her off and she was quick to rebuild that wall and storm out. But little by little, she let me see her.
Over the course of the next four years, she would be with us three times. Between her second and third stay she called me saying that she was giving up her kids. The addiction had won her. She couldn't stay clean. She couldn't stay away from him. She wanted a better life for them. I listened. And then I asked her if she wanted me to hold her hand. To be there. Someone who wouldn't judge her. Someone who knew that she loved her kids. Someone who knew that she wasn't throwing them away but instead trying to do right by them. Did she want me to come?
It was the hardest day. Her anger and walls were on display for all to see. She acted as though she didn't care. Laughing off awkward jokes with a court officer. But then, alone in a conference room, she broke. "Why can't I stay clean? Why can't I stay away from him?" "They will grow up hating me" "I'm fucking trash". I can still hear her. My heart started beating too fast. Tears came to my eyes before I could stop them. The pain radiating from her was impossible to dodge. "You are not trash", I said as I reached out to grab her hand. "You are not". "I know. I will always know how much you love them. I see it. I know it. I'm on your side." She let her tears come. I couldn't answer her questions. I could only be there. I could only witness.
For the next three years, on Monday mornings she would call the shelter to check in. It was a lifeline for her. If I wasn't there she'd say something rude and hang up. She is who she is. But if I was in, her voice would change. She'd tell me about her week. We'd talk about her kids and she'd tell me about the vague updates she would get about their pending placements. Five minutes was her limit. Then she was off until the next week.
Two months before I left my job she stopped calling. I never had the chance to tell her that I was leaving. My thoughts bounce around from her being in jail. Perhaps she had gone back to him or worse. I will never know. But I think about her. And I hope that she is ok. When i think about her, I wish that I could tell her that I am still on her side. That I still believe in her. And that I never gave up on her.
So today, I pass the Purple Purse (see below) in her honor. And in honor of all the victims of domestic violence that are trapped. The ones who have fallen into the depths of addiction to cope. The ones who have no one to hold their hand and no one to call. Will you please pass along the purple purse?
From the Allstate Foundation's site: "Throughout October, hundreds of purple purses carrying domestic violence
information will be given to Allstate employees and agents, local YWCAs, government officials, celebrities, media and domestic violence leaders to pass along between friends and family. Each time a YWCA purse is passed and
registered on PurplePurse.com, The Allstate Foundation will donate $10 back to that local YWCA."
And YOU can pass along a virtual purse too. This is how...
Follow this link,
you can pass the purse on through Facebook and The Allstate Foundation
will donate $5 for each pass to the YWCA
to support programming that supports victims of violence and empower women.
Actress Rosario Dawson speaks out against DV
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at
800-799-SAFE (7233) or go to a safe computer at a library or friends house and visit the website http://www.thehotline.org/. They can help.
I wasn't planning on going to the store when we set out this morning. But after two different banks, the kids were being little angels so I decided to brave it. We needed kale, broccoli and cantaloupe and Value King sold them dirt cheap. And
they have the carts with the cars attached for Mr. Pants to drive. So we stopped. Immediately they both started acting up and I almost turned around to leave but instead I decided to power through.
I'm so glad that I did.
It's been almost a year since I left my job
to stay at home. But once you've worked in the field of domestic violence, it never leaves you. At least it hasn't for me. As I rolled up to the check out with two pissed off and tired kids, I saw her. My heart skipped a beat. I was at once happy to see her (because she was alive) and sad. I was sad because standing right behind her was her husband. Her face was red with drink and she held in her hands the big bottle of cheap vodka. Her husband towered over her small frame. He has almost two feet on her and at least 100 pounds. I immediately remember the last time I saw her. Horribly beaten, her face bruised. Eye swollen shut. Stitches. Limping. And my stomach turned. He did that to her.
Her story was horrifically violent and I admit that she was one of the ones I rooted the hardest for. We all did. At sixty -something, her life has been an extremely tough road. Years and years of abuse, addiction and homelessness. Despite that, she is funny and very loving. She is the reason I call everyone "mama". When you spend months with people, you sometimes pick up their language. She looked after the younger clients in the shelter, she taught them how to clean, talked with them about staying away from their abusers and always had what seemed like determination, this time,
to change her life. She wanted to. I know she did. But she couldn't. She tried, coming to our shelter three different times. But addiction and homelessness form chains around the neck of victim of domestic violence all too often. It makes sense doesn't it? I know when I've had a bad day, I dream about an ice cold beer at the end of it the way some people ask Calgon to take them away. It's an escape. I cannot judge her choices to escape, even though it shackles her to a violent life. I understand it. I wish it were different for her. But it isn't.
I live and worked in small town America. Because of that we always tell clients that we won't initiate conversation when we see them in public. We don't want to endanger them. But that if they are safe to talk, they can absolutely approach us
. We only ask that they respect our own confidentiality and not give our personal information to others. Because of that I made no attempt to say hello and stood behind them in line like any other stranger would. When she saw me, I saw tears form in her eyes and I gave her a smile and a look to let her know I cared and that it was ok if she didn't want to say hi. She looked to him, he hadn't noticed. She collected herself and said, "Hey there, mama!", in her raspy voice that I remember so clearly. This caught his attention and he turned around. "Hey! So good to see you", I say. I smile, looking right into her eyes. But then he
says, "Hi" in a half drunk slur. I was sick to my stomach that this monster was feet from my kids. I wanted to say something terrible to him. Something that might hurt him. To let him know that there are people in this county that know all about him and what a piece of shit he is. But I didn't. I smiled at him as though I didn't know those things and said "Hi" because see, I don't have to leave with him. She does and I cannot make that more dangerous for her than it already is. Had I snubbed him, he'd know that I know. And she more than likely would pay a very high price for that. So I smiled at him and said Hi and choked back the bile coming up my throat.
She gushed over my kids. The last time she saw me I was as big as a house and about to pop out Plum. He turned away and she looked into my eyes and said in a whisper, "I'm ok". I smiled at her and said "I'm glad", even though I knew it wasn't true. We talked in short chit chat until it was her turn to check out. "It was good to see you, your kids are beautiful", she said. "Take care of yourself, Mama", I said giving her a smile that said "I really care and I hope you can see that". And with that, she was gone.
As I loaded our groceries and buckled the kids into the car, I saw them at the bus stop. I let my tears for her come. Because she is a good person. She has a loving heart. She is worth more than my tears but they are all I can give her right now. And for a moment I hope that she knows that. I hope that maybe, just maybe, that by seeing me today, she was reminded that there is a place for her to go and people who will help. But if that's not on the table, I hope that at the very least, she was reminded that I cared about her. And that I believe that she is more than the addiction and shackles that bind her. That she is more than his.
Someday, I hope and pray that she comes to believe that to. It's never too late to get help. To get out. If you (or someone you know) live with domestic violence there are people that want to help you find freedom. You can start by calling the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit their website on a safe computer (a library, work or friends house) at www.thehotline.org
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month
Forget Me Nots
Once upon a time there was an 18 year old girl named Sarah*.
She was talented and beautiful and in love. She'd just graduated from high school and was set to marry her sweetheart. The dreamy and mysterious Henry*. She loved music and acting and kids. She was the oldest of five so she knew a thing or two about taking care of little ones. She had a dream, like many kids, that she would marry and have babies and live a life in love with her people. What she didn't see coming was the nightmare.
See Henry was living a violent and terrible childhood and Sarah thought she could save him. Save him from the pain of his father's fist and the deep wounds of his mother's biting words. Sarah thought that if she could love Henry enough, he would be ok. But he wasn't ok. And for the next five years Sarah lived in a world of unimaginable pain. A world where the man she loved, wounded her both physically and emotionally.
Out of that five years came two little boys. They were Sarah's only solace. They were her perfect babies and she loved them fiercely. It wasn't lost on Sarah though that she was raising her babies in a world of fear and pain just as Henry had lived. But it wasn't very easy to just up and leave. In 1974 there were no shelters to go to or police to call. Well sure, she could call
the police but they would tell Henry to take a walk and cool down and they'd leave. Leaving her there to endure the payment for having called them in the first place. So what could she do?
He'd tell her that he would kill her if she left him. He had a gun. She knew because he had placed it to her head before. He'd beaten her so severely before she thought she could die if he didn't stop. So what would keep him from killing her if she left him?
Not a damn thing.
So she stayed and she tried to keep him happy. Walking on thin cracked ice and trying not to fall through. Trying to obey his rules to the letter but the rules kept changing and she couldn't keep up. She watched at family gatherings as Henry's father berated, belittled and even still struck him, knowing that when they got home, she would pay for the shame that it brought him.
It was a terrifying life.
Then in the winter of 1975, pregnant with her third child, she had a moment. It was a very clear moment. She knew she had to try. To hear her tell it, the world fell away and there was a calm that washed over her. She knew that staying meant a life of violence for her and her children. She knew that eventually he would
kill her and she knew what that would mean for her kids.
So she stood up. She left. She had nothing but her and her babies. She lived in fear of Henry for quite a while. She lived off government assistance and scraped and survived. And she stayed gone. And in the summer of 1975 she gave birth to her third baby. A girl. This was especially remarkable because for years Henry had bragged that he just didn't make girls. Girls were weak. He only made boys. Yet there she was. A pink and screaming baby girl.
Now, I know Sarah by another name. I call her mom.
Growing up, our family was never perfect but families never are. I will never forget the first time my mom told me her story. She was very brief and didn't give a lot of detail but because I was at the age where I started hearing things (read: eavesdropping) and asking questions, she had no choice but to give me a few answers. I am nothing if not persistent (read: horribly naggy til I find out what I think others are not telling me). I remember at first being a bit confused but that passed quickly and was replaced by awe. I was in awe of her. The self-esteem of young girls can be a fragile thing and at the time, mine was at an all-time low. So here was my mom
telling me that she escaped this violence and kept us safe. My tween ears heard, "My mom's a badass!"
Today as an adult and mother to my own babes, I still think that. I remember after Mr. Pants was born I called my mom. All I said was "Mom, I get it. I get it"
Because of her bravery, I lived a life that was safe. So do Mr. Pants and Plum. And one further? Because of that clear moment when the world fell away for her and she stood up and took her life back, she gave me mine
and made it possible for my babies to live in this world. Because of my mother's love, I am loving my
babies. I'm starting to go down that Fate Train
again, I know. But just thinking about the other side of this coin gives me shivers. Knowing that in that moment, my brave mom pointed me, yet unborn, in the direction of my loving husband and my children. What a gift. What an amazing moment. So I'd like to tell her that I love her. And that she is the bravest woman I know. And that it doesn't matter that we are imperfect. Because we are perfect for each other. I have to tell her she is amazing. I have to thank her a million more times. She stood up. And because she did, I am free too.
I love you mom.If you or someone you know needs help. You can start here.
* Names have been changed
The Pants family needs a captain and after no one else applied for the job, I threw my hat in the ring. I've been hired! So after nine years on the job, it's time to say goodbye. I am so excited to be home full time with my babies. I am also very sad to leave this place. Packing up my office, I keep finding the pieces parts of my life. When I began my career I was at the beginning of a divorce. All at once I had a new career and a new life path. From my first day to my last, my life has changed dramatically. The time I spent there took me from a place of uncertainty and fear through to a life full of possability and love. With some muck in in the middle of coarse. While there, I learned how to be on my own. How to care for myself. I have learned that I am stronger than I had once believed.
My job at the domestic violence shelter
has been to help families who have fled a violent home, gather tools and support to stand on their own. Violence free. To support mamas in their role as parent and to help the kids work through their journey in a physically and emotionally safe environment. I gave advice and hands on help with discipline problems and ideas for everyday challanges that kids throw our way. I attended custody hearings. I was there when one mama gave up, feeling like she couldn't turn her life around and gave her children over to the state believing they were better for it. That was heartbreaking. I've held hands and carried babies at the emergency rooms and at police departments. I've taken families to the airport to flee the danger in their life. I've hosted countless birthday parties, played Santa and the Easter Bunny and baked a bajillion cookies. I've encouraged mamas as they left our shelter on their own that they COULD do it and they were not alone. That they were strong enough and that they had what it takes to live the life they dreamed of. I have spoken to thousands of middle and high school students about staying safe inside relationships. I have listened to the stories of children and helped them to work through fear and sadness over the violence they had witnessed and suffered. I helped them create safety plans
and we made art to express their feelings
. Some of that art proudly displayed on the walls of my office. I have met so many amazing women. Women that made me laugh, cry, get pissed off and jittery with excitement. Strong women. I have hugged hundreds of children and even cried with a few (sometimes it happens, even when you know you aren't supposed to). I have also hugged and cried with a few moms. In my time here I have seen seven babies be born and three kids become adults.
I have heard some of the best one liners out there too. After a mama told me that she left the abuse in her home because he'd started in on the kids, she said to me "You'd rather jack off a tiger with a fist full of tacks, then mess with one of my babies". I totally believed her too. Another time, while standing on the back deck, there was an awkward silence one afternoon and a client piped up, "Well, that's about as awkward as a three legged prostitute in front of a pants factory on a Sunday". Brilliant. But my favorite of all time came at the end of a crisis. After an incident that had the potential to blow up, once again I found myself outside with a client. After about five minutes of nervous silence as she chiefed her smoke, she turned to me and said, "Colleen, someone once said, 'I give to the needy and not the greedy'". I paused. Looked her straight in the eye and said "You mean the poet En Vogue?" and we both laughed. Tension broken. Crisis averted
During my first week on the job in 2002, I was reintroduced to Bo. He had recently retired from the Postal Service and was looking to give back. He had survived lung cancer but it cost him his labor heavy job. We became great friends. I watched as he changed lives and hugged kids for years. Showing kids that most men are not scary, but instead they are kind and loving. Bo's cancer returned in early 2009 and he died in the spring of 2010. Breaking all of our hearts. My heart ached and I sought comfort within the walls of the shelter. I remembered him best there. Laughing there. He is still there. It's hard to leave a place when it holds within it's walls the best memories you have of your friend.
In my second year I watched as my aunt battled cancer. Needing round the clock care, twice a week I stayed overnight with her when she came home and knew the end was near. I would stay up all night talking with her about her life and caring for her then head to work in the morning. Tired. Sad. The kids at the shelter waiting to play. I happily obliged, grateful that I worked in a place that allowed life to happen and not in a cubical somewhere making phone calls.
When I faced cervical cancer in 2006 while living on my own, I learned that it was ok to open up my heart and live. Something that I encouraged and supported women in doing for years but had yet to do myself. I remember taking solace in my job. Letting myself forget while I was there about all of the scary possabilities and focus instead on the shelter families and what they were struggling with. Something that I could affect. Something I could try and change. It was such a gift.
Year four I spent downtime at work excitedly talking to my coworkers about this new dude I had met. They coached me on how to be safe
when meeting a strange man from the internet and they all anxiously awaited the details of our first date. Giggling and laughing and blushing became the day to day around the shelter as I fell deeply in love with my man. I remember Bo, sitting in my office and grilling me on how this new guy was treating me. Just like a dad would. He wanted to know how he treated his mother. Bo believed a lot could be discovered about a man by watching him interact with his mom. Cleaning up my computer documents, I found the wedding vows I made to that guy. I typed and retyped and deleted and typed again over many lunch breaks. Working on them over my Subway sub until they were just perfect. It felt strange to delete that file but I guess the next advocate doesn't need it.
Then in the spring on 2009 I became a mother. Suddenly my job was harder in a way I hadn't expected. My heart was tugged easier. Even wounded at times. The experiences of the families I served were suddenly more difficult to hear. It was harder to seperate. Harder to remain within my work boundary. I now had insight into the feelings these mamas were having. It made me better at hearing their stories and better at exploring options with them. But there was a price. And I was beginning to burn out. I have always believed that social workers should bow out when we become less effective. For me, it's the right thing to do. The people we serve deserve our best and if we can not give them that, then it's time to pack it in. And here I was, burning out. There was this other job that I desperately wanted. I wanted to be at home with my baby. And now I need to be home with both of my babies. So I'm saying goodbye.
But I need to say thank you to my job. Thank you for introducing me to myself. Thank you for bringing me friends that I will have for a lifetime. Thank you for being a safe haven to women and children seeking freedom from domestic violence. Thank you for offering a hand and a shoulder to them. The walls are filled with their stories and their hopes. The work being done there is changing lives and restoring souls. It's making the world a better place. I am so lucky and honored to have been a part of that. When I was in high school, the local newspaper did a write up on one student a month. In that article I was asked what I wanted to do with my life. My reply was that I wanted to help children who had been abused or to see my name in lights on Broadway. I am pretty damn lucky to have fullfilled the first part of my dream. Maybe when the kids get bigger I can work on that second part.
Girl, Age 11. One of my favorite pieces of art. "I'm Much Better"
Girl, Age 8. Me, her and her three sisters. Being watched over by guardian butterflies.
Boy, Age 7 This is the first picture ever given to me from a child in the shelter. His mom added the Post It. He loved The Little Mermaid and the song "Under the Sea". He made this picture after being told that the uncle who had abused him would be going to jail.