Domestic abuse may seem normal—or inescapable or your own fault—until one day when you realize it is not.
One survivor, Stella, writes about it as a crack that grows in the windshield until you can’t see, or as extra weight that sneaks up until you can’t breathe in your own clothes.
Allie and Claudia—also not their real names—are also survivors who similarly describe claustrophobia and a loss of identity.
All three women eventually found a way out, thanks in large part to The Retreat in East Hampton. The Retreat helped them with everything from filing orders of protection to counseling to filling the pantry or the Thanksgiving table.
In Claudia’s case, The Retreat provided shelter and safety when she showed up with almost nothing but the packs on her four children’s backs.
“It’s very hard to get out of it when you’re intertwined in this mess,” said, Allie, now divorced with a full-time job, child support and sole custody of two “happy, healthy, beautiful children.” A tire her husband once pierced with a screwdriver now serves as a swing in her backyard.
Violence played a role in the journeys of all three women, but their partners stole control from them in a remarkable variety of ways.
“Abuse is many, many different things,” Allie said. “People think if you’re not being punched in the face, you are not being abused.”
Stella put her husband through college while he cheated on her with more than 100 partners, even while she was pregnant, leaving both her and her daughter at risk of contracting AIDS. He told her she was fat, ugly and too stupid for conversation. “You’re nothing but the whore that lives here, and you can’t even do that right,” he used to say. He abused her in this way while cutting her off more and more from her family.
“You start believing these things,” Stella said. “I had nothing left of who I was.”
She threw out outfits he didn’t like and kept her thoughts to herself. Her mother told her the light in her eyes had gone out.
When her husband returned from drinking, Stella would heat his dinner and he’d throw it in the garbage along with the utensils. He gave two-hour sermons on how napkins should be folded, sent her back to the deli to have cold cuts re-sliced “to the width of my fingernail” and dumped the refrigerator’s contents at her feet when he couldn’t find the mayonnaise.
One day he pulled a knife on her because the sauce she’d made did not have meat, she said.
“This was my first step to walk through the fire,” Stella said of her initial call to The Retreat, which helped her get counseling and orders of protection for herself and her daughter. “They held my hand and I can never thank them enough,” she said.
Now in a healthy relationship and living in a home with “positive energy,” Stella said she can now “breathe and be happy and sing out loud, even if I don’t know the words and I sound like a cat.”
A self-taught artist who likes to draw powerful women and butterflies, Stella donates works to The Retreat and other organizations as a way of giving back. She also shares writings about her experience titled, “Speak Out” and “The Windshield.”
“There is help out there,” she said. “It’s so important for women to know that there is help out there.”
Stella keeps a proverb called “The Butterfly Lady” in her art portfolio. It says, “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, she became a butterfly.”
Allie and her husband had three luxury cars, including the one he parked sideways to block hers so that she couldn’t leave the house. They had two children under 2, but he refused to give her money for food, demanding sex in return and calling her a whore. Once he punctured her tires, then tried to pay men working nearby not to help her fix them.
“You feel weak, humiliated,” Allie said earlier in October, which is Domestic Abuse Awareness Month. “I’m a strong woman. This can happen to anyone if they break you down enough.”
During different periods of their marriage, her husband told her she was crazy, that she had nowhere to turn, and filed for divorce to prevent her from leaving the state. He threatened to take away the children and house, closed bank accounts, left Allie and the children without heat and told his family she was stealing money he gave her.
“He had everyone believing that I was making these things up,” Allie said. She used to pretend she was going out for a run at 6:30 a.m. and would go to see a therapist instead. Left without a car, she would take the kids out in a stroller for a 5-mile walk to the store.
At one point, her husband was arrested for sexually assaulting her; she said he would grab her as she came out of the shower. She said that a detective from the Southampton Town Police Department once warned her, during a domestic dispute visit, “If you don’t get him out of this house, we’re going to be zipping you up in a body bag.”
Allie was pleading with her husband for money when he threw her to the floor in front of the children. She locked herself in a closet and dialed The Retreat, as a Southampton Town Police officer had advised her to do. “I was so petrified,” she said. “They understood everything I was saying,” she added.
Allie said that “a million different resources” followed an assessment at The Retreat, including counseling and advice, orders of protection and a domestic violence advocate who stood by her side in court. She said the domestic violence advocate “makes you feel like you are not nuts.”
There were rough periods—times when Allie was so afraid that she put a chair in front of every door, and when she counted 23 cell and land line calls and faxes from her husband in a single hour. He smashed the first tape recorder she hid under the mattress to gather evidence, but she later bought a smaller one that helped secure jail time and a “stay away” order.
“The Retreat was my Santa, my turkey for Thanksgiving, my canned goods,” Allie said. “It was a place that I could let my guard down … and not feel crazy. They gave me strength to fight back.”
The first Christmas she was on her own, people from The Retreat dropped off two garbage bags filled with presents for her children. They also had a gift for Allie—a car she used one-dollar bills to register at the Department of Motor Vehicles. She later donated the car to another woman in need. When the DMV clerk saw her tears, Allie explained, “You don’t know what this means.” It was a huge first step to starting her life again, and she continued to take many more steps toward independence.
“When you are in that dark place it’s so hard to imagine. It’s like you don’t see a way out of there,” she said. “The biggest and best first step was making that call. I will never be in that situation again, thanks to The Retreat.”
Claudia lived in the Bronx. She had to get to work, and her children’s father was late getting them to school. “It turned into a big argument,” she recalled, and she told him she did not want him back in her apartment. He had moved in with her after being evicted from several other apartments after incidents in which he’d physically trap her in a space she herself was paying for. “When you’re in it, it seems normal,” Claudia said, adding that she would have felt embarrassed to identify his behavior as abuse.
“Everything was about him,” she said. “Some way, down the line, it would come down to being about him.”
Sometimes Claudia called the police to get him out, but then would take him back. “I think because I had two other children before [and] I didn’t want my kids to grow up without a dad, a family,” she said.
It may also have been because Claudia was in love with him or with the thought of being in love, she said. “It becomes a mind thing,” she said. “He’s a very good manipulator.”
On the day in question, the day before she called The Retreat, he physically attacked her outside their apartment building and she lost consciousness. Nearby workers pulled him off, he ran away, and she filed a police report. “The kids were there,” Claudia noted.
While she was at work, he returned and threw rocks at the apartment windows. “If he did this in the daytime, I had no idea what he would do in the night,” said Claudia, who has a scar from an episode when she jumped from a second-story window after having the children distract their father in stages while she secretly opened first the window screen and then, a little bit later, the window itself.
On the night after Claudia’s partner threw the rocks, she put all four kids in the room with the fewest windows and stayed up wondering what to do. Early in the morning she filled their backpacks with books and clothes. “I made sure they had their breakfast,” she said. “I just left. I didn’t tell anyone.”
Claudia did not want to go to a homeless shelter in New York City, and after calls to various agencies had learned that The Retreat had space for her four children and herself. She had never been to East Hampton and offered a taxi driver $50 to take them there. “I think it took us four or five hours … and we finally reached this place,” she said.
“When someone says The Retreat, you think of a retreat,” Claudia said. She called it, “A place that’s just sent from God.”
The Retreat’s shelter was a beautiful house, she said, and her kids were distracted by “all the nice things”—the local schools as well as bikes, art supplies, books, a computer, a playground and special group trips to places like the bowling alley and the circus. “They had everything for the children to feel comfortable,” she said.
Claudia herself found safety, counseling, time for reflection, group meetings, communal meals, chores and relationships. Living at The Retreat and learning about the experiences of other people, “I got to know different types of abuse,” Claudia said. “I knew of domestic violence, but I didn’t know the depth of domestic violence.”
“My whole life changed,” she said. She spent a birthday and a Christmas, and found it difficult when it was time to leave. “I think what made it hard for me to leave, especially, was the people, the staff,” she said, praising everyone from the counselors and advocates to the volunteers.
There have been rough patches along Claudia’s journey after leaving The Retreat. There have been days when she taped written “affirmations” from The Retreat while staying in motels where she had to wash dishes in the shower. She also battles fears that her former partner has discovered where she lives now. However, Claudia says The Retreat is there for her if she needs counseling or advice or a referral or an order of protection or even help furnishing her subsidized housing.
“They’re still helping me,” she said almost a year to the day since she took the taxi to East Hampton, “and I can always call the hotline.”
The 24-hour number is (631) 329-2200.