Do Your Domestic Violence Survival Skills Measure Up?

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I sat on the stadium bleachers next to my boyfriend of six months on my birthday in the cool early November afternoon sun.  I had just finished performing the half time show with the color guard and marching band at our college football game. The week prior to my birthday had been amazing, it all started with me walking to my car after class, I opened the door to find a small stuffed story book bear dressed in a princess costume on the seat, along with a bottle of scented hand sanitizer, a skirt, and a note that said: “It is has been said that a birthday should be a week long affair. When you were born, you had a birthday suit on and after 20 years it has seen some wear and tear but it is still very young and beautiful. On your birthday you should receive something new to wear. Plus something to disinfect your hands after you touch me!!! This is the start of a week long birthday.”

Each day after that I had been showered with three gifts and a note, jewelry, clothes, other members of the story book bear collection and even a beautiful crocheted blanket with my name stitched in all my favorite colors.  It had been beautiful.  My boyfriend and I were sitting holding hands, and I expected no other gifts from him that day when all of the sudden his best friend walked up to me, kissed me on the cheek, and handed me a huge colored bouquet of flowers with tickets to Disney on Ice tucked into the leaves and walked away. I was stunned. I had no words; I simply turned to my boyfriend with a goofy grin on my face, kissed him and reveled in the attention of such a spectacle as I thanked him and bounced up and down in my seat.

My boyfriend knew how to make me feel special, there was one time where he woke me with a kiss and a red rose and a sweet note tied to the stem, saying: “The red rose is to compare your beauty to. The rose is a weed compared to your beauty.” He left me in bed and when I opened the door and walked out, there was another rose of a different color with an accompanying note on the floor, I picked it up and read it, and as I walked down the hall, I found another, and then one on each stair as I walked downstairs, each rose a different color with a note relating that color to me.

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I still have those notes in a scrapbook and dozens of other hand written notes my boyfriend, turned husband had given me over the years we had been together. We used to lay in bed together and tell each other our dreams, the kinds of cars we wanted to drive, the kinds of jobs we wanted to have, how our home would look and the toys we would one day own. We became pregnant and prepared for the birth of our baby together, he would rub my feet and rush to fulfill my crazy pregnancy cravings.  He rubbed and talked to my belly and we looked forward to the day our son would be born.

*****One year later******

I pulled my small Ford Escort into the empty, frozen parking lot and slowed to a stop in the stall closest to the door. As I shifted into park, I looked behind me at my one year old son in the back seat. I sighed deeply as I turned off the car, and didn’t allow myself to think as I climbed out into the light snowfall and headed straight for the trunk. I pulled out my only possessions, a diaper bag and a duffel bag stuffed with three days worth of clothes for myself and my son. I slung the bags over my shoulder as I shut the trunk and opened the back door. With the bags not allowing me to fully enter the back seat, I strained to reach the clasps and unbuckle my son and lift him out from the car seat. I successfully got him out of the car seat, shut the door and, careful not to slip, headed toward the building. It was a late Friday evening and Christmas was just three days away, I wasn’t even sure the building would still be open.

I hugged my baby in close to my chest to keep him from the cold and opened the swinging glass door. I shook my head and stomped my feet in the entryway to clear the snow and opened the second set of doors. The building was old and poorly lit. I hardly paid attention to details as I walked up to the front desk. I couldn’t feel my feet touching the floor. My breath was suspended in my chest. My thoughts were frozen in my head. I felt like none of this was real. I felt like time had completely stopped. I couldn’t look the receptionist in the eye as I stammered. ‘I need shelter.’ Tears began pouring out of my eyes. I couldn’t hold them in any longer. I had no control over my sobbing. That’s when everything became a complete blur. I imagine she called for someone and asked me for details. A woman soon appeared to escort me into a locked down elevator with her key card. Four floors later the doors opened into a small reception area and I realized no one knew where I was.

I was all action. No thoughts. No emotions. The intake worker motioned for me to sit. I sat my son on the couch next to me and handed him the small elephant teething ring. I was handed paperwork and the receptionist ran down the rules of the shelter. Even though my thoughts were empty, my head felt full. I didn’t take in the words she was telling me. I just answered questions and signed papers. I had never operated from such a mechanical place before. I ignored my phone and tried my best to focus on what was going on. The receptionist showed me the small playroom, and offered to watch after my son while he played there. I spoke to the director. Answered more questions. I spoke to a male therapist. Filled out more paperwork. The receptionist gave me a tour of the small shelter and showed me my room. I was exhausted by this point. I put my son down in the strange crib, and crawled into the twin bed in my strange room.

And that’s how it started. That’s the story of the first few hours after I left my abuser. So many people ask all the time ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ My question for those people is are you willing and ready to walk away from everything in your life? Your home? All of your possessions? Your comfort zone? Your life as you know it? That’s what it takes. Not only do you have to walk away from the things (which of course are replaceable), you have to figure out how you’re going to make it on your own. This is perhaps the biggest reason women don’t leave. Trying to figure out how to afford a place to stay, how you’re going to take care of your children yourself. The divorce process. The courts. The visitation schedule. Trusting a court professional who you have never met and knows nothing about you or your family to make decisions about your life like how often you get to see your own children, what possessions you get to keep, and has the power to order things like custody evaluations and court ordered therapy. To them you are just another number, and just another case. They don’t know you or your life, and yet they make decisions that will affect the rest of it. And there is the abusers family to take into consideration as well.

Often times the abusers family stands behind the abuser. This is hard for a couple of reasons. Often times the abusers family does whatever they can to support and back up the abuser. For me, my ex husband’s family had much more money and social influence than myself or my family. This lead to fear of the unknown, and fear of their influence. It lead to standing up to people I once loved and doing what I felt was the right thing for my son even when they disagreed. I remember one of the first exchanges I had with my ex husband. Emotions were high and we agreed to exchange our son in a neutral location. This meant I had no support system. We met in the parking lot of the local Child Protective Services location. I pulled into the parking lot to find, not only my ex husband, but his father and brother. I found myself confronted by three men who were all much larger and more powerful than me. I kept my composure and exchanged our 13 month old son in the frozen parking lot. And on the other hand, I lost the relationships I had with his entire family. Over the past four years I had gotten to know and built up beautiful relationships with his family, and walking away from my ex, not only did I loose my home, my husband, and my possessions, but I also lost an entire family. Why doesn’t she just leave? The question is ridiculously simple as compared to the complexity of the actual situation.

Leaving is an act of faith.

 

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Legal Ease

I was walking down the sidewalk, alone, heading for the parking lot. I had just spent the afternoon in Juvenile Court. The Protective order my husband had filled against me on behalf of our son was still in place. The only restraint being that I was refrained from harming or threatening to harm my one year old son in any way. Easy enough. I just wished they had taken it off my record. I had to do a psychological evaluation and go to court ordered therapy first.

“Brandy?” I looked at the tall, thin, blonde woman approaching me. My mom has done in-home daycare my entire life and this was one of the former parents. She had gone through a divorce a few years back and her daughter was old enough that she no longer needed daycare. What were the odds I would run into her here? “Oh, hi.” I replied, my brain beginning to turn, “Actually, I’m really glad to see you.”

In the process of her divorce, this woman’s ex husband had gotten a really hard core lawyer. She fought tooth and nail to gain more custody of their daughter, and her ex’s lawyer saw to it that she did not get that time. When she found out I was going through my divorce, she suggested his lawyer to my mom for me.

People choose different lawyers for different reasons. The lawyer I currently had was amazing at what he did. He had done great representing his clients…. in criminal law. He knew little about family law and had actually borrowed one of the books from me I had picked up on divorce. I chose my lawyer based on money. I had little of it at the time. I got a discount on certain lawyers through work, and his name came up. It had been eight months since my divorce process began and I was seeing few results.

This woman had told my mom months ago about her ex’s lawyer who she referred to as “a barracuda in court”, and warned my mom that she costs a pretty penny. I had no way to pay for this lawyer, so I chose to stick with the one I had. I knew that my husband would be a pain to battle in court (all said and done it took 3 1/2 years to get the divorce final and another 5 months to sell our home) I was beginning to think this pricy barracuda was worth it. I remember actually praying saying Heavenly Father, I know I need help with either lawyer I end up with. If I keep the one I have now, I will most likely have to do most of the research and work, if I get this other lawyer I’m considering, I will need help paying for her.

When I saw this former daycare parent I knew it was time to change lawyers. All she knew was the lawyers name, and I began my research, trusting that a way for me to afford this lawyer would come.

Three months passed.

I was driving down to meet with my new lawyer for the first time. It had been a year since my divorce process had begun, and nothing had changed. I remember driving down snow ladened streets in my clunker car hoping and praying this change would be worth it.

I had been able to arrange a loan through my parents to pay the $5000 retainer. Since then I have paid thousands more to my lawyer, I have been blessed with a way to pay every time. It has been worth every penny. I like to refer to it as “paying the bigger bully to fight my battles.”

I know for me, God, the Universe, Spirit, what ever you want to call it was on my side, leading me and guiding me in the direction I needed to go and providing me with the means to survive my divorce and afford a lawyer.

I know how scary this process is, and there were so many times I remember being afraid and uncertain and filled with anxiety. And I got through all of it. Every moment one moment at a time. Even when I thought there was no way.

Trust yourself, you know more than you realize, trust your higher power, and don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Here is a book I found to help navigate through the legal process:

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Divorce or Death

Can’t he just die in a car accident on the drive home today? I sat rocking my baby in the glider and let the thought entertain in my mind and play out for a bit. I knew it would be so much easier than divorcing him. I was afraid to leave him and divorce him, his family had much more money than mine, I wasn’t sure I could afford a lawyer, and I knew I would need one. My husband and his father had expressed their comfort with the court system and suing family members for possible future disagreements. The words of my father in law from the first time I had left floated around in my mind almost constantly. I have worked for the county, and for the city, I know all the judges and all the judges dirty laundry, if you ever leave my son again you will not gain custody of yours. I knew that blood meant more to them than anything else, and they would fight for one of their own tooth and nail, and once I left my husband, I would no longer be a part of that family, though my son always would.

I remember when I was pregnant with my son, my husband’s family treated me more kindly and differently than they ever had, making sure my every need was met. When I was in labor, his family converged on me in the hospital, I only got to call my mom after my husband had left the room, and I begged his sister to give me the phone. After my son was born, when we were at family gatherings, my husband would control who got to hold my son and spend time with him, my turn only coming when he needed to be nursed, if my family were present, their turn never came.

And still, I loved my husband, and his family, all of them. I have a big heart, and can see the good and possibility that exists in all people. I did not want to lose his family either, as I knew I surely would when the divorce process began, lose them and have to fight against them. I knew if I divorced my husband, my son would have to go back and forth between two completely different homes, I knew I did not want that for my son. If my husband were to die in an accident, it would be different, I would be able to keep a relationship with his family and raise my son the way I chose. I even went so far as to think of what I would do with the life insurance money, paying for the funeral costs and paying off debts.

My mind flitted back to reality. Death was not an option, not physical death of my husband, and not emotional or spiritual death of myself. I knew I would have to face the court system. Divorce it was.

Sigh, the court process. There is so much that goes into the court process and it can be an exhausting and difficult road. I have come to learn along the way, things are what you make of it, if you expect to have a difficult and hard process though court, you will, if you expect to have it flow easily and seamlessly, it will, even if the exact same circumstances surround you going to court, you’re feelings of the matter, will make a significant difference.

My first contact with court came while I was staying in the shelter. It was such a relief to allow someone else to take me under their wing. I had to wait for the day after Christmas before anything could be done in court, my biggest concern of course being retaining custody of my son. There was a woman who’s entire purpose was to help me begin the court process. She had the paperwork to file for divorce and gain temporary custody of my son, I filled them out in the shelter with her direction, we left my son in the childcare there, and headed to the court house a few blocks away.

I remember the cold, dim, wintry gray day reflecting off every surface in that building. It was like the entire world was gray and cold. As we began filing the paperwork, we found my ex had already been there and filed paperwork for divorce that morning. The bonus? I didn’t have to pay the filing fee. We filed the temporary custody papers and left.

A few days later a police officer contacted me, he wanted to serve me with papers. I was terrified the officer would come, serve me the papers, and take my son away from me. Thankfully I was able to get back in contact with the woman who had helped me file my paperwork, I don’t even remember her name. I told her of my fears and worries. She calmed me, assured me, and agreed to meet the officer with me outside the shelter and created a plan. She would tell the officer I had agreed to meet them at the shelter, not admitting I was actually staying there, giving me peace in not admitting to my ex where I was yet. We met the officer outside the shelter as agreed, I had even left early in my car, to drive around for a bit, and then show up in the shelter parking lot to give the officer the impression I had come from where ever I was staying, my son buckled up in the backseat. The officer had me sign for the paperwork and handed it over, then left. It was simple and easy, my son still in my custody.

I opened up the packet to find my ex had filled a protective order on behalf of our sin against me, claiming I was abusive to our son, the only facts he had to rely on were the thoughts I had expressed to him when our son was first born.

Shortly after bringing my son home from the hospital, I became hyper aware of all ways he could possibly get hurt. What if I dropped him down the wooden flight of stairs? What about the fireplace; all we had was a suddenly flimsy seeming fireplace screen. There were so many things that could harm my new baby and I thought I had already baby proofed our home. I shared those thoughts with my husband and those were the things he wrote about in the protective order.

In Utah when a protective order on behalf of a child is filled, the person filling out the paper work just has to go along the list of questions prompting for information and check anything they think applies. My husband had checked several options including me turning custody, the car seat, and diaper bag over to him, not harming or threatening to harm my son in any way, restraining me from owing a gun, and restraining me from drinking alcohol while I had my son. I could not believe the lengths he would go to to try to gain custody of our son, he knew I do not drink, and did not own any firearms. I felt he lied and marked anything he could to win. Thankfully the only piece the judge signed off on was me not harming or threatening to harm my son in any way. That was easy, nothing would change. And this began our long 3 1/3 year divorce process.

So what do you do? Where do you go? How do you begin? I suggest getting a lawyer if at all possible. It makes a big difference, I saw no way for me to afford a lawyer, and I knew it was the only way I would be guaranteed I would end up with custody of my son. I made it work, and I am so grateful I ended up with the lawyer I had, I truly believe God placed her in my life with divine intervention.

A great place to start looking for options is womenslaw.org Keep in mind: What are you willing to give up? What are you willing to lose? I walked away from my home, and most of my possessions. I could have fought him for those things, however the most important thing to me was custody of my son, because I knew I did not want my son growing up thinking the way his father treated me was the way my so. should treat women. I wanted my son to be safe. I wanted to give him a better life.