‘Believe them’: Experts say, too often, domestic violence survivors are not truly heard

Published: Oct. 27, 2021 at 11:08 AM MDT
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. According to survivor advocates at TESSA, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men in the U.S. have been abused in a domestic violence situation.

“So often, people that come to us feel like they haven’t been believed,” says TESSA CEO Anne Markley. “Their story has been lessened, or they’re afraid to speak up because somebody isn’t going to believe that what they’re going through is real. ... The number one thing I tell people is, ‘Believe someone that’s telling you their story.’”

Markley described what she calls one of the most common misconceptions about domestic violence, saying, “So often people say, ‘Well that doesn’t happen here, that doesn’t happen in my neighborhood, it’s not in my family.’ ... But realize, you know someone somewhere that’s being affected.”

One survivor didn’t think it would happen to her either, until 2014.

“I never really knew what I was going to come home to,” said Sarah Lewis.

Lewis’ boyfriend at the time was abusing drugs and alcohol. She says she didn’t find out about the drug abuse until after the couple broke up.

“One day I came home from running, and unfortunately he was livid and angry because of being drunk ... he tried to strangle me,” she said.

That was the first, but not last instance of physical abuse.

“I think the misconception is: who would ever stay?” Lewis explained that her abuser apologized, saying he would get better and stop drinking. At the time, like many survivors, she believed him. “It would be that way for like two or three days. I would be like ‘OK, this is a little normal, it’s going to get better,’ and then it never did.”

The next instance prompted an argument that nearly cost Lewis her life.

“He got really angry, and he slammed my face on the floor and punched me, punched my stomach, threw me on the bed and tried to strangle me. Five bones were broken in my face. My neighbor downstairs actually called the police, and he basically saved my life because it wasn’t going to stop.”

Lewis says she blamed herself for a long time, telling herself, “If I wouldn’t have come home early, this would have never happened.” She says the mental and emotional abuse caused that self-blaming thinking pattern.

“Trauma can be very difficult,” Markley said. “It might not always be rational thoughts that are coming out. It might not always make sense what choices that person is making because of the way that trauma works on our bodies and in our brains.”

TESSA suggests everyone know signs of domestic violence -- beyond bruises. Markley said, “It doesn’t just have to be physical.” There’s also mental, emotional, sexual, and financial abuse. TESSA’s website says, “Friends and family who have lost someone in a domestic violence death often noticed a change in the victim’s personality.” That included the victim acting differently around their abuser than they normally would act, not making decisions for themselves, and being unusually quiet.

If you suspect someone is being abused, experts say avoid language that could be received as aggressive. ”It’s human nature,” Markley said, referring to how urgently loved ones want to get the person they care about out of abusive situations. However, she says not to say things like “just leave” or “how have you not left yet?” because the person stuck in an abusive relationship may receive those comments as demanding or condescending -- the same tone they get from their abuser. Instead, experts say to take a supportive approach, saying things like, “Whenever you need anything, let me know and I’ll be there.” Markley said, the exception is when someone could be in immediate physical danger, in which case calling 911 is warranted.

“I called my sister and her and her husband came and picked me up the same day,” Lewis said. “Being there no matter what, with no judgment, you’ll be that phone call when they’re ready to leave.”

When survivors leave their abusers, often it’s “with nothing but the clothes on their backs,” Markley said. That’s what TESSA’s donation drives are for. “We are ramping up for our holiday season because we have a holiday shop, which any of our clients and kiddos that we serve can come and do their Christmas shopping, and so a lot of those needs are on our Amazon wish list right now.” Click here to see the wish list and learn more about donating.

TESSA’s safe line to report abuse is 719-633-3819.

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