Lisa’s Survivor Story: Free from Abuse, 42 Year Later
“I was born into a family with many problems – drugs, alcohol, and abuse,” Lisa began. She spent her early life in a tumultuous home with an inconsistent father an abusive mother.
In her teens, Lisa’s father kept a close eye on her and her sister, but one activity they were permitted to do alone was play tennis. It was there, on the court, where Lisa met her future ex-husband, Bill – when he was 20 and she was 14.
“We started to see each other and soon, he began to buy things for me. He saw I had nothing. He bought me shoes, a watch, and then an engagement ring,” recalled Lisa. “I never had so much attention and so I thought it was love. I had NO idea what I got myself into.”
When Lisa was 16, there was a family argument about Bill. Her parents made her end the relationship and sent her away to her grandmother’s house. Lisa’s adult male cousin was also staying with their grandmother. One night, he manipulated her into sharing some drugs and alcohol, and then her cousin sexually assaulted her.
“I told my Grandmother that I was sick and needed to go home,” Lisa remembered. “I left, promising to stay away from my fiancé, and I tried. I wanted to listen to my parents, and I was struggling with what happened to me that no one knew about.”
Bill heard that Lisa was back in town and their relationship began again. After a particularly difficult time for Lisa’s family because of her father’s abuse, her parents consented for her to marry 22-year-old Bill at the age of 16.
“Our wedding night was very strange. He asked his best friend to go to the drive-in theater with us. They sat in the front seat together, and I sat – utterly alone – in the back seat,” lamented Lisa. “The day after our wedding, he became a totally different person. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’”
Bill began to coerce Lisa into sex. “One day, I asked my mother-in-law for some advice. She told me a good wife will submit to her husband, no matter what he wants,” said Lisa. “She twisted scripture to try and make me believe this, but I couldn’t let it go. I told my husband how I felt, and he said he was doing nothing wrong. I argued and this is when the beatings began.”
After a few months of physical abuse, Lisa was determined to leave. Bill lied; he said he was now her legal guardian, and he would have her committed. She was terrified, so she submitted to survive.
“I tried to work, but I couldn’t hold a job, because he would accuse me of cheating on him. I never did!” explained Lisa. “He became so controlling that I was suffocating. I couldn’t make my own decisions. I was never allowed money, even if I worked for it.” Bill even prevented Lisa from finishing her college degree.
Bill lost his job, and although money was tight, he began to beg Lisa for more children. “After our third child, I had a miscarriage. I didn’t want to try anymore. I didn’t think I could carry a child to term,” she shared. “He insisted and I continued to tell him no. Then, he secretly stopped using protection and I ended up pregnant.”
Lisa kept the peace to ensure a healthy pregnancy and a “happy family.” For the next six years, there was a “honeymoon period” and she experienced no abuse. Lisa, Bill, and their five children moved and became involved with a church near their new home. Things were looking up. Then, an incident with a youth pastor and their youngest child sent things spiraling into despair. Bill got into legal trouble with their church, and they had to leave. Lisa’s support system had been ripped from under her and she was forced back into isolation.
The family attended therapy together until Bill decided that he no longer needed to be included because “he was not the problem.” Their youngest child disclosed to a therapist that Bill was sexually abusing the child, who was removed from the home and from the safe arms of Lisa.
This was the final straw. Lisa left and got custody of their youngest child. They lived with a friend and received services at a nearby domestic violence program. Through a referral, Lisa got connected with WC&S for her divorce case.
In 2016, WC&S Civil Law Project (CLP) attorneys helped Lisa obtain a Final PFA Order to protect her and her child. A WC&S CLP attorney represented Lisa in 2017 for her spousal and child support case. Then, things took a turn. Bill and their adult children pressured Lisa into dropping the divorce case. They prevented Lisa from accessing the home to pick up church ministry instruments, her clothing, and other sentimental items.
Lisa decided to move forward with her divorce case with her CLP attorney in 2020. After a hard-fought battle, the divorce was issued in April 2021. Lisa found the freedom she had yearned for, for 42 years.
“After almost 5 long years of court, I am divorced. I lost everything, including 4 of our children he turned against me,” said Lisa. “But it is finally over, and I am so relieved.”
Lisa and her youngest child are now happily living together in their own home. “I learned so many important lessons: there is help available, love does not hurt, and you are stronger than you know. I stayed quiet, and I never told anyone outside of my home what was happening. This was my mistake. Please learn from it. You do matter. There are people who care and can help! You can make it without your abuser.”
Trigger Warning/Content Warning: This survivor story contains details that could be triggering, including domestic violence, rape/sexual assault, gaslighting, and mental health.
One Man’s Experience as a Survivor of Domestic Violence
Michael had been in a relationship with his ex-wife Kara (not her real name) since they were in high school. However, she did not become abusive until they were both in their 20s. “We never really left our adolescence – we had known each other for over half of our lives,” said Michael.
They hit some bumps in their marriage and there was anger on both sides. Michael said he was not blameless – he got angry and said unkind things, too. Michael and Kara saw a marriage counselor. Unfortunately, Michael learned first-hand why attending marriage counseling with an abuser is not recommended. This creates opportunities for abusers to exercise power and control. Kara lied to the marriage counselor, saying Michael was the abuser and Kara the victim. “She saw how her lies could control me and started gaslighting me into thinking I was the abusive person,” he said.
Michael experienced emotional, physical, and sexual violence at the hands of his ex-wife for more than 3 years. She would hurt him and tear him down and then a short while later, gaslight Michael and tell him that he was responsible for the abuse.
“There was also some self-coercion. I thought that maybe I could convince her to love me more and have her feel safe by encouraging her to hurt me. This is a really tough thing to realize after the fact. For a long time, I thought that made it my fault,” acknowledged Michael.
Michael said Kara was very skilled at subtle manipulation. The primary way she controlled him was to say that he was the abuser in the relationship. “No one had ever told me it was possible for a man to be abused,” he explained. “I recognized no red flags. I just thought I was in a bad relationship. I was raised that when there was a problem in a relationship, you work through it. But that was not the case. You cannot work through abuse.”
After three years of abuse, lies, and gaslighting, Kara decided she loved someone else and wanted to be in a polyamorous relationship with Michael and another man. “She insisted that I comply and accept the third person in the relationship. I insisted she decide between the two of us and she would not. So, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I left,” said Michael.
Although Michael was the one to leave Kara, he was unable to see that he made a good choice for himself. “For years, I couldn’t give myself the win. I insisted she left me. But really, I did leave her and I know that now,” he said.
Michael moved to a new city, mostly to get away from his ex-wife, but had little success with dating. “There was a time I would be upfront with people I wanted to date. I’d say ‘I have issues because of this thing that happened to me’ and they would run away,” expressed Michael.
A short time later, Michael met the woman who would become his now-wife. At first, everything was great. Then, one day, they had a bad sexual experience that caused Michael to break down. He went to a sex therapist who told him what he was truly experiencing was trauma. Then, he was referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed him anti-depressants.
“But, the anti-depressants didn’t really work for me. I wasn’t clinically depressed – I was experiencing situational depression. Eventually, I found a trauma therapist, and that is what really helped me have a breakthrough,” he said.
He and his trauma therapist talked about his past and Michael joined a message board for people with PTSD. He says he learned a lot about domestic violence at that stage and he eventually began to accept that is what he experienced.
“I didn’t understand what happened to me for 15 years. I didn’t think of it as abuse or domestic violence for 15 years. I had already accepted I was emotionally abused, but I still didn’t think of that as domestic violence. I thought I couldn’t be abused because I am a man,” Michael pondered.
Michael said that back then, in the mid-2000s, there weren’t a lot of studies or papers on men as victims of domestic violence. The mental health field has made a lot of progress in the past decade and a half. Now, there are more messages about men as domestic violence victims in academia and the media, and this has given Michael some relief.
“I think the world is better now at understanding what can happen in any relationship – man, woman, straight, gay, trans – it can happen to anybody,” said Michael. But, he says that particular fears men can have may keep male survivors from coming forward.
“Men are worried about being perceived as gay, that they wanted it to happen, or that they are not really a man at all. These messages came not just from my dad and male peers, but they came from my mom, other women, people I had relationships with,” Michael declared.
Eventually, Michael came forward about his past and he was pleasantly surprised with his friends’ and family members’ reactions. “I disclosed to my friends and family that I had PTSD and everyone was so wonderful about it. There were no issues, but I was very careful with who I told. Then, several months later, I told them why I had PTSD, that my ex-wife was abusive to me. And still, they understood, loved me, and supported me. A lot of men don’t expect that kind of reaction,” told Michael.
Michael wishes that he had more context when he was younger and that he knew his relationship was not healthy. “My life would’ve been improved if I realized what was happening to me, reached out for help, and received services,” he said.
It is important to Michael for him to help lead other survivors to healing. He is enrolled in a Master’s level counseling program and has a goal to become a men’s trauma therapist.
“Getting triggered is a real thing. I have a responsibility to myself and my family to make sure I can deal with that. I’ve struggled with not wanting to get out of bed, with anger, with stress. I’m still here, I’m working it out,” said Michael. “It is my mission to help other men to get to this stage, too, where you have the tools and the skills to keep going.”
For Michael, finding a support system through his therapist, his family & friends, and especially other survivors has helped him to heal. “We’re all survivors and we need to be allies for each other.”
While Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh serves clients of all gender identities and sexualities, including straight, cisgender men, Michael is not a client of any of our programs. We connected with Michael through a webinar. WC&S encourages all survivors to reach out for help.
Survivor Story: How You Helped Isabelle Blossom
Because of your help, one woman, a new mother, was able to turn her entire life around.
Isabel’s entire body hurt. It was heavy, as if lifting her arm to comfort her sweet baby was just too much to bear. She could no longer tell if it was the pain from the abuse the night before, or the heaviness of depression that had set in after the baby was born.
She really couldn’t tell where one pain began and the other ended. All she knew was that this depression was pitch black, lonely, dizzying space of vertigo feelings, thoughts, and worries. She loved her baby, but most days she barely had the energy to survive. She wanted more, for both of them. Isabel had no energy and didn’t believe there was a way out.
Can you imagine how horrible this must be, not even feeling joy with her own precious baby? And with the heavy pain of severe postpartum depression and wearing the scars of physical abuse, wondering if you and your baby will survive the night? Every night Isabel wondered, “Will he kill me before the depression does?”
Every woman who survives abuse is unique.
With nowhere else to turn, Isabel arrived at WC&S with her three-month old daughter Maria and severe postpartum depression. It was no easy journey for her to arrive at the Shelter, but she was so happy she made that choice. Because of your generosity, Isabel had somewhere to go that would understand the challenges of not only the crippling depression but also the impacts of severe domestic abuse.
Your support provided for a traveling nurse to help Isabel work through her depression and aided her in attending the Children’s Program’s Mom and Me Group for new mothers. As Isabel began down the road to a better place, physically and mentally, joy returned and she was happy to be a mom.
Isabel blossomed during her time as a resident as she began to heal from physical and emotional abuse. There was an overall positive change in her happiness and bonding with Maria. You had a direct hand in helping Isabel climb out of the dark place that was stealing her light. With baby Maria, she understood her life was worth living, and with your help, she was given the tools to build it free from abuse.
You helped Isabel. And because of you, other women like her who have their own unique journey from abuse have a place to go in their darkest hour.
Thank you for making the critical services available to help make a difference in the lives of more women just like Isabel.