SUMMERSIDE — It’s taken years for Mary to be able look in the mirror.
A victim of emotional and verbal abuse, the harsh words that came from the man she loved left her feeling worthless, full of shame and hopeless.
The abuse began early in her almost 20-year relationship.
“It started with more or less jealousy,” said the mother of four. “He would be constantly saying things to me like I couldn’t cook. It didn’t matter what it was. It was just all bad.”
Years of constant belittling, name-calling and emotional abuse took their toll.
“I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror for a long time. I didn’t like what I saw.”
Mary, like so many other women, felt like she had no other option but to stay.
A few times, maybe four or five, she did leave.
“We would go through a little breakup. He would come to the door with coffee and flowers for me.”
Each time Mary would return and the verbal assaults would escalate.
“You put all that you could into the marriage,” she said. “At the end of it you can’t put all of you in it. It takes two to work on it.”
Mary’s story is all too common to Norma McColeman, the regional outreach co-ordinator with East Prince Family Violence Prevention Services.
Last year, McColeman and her staff helped 65 women and their 84 children break free of domestic violence.
“The women are at very different stages but it has come to the point that they have to leave,” she said. “When they finally come to us they are very afraid, afraid of what’s going to happen with them.”
The abuser often instill fears in their victim, telling them they can’t make it without them, controlling their every move, isolating them from family and friends.
“Those are the things they use as the chains to keep them in that situation. Add to that a lack of money, transportation and where am I going to live, a lack of confidence and not seeing their worth,” said McColeman.
That first phone call seeking help is the most difficult, admitted McColeman.
“They are at that point where they tried to keep a lid on it. They have tried to maintain the relationship,” she said. “Sometimes women feel that it is something they did. That’s why I think there is so much shame and embarrassment.”
And what makes it even more difficult to leave is the fact that the abuser was once — or still is — someone they loved.
It’s during this week, known Island-wide as Family Violence Prevention Week, that the focus is on the problem few people want to talk about.
Although men, women and children are victims, it’s women and their children that McColeman and her organization help.
“We have to really understand that, for the woman when she comes forward, she is sharing something that is probably the deepest secret she has carried,” she added. “If she can only come once, if we can only talk to her on the phone, then that is what we do. She knows that when she comes here, she has found a place where she is respected… treated with dignity and with kindness.”
These are things the abuser, with their words or fists, has taken from their victim.
For Mary, there was never physical abuse.
“Bruises will heal. The authorities kind of see all that and it’s reacted upon real quick,” she said. “The verbal, the emotional is inside and it never heals. It may take me a long time to heal. It may take the rest of my life.”
Words like ‘stupid’, what her ex would repeatedly call her, sting. Others, ones Mary is too embarrassed to repeat, are now words she never hears.
She tried to shield her children from those words but they knew what was happening.
Finally, it came to a point when Mary had enough.
“I felt like I was taking them from their father even though I knew what our household was like. It wasn’t good for them,” she added. “The last time it just got down to the bare point that I had no hot water. I was home with the children and he was out working and he left” the family with nothing.
“I finally said to myself this was it. My kids doing without normal things, it was time to go.”
It wasn’t easy. She had no money and no place to go.
Mary contacted McColeman for help.
There were one-on-one sessions followed by group sessions, help with finding housing and other programs to help Mary and her family. With each passing week she grew stronger, regaining the confidence she had lost.
“I started to finally feel good about myself and that I could do things on my own.”
Her children are settled and her home is a place she loves to be.
“My house back then it seemed like walking on eggshells,” Mary added. “Now, my house… it’s a happy home. I can sit around with my children and have a meal and I don’t feel like I have to run or jump.”
She’s shared her story with women who are where she was three years ago.
“We are here like proud mothers because she was saying things to these women who were newbies, all the things about boundaries and mirroring back the things that she learned,” said McColeman. “She has broken that cycle.”
Mary has rebuilt her life, one step at a time. She’s in college and sees a bright future, one she couldn’t envision three years ago.
“I had no confidence or self-esteem at all,” she said, reflecting back on her first visit to East Prince Family Violence Prevention Services. “I knew I was ready and I knew what I wanted to do but I needed the strength to get me there.”
Mary hopes by telling her story she can help at least one woman break free of abuse.
“I always felt I had to stay for my children,” she added. “When you feel that you don’t have everything you need to get out… then you are thinking how can you do it.”
Now, when Mary looks in the mirror she likes the woman looking back at her.
Types of abuse
- Physical: restraining, holding or hugging when not wanted, chocking, kicking, punching slapping, unwanted physical contact, abusing children.
- Sexual: putting you down, treating person as a sex object, forcing you to look at pornography, being rough, forcing certain positions, forcing sex.
- Social abuse: putting you down or ignoring you in public, not letting you see your friends or family, changing personality when you are with others.
- Verbal/psychological/emotional: intimidating you, playing mind games, ignoring you, verbal threats, name calling, brainwashing, yelling.
- For more information or to get help, contact East Prince Family Violence Prevention Services at 436-0517. All calls are confidential.