More than survival from domestic violence

A recent arrival to the county overcame decades of abuse and found happiness

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

o The YWCA Clark County maintains a 24-hour crisis hot line at 360-695-0501. Call for support, safety planning and education.

o The Y also maintains a domestic violence shelter -- open to women and men -- as well as advocacy, counseling and support groups.

o Visit http://www.ywcaclarkcounty.org. The Y's general number is 360-696-0167.

o If you are in a life-threatening emergency, call 911.

SURVIVORS PANEL

The YWCA will host a panel on which women describe their own experiences with domestic violence. It's set for 1 to 3 p.m. on Oct. 27 at 3609 Main St. Call 360-696-0167.

RED FLAGS

According to information from the YWCA Clark County and the Minnesota-based Domestic Abuse Project, you may be headed for danger if your partner does any of the following:

o Treats you roughly -- physically or verbally.

o Investigates your whereabouts and your contact with others.

o Dictates how you dress.

o Puts down your friends and family.

o Tells you that jealousy is a sign of love.

o Threatens to commit suicide if you leave.

o Limits your actions, travels and friendships.

o Controls the household money.

o Destroys your belongings.

o Threatens to hurt you, your family, friends, support people or pets.

o Forces you to have sex in ways or at times that are uncomfortable to you.

o Touches you in ways that hurt or scare you.

o Tells you that your fears are not important.

o Blames you for the abuse.

SELF-CHECK

Are you being abusive? Here's a checklist from the Domestic Abuse Project.

o Do you constantly check up on your partner and accuse him or her of cheating or lying?

o Are you extremely jealous or possessive?

o Do you have an explosive temper?

o Have you hit, kicked, thrown things at or treated your partner roughly?

o Do you become violent when using alcohol or drugs?

o Do you constantly criticize or insult your partner?

o Do you threaten or intimidate to get your way?

o Have you ever forced, threatened or berated your partner into sex?

o Have you ever physically threatened your partner?

o Have you threatened to harm yourself or someone else if your partner breaks up with you?

HELPING FRIENDS

If you are concerned about a friend who's living with domestic violence or abuse, here are ways you can help.

o Say something. Tell your friend you are willing to listen. Don't force the issue, but allow your friend to confide at his or her own pace. Don't blame your friend. Support your friend's right to make independent decisions.

o Focus on strengths. Your friend is probably living with a constant stream of negative messages and insults. Bolster your friend's self-esteem by pointing out skills and strengths. Emphasize that your friend deserves a life free from fear and violence.

o Guide your friend to community services. If your friend can't figure out what to do, point out confidential resources such as the YWCA.

o Help create a safe plan. If your friend wants to end the relationship, help figure out a way to stay safe, consulting with experts if possible. Things may get volatile and dangerous if the abuser feels a loss of control.

--Compiled by Scott Hewitt

o The YWCA Clark County maintains a 24-hour crisis hot line at 360-695-0501. Call for support, safety planning and education.

o The Y also maintains a domestic violence shelter — open to women and men — as well as advocacy, counseling and support groups.

o Visit http://www.ywcaclarkcounty.org. The Y’s general number is 360-696-0167.

o If you are in a life-threatening emergency, call 911.

SURVIVORS PANEL

The YWCA will host a panel on which women describe their own experiences with domestic violence. It’s set for 1 to 3 p.m. on Oct. 27 at 3609 Main St. Call 360-696-0167.

RED FLAGS

According to information from the YWCA Clark County and the Minnesota-based Domestic Abuse Project, you may be headed for danger if your partner does any of the following:

o Treats you roughly — physically or verbally.

o Investigates your whereabouts and your contact with others.

o Dictates how you dress.

o Puts down your friends and family.

o Tells you that jealousy is a sign of love.

o Threatens to commit suicide if you leave.

o Limits your actions, travels and friendships.

o Controls the household money.

o Destroys your belongings.

o Threatens to hurt you, your family, friends, support people or pets.

o Forces you to have sex in ways or at times that are uncomfortable to you.

o Touches you in ways that hurt or scare you.

o Tells you that your fears are not important.

o Blames you for the abuse.

SELF-CHECK

Are you being abusive? Here’s a checklist from the Domestic Abuse Project.

o Do you constantly check up on your partner and accuse him or her of cheating or lying?

o Are you extremely jealous or possessive?

o Do you have an explosive temper?

o Have you hit, kicked, thrown things at or treated your partner roughly?

o Do you become violent when using alcohol or drugs?

o Do you constantly criticize or insult your partner?

o Do you threaten or intimidate to get your way?

o Have you ever forced, threatened or berated your partner into sex?

o Have you ever physically threatened your partner?

o Have you threatened to harm yourself or someone else if your partner breaks up with you?

HELPING FRIENDS

If you are concerned about a friend who’s living with domestic violence or abuse, here are ways you can help.

o Say something. Tell your friend you are willing to listen. Don’t force the issue, but allow your friend to confide at his or her own pace. Don’t blame your friend. Support your friend’s right to make independent decisions.

o Focus on strengths. Your friend is probably living with a constant stream of negative messages and insults. Bolster your friend’s self-esteem by pointing out skills and strengths. Emphasize that your friend deserves a life free from fear and violence.

o Guide your friend to community services. If your friend can’t figure out what to do, point out confidential resources such as the YWCA.

o Help create a safe plan. If your friend wants to end the relationship, help figure out a way to stay safe, consulting with experts if possible. Things may get volatile and dangerous if the abuser feels a loss of control.

–Compiled by Scott Hewitt

After her husband smashed her to the floor and knocked out two of her molars, Mer’a Mueller managed to grab the phone. She punched 911. Then she hid the device behind her back. “That’s the last time you ever hit me,” she vowed.

Her husband responded by yanking the phone cord from the wall. Mueller never had the chance to speak to a dispatcher. She and her adolescent son huddled on the couch, bracing themselves for what might come next.

But the call was traced, and police arrived. Mueller’s husband instantly transformed from the man who’d been assaulting and abusing her for 19 years into his charming, disarming public self.

“He was a master at letting people only see the face he wanted them to see,” she said. But he was led off in handcuffs anyway, arrested for felony assault, endangerment of a child and interfering with a 911 call. Mueller covered her ears while he screamed her name.

Nearly two years later, she sits in Esther Short Park, and reflects on change, and beams.

“This is the joy of a completely new life,” said the 49-year-old. “It is the most amazing experience, after all those years, to walk around without oppression and fear.”

In observance of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Mueller called The Columbian to offer to share her shocking story — to encourage domestic violence victims to stand up for themselves and learn not just to survive, but to overcome.

Never simple

According to the YWCA Clark County, an average of three women are killed each day in the United States by a current or former partner. In the past 13 years, there have been 42 domestic violence deaths in Clark County. Young women experience the highest rate of partner violence, and children exposed to violence are more likely to attempt suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, run away from home, turn to prostitution — and become abusers themselves.

“The main thing we want to get across to the public is that domestic violence is never a simple situation,” said Debra Adams, director of the YWCA SafeChoice program. “There is not one kind of response that fits all situations.”

But there are some classic red flags — warning signs that a relationship is headed for abuse — and the first is isolation.

“It can be a slow campaign or it can be abrupt, but either way it’s removing the support system the victim has,” Adams said. “It can start subtly so you don’t notice it — ‘Your mom doesn’t like me; I’m not going,’ or ‘If you go, it means you don’t love me’ — but eventually you realize you’re cut off and you have nobody to talk to.”

Controlling the victim’s activities, relationships and communications is typical, she said: “Restricting movements, checking phone calls, reading e-mails — surveillance-type things — and it intensifies and escalates.”

Plus, she said, the problem is blamed on the victim: “Your partner is usually saying, ‘You have the ability to control my behavior. If you would just do what I want you to do, I wouldn’t get angry, I wouldn’t get violent.’”

While domestic violence situations may never be simple, Adams said, this much is: “No matter what you say or do, nobody has the right to harm you.”

‘What did I do?’

Mueller grew up close to a man she loved dearly: her father. Mom died when she was young.

“Dad was the softest, gentlest guy,” she said. “He was a nurturer.”

He was also a denier, she acknowledges now — so sweet and good that he simply couldn’t accept it when his daughter told him her marriage had taken an ugly turn.

“What did you do?” is what her father replied. So, “What did I do?” is what Mueller wondered. “My Dad was all I had, and I always honored what he said. So, instantly, I was focused on my behavior and what I might have done wrong, instead of my husband’s.”

That’s typical of relationship violence, Adams said. “If this was a stranger being violent, society would be way more supportive — would see it as a crime,” she said. “But because it’s inside a relationship, people see it differently.”

Mueller is a nurturer and an optimist like her dad, she said. Her pattern was one of falling for men who seemed down on their luck. “He just needs someone to believe in him,” was her first thought about her first husband. She managed to avoid thinking about his previous marriage and the way it ended — in alcoholism, violence and restraining orders, she said.

“He seemed like a nice guy who was trying to get better,” she said “I admired that.”

Legacy of suicide

But he didn’t get better. He got violent. There was an escalating cycle of anger and explosion — and then flowers and apologies. Mueller left once, returned, and eventually prepared to flee again.

When her husband figured that out, he employed what Adams calls “the ultimate control mechanism.” He committed suicide — shot himself in front of Mueller, with their young son nearby.

“I was devastated,” she said. “I was going to leave and the result was somebody killed himself. I had nightmares. I was constantly afraid and constantly second-guessing myself. If I had just been happy, maybe none of this would have happened.”

Happy? While being beaten, physically and emotionally, on a daily basis? That’s the kind of upside-down thinking you’re forced into when trapped in a violent home, Mueller said.

She’d been married at 19. She was widowed at 27. And in 2005 her son, then 23, echoed his father’s tragedy — by committing suicide, also.

Mueller believes it’s as much because of her long second marriage as the horrible end of her first.

Within six months of her first husband’s suicide, she said, she met a “mesmerizing” man. “He was a lot more intense,” she said, and she failed to see the red flags that she now says should have been more obvious the second time around.

The marriage lasted 19 years, and it was even worse than the first.

She wasn’t allowed to go out on her own, or see friends, or drive anywhere. She couldn’t step into the front yard. Anytime she prepared to go out, her husband inspected her to make sure she wasn’t wearing anything too revealing.

She had a job in food service, but her husband insisted on driving her. Except that sometimes he simply wouldn’t. Mueller had a compassionate boss who deduced what must be going on — without being told — and forgave her unpredictable absences.

“He used to call all the time,” said Mueller’s longtime friend and co-worker, Debbie Calkins. “He called so often we had to intervene. He was very controlling and abusive.”

Protecting him

Mueller’s husband beat her, cut her and burned her. He put chemicals in her food, she said. He broke her nose. As she was standing over the bathtub bleeding — and listening to his fervent apologies — all she could think was that going to the hospital wasn’t an option because officials would detect the abuse, and her husband would get in trouble. She was protecting him.

“They say guilt knocks you down but shame is what keeps you down,” she said. “You don’t want to admit you’ve made the same mistake all over again.”

When you marry someone, she said, you want to believe in him. You want to have faith. Other than that, you do little big-picture thinking when you’re scrambling to survive.

“I just tried to get through every day,” she said. “I was too busy surviving to think about getting out.”

Her son, meanwhile, grew up hateful and hostile, she said.

He was damaged by his father’s suicide, of course, but Mueller thinks he was even more damaged by his abusive stepfather — who wouldn’t acknowledge, or allow any discussion of, the first marriage. There was no way to heal.

Her son “couldn’t deal with his father’s suicide,” she said. “He couldn’t stand to see me so oppressed. He hated me for being married to him. He moved out as soon as he could.”

Mueller thinks her son might have lived if the atmosphere in his childhood home had been better.

“He was tormented and there was nobody to help him,” she said. “I couldn’t help him because it wasn’t allowed.”

Separation violence

Depressed and desperate, Mueller started hatching an escape plan. She squirrelled away a little of her own money. She set up her own checking account. She told a friend. But she was terrified — and with good reason.

“There’s a phenomenon called separation violence,” said Adams. “When a survivor does make that move … their chance of being seriously injured goes up 75 percent.”

Mueller decided she had nothing left to lose. She made that break for freedom — the call for help that almost didn’t go through — and her second husband went to jail.

Just for one month, as it turned out. This all took place in Oregon, but Adams said a first domestic violence offense in Washington is considered fourth-degree assault. “Just one step above a traffic ticket,” she said.

In Clark County, Adams said, anybody convicted of domestic violence must undergo a yearlong, state-approved treatment program.

All the authorities involved in Mueller’s case, from police to social workers, held a meeting. They wanted to know if Mueller was taking the children and moving out of the house. If not, they said, they would remove the children to foster care. Thanks to a state child-protection grant, she and her children were able to move to a rental. She filed for divorce.

Her ex-husband continued phoning her and stalking her. She called his parole officer so many times that she was told to knock it off. But others went to bat for her — her ex-husband landed back in jail for multiple violations of a restraining order — and eventually she secured a job transfer and moved.

Today she lives in Clark County with her second son, Skyler, a high school student.

“It’s amazing,” said Calkins, who still sees Mueller occasionally. “For her to come out of it as well as she has, compared to how some people just have a pattern they stay with. She was able to stand up to him and get away. She’s a totally different person these days.”

‘I don’t live in fear’

“Survivors” of domestic violence is what agencies like the Y calls the people it supports. Mueller said she doesn’t care for that word. Surely she’s a survivor — but she insists on being more.

“I didn’t just survive it, I overcame it,” she said. “I have horrific memories and thoughts but I don’t live in fear. I don’t let it run my day.”

She sometimes attends survivor support groups where it’s clear that the women in attendance are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, she said.

“If you identify as a survivor, that becomes your whole story,” she said.

What she wants those women to know, she said, is: “There is life after all that. Keep believing in life. Keep believing in happiness. It’s real. It’s out there.”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525 or scott.hewitt@columbian.com.