In the weeks that followed Jennifer Varney’s brush with death, angrily vivid, red hand marks encircling her neck served as unquestionable evidence of her experience. Though the bruises scattered across her body faded with time, the most severest damage invisible to the human eye still remains one year later.
“We see the physical abuse, but the emotional abuse is something that we don’t see,” said Dr. Kwaku Obosu-Mensah, an associate professor of the Social Sciences and Human Resources department at Lorain County Community College. “It can be more damaging than the physical abuse.”
In a case study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 28 percent of women reported receiving medical treatment following their last physical assault incident. Of those, nearly 79 percent were treated in a hospital setting. Further, 59 percent were taken to the emergency department, sustaining injuries ranging from bruises and welts to broken bones and concussions.
“It’s one thing to shoot somebody, to even hit somebody with a car,” said Varney. “But to literally choke the life out of somebody? It takes a monster to do that.”
A national issue
Each year in the country, approximately 2 million injuries and 1,300 deaths (male and female) are caused by domestic violence, the CDC and U.S. Department of Justice reported.
“I knew that he was capable of killing somebody; I just never thought that it would be me. I never thought that it would get to the point that it did,” Varney said, “never in a million years.”
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) has been shown to account for 15 percent of all violent crimes committed in the United States per year, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).
Most perceptions of domestic violence by the average observer typically places the questioning and blame on the victim. Why don’t they just walk away?
“Everybody blamed me for what happened. ‘You put yourself in that situation, you knew what he was capable of; you did it, you deal with it,’ ” Varney said.
Simply leaving an abusive partner is much more complicated than it would seem. For many, it could be that they may have a child together, feel like they have no place to go, the abuser may be the sole provider or the abuser may have their own abuse history the victim knows about, according to Lindsey Maurer, an academic counselor in LCCC’s Enrollment, Financial and Career Services.
Dealing with the long-term aftermath of the situation is all Varney has done since coming home from the hospital, scathed in physical and emotional bruises.
In addition to being diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suffering a serious concussion, she now has a tendency to confuse places and events when attempting to remember childhood memories. Mood swings are a common occurrence for her.
“Before, I never had any of the problems that I have now,” she said. “ I have a tendency to be literally thrown into a rage over the dumbest stuff.”
“[Each] situation is going to vary based on the individual and the situation,” said Maurer. “Every person will have a different response to the stress and struggle they [faced].”
In a report published by the CDC, it was found that victims of IPV lost almost 8 million days of paid work because of the violence perpetrated against them by current or former partners. This equates to a loss of more than 32,000 full-time jobs and almost 5.6 million days of household productivity as a result of violence.
For Varney, interactions with the outside world, once a daily aspect of her life, are now looked at as an obstacle she must overcome on a regular basis.
“When I signed up for classes [last] fall semester, I didn’t even know when the semester started, how bad my social anxiety had gotten until I got to campus,” she said. “I started having all this constant anxiety and didn’t even know where it was coming from.”
After the trauma half-way through the spring semester, Varney had no choice but to withdraw from the majority of her classes. When summer semester approached, though, she signed up for online courses. Although a difficult semester, she pushed ahead and immediately enrolled in fall classes.
“I told every single professor what was going on with me. I got tons of encouragement, tons of support,” she said. “There’s been so many times where even I got tired of hearing my own stories. Because there was always something. And there really was always something; I wasn’t feeding these teachers lies. There was a lot of serious stuff going on in my life.” And they made it possible, they didn’t judge me, and I will always be grateful for that.”
The clichéd notion involving letting go of the past in order to move forward relates to Varney and any other victim of domestic violence.
“For the first couple of months after it happened, I was just so grateful I was alive, I was literally on a pink cloud,” she said. “I didn’t want to harbor resentment on top of everything else I was going through.”
In Lorain County, there are a number of services offered to victims of domestic violence. The Genesis House Shelter, a non-profit organization founded in 1979 and the only domestic violence specific agency in the county, provides a 24-hour crisis hotline a number of resources that are available to be employed.
“We provide shelter at an unpublished location as well as a variety of outreach services in the community, community based support groups, and prevention education programming in schools all over [Lorain] County,” said Virginia Beckham, executive director of Lorain County Safe Harbor / Genesis House.
Legal advocates are also available for those victims interested in learning their legal rights and will work with them as well as accompany them to court, according to Beckham.
“Getting away from the abuser is the first place to start,” said Linda Smith, a legal advocate for Genesis House with the Elyria Municipal Court. “[Then] we help with getting victims affordable housing and overall just to getting them on track to rebuilding their lives.”
A key resource to utilize includes support groups.
“Meeting with other survivors is a good way to recover,” said Meg McIntire, manager of community education at Genesis House. “It can be very lonely because often nobody wants to talk about what happened. So, it can be their lifeline to recovering.”
Support on campus
At LCCC, Women’s Link provides academic and personal assistance to students, faculty and staff with free counseling, crisis intervention, legal services, a housing service, and short term emergency loans
“Support groups are critical because I think [victims] feel powerless; they feel alone because they don’t know anybody else it’s happening to,” said Cathy Shaw, an information support specialist in Women’s Link. “When they talk to another [victim] who has experienced the same or similar things that they’ve gone through, it’s eye-opening to know they’re not alone.”
While enduring domestic violence, a victim is likely to have been cut off from their circle of friends and family. When they’re free of the abuse, the much-needed support system isn’t there to give them comfort. Because of this, attending support groups with other victims is beneficial during the healing process.
“I went to my first domestic violence survivor’s group not too long ago. I’ll go back eventually, I just want to get through this semester first,” Varney said. “I want to get into being more active with more women, because you feel alone. You feel really alone. I look at the three years we were together and he had managed to cause problems between every single person I cared about.”
While Women’s Link does not offer support groups for victims of domestic violence on campus, they connect interested individuals to nearby meetings in the area.
“Even if it’s only one time, a support group is critical for someone to go to because it’s a hard step to take, to get the courage to step out of what they feel is normalcy,” Shaw said. “And it’s a scary thing to do.”
Women’s Link aims to provide any services they can for those in need.
“It’s our job to anticipate those needs. Sometimes I’ll ask, ‘What was your hope in coming here? Tell me what you need.’ I want to hear it from them. I want to give their power back. And maybe give them a little bit of mine,” Shaw said. “I don’t want to control the conversation; I want them to feel empowered.”
Maintaining a normal routine during and after experiencing domestic abuse has allowed Varney to continue moving forward with her life. A key component of her recovery in the past year has been attending LCCC. Consistently enrolled in classes for the past three years, it has been the one constant in her life.
I came back to school [in 2012] when my son was five-weeks-old. I lived with domestic violence the entire time that I have been enrolled,” she said. “School’s been such a huge and grounding, forward momentum thing for me. And I really believe that it’s because of all of the professors.”
This spring, Varney is preparing to graduate with her associate of individualized studies.
“If it wasn’t for the teachers on this campus, with their support, love and just their understanding, I wouldn’t have made it,” she said. “They’ve been my rock and made it possible. They didn’t judge me, and I will always be grateful for that.”
Receiving her diploma has been Varney’s goal for a long time coming. Dedication and desire to build herself and her son a brighter future has been a motivator to get her through.
“When I graduate, I’m taking a break,” she said. “ I did what I set out to do and managed to push myself this past year, but now I’m done pushing. I am about to break if I don’t stop.”
A long road to recovery lies in the next chapter of Varney’s life. Though she hasn’t necessarily forgiven him for the damage he inflicted upon her life, she has moved beyond the anger that once encompassed her.
“I don’t really know if I’m mad at him anymore. I think I’m mad at myself for allowing it to continue for so long,” she said. “Because I deserve better than that. Everybody deserves better than that.”