Jennifer Varney, a victim and survivor of domestic violence, lived through three years of abuse from her partner. Varney’s story highlights the somber fact that 20 people are physically assaulted in the United States each minute.
Legs crossed underneath her, Jennifer Varney, a Lorain County Community College social work major, sat curled in a barrel chair while staring out the glass window-covered door of room 207 in LCCC’s College Center building. Though it’s only been a year since that night, the horror and pain of last spring is seared into her memory.
“I just remember when I hit the ground, it was at that moment that I realized I was going to die; he was going to kill me, ” she said.
The American Dream
The relationship started out promising enough. Both in recovery from drugs and alcohol, Varney met him through a support group in the spring four years ago. In the span of a few months, they were immersed in a whirlwind romance.
“I had never felt safer with anybody, never felt more in love,” she said. “We planned our baby, planned a wedding, I got the dress; everything was ordered.”
As plans moved forward, he relapsed. With this step backward, Varney’s ideal future began to shatter.
“It started out small at first; usually it was just him picking me up and throwing me out of the house and locking me out. Then after he’d sober up, he’d call begging me to come home,” she said.
A nation-wide issue
Each minute that passes in the United States, an average of 20 people are physically abused by their intimate partners, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence Network (CADVN) reported. That number equates to more than ten million men and women each year who experience domestic abuse.
Regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or income, any person can experience to varying degrees repeated acts of abuse; physically, emotionally, sexually or financially, according to Safe Horizon, a victim’s service agency.
“I always justified his behavior in my head,” Varney said. “I’d say, ‘Oh, it was just the drugs. If he stops, it’ll get better’…all this justification and rationalization of just making excuses for him.”
One in four women and one in seven men have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
In Lorain County, 1,670 women between the ages of 18 and 64 are physically assaulted by their partner each year, a 2014 report by the Ohio Family Violence Prevention Project (OFVPP) found.
“The psychology of domestic abuse is very important to understand because it is extremely misunderstood,” Quentin Kuntz, a licensed professional clinical, crisis intervention and career counselor in Enrollment and Financial Services at LCCC. “The average person would say ‘just leave [them]’.”
Leaving isn’t always the easiest route to follow. Their partner’s shifting behaviors can leave conflicting uncertainty as to their innate behavior. Often, choosing to see the good in them enforces their decision to stay.
“He didn’t ever scream at me, he didn’t call me names. It was always just the physical abuse when he was high,” she said. “He was a complete gentleman when he was sober; he would give anybody the shirt off his back. But when he was using, he was a monster.”
Effects of addiction
While not necessarily a direct cause of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse play leading roles, often going hand-in-hand with the subject.
“I see very few cases where drugs or alcohol are not involved in these situations,” said Kuntz. “However, some people don’t need drugs or alcohol; they can be very punishing and controlling on their own.”
To compensate for his addiction supply, Varney’s partner stole from her already meager funds. Taking her engagement ring, jewelry and the necessary money for school, she was left broke and struggling to make ends meet. Defending herself seemed pointless when he could easily overtake her.
Research has shown that varying degrees of financial abuse are experienced in 98 percent of domestic violence relationships, the National Network to End Domestic Violence reported. Often a tactic to gain control and power over a victim, it can begin subtly and increase over time.
After continuous relapses, a financially-exhausted Varney resisted his power . This time, when he forcefully took her money and car keys, she fought back. Attempting to prevent him from stealing her car, she blocked his exit out of her driveway.
“I stood behind him, just thinking that ‘he’s not going to run me over, I’m pregnant with his baby,’ ” she said. “He [actually] tried to run me over.”
With road rash and bruises covering her body, a then-pregnant Varney pressed charges. In jail for assault, he was released early upon her request. She felt there might be hope for them, a chance for him to redeem himself as a father.
Victims may see it as their ‘duty’ to give their partner a chance to change, according to an advocacy guide published by the non-profit organization Futures Without Violence.
Across Lorain County, a reported 2,433 victims are involved in law enforcement-handled domestic violence incidents per year, the OFVPP found. Criminal courts commonly see the majority of domestic violence cases involving intimate partners.
“The bulk of cases seen in municipal courts are DUIs and domestic violence cases,” said Virginia Beckman, executive director of Lorain County Safe Harbor / Genesis House. “They are a huge part of the criminal case load in our courts.
“Our baby was due [soon],” Varney said. “ I wanted him to be there and was very committed to giving him the opportunity to be with his son and raise his son and be part of the family he had always wanted.
Her optimism proved to be futile.
“People look at me like I’m crazy when I talk about everything that happened, like, ‘What were you thinking?’ ‘Why did you stay with him?,’ ” she said.
Not having a relationship with her own father, Varney wanted more for her child. Even if it meant dealing with his addiction. She saw the person he could be, and that image stayed in her mind; a glimmer of hope.
“I didn’t want my son to be growing up without his dad. I think that that’s really what kept me with him for so long,” she said. “I always had this picture in my head of the happy family and, the white picket fence and the whole American Dream.”
Varney’s ideal future kept her stuck in a constant cycle of issues with him, even after their son was born.
“He’d decided to stop getting high [again],” she said, once their son arrived. “ But, like always, it never lasted.”
After repeated charges of assault, domestic violence and robbery by the end of 2013 – followed by time in an addiction treatment center – he found his way back into Varney’s life through her weak spot; their son. After an extended duration of sobriety, she began to believe he had changed for good.
“I was starting to fall in love with him again. We weren’t really even fighting anymore; he would voice his opinion about something and I would voice mine and we would compromise and work together,” she said. “That’s how it was in the beginning, when things first started. It was so refreshing.”
The Final Straw
It was the first warm spring day of the year. In rare high spirits, Varney and her son met him at a family member’s house. Though attentive to their son, he appeared distant and cold to her.
Standing side-by-side near the bonfire in the backyard later in the evening, she discovered the source of his altered behavior; alcohol.
“The wind blew in just the right direction, and I could smell [it],” she said, “I grab[bed] his drink off the table and smelled it. And he saw me smell it, so he knew right then that I knew.”
Not wanting to stay when he was intoxicated, she made her way to the basement to gather her things while trying to explain to him why.
“I was not being loud with him, not yelling at him,” she said. “I just told him ‘You’re not the same person when you’re using. You have a great heart, but when you’re using you’re a monster’.”
Honesty only made the situation worse. In his head, Varney said, everything was a conspiracy; everything was a lie, a betrayal.
“No matter what I did, I couldn’t say anything right. So I just decided to walk away,” she said. “But he wouldn’t let me leave.”
“It’s always a control issue, and control has got to be earned based on trust. A couple that has a positive relationship has earned the trust of each other,” said Kuntz. “But for somebody in an abusive relationship, they haven’t given trust and they’re more interested in control, which they haven’t earned.”
He blocked her way to the stairwell, a brick wall refusing to budge.
“He started coming closer to me, and the closer he came the more I would back up,” she remembered. “I [ended up] standing right in front of the metal pole [holding the foundation of the house up] and he just stopped. Wouldn’t say anything; just looked at me and his [brown] eyes looked black as night.”
He simply stared at Varney.
“We’re about to rumble,” he said, calmly.
Using both hands, he rammed her further up against the metal pole, the back of her head taking the brunt of the impact. Falling to the ground, Varney’s head hit the nearby pool table before landing hard onto its surface. He immediately jumped on top of her and wrapped his hands around her neck; choking her.
The minutes that followed passed in a haze, relief coming only when a friend descended the steps to check on her. Dropping his hands to chase the friend out of the basement, Varney saw her chance to escape.
“I was at least halfway up the flight of stairs when he came back, and I literally saw the Devil,” she said.
Gripping both sides of the stairwell, he kicked her down the steps with his feet. Varney flew back down the stairs, stopping only when her head made contact with the hard floor at the bottom.
“I just remember saying ‘Oh fuck, that hurt’,” she said. “[Then] he jumped on top of me and started choking me again. That’s the last thing I remember.”
Varney regained consciousness while being loaded into the ambulance after police and paramedics arrived.
Varney suffered a severe concussion, with bruises covering nearly every surface of her body. Red marks in the distinct shape of hands circled her neck.
Each year, domestic violence costs the U.S. over 8.3 billion dollars, according to the NCADV. This includes some form of medical care (emergency, hospital, out-patient, overnight visits), for nearly 79 percent of all victims.
A year later, permanent damage to her mental and cognition capabilities affect her everyday lifestyle.
“I was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” she said. “I have severe memory loss; my short-term memory is terrible, I have a tendency to cross stories and get confused really easily. Entire bits and pieces of my childhood [memories] are lost.”
Following that night, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. Charged with attempted murder, abduction, and domestic violence, he will remain behind bars until 2021.
To be continued in ‘Road to recovery’ of Issue 14