I sat in the emergency room intake chair and listened as a nurse asked a series of questions about my migraines.
"Can you rate the pain on a scale of one to 10?"
"Can you describe the pain? Is it stinging, throbbing, constant?"
"Are you experiencing domestic violence?"
I paused. "No."
I was experiencing domestic violence, but I was not ready to admit it. And I was not ready to leave.
I stayed in an abusive marriage for several years. Near the end, I strategically planned and executed my escape. I took very little with me except a few items from home, a lot of guilt, and tons of shame.
In 2014, Ray Rice punched his fiancée in an elevator and shocked the nation. Even more shocking to some was the fact that Rice's fiancée married him after the incident. Why would she stay? I can't speak for her, but I do have my own reasons for staying in an abusive marriage. That's why I started the #WhyIStayed hashtag to create public space for survivors to tell their stories of abuse.
In the past, these stories have been part of the general discussion of violence against women. But now, they stand alone as an important and remarkable part of history. In 2014, I shared my reasons for staying through #WhyIStayed. This story is about how I left.
Leaving was difficult but not impossible. The most challenging part was taking that first step, quietly building the will to leave the life we had created together. For years, I'd felt alone, carrying the devastating secret of abuse. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alone again, but that was the very future I faced. I decided that I'd rather be alive than married. Shortly after leaving, I learned that I was not alone at all.
I gathered toiletries, a few items of clothing, and my passport. I put them in a book bag hidden in my closet. I saved a few dollars of grocery money every week. I rented a small 5'x5' storage unit and kept larger items in it, such as books and a small tub of clothing. After leaving, I briefly stayed at an emergency domestic violence shelter. The staff provided me with transportation assistance, basic necessities, and much needed mental health treatment.
I visited the social services department and was able to receive temporary support through programs like SNAP that offers food and nutrition assistance and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The health clinic in my new neighborhood offered medical and dental services on a sliding scale, meaning the rates were based on my income and what I could afford.
I rented a room in a boarding house along with three college students. We looked out for each other and developed a close bond. I applied for a temporary job in human resources and made professional connections at work. Eventually, I saved $500 and purchased a used vehicle. I reconnected with friends that I hadn't been able to speak with in years.
The local domestic violence shelter offered free group therapy. It was there that I met incredible women who shared abuse stories like mine. We bonded over pain, discussed our futures, and encouraged optimism.
I began volunteering, joined a civic organization, and ran a 5K for domestic violence. I found a community. I made the decision to be as open to the possibilities of a new life as possible, and that decision has been rewarding.
There is hope.
I stayed because I couldn't imagine a life without the person I loved. But now that I've left, I cannot imagine a more beautiful life than the one I have now.
Beverly Gooden is a domestic violence survivor and creator of the social media movement #WhyIStayed. She earned her B.A. in journalism and communications from Hampton University in 2005 and her M.A. in social justice from Loyola University Chicago. After years in the social justice field — working in community development and affordable housing — she went on to pursue a second career in human resources, focusing on labor and compensation. As a presenter, Beverly speaks about intimate partner violence, dating violence on college campuses, and victims' rights. She is founder of the Ella Mae Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to create awareness about domestic violence and identify practical approaches to curbing it. For more information, visit www.beverlygooden.com.
The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.