Vigil aims to raise domestic violence awareness

Attendees of the vigil were asked to sign the purple ribbon pledge in honor of domestic abuse victims.

Attendees of the vigil were asked to sign the purple ribbon pledge in honor of domestic abuse victims.                          — John Ferris Robben photo

The YWCA of Greenwich’s annual Candlelight Vigil for domestic violence awareness, held last Thursday, honored the memory of Connecticut residents who lost their lives as a result of domestic abuse last year. But the keynote speaker’s story of survival offered attendees a ray of hope for the future.

Held in October to coincide with Domestic Violence Awareness Month each year, the event is vital to informing the community that help is out there, YWCA President and CEO Adrianne Singer said.

In an interview with the Post, Ms. Singer explained that as the largest provider of domestic abuse services in the country, it’s crucial that the YWCA get the message out to community members that the organization provides a number of domestic violence services, including a 24-hour hotline for those in crisis. Although the Y sheltered 123 people over the last year — the largest number to ever utilize the service — the climbing numbers are partly a result of the public’s growing awareness of the domestic abuse services available to them, which is a positive thing, Ms. Singer said.

Following Ms. Singer’s introduction of the Y’s latest initiatives Thursday evening, the director of domestic abuse services, Suzanne Adam, provided vigil attendees with warning signs that could help identify someone who is being abused. The indicators included self-blaming statements, a general sense of uneasiness around one’s partner, a tendency toward isolation, and a noticeable and dramatic change in emotions.

For those who suspect someone they know is being abused, Ms. Adam said, it is critical that they ask the victim direct questions about the situation in a nonjudgmental manner, let the person know that the abuse is never his or her fault and, above all, believe what the person has to say.

In this year’s survivor testimony, a domestic abuse victim who identified herself as Deborah spoke about her experiences dealing with domestic violence and urged others in similar circumstances to seek the “lifeline” that the YWCA provides through its services.

In an emotional speech, Deborah described the 13 years she spent living with an emotionally, verbally and physically abusive husband who also happened to be a “charming, successful man.” The abuse, she said, started just weeks after the couple got married. It began with name-calling with words Deborah “had never heard spoken out loud,” she said. He quickly apologized, blaming stress at work for his behavior and promised it would never happen again.

“I believed him,” Deborah said.

After the initial incident, life went on as usual, Deborah said, until one day there was snow on the TV screen and her husband became enraged, screaming at her and pulling her hair as if it was her fault. That’s when Deborah decided to try marriage counseling, only to learn much later that therapy is never recommended for a couple in a violent marriage, she said.

The abuse got worse, and when she finally broke down and told the therapist about her husband’s behavior, things escalated even further. On the way home from their counseling session, Deborah’s husband grew irate, yelling and pulling her hair the entire way. It was then that she first went to the YWCA for help, but her stay didn’t last long.

“There was no way I was an abused wife,” Deborah said, explaining her thought process to attendees. “No way. … I could fix him. … It was just screaming and name calling, I would tell myself. Oh, and just the time he smashed my treasured vases on the kitchen floor, and the one time he twisted my arm and threw me against the wall and I fell to the floor.”

But Deborah’s husband’s psychological abuse had begun to get the better of her, she said. She believed her husband’s threats that if she called the police he would make sure she had no money and that no one would ever want her, as he called her fat and ugly.

“I was afraid of being alone,” Deborah said, adding that the happy, energetic and accomplished woman she used to be had vanished.

Calling upon the YWCA’s Domestic Abuse Services for a second time, Deborah was “thrown a lifeline” by the name of Louisa, a counselor who helped guide her through everything that was happening to her. With Louisa’s help, Deborah began to understand her situation, she said.

“I had not just opened up the window one day and had an abusive marriage fall on my head,” Deborah said. “I learned how I was caught in the cycle of violence and how, bit by bit by bit, I was losing myself. I knew I did not deserve this abuse.”

Deborah also learned that her husband’s behavior would get progressively worse — and it did, she said. One night, after her husband had strangled her, Deborah grabbed the phone and dialed 911.

“My husband was arrested on nine counts of domestic violence. My life as I knew it was over, forever … and the story continues,” Deborah said.

Since that time, the YWCA has aided Deborah every step of the way, she said, right through her divorce, which became final last month. The process, however, was not easy, she said. Battling the “sham of a court system” Stamford provided her with, Deborah was devastated to find that the judges she came before were dismissive of her before she even had a chance to tell the court what had occurred in her violent marriage.

The court “tolerated by husband’s delays and no-shows,” Deborah said. “Tolerated his obstructionist activities. And to those three judges I stood before last month, I say you bear the shame for the plight and pain of the women and children who stand before you trusting, as I did, that you would help me and them. And what do we get? Your back as you turn away from us.”

Fighting the court system was difficult, and since her divorce, Deborah has lost her home, money and financial security, she said. But “am I sorry I called 911?” she asked. “Not for one second.”

Describing herself as “drenched in gratitude” for the family and friends who supported her, and most importantly, the YWCA staff for their guidance, Deborah said she was eternally grateful for the women who “reached out their hands and pulled me up, pulled me into my life.”

“If any of you here are feeling alone and scared, reach out and grab the lifeline. It’s right here,” Deborah told attendees. “Choose life. Your life and the lives of your children. You are not alone.”

Following the Survivor Testimony, Lillian Ankrah, child and family counselor for the YWCA’s domestic abuse services, presented the Purple Ribbon Award to Angie Hay. The award is presented annually to a member of the community who has shown “an outstanding commitment to victims of domestic violence.”

As a social worker for the Greenwich Department of Social Services for 11 years, Ms. Hay has had plenty of experience helping domestic violence victims, Ms. Ankrah said. Most recently, Ms. Hay worked with a woman who was receiving assistance from the YWCA’s Domestic Abuse Services. She worked “tirelessly” with the woman and her children to obtain long-term housing for them.

“This Greenwich family was facing homelessness due to domestic violence, and Angie’s unrelenting commitment to her client would not allow that to happen,” Ms. Ankrah said.

After the award, Yajaira Gonzalez, community educator and bilingual counselor for domestic abuse services, read aloud the names of the 26 people who died as a result of domestic violence over the last year. Attendees sat in silence, each holding a candle of hope, as Ms. Gonzalez named the victims, who included men and women of all ages and backgrounds. Following the reading, Ms. Gonzalez also sent wishes of healing and recovery to Diane DeMaio, a Greenwich resident who was recently hospitalized as the result of domestic abuse.

To wrap up the event, Meredith Gold, prevention and education coordinator for domestic abuse services, reminded attendees that one in four women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime.

“These women are not identified by any one characteristic; they are not all living in one neighborhood ‘over there,’” Ms. Gold said. “These women are our friends, colleagues, our doctors, bankers and neighbors. They’re our children’s teachers, coaches and baby-sitters. They are us.”

To learn more about the YWCA’s domestic abuse services, visit Ywcagreenwich.org.

 

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