I recently put out an ad on Facebook reaching out to intimate partner violence survivors asking if anyone would be interested in sharing their story. My original thought in putting together this project was to conduct interviews with the survivors and merely tell their stories, but my objective changed after receiving an email from a young woman by the name of Kirian Ruiz. Kirian reached out to me briefly sharing her experience with relationship abuse and her reason for wanting to share her story. She said, “I feel [like] this is a subject that is taken lightly and a lot of times it is as if the victim is the one to blame because she stayed with the person that is abusing her.” Like myself, Kirian is a New York City resident, living in a city with a high prevelance of adolescen dating violence. One in ten teenagers in New York City Schools reported experiencing physical or sexual violence in a dating in 2009; imagine how many cases of violence go unreported.
I knew that I wanted to share Kirian’s story, but I needed to do so while doing some myth busting. It is assumed that you are stupid and deserve whatever happens if you stay with someone who is abusive, but leaving the relationship is not that simple. Society's broad idea of domestic violence is unrealistic and does not factor in the cycle of violence. Thinking about the type of violence that Kirian endured during her relationship, I thought about the different phases in the cycle of violence. Phase one is referred to as the “tension building” stage; the batterer increases threats and the victim feels like they are walking on eggshells. In phase two, the batterer believes they are losing control then the abusive incident occurs; the victim is blamed and left traumatized. In phase three, also known as the “honeymoon period”, the batterer is very apologetic, manipulative, and may even promise to change. In this stage the victim often minimizes the abuse and considers reconciliation. While not all abusive relationships include physical violence, the cycle of abuse remains the same.
Kirian met her abusive ex-boyfriend when she was just 16 years old, and characterized him as a “really nice person”, “charming”, and stated that they had an ordinary friendship that blossomed into a relationship. When I asked Kirian how her family received him she said, “My mom and sister loved him.” About three to four months into the relationship things between her and her ex-boyfriend started to change; the verbal abuse and control began. The then 16 year old, stopped hanging out with friends, she no longer participated in school activities, and stopped doing the things she loved, such as writing poetry and theater workshops. Kirian realized that her relationship was slowly turning into an unhealthy one and started to distance herself from the relationship. I asked her if anyone was aware of the emotional and verbal abuse at that time and she remembers being recognized as the “difficult” partner.
Both her mother and sister believed she was not used to being in a relationship and was just going through a difficult stage that was sure to pass. Abuse is neither a phase nor a normal part of a relationship; it solely revolves around the control and manipulation of one partner. Kirian rekindled her relationship, finding fault in herself, and accepted the blame. It was a year before Kirian’s emotional rollercoaster turned into her worst nightmare and the abuse became physical. The first incident of physical violence took place at her ex-boyfriend's relative house; Kirian was pregnant with their son and never thought that he would hit her. From the outside looking in, the most logical response to a violent incident would be to call the police and tell family members what happened, but it is never that simple.
There are plenty of social stigmas that surround victims of violence, painting them as naive and foolish people, why else would anyone stay in a relationship with an abusive partner? All of those verbs incorrectly describe the battered individual and make it harder for the person to break their silence and receive the proper help that they need. Kirian told me that she did not tell anyone that the abuse escalated to physical violence. She then posed this question to me, “How do you tell the strong figure [that being her mother] I’m not doing what you instilled? I am not being the strong person you raised me to be”. Kirian went on to explain how a lot of victims of relationship abuse feel when confronted with the idea that they can stop the abuse, “People judge [you] but [they] have never been in one [sic abusive relationship]. They think that you put yourself in the relationship and you can get out whenever you want. It’s an ignorant outlook; I didn’t choose to get hit or verbally abused the way I was.”
Without having much of a support system at home, Kirian turned to her former high school guidance counselor whom she remained close with even after graduating. She described him as being, “down to earth”, “compassionate”, and an “easy listener”. Her guidance counselor gave her the number to Safe Horizon, an agency that provides various services to victims of crime and abuse. Without me asking, Kirian explained why she went back to her ex-boyfriend, and said, “I wanted us to be a family. I didn’t want my son to be without his father.” I didn’t need nor did I expect her to explain herself. Domestic violence is not a black and white situation; there are many reasons people stay in these relationships.
On average, it takes a person 6 to 8 times to leave an abusive relationship before leaving for good. The conversation between me and Kirian shifted back to the topic of confiding in her family members about the abuse. She said, “He hit me while my son was in the room. [My] son’s presence didn’t stop him and I realized how far he was willing to go to harm me.” That night Kirian went to the emergency room to treat her injuries and broke her silence. “I didn’t tell anyone [about the abuse] until I ended up in the hospital. The ER doctor called my family. It was no longer just about me, it was about the welfare of me and my son.”
Although Kirian returned home to her ex-boyfriend, she remained in touch with a Safe Horizon counselor learning the resources that are available for victims of domestic violence. Through the Safe Horizon hotline, she learned the best way to leave the relationship was with a safety plan. Kirian's plan included packing a bag of clothes for herself and her son, and saving up as much money as she could spare. Her ex-boyfriend installed locks on the doors, slept with the key, and isolated her from a life outside of their apartment door. As much as we would like to think you can just walk away from these relationships unscathed, ending a violent relationship becomes the most violent point of the relationship. When most abusers fear they are losing control over their partner, they become more violent and dangerous. It is reported that about 4,000 women die each year due to domestic violence and of that, 75% of the victims were killed while trying to leave the relationship or after they have already left.
After speaking with Kirian and listening to her describe the incidents of abuse that she endured, I was nervous to hear the way her story ended. Kirian described her last encounter with er ex-boyfriend, “He came home one day after a bad day at work and we had an argument about food. I really don’t remember why [we argued]. He choked me unconscious and left me in the kitchen with my son. He was just 2 years old at the time. I woke up with my apartment door open, I guess he was in a hurry to leave. The cops came to oversee me packing my stuff and escorted me out of my apartment. I called the Safe Horizon hotline and they sent me to a shelter in another borough.” Kirian did one of the most difficult things that a victim of domestic violence can ever do, and that is breaking the silence and getting help. She filed an incident report, received an order of protection, and criminal charges were pressed.
Fortunately for Kirian and her son no one was fatally injured, but the harassment did not end there. Following her escape from the relationship she was stalked and threatened. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey statistics indicate that “approximately one-quarter of women reported being fearful, and more than 1 in 5, reported being concerned for their safety, or reported at least one post-traumatic stress disorder symptom as a result of the violence experienced.” The first year out of the relationship Kirian found herself moving every 2 to 3 months because her ex- boyfriend would find out where she lives. She had to find alternate travel routes to and from home, as well as, stop visiting family members home’s whom her ex-boyfriend was familiar with. Her son began to act out in response to the violence that he witnessed and displayed the violent behavior on his toys.
Kirian still attends counseling with her son and she has since moved onto a new and healthy relationship. She says that the memories of the pain she endured from her past relationship didn’t go away overnight, and will probably never go away, but she is learning how to deal with it. Kirian finished our conversation with a message to those living in silence, where she emphasized the importance of knowing the resources available. She said, “People don’t talk about it [domestic violence] out of fear of judgment. Speak up and get yourself out [of the relationship]. If it happened once, even a small incident of physical abuse, it will eventually grow. Your safety is on the line, call a hotline, and go get information from a local precinct.” Kirian’s resilience and courage to share her story makes her a true inspiration.
If you are in need of assistance or know someone in the New York City area that needs assistance please contact Safe Horizon.
If you live outside the New York metro areas please use the National Domestic Violence Hotline for crisis assistance.