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The choice to change
Survivors of abuse find the help they need to travel along road to recover
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Times Record News
Category: Page 1
Published: 02/08/2004
Page: A1
Byline: Daniel Bartel


Editor's note: The names of abuse victims in this article have been changed for their protection.

BURKBURNETT - Surrounded by the warmth of fireplace and family, Sarah Archer, 42, is never far from the shadowed memory of her abusive ex-husband.

There's no problem lifting up her armor to show the emotional trauma inflicted. She recalls the horrific events of her past with ease.

Only the scars and memories remain now.

"I've been through it all - starvation, rape, neglect, sleep deprivation, abduction" and all from the same man, she said.

Sarah endured an abusive marriage for nearly 10 years before getting help. She credits the Wichita Falls-based First Step center with saving her life.

"Those people are miracle workers," she said. "If it wasn't for them, I probably would've died."

First Step Inc. is a community outreach center dedicated to changing and redirecting lives of domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, Janet Rivers, a First Step training coordinator, said.

Now in its 25th year, the center handles 11 counties in North Texas. Abuse survivors get help from First Step's abuse shelter and one-on-one counseling.

But before they can get help, abuse survivors must take the initial steps to get away from the abuse.

The choice is theirs to make.

The bitter cold
A dreary, gray-colored sky is enough to conjure the hurtful past, Sarah said.

The setting outside her Burkburnett home reminds her of the small house where she and her four children lived in the town of Joshua, Texas, south of Fort Worth.

January chills were enough to snap bones.

There was no job because there was no car. There was no money to pay for heating or electricity.

There was no food for the kids. For dinner, she fed them peanut butter out of a jar. She didn't eat.

The phone had been ripped out of the wall, so there was no way to call for help.

And her husband - he'd taken the money and the car to go out drinking with friends.

Even if there were an outlet for help, she wouldn't have taken it.

"I was too scared," Sarah said. "I felt embarrassed. I couldn't call my mother because I thought it would be too much of a burden."

As day disappeared into night, Sarah's husband would return home drunk, rape her and then pass out, she said.

The next morning, the cycle began all over again.

Wives' dilemma
Women seated at one of First Step's group sessions are causalities of love derailed.

Their stories are thick with carnage. Some have been hit across the face with metal chairs. Others have been tied up and raped, their children forced to watch.

Group sessions bring out all the cuts and bruises.

It's not something easy to address in a social setting - especially in the North Texas area where the "don't ask, don't tell" code of Victorian conduct still reigns, said First Step board member Jeff Pixler.

At First Step, counselors teach that abusers maintain control through blunt force and manipulation. Abuse can either be physical or emotional and mental or both, Sandy Boswell, a First Step family violence counselor said.

For an abused wife, the choice is harsh: to stay is to endure more abuse. To leave is to bear the burden of breaking up the family.

Keeping the family together is in the blood of most mothers, Rivers said.

"Even if she leaves, the kids are caught in the middle because they want to see their daddy," Rivers said.

Some women are conditioned by abuse to the point that they don't know what's happening.

"Before group, I didn't know sleep deprivation was abuse," Sarah said.

Enough is enough
At first, he was charming, funny, intelligent - all the qualities a woman looks for in a man.

It was 1982. Sarah was 18 and working as a waitress at the Waffle House in Fort Worth.

He came from a prosperous background with parents who were property owners and still married.

Before she knew it, she and the new guy were going together. Shortly after that, she was married and pregnant.

And then the signs appeared. He began screening her calls, pulling her away from friends, asking suspicious questions.

"Of course, stupid me, I thought, 'This guy really cares about me,' " she said.

But as she would later discover, most abusers creep in and stifle someone's breathing just enough to keep them alive.

"There are two ways to kill someone - slowly or quickly," she said. "That's what he was doing to me, killing me slowly. Toward the end of it, I wanted to die."

He was routinely selling off things to pay for alcohol: appliances, jewelry, TVs.

One Christmas, Sarah had saved up enough to purchase used bicycles for the kids that he later stole and pawned for beer money.

In 1991, he unplugged the TV for the last time.

Sarah told her son, now 17, not to get used to watching cartoons. Daddy needed the TV to buy beer, she said.

The ex-husband erupted, screaming that Sarah was teaching the kids to disrespect him.

And that was it.

"I took the kids, a little money and my pride and went to stay with my mother," she said.

A new look
First Step workers give abuse survivors all the tools they need to make a new start.

But it's up to them to use those tools, shelter manager Rebecca Venegas-Cavazos said.

"They make the decision about what they want to do," she said. "It's theirs whatever they do."

Shelter survivors are mostly women, but there are always a few men each year, Venegas-Cavazos said.

In a 10-room house, abuse survivors usually come with broken spirits, looking for a friend, she said.

Shelter workers do special things for the women - inviting hair stylists over, giving the women makeovers, treating them to bubble baths and manicures.

Workers even coach women on how to succeed at job interviews.

Just a little bit of pampering goes a long way, Venegas-Cavazos said. One shelter woman was so inspired by her own makeover that she enrolled in college and became active in civic organizations, she said.

"When they look in the mirror, they see a different person - someone with more respect and power," Venegas-Cavazos said. "It gives me a rush to see that change."

Recovery road
Abuse counselors say it the loudest: if someone is stuck with abuse, it's time to get out of it.

Greater awareness has caused more abuse survivors to take action.

Attendance at the Wichita County shelter increased 20 percent from 2002 to 2003, according to First Step.

Additionally, more county residents are reporting family violence. Incidents have increased roughly 17 percent from 2000 to 2002, according to the Texas Department of Safety Crime Information Bureau.

For abuse survivors, recovery is a never-ending process. After the counseling and treatment, some choose to be volunteers and devote their time to educating the community.

Though they may be done with the past, the past isn't done with them.

Sarah said she becomes nauseated by the smell of paint fumes and beer - the distinctive odors of her ex-husband.

Fellow victim Patricia Rushing - who for years endured sexual, mental and physical abuse - said excessive trauma to her back makes it difficult to put on panty hose.

She can't vacuum with her back to a closed door nor can she tolerate the sound of something dropping into a trashcan.

"When I hear that, you have to pry me off the ceiling," she said. "I'm a survivor, but these things haunt me every day."