One woman's experience and an expert's advice for Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Rebecca Steele is only 23, but she’s already overcome considerable trauma. The Long Neck resident had a child at 17, and at 18, fell for a 23-year-old coworker.

“He was the first person from here to really wow me,” she said. “He was super smart and well spoken.”

The first two years of their relationship was good, even great. He doted on her child and showered her with gifts. Eventually, they moved in together.

“Then he started having trouble with alcoholism, getting drunk every night,” Rebecca said. “At first he was just sad and depressed. I tried to talk to him about seeing someone, but I couldn’t force him.”

As time passed, his sadness turned to anger, which he took out on Rebecca.

“He’d call me fat, tell me I was nothing, that no one wanted me and I only existed because of him,” she recalled. “And I stayed with him because I believed him.”

Sue Ryan, executive director of the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said domestic violence has nothing to do with anger management.

“It has to do with putting a person down so that you can have control over them,” she said. “It’s a pattern of behavior designed to gain power and control over another. That could include emotional, psychological and physical abuse, also sexual violence and even reproductive coercion … any type of behavior that gives one person power and control over the other person.”

October 2017 is the 30th anniversary of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It was launched in 1987 as a way to raise awareness of domestic violence and to unite individuals and organizations working on the issue, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The NCADV compiles domestic violence-related statistics and has found that in Delaware, about 35 percent of both men and women experience domestic violence with an intimate partner.

His house

During Rebecca’s relationship, she hadn’t quite lost the baby weight and had a poor self-image. She had always felt like the black sheep in her family and was desperate for a meaningful connection. Her own mother lives in Texas and was 16 when she met Rebecca’s father.

“My grandparents were Mexican immigrants and pretty much told my mom, ‘Go be with this white man. He’s going to take care of you,’” Rebecca said. “And that’s what I thought my life was going to be.”

In their relationship, Rebecca’s boyfriend paid the bills and Rebecca took care of the house, even though they both worked and Rebecca contributed to bills and bought all the groceries. The arrangement worked for a while - until it didn’t.

“The bills were all in his name, so the house was technically his,” she said. “So every time he got angry, it was ‘Get out of my house.’ I’d have to pack up my son and go sit at the gas station until he calmed down.”

Escalation

Rebecca reasoned that her boyfriend was working long hours and suffering from depression. After the arguments, he would tell her how much he loved her and buy her gifts, and things would go back to normal for a while.

But soon, he was dictating Rebecca’s clothing choices, too. She wasn’t allowed to wear leggings or earrings. He told her that it was only her hair that made her pretty, anyway. There was an incident in which he shoved her into a wall and the police were called; he ended up spending the night at a hotel, threatening to commit suicide.

Another night, Rebecca infuriated him by pouring a bottle of rum down the drain, so he overpowered her and pinned her to the floor.

Ryan said abusive behavior is anchored in gender-based violence.

“Just a lot of the ‘isms’ that we all face every day - classism, sexism, racism,” she said. “People might not even know they’re engaging in it, but they benefit from having power over another person.”

Breaking point

The abusive behavior quickly escalated. He came home from work one evening carrying an axe. He gestured toward a box of tip money they were saving and asked Rebecca, “How far do you think I’d get if I put this axe in your head and took all the cash in that box?”

Rebecca, by that point tired of his games and too full of self-loathing to be concerned for her own safety, said, “Probably Maryland.”

He started in on insulting her as he moved about the house and eventually left the axe outside. Rebecca laid on the couch and cried, thinking that she could leave him the next day, but she had to work.

“He came over and started touching my hair and I let him because I thought his mood was shifting,” she said. “He started kind of collecting it and pulled out these scissors and was like, ‘I’m only going to take a little off.’”

Rebecca tried to get away and had her hand sliced open in the process. She rolled around on the floor, trying to break away from him, but he put his hands in her mouth and started pulling at either side of her jaw, to the point she thought it was going to break. Finally, he let her go. She immediately called 911.

Gaining perspective

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rebecca and her son moved in with her father for a couple months, and she was genuinely surprised to find that she could fairly quickly manage her own finances and live independently. Having been raised by her father and often falling into the roles of maid, cook, etc., she had assumed a male breadwinner was necessary.

“My dad’s not a bad guy, just old-fashioned. He kind of trained me in a supportive role,” she said. “We have to teach girls that they don’t automatically have to start a family; it’s OK if you want to be a mom, but you don’t have to be one in order to be a woman. I didn’t realize I could do it on my own, financially.”

Rebecca suffers from PTSD at times and sees a therapist, but otherwise has a normal life. She was taking anti-depressants, but no longer needs them.

“Physical activity really helps,” she said.

Time has allowed Rebecca to heal from and reflect on her experience with domestic violence.

“In a way, I’m kind of grateful for what happened, because I don’t know if I ever would have learned that that’s not how it is, that as a woman you don’t have to live like that,” she said.

Making progress

The DCADV is in its 24th year of service in The First State. The group offers domestic violence training and helps inform and implement government and law enforcement policies.

“People might think we’re always going to have this problem, but we’re not. There’s a growing movement,” Ryan said. “A lot has happened, from the Battered Women’s Movement to the Violence Against Women Act by Joe Biden.”

The DCADV warns against telling a domestic violence victim to “just leave.”

“They need to talk to a counselor who has worked with victims and understands the importance of safety,” Ryan said. “They have to respond in the way most safe for themselves and their family.”

For victims of domestic violence, Ryan said the first step toward safety is calling a hotline, if only to discuss options.

“Reach out,” she said. “There are resources.”

Resources and more information are at dcadv.org.