November 17, 2010
“This Cannot Be Abuse”
One survivor’s harsh realization that she was a victim of domestic violence.
It was worst on her birthdays. Most of the time, Olga (her name and other identifying details have been changed for her protection) could hold back her emotions, put on the blank face she knew could shut down her husband’s brutal tirades. But on special occasions, Olga couldn’t help but feel that she was entitled to a little bit of happiness.
“He always made me extra miserable on birthdays, mother’s days, holidays. He directly told me he does it on purpose because they were the only days when he can really get to me,” Olga said.
One year, soon after her daughter was born, her husband told her she was not worth even saying happy birthday to, let alone taking out. One Rosh Hashana, he forced the family to leave services, and on Passover he simply disappeared for the seder.
Olga met her husband at UCLA, when the two were doing graduate work, having recently moved here from Ukraine. She met his family just days before the wedding, and immediately saw how dysfunctional and cruel they were – she says they threatened to kill her cat, and tried to extort money.
It wasn’t long before abusive behaviors entered their marriage. He constantly berated and labeled her, telling her she wasn’t good at anything. He isolated her from family and friends. He controlled who she saw, where she went, the money she spent.
“Before I was social and had a lot of friends. With him, I became very withdrawn. I didn’t have any friends. I became a different person,” she said.
But Olga never thought of herself as abused. He hit her only a handful of times—nothing serious. And she didn’t want to leave him, because they had two kids to think about. The family had become more religiously observant over time, and rabbis advised her to work things out for the sake of shalom bayit, a peaceful home.
But finally, in 2009, her husband left her.
Broken, Olga decided to talk to a therapist at Jewish Family Service, where she was doing some volunteer work with immigrants. The therapist gave her a book about abuse.
“When they told me I should go to the Family Violence Project for domestic violence, I thought, ‘what are they talking about?’ I pictured someone being beaten on regular basis,” Olga said. “I said, ‘this cannot be abuse.’”
Facing the reality that she was indeed a victim of domestic abuse was harsh.
“When my therapist told me, I realized that my life was in a certain way a failure, that I lived with an abuser, and I shouldn’t have had kids with him. It was really horrible, like my whole life broke,” she said.
The divorce is not final yet, and Olga is out of money to pay for lawyers. She says dealing with unscrupulous lawyers and courts has left her feeling victimized again. For now, custody is split 50-50, but she says her husband doesn’t take the children, now 10 and 13, nearly that much.
And that’s fine with her.
“He crushed my daughter’s self esteem, and he convinced her that she is a bad girl,” Olga said. “He made her believe that she is very selfish to take care of herself, and that her job is to take care of him. Whatever he wanted, she did. She was completely broken emotionally.”
He won’t allow the kids to go to therapy, but Olga has been transferring to them what she learns in her own therapy at JFS, rebuilding the kids’ self esteem and helping them understand that the divorce, and their father’s behavior, are not their fault.
But she worries that her husband has gotten crazier—he sometimes follows them, and he regularly turns the transfer of the kids into an ugly scene.
But Olga is determined to move ahead. She is girding for the final divorce settlement negotiations. And after that, she is planning to go to law school so she can be financially independent.
She also hopes to volunteer at JFS, and to become an advocate for domestic violence prevention.
“JFS gives me so much, that I want to do public speaking, I want to volunteer at a shelter,” Olga said. “This place changed my life. Before, without understanding, without therapy, without being able to save my daughter, it was just horrible. This place gave me hope.”
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