Surviving Domestic Abuse—When There Were No “Red Flags”


What do you do when there are no red flags before domestic abuse? Or when the ones that are there have been buried—when you have no warning that the abuse is coming? Everyone always asks after the fact, “Did you see any red flags?” And you sit there wracking your brain, trying to come up with a million instances that should have told you, should have given you some warning that would make you change your mind about the person. Something about his character, something that he said, something that just seemed “a little off” and, in hindsight, is a blaring sign that you should have seen this coming…

But what if there weren’t any? Then what do you do?

Enter my friend Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s life—from the outside—is picture-perfect, and up until that fateful night, it was perfect. She grew up with a wonderful family and had a totally normal childhood, free from any abuse—emotional or physical. She dated a few guys before meeting her attacker and always had a “no BS” attitude towards men…basically meaning she had an “I’m not going to put up with any shenanigans” mindset. She dated a guy after college for several years who was wonderful to her, but she knew in her heart he just wasn’t the one.

A Mississippi gal through and through, she has a strong love for football (particularly Ole Miss), and, naturally, all things to do with the SEC (the Southeastern Conference—the biggest and the baddest in college football, for our non-sports fans). She and I met during our time together at ESPN, where we were both knee-deep in college football highlights for Sportscenter. Elizabeth is a true Southern belle, with gorgeous, long blonde hair and the most darling outfits—always dressed to the nines. A strong, independent woman with a huge knowledge base in sports, she is one of the last people I would imagine to suffer abuse. She thought the same thing…

After living in Charlotte and working a project position at ESPN, she moved to Atlanta where she has been for years. She began dating a guy, and after a while, things between them got pretty serious. “Matt is going to be the man I marry,” she thought. Their relationship was fun and full of excitement, and they enjoyed many things together, from football to going out with friends in the big city. For six months, she watched as this man grew into the man she thought she would be with for the rest of her life. Then, on the night of her birthday, her entire world was turned upside down.

Elizabeth had friends in town for the big night and everyone went out on the town to celebrate. Apparently the alcohol had been flowing a little too freely and at the end of the night, tensions began to rise when her boyfriend seemed to have a flip switched inside of him. For six months Dr. Jekyll had been present, but late that night Mr. Hyde decided to make his appearance—and in true form. He got hostile with her verbally in a drunken stupor and ended up flipping her the bird. Naturally she got upset, and an argument ensued back at their shared apartment, where she left her company in the living room and followed him into the bedroom. What she didn’t know was how bad things were about to get. She tried to explain to him why his actions upset her, but he was too far gone. The alcohol had taken control and the demons that hid below the surface for months were rising in his blood. Soon they took over.

Many of the details will be omitted of the actual moments of abuse until after legal proceedings, but I can tell you that things got so physically violent that there are scars on her body from the attack that will never completely fade. She will never forget the feeling of his hands around her neck, gasping for air, wondering if this could be her final few breaths, her mind reeling in terror. Memories of the trauma of the incident still haunt her, not only in her dreams, but in waking hours as well. The emotional damage that still hangs around from experiencing something like this will be carried with her for as long as she lives.

The reality of what occurred the night before weighed heavy on her the next day. The fact that someone she had completely trusted with her entire life and heart did a complete 180 and became something that she feared and couldn’t trust hurt in every corner of her heart. I mean, where does it leave you when the man you plan to marry does something so violent you realize that there will never be any reconciliation between the two of you? When the police are called, an arrest is made, and a restraining order is placed, how can you ever reconcile? And why would you ever want to? As the recipient of the violence, not only are you left with the scars, but you are left picking up the pieces of a life that you had once planned on, starting over again at square one in almost an instant. Elizabeth felt such deep loss on so many levels. She said that it almost felt as if he had died, for she knew that they could never go back.

At first, there was guilt for sending someone she loved so much to jail for the action. After all, human beings aren’t wired to just stop loving someone right away. Often times, the abused feel responsible for the repercussions the abuser faces. Then, the anger set in, partly because she knew they could never be together again because of his actions but also because she knew she would never be the same, that this incident would always be a part of her life. No matter what, she would carry the weight of its reality with her, whatever that might mean for her.

But whatever you do, don’t count her a victim.

No, she will not be a victim, for the empowerment of surviving something like this has come to her. It has strengthened her. With unbelievable grit, she has rallied and will now bring on the fight that we women muster in our time of healing. And she now knows what she can do when there are no red flags.

Elizabeth has chosen to fight; chosen not to be the victim who sits idly by. She has chosen to be someone who will not let this man get away with what he’s done to her. In the months to come she will take this battle to the courtroom so that in the future, for the next girl he dates, there will be a red flag. Instead of letting this horrifying instance fade into her past, she will relive it in court proceedings for months and months if necessary in order to prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law, so that there will be a domestic abuse record for anyone who wants to know. She will have staked the red flag for women who might not see it coming for six months until one night, he breaks…

The statistics are staggering, heartbreakingly so. Think of four women you know. One of them has been or will be the victim of domestic abuse at some point in their life. Every day, three women are murdered by an intimate partner. Every nine seconds, a woman in the United States is a victim of domestic violence. Every nine seconds. That translates to six women every single minute of every day who are physically, emotionally, or sexually abused. Elizabeth is fighting for these women.

She continues to see her attacker living in the free world, for now. He occasionally taunts her in the ways that only a true abuser can imagine, occasionally sending mailers from VIP rooms at clubs to their old address where she still resides. And for now, she continues to live with her scars, arming her for the legal battle ahead. Though she is now one of the “abused women” out there, she is one who is fighting. Giving herself grace each day to heal, she empowers other women with her story, letting them know that the fight doesn’t end as one of the defeated, but as one who rises up and does what she can to continue the fight to warn other women of the danger that is out there and to stick that red flag in solid ground, protecting them in the future.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.

Looking for more stories of strong women who’ve overcome? Start here:

This Is What I Learned About Life After My Rape and Pregnancy
Have You Ever Said It? “I’m Not Good Enough.”
This Is What I Learned About Life After My Rape and Pregnancy
This Is My Story of Domestic Abuse

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