But then she told him she wanted a divorce.
“It triggered something in him, and he became progressively more aggressive,” she said, recounting abuse that escalated to death threats. “That really frightened me because I knew he had three guns, and I knew he was watching me. So I called Providence House and said: ‘I’m coming!’”
GS (pictured, right) and her three children, then just 9, 11 and 12, stayed three months in the safe shelter run by Providence House-Domestic Violence Services in Ocean County (outreach office, pictured below).
That was 27 years ago. But GS’s experience as a domestic violence survivor shaped her life afterward. It also made her a passionate advocate for others trapped in abusive relationships, and those just starting out in recovery.
She wants women to know “there is hope.”
Finding kinship and strength
For GS, hope began to bloom as soon as her family moved into the shelter. It became a sanctuary, where GS regained her confidence and found support from staff and other survivors who didn’t judge.
“They really listened,” she recalls. “They had a wealth of experience, so what I was saying did not scare them or make them uncomfortable. There’s a lot of secrecy in domestic violence, so being able to talk to other women about the things we went through – and finding out they experienced similar things – was valuable too.”
She found the shelter’s strategy of fostering self-sufficiency especially powerful.
“It wasn’t like a hotel where someone served us lunch and dinner,” GS said. “We took care of ourselves. Having normalcy in our lives was really important for me, because I felt I needed to take care of my family. I wasn’t just sitting around. I was actively taking control of my life and my children’s lives.”
She also wants survivors to know that resilience can take time.
After her ex-husband died in 1996, GS moved her family to another state, eager to escape the traumatic memories so many places in New Jersey held. But they discovered the legacy of violence hard to shake.
“It wasn’t like I moved away and everything was wonderful,” GS said. “It affected our family’s subsequent relationships. Recovery is a process, and my children still must work through some of what they experienced and saw.”
Paying it forward
GS also has advice for the loved ones of someone in an abusive relationship.
“Providence House was my fourth time in a shelter – one time might not do it,” GS said. “So for the people around the person being abused: please be there for the person as much as you can. An abuser’s major method of control is isolation. It’s a lot easier for a victim to believe what the abuser says if she doesn’t have someone telling her differently.”
GS knew she could help other domestic violence survivors in the same way the women at Providence House helped her. So for years, she paid it forward and volunteered at shelters, sharing her story in hopes that it would help others. She encourages other survivors to do the same: “Give back. Go back to the shelter and volunteer. Do what you can.”
She found lasting stability after she returned to school for her master’s degree and became a schoolteacher. Now 65, she’s retired but keeps busy with her nine grandchildren, still volunteers, recently wrote a fiction novel and two children’s books, and is republishing a poetry book about domestic violence.
She wants survivors to know there is no shame in their experience.
“I grew up with domestic violence, so I never realized how it was transferred to me. Had I not gone through that trauma myself and gone to Providence House, I might still be living that way,” she said. “Your experiences help you grow.”
Catholic Charities offers a 24-hour hotline for victims and their children in need of crisis counseling and/or a safe haven from abuse, as well as information, appointments and referrals. In Burlington County, call (877) 871-7551. In Ocean County, call (800) 246-8910.
For more information: Mary Pettrow, associate service area director of Catholic Charities’ Providence House-Domestic Violence Services, (856) 824-0599 in Burlington County, or (732) 350-2120, ext. 8415, in Ocean County;
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