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Ode: A victim of domestic violence becomes a survivor

Jennifer Bullington
Ally Karsyn

On a particularly dark night, I sat alone in my bedroom.  I took solace in the sacred space between day and night, between my bedroom and his.  I sat on my bed like I had done so many times before, keeping a nightly watch over my safety and that of my sleeping children. The numbers of the alarm clock on my dresser glowed brightly.  I didn’t mind it was two in the morning.  He was passed out, which meant I made it one more night.

It was the night before my 30th birthday. My children and I had spent a majority of the weekend hiding from my then-husband’s volatile mix of alcohol and anger.  Yet this night, I had a truth come to me.  It had been planted for some time actually, hesitantly trying to poke its sprout through the soil of determination and strength.  The truth began to grow deep roots, and the stem began to withstand the strong winds of the perpetual storm in my home.  

As I sat on my bed, I imagined holding this precious little plant, now blooming, and I realized what the truth was telling me: I won’t spend one more weekend hiding from my husband; I won’t allow myself or my children to endure any more violence; I won’t spend my thirties as I did my twenties.

By recognizing these truths, I felt my old power as a human being tingle in my core, reminding me of something I had long forgotten: that I was indeed still alive.  He hadn’t taken that from me, even if he’d hurt me in every other way.  I was still a human being with value.

For eleven years, I had tried to make things work.  “Just work it out,” I was told. “Just keep working at it.” So I did… and it almost cost me my life, more than once.

I became numb.  Survival was more important than any feelings of worth, dignity or love.  I couldn’t bring myself to love someone who hurt me, who was slowly sucking me down this path of destruction as I watched him destroy himself with alcohol and food.  I couldn’t understand why my efforts weren’t working – wasn’t I working hard enough?  

I was a smart woman after all.  I was a Hixson Scholar at Iowa State, inducted into Honor societies and made the Dean’s List several times.  I went to grad school, where I had a 4.0 studying the inner workings of the brain’s response to therapeutic techniques.  I made things work in all areas of my life… except for my marriage.  

Things began to take a serious downturn when I was in my mid-twenties.  I had been cut off from my family and most friends who did not belong to this particular sham of a church.  I reached out as vaguely as I could have – sharing that I didn’t think my husband loved me, that I didn’t think we should lead the youth group, and any other ways I could start to get others to notice some red flags without coming right out and saying “My husband is beating the s--- out of me, I’m constantly in physical pain and my heart is beyond shattered.  Please just fracking save me!”

After all, a woman “stuck” with no power, no value, no resources, and no support system has to be careful of repercussions.  A woman “stuck” becomes very keen at survival.  “Divorce” was blasphemy, a sign you hadn’t worked hard enough and would rather choose a life of sin.

Should I keep making things work when I frequently watched my then-husband strangle me, his face purple with veins popping out of his forehead and neck above me?  The stench of whiskey on his breath as he screamed at me “I wish you were dead!  I hate you!  If it wasn’t for the children, I’d kill you!”

The particular church I belonged to at that time preached that women must be subservient.

It preached a woman was not supposed to dress in a way that invited men’s attention as if men can’t control their own urges. A woman was supposed to trust God with her fertility and let her husband take her whenever and however he wants. It preached women should not send their children to those pagan public schools. And above all, women must obey their husbands.

This church, so absorbed in rescuing the heathens’ souls in South America and Africa and “bringing them to Jesus,” forgot the suffering in their own midst.  On some level, I knew this. I knew this was another twisted system of control over my gender. I knew it wasn’t right.

Yet, I went to an elder and his wife, asking for help in dealing with a stressful time as a wife and mother.  I was growing weary of the work I was putting into my marriage, frequently feeling it was like pouring liquid in a bottomless cup while my then-husband downed another bottle of whiskey.

We began meeting with this couple, trying to fix something that was beyond repair.

I couldn’t safely share how he was hurting me. I was never allowed to be alone with them. But I made sure they understood how dire our situation was.  

They said the same things I had heard before, “This is what a good, pious Christian woman does: she submits to her husband.”

After they found out that I left, their advice went from bad to worse. “A good Christian wife forgives the abuse,” they said. “Those who get a divorce go to hell.”

This came from a mother of nine daughters.  I hope she never sees on her daughters the bruises I had, the bruises I became very good at hiding.

So my work then became focused on my life as a mother.  It was something I was good at, something I understood, something I could do that allowed me to love in a way that I’d always wanted.  I no longer cared what happened to me as long as my children were safe, protected, unaware.  

I can’t tell you how it felt to write letters to my children should my husband actually kill me one night.  I began to be convinced that I might not make it one more year, but my kids would know how ardently their mother loved them and worked hard for their overall health, happiness and success.

In a surprise turn of events, when other women from my church started taekwondo after a Mother’s Day special, I was allowed to join in.  I didn’t question this strange circumstance of permission to do something outside the church, I just dove right in.  I grew stronger physically.  I met sisters unencumbered by our magnificent gender, free to make choices and be empowered in their innate value as a human.  Women who could protect themselves. Women who worked at jobs, or at home, with a passion in their eyes that I had once seen in my own. I met brothers in the sport who knew it wasn’t right to spar with someone who wasn’t your size.  Men who knew how to handle those who mistreated the voiceless and disenfranchised.

I realized then that the work I needed to do wasn’t with the right person.  Once and for all, I saw that I couldn’t be my ex-husband’s faith. I couldn’t be his sobriety or self-control.  But I could make sure my children have a better home life. I could make sure I myself am holistically healthy. I could work on the person whom I needed the most: me.

My work slowly changed from survival to spreading the message of worth and empowerment to women of all ages, orientations, faiths and cultural backgrounds.  My children and I are much happier as well, as our work became just being a normal, healthy family. Finally – I have jobs I can love.


Jennifer Bullington is a writer, world traveler, humanitarian, advocate for women's empowerment, and most importantly, a mom to four amazing kids with a fifth on the way. She works as a professional speaker, author, adjunct professor and an adult learning instructor.

Hear the stories of Siouxland immigrants from around the world, listen to live music and get a taste of authentic East African cuisine at 7 p.m. Friday, November 18 at the Sioux City Art Center. The theme is "Stories without Borders." This special evening of entertainment is only $10 at the door.

Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.

For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling. Listen to stories from past events at kwit.org/programs/ode.

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