Confronted by the jagged glass edges of the broken quart bottle in her husband’s hand, Ellen realized there would be no going back. Frozen with fear, she willed her face to appear calm and her voice not to tremor. She softly apologized for making him angry and slowly backed out the kitchen door.
“I had developed a defense mechanism that was almost like performing,” says the 61-year old real estate agent and paralegal. “But all the time inside, there was a lot of turmoil. I found myself frozen every day.”
Ellen could never have imagined she would one day be living in a shelter for abused women. A widow after 22 years of marriage, she knew what it took to make a successful long-term relationship. She thought she found that in Paul when she said her “I do’s” for the second time.
Charming, supportive and hardworking, Paul was able to suppress his control issues for a while and for the most part, his good days outnumbered the bad ones. Ellen dismissed his obsessive-compulsive cleanliness and constant observation as part of adjusting to a new marriage.
“There were microfiber towels everywhere, and you were required to wipe everything down,” she recalls. “After a while, he began constantly watching me and waiting for me to fail, which would result in a 30-40 minute lecture, which would work him into an angry fit, and I bore the brunt of it.”
When Paul’s anger turned physical, Ellen started to wonder what she was doing to make him so angry.
“After the first situation, I started to evaluate – was it me? I didn’t know he had mental health issues; I had to figure that out for myself,” she says. “His behavior didn’t make sense. I couldn’t imagine what I was doing wrong to cause such physical and emotional behavior. He would choke me and threaten to kill me.”
Three years into the marriage, Ellen’s daughters expressed concern for their mother’s safety. During a visit, Paul’s anger exploded onto Ellen’s daughter, and she called 9-1-1. Paul was arrested after one of the deputies spotted a handprint-shaped bruise on Ellen’s arm. A restraining order was issued.
“I was offered counseling,” Ellen recalls, “but I knew nothing of abuse – nothing about mental illness. Victim Assistance called and I told them, ‘I’m okay.’”
When Paul appeared in court, Ellen sent a letter to the judge, stating Paul needed mental counseling, not jail. He was sentenced to attend anger management counseling, and Ellen filed for divorce.
You might think that the story ends there, but it does not.
Four years later, Ellen received a call from Paul. He stated he realized what he did was wrong and needed her forgiveness. He said he’d turned his life around and would like a second chance.
“He seemed so sincere,” she says. “I bought it, and we married again in less than six months. I’m a commitment type of person. I wanted it to work. I wanted to try again.”
She says at first, Paul tried to control himself to be “normal,” but he could only hold it together for so long. Paul’s mental illness had been diagnosed, but prescribed medications came with other complications.
Ellen threw herself into Paul’s new business with hopes that if that portion of his life improved, so would his demeanor. Instead, Paul withheld funding for things like marketing and blamed Ellen when the effort failed to take off.
Paul’s anger worsened. Ellen became an expert at intercepting things that might set him off and diffusing the outbursts to buy herself some reprieve. Because Paul would not allow people to come over, Ellen became socially isolated.
“There was so much control. My every move was watched. It was like being in a prison under a guard,” she says. “I was frozen in my chair daily, unsure how to get myself out of my situation. It was like, wow, I did this to myself.’”
With her life spinning out of control, Ellen found comfort in the unconditional love of her two dogs, Maddie and Cocoa. Paul’s compulsive cleanliness limited the dogs’ house access to the garage during the day and the bathroom in the evening. Every morning, the bathroom had to be bleached out and the dogs constantly bathed. When he wanted to punish Ellen, Paul would place the dogs in unsafe circumstances, such as letting them outside unsupervised with access to traffic.
The day after the broken bottle incident, Ellen found The Shelter’s website online and was relieved to see the shelter had an emergency kennel.
“I would never have left if the shelter did not have a kennel,” she says. “It was truly a life-saver.”
While Paul was out, Ellen called The Shelter’s Crisis Line. As she answered the counselor’s questions, she realized the lethality of her situation for herself and her dogs. She packed a bag for herself and a bag for the dogs and called a friend to take her to Naples. Paul came home just as they were about to leave.
“I pretended like everything was normal,” she recalls, “I told him we were going to stay at my friend’s house and would be back on Monday.”
But for Ellen, there was no going back.
“I knew when I made that phone call, everything I had was going to be gone,” she says. “You’re going into the unknown and that’s scary, especially if you have a family. It’s why some women don’t make that call.”
Since she arrived at emergency shelter, Ellen has immersed herself in as many of The Shelter’s self-help programs as possible.
“Basically, you’re in shock for a few days,” she says of shelter life. “Everything is a blur. You cry a lot. It’s like there was trauma to my soul that I didn’t recognize until I took part in the groups. Eventually, you make decisions. You have a sense of empowerment. The staff doesn’t do things for you, but they assist and guide you to the resources you need to move forward. Things start to fall in place.”
When Ellen leaves the shelter, she plans to share an apartment with her 21-year-old daughter in Georgia.
“It’s scary starting over,” she admits. “But I have learned so much about myself, and I now have boundaries in place. I’ve learned that fear is contagious, but courage is not. You can sit back and let someone put chains on you or refuse that and take courage. I’m taking courage.”