This is not how your story ends: The shadow pandemic of domestic violence

By Oreoluwa Ojewuyi, Staff Reporter

We’re taught that love is patient, gentle and kind. Love is not meant to hurt, but a year into isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic there is another harmful virus affecting lives behind closed doors- domestic violence. 

Just like COVID-19, domestic violence is not picky about its victims. It affects anyone no matter race, occupation or gender. 

Shelby Swafford is an SIU graduate assistant and graduate student in Communication Studies, with an emphasis in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

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Swafford said it’s important to discuss abuse in relationships because the more we talk about it, the more we can instill prevention and exit strategies for survivors. 

“COVID obviously did not create intimate partner violence but the two conditions that were worsened by COVID are isolation and financial insecurity,” Swafford said.

Isolation is one of the most powerful tools that abusers use according to Swafford. 

“In those situations of intimate partner violence, abusers use isolation as a tactic where slowly over time, they take the victim or the survivor away from family and friends, and that allows for abuse to occur because then the victim or survivor becomes more dependent on the abuser,” Swafford said.

Roxanne Thompson is a Southern Illinois native and survivor of domestic violence and abuse at the hands of her ex-boyfriend. Thompson currently works at Jan Payne CPAS as a client service associate. Thompson’s abuser’s name has been changed to Alex for the safety of the survivor. 

Thompson said she met Alex when she was just the age of 17. Alex supported her through “hardships and difficult times in her life.” She was living in Chicago and struggling with school and some relationships with friends. 

“I think that Alex picked up on that. He reached back out to me. I had reached out to him as well. He had come up from St. Louis, [to Chicago],” Thompson said. “The things that I was on the fence about he just came in and was like ‘No, this person is bad’, and he immediately took this role in my life where he was performing like my best interest was in mind.” 

Thompson said Alex used intimate details she had shared with him later on to humiliate and hurt her. 

“He had known me since I was 17. He had known what I’ve gone through, and he would bring up things about my sexual assault or things about my car accident just to hurt my feelings. He knew that that’s what would make me upset. It was all about keeping me in this big cycle of being devastated and then love bombing me,” Thompson said. 

Before the physical abuse began, Alex and Roxanne dated  during these back-forth trips from St. Louis to Chicago. After several trips, they decided to go on a trip to Oregon. 

“During the second week of our vacation, I decided that I wanted to live there. I was like, [to Alex] ‘You don’t have to live here but I think this is what I’m going to do.’ I got a job interview and got hired at a preschool, which is what I’m passionate about,” Thompson said. 

After Thompson got the job, they moved to Oregon. She moved with the intent that financially supporting the two of them would only be a temporary arrangement. 

“Very quickly, it turned into, he would get a job and have a job for a week or two then there would always be a reason as to why he couldn’t or didn’t want to work there and he would quit. He kept this cycle of hope going,” Thompson said. 

Thompson said this cycle continued for several months and with the downtime Alex spent at home, he began to abuse her. 

“From the start of my day, really, I would wake up in the morning and immediately get torn apart. My character was attacked. My appearance was attacked and there was nothing  I could do that was right. There was no outfit that I could wear, that was appropriate for work,” Thompson said.

It wasn’t until the day before Thompson’s 20th birthday that Alex took the control and psychological abuse to the next level, she said.

“The night before my 20th birthday. He had gone into the city for some job fair and it didn’t go the way that he had wanted, because he had never graduated from college. It was all this big, elaborate lie. The whole time he was actually just like, living with his friend that went to the college,” Thompson said. 

In preparation for the job fair Thompson said Alex accessed her computer to print some materials. But he also read her text conversations with other people that dated back to 2015, before she even knew Alex. 

“He came home from the job fair and came into the apartment, grabbed me and started beating me. He had me down on the ground and he slapped me so hard on either side of my face that I had two black eyes. I had my arms out yelling back at him and he punched me in my bicep hard enough that you could make out the knuckles between his fingers on the bruise on my arm,” Thompson said. 

Thompson said she put up a fight during the attack and afterwards felt alone, isolated and devastated that someone she loved could hurt her so violently. 

“It was just me and him all the time. I didn’t have people to run to and bounce that off of and say ‘Hey, is this a bad situation?’ He sufficiently isolated me where I didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to my family or my friends and I remember that night, just crying myself to sleep because I was so hurt and so confused,” Thompson said. 

Swafford said isolation is key to keeping someone in the cycle of abuse. She said it’s more difficult to recognize warning signs of abuse in a pandemic when people are so physically isolated.

“The reality is, it’s harder to identify those times when we are so disconnected from each other. I feel like the only tool we have at our disposal is really to try and try and keep connections as much as possible,” Swafford said. “So, if we are worrying about someone that might be in this situation, maybe we can pull them back from that isolation somehow, by sending them resources.” 

Part of the abuse is the abuser convincing the victim they are being used by the people who want to help them according to Swafford. 

“I wasn’t supposed to go hang out with anybody or have friends outside of Alex. The minute we got to Oregon, his entire focus was isolating me from my family and isolating me from my friends. I couldn’t talk to my parents on the phone without him listening in on the conversation. I couldn’t talk to my friends on the phone without him tearing apart the entire conversation immediately after,” Thompson said. 

At the time, Thompson thought the attack was a one time occurrence. The next morning she called her best friend to tell her about the incident. Her friend called Thompson’s mom and told her what occurred the night before.

Thompson said her mom didn’t force her to make any decisions about leaving Alex; instead she made plans to visit Oregon to see Thompson that weekend. 

“It took me so long to wrap my mind around that it’s not just, how you see domestic violence portrayed on TV. It’s not just the woman that doesn’t have her own income, it’s not just the woman that saw it growing up, it’s not just, the woman that has no other option and she’s staying with him because that’s her only way out,” Thompson said. “I had my own means of income. I could have cut him off. I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t put enough value in myself or my own well being and I thought that I deserved it.”

Swafford said it’s important to note that domestic violence doesn’t only happen against one kind of person. 

“It’s important to remember that when we say women, that means a whole lot of different kinds of women: trans women, disabled women, women of color [and] working class women. And also that domestic violence happens in same gender relationships. Domestic violence happens in your relationships. Domestic violence happens in hetero relationships, against men,” Swafford said.

Sarah Settles is the domestic violence case manager at the Carbondale Women’s Center. She also spoke at the “Love Shouldn’t Hurt” seminar, held by Women Gender and Sexuality Studies at SIU in collaboration with other organizations. Settles said it is important to not force people in situations of domestic violence to leave before they are ready. 

“It takes about seven times for that person to really pick up and leave. This affects every walk of life, I mean I’ve been here for over 10 years now … I’ve seen women that drive up in [a] Mercedes Benz and they say, ‘I have nothing. I walked out with nothing, I don’t have a penny to my name, but I’m out,’” Settles said. 

Thompson went into work after the phone call. Her bosses took  her to a domestic violence resource center. 

“I appreciated the help, but I didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now. When you’re in a situation like that and you’re getting opinions from the outside, I think it’s so important when you’re reaching out to people you think might be suffering from domestic violence that you don’t try to put yourself in their shoes. At the end of the day, I was hearing what they were saying to me but in my mind, it was like ‘Okay, well they’re not living it,’” Thompson said. 

Thompson said Alex proceeded with other toxic behaviors following the first physical attack. 

“Alex was intentionally making me late, or like getting in my way and like faking like ruining my morning and then I’m like trying to get myself back together before I go into work. Eventually my boss called me downstairs and she’s like, ‘We love you so much, and this is not something that I want to have to do, but we’re gonna have to let you go’,” Thompson said.

Thompson, who held a job since she was 14 years old, said she initially felt abandoned by her employers when they fired her. She said she didn’t understand the extent of the risk Alex posed to not only her but the children she worked with at the preschool. 

“Every day when I was with Alex I just wanted to die. Getting up and like going to see those kids every day and going to see my co-workers and having that time during my day away from him was my only escape,” Thompson said. 

Thompson said she was so desperate to get away from home and the torment Alex put her through that she picked up two jobs while Alex was still unemployed. Months of unemployment and excuses led to an intense argument where Alex threw Thompson’s small dog, Blue, across their living room. 

“I remember seeing that happen […] and grabbing her and going outside. I remember sitting outside, watching her run around still, so happy. I just decided right then and there […] I didn’t care enough about myself at the time to leave. But I cared about Blue,” Thompson said. 

It was in the process of saving Blue’s life that Thompson saved her own. She began to make plans to leave and visited shelters. Unfortunately, the shelters had no space for Thompson and Blue but they provided her with other resources for young women in her situation.

Thompson said the help she received from her coworkers, friends, family and domestic violence resource centers led her to be an advocate for the Carbondale Women’s Center upon her return to Southern Illinois. The center offers an array of resources for victims of abuse. 

“For a long time, it was under the assumption that men could not come to the shelter but it is for men, women and children. If you have an emotional support dog, we have facilities for the animals too,” Settles said. “Some of the services that we have are the shelter of course, legal advocacy, we have counseling, child counseling, case management, real housing group support, emergency food supplies, lots and lots of referrals, transportation and different activities.” 

Settles said The Women’s Center is in the process of changing their name to make it more welcoming to all victims of abuse. The Women’s center also offers transitional housing units for victims or survivors of abuse. 

“We pay their rent for up to two years … they can stay there with their children […]. I help them along the way, maybe looking for a job, looking for a car, applying for Social Security and you pay a minimal rent based on your income […],” Settles said. 

Swafford said education about healthy relationships and resources is key to decreasing the rate of intimate partner violence.

“We have a very limited view of what this actually is. Some places actually showed a decrease in calls to domestic violence hotlines at the beginning of lockdown, because certain areas just can’t access those resources. They can’t make a phone call if their abuser is sitting on the couch next to them,” Swafford said. 

Thompson said her privacy was invaded by Alex almost daily. In search for a final reason to leave Alex, Thompson said she decided to retaliate and search through his phone. 

“I had to hide that I was still selling myself on the idea that I had to leave. I went through his phone, and it turns out that for maybe six months in Oregon, he was cheating on me and had been in contact with multiple women [and] women from St. Louis came to Oregon to visit. I didn’t know about any of this because I was just working all the damn time,” Thompson said. 

She took the information she found out about him cheating and confronted him with it, which threw him into a blind rage. Thompson said Alex threw her to the ground and beat her before she got up and began to run away. Thompson locked herself in the bathroom. She said during this time, Alex grabbed her car keys and phone and eventually broke down the bathroom door and chased her into the living room. 

“He grabbed me and threw me on the couch and he was strangling me with one of his hands. The other hand punched a hole in the wall above my head and it felt like he was going to punch me straight through my face. I bit him because I was so angry. I spit on him,” Thompson said. “He took his hand back out of the wall and started strangling me with both hands and pushed my body off the arm of the couch and had my head upside down. At that moment, when I started to lose oxygen, the look on his face showed me that he had no mercy for me at all at that point.”

Alex released his grip around her neck suddenly and Thompson said that moment would change her life forever because she truly came to terms with what was happening to her. 

“I went into the bathroom. I looked at myself in the mirror. I spit in the sink, I’d been strangled so hard that I was spitting up blood. I looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, ‘I am not going to die today. Today is not my day. There’s so much more that I have to give in this world that I have not. This is not how I’m going to go out. I have not made it through all of this and survived all these near death experiences for Alex to be the one taking me out of this world,’” Thompson said. 

After gathering herself in the restroom, Thompson fled in her pajamas, barefoot with blood coming from her mouth. Her only goal was to find a phone to call her mom. As she ran for help, Alex trailed behind her telling their neighbors in the apartment complex that she was having a mental breakdown. Thompson then decided to run to the grocery store for help. 

Thompson’s downstairs neighbors heard the attack occurring and called the police. 

When the cops arrived and assessed the situation, they saw the wounds on Thompson and noticed no marks on Alex except for residue drywall on his hands. After taking statements the police arrested Alex. 

“I know that, they’re supposed to be a neutral party, you know, but they were on my side, for sure. It felt really good to have that. I know that in a lot of situations, especially down here in Southern Illinois, you’re in a smaller town and the police are someone you know uncle or family member,” Thompson said. “If I was in St. Louis with Alex and that happened, it would be a completely different story, because his brother’s a police officer and I wouldn’t have felt as comfortable as I did in that situation.” 

Alex was convicted on November 12, 2019 for felony strangulation and two counts of fourth degree assault. Thompson said she warned law enforcement multiple times that Alex would flee back to St. Louis upon his release from jail and the halfway house he was placed in. 

Unfortunately, Thompson said her fears became a reality when Alex fled to the St. Louis area when it came time for their restitution hearing in February 2020. Oregon police are unable to act due to COVID restrictions and he now has a national warrant out for his arrest. 

“I feel a lot of unrest with my continuing legal proceedings pending on the status of the pandemic on the west coast,” Thompson said. 

Thompson said despite the trauma and hardship this relationship has continued to cause her, she is a brave survivor. 

“I feel the situation has only made me stronger. I will not allow this to stop me in my tracks,” Thompson said. 

Victims or survivors of abuse need support from their community, family and friends. Although it is difficult with the restrictions due to the pandemic, organizations like the Women’s Center need community donations to provide adequate support to those in need. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with abuse of any form please refer to this resource list:

 Crisis Services | Student Health Services | SIU

Donations

Safety & Escape Plan

About the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline

Reporter Oreoluwa Ojewuyi can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @odojewuyi

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