Until the day before she left, nobody knew Anne Lawrence was in a physically abusive marriage. She was 33 years old and working as an account manager for a brand design company when she walked into work one day feeling like she was having a nervous breakdown. The receptionist took one look at her and pulled her into an office.
The receptionist recognized the signs because she had been a victim of abuse herself, and Lawrence found herself blurting out her story for the first time. Her co-worker said, I've been there, here's a number to call, here's what you're going to do. Lawrence felt paralyzed. "I told her, 'I don't think I can do this,' and she was like, 'Nope, you can.’ ”
By the next day, Lawrence had left stealthily for a shelter with her two children. That night she was lying awake in bed surrounded by the eerie quiet and staring at the strange, sterile walls. Her co-worker had told her this would happen — that she would second-guess herself and want to go home.
"I heard her voice in my head, and it was only because of this that I stayed," says Lawrence. "She told me that I would panic, and that if I stayed the next day I would see differently and be strong. I don't think I could have done it without her."
Researchers are finding that friendship and mentoring — especially from peers of the same sex — are important as women remove themselves from abusive relationships. According to a 2011 study in the journal Family Practice, 50 to 60 percent of women in domestic violence situations "suffer from depression and are commonly isolated" by their abusers.
In the study, family doctors, who often see women who are suffering from partner violence, offered the services of at-home "mentor mothers" to offer emotional support and care. The mentors — who were recruited from health care, welfare and education backgrounds — met with subjects weekly for one-hour sessions to develop "trusting relationships" over the course of 16 weeks.
At the start, each woman underwent interviewing and testing to measure how much violence she experienced, how much depression she felt and her degree of social interaction. After four months, of the 43 women who completed the study, 25 no longer were exposed to partner violence. The remaining 18 still suffered abuse, but the amount of violence they were exposed to had decreased. Nine of the women got jobs, and 13 started new study courses.
The authors of the study concluded that mentor support played a significant role in mothers becoming aware of the effects of partner violence, especially for their children. It helped them seek professional help, stave off depression and mitigate intergenerational transmission of violence.
Now enterprising women are finding innovative ways to extend emotional support to women who are victims of abuse, using everything from blogs to smartphone apps.
Tina Swithin started her blog, One Mom's Battle, about leaving an emotionally abusive relationship, mostly to update family and friends. "I got about 300 hits a day — and about 200 of those were me checking my own blog," Swithin said.
Then something unexpected happened. It turned out one of her 300 readers was model Christie Brinkley, who started promoting her. Within a month, Swithin's readership went from 300 to 30,000.
Now Swithin gets 40 to 70 messages a day, she says, from women in abusive situations. Some are asking for help, but many just want their stories to be heard.
The reason for this, said Swithin, is that abuse is so isolating. "You doubt yourself so much, because it's instilled in you that you're worthless. And it can be embarrassing that you've gotten yourself into this situation," she says. She works with some very successful women — physicians, people with doctorates, women who seem to have it all together — but who are ashamed to admit they might be victims.
"Talking to others makes you feel not alone — it happens to all kinds of people, no matter what your socioeconomic circumstances or education. We are all united by what happens to us, whether it's a doctor or the lady down the street," she says.
Now One Mom's Battle has 100 local chapters in five countries that provide support for parents — mostly women, but some men, too — who are navigating the family court system and healing from abusive situations. Swithin is in contact with women from Kentucky to Ireland, a situation she describes as "bittersweet."
"That number means that there are a lot of people who feel less alone today, but it also means this issue is bigger than I ever imagined," she says.
Apps for good
Domestic violence is chronically underreported, and only about one quarter of all physical assaults, one-fifth of all rapes and half of all stalking against females by intimate partners are reported to police, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Calling a stranger at 911 can be intimidating to a woman in a domestic violence situation, and it's not quick or subtle, says Tess Cacciatore. "You know the process — 911 doesn't always pick up on the first ring. Then you have to explain your circumstance, then tell your name and spell it."
As an alternative, Cacciatore's organization, GWEN (Global Women's Empowerment Network), devised a phone app that allows users, with the click of a button, to discreetly send a preset emergency message to five pre-programmed contacts. The "Gwen Alert" app instantly alerts contacts that the individual is in danger and sends GPS tracking information.
That way, five people can call 911 for a woman or come to her aid, Cacciatore said, but the benefit isn't just in emergency situations. As a former victim of abuse, Cacciatore says she understands many women in abusive situations are stripped of control, even over their cellphones. And some don't have the courage to tell people they are in trouble in the first place.
"The hardest part is that you're in denial and in shame. You don't want people to know," she said. "It takes several times of being victimized, even with physical violence, before a person gets the courage to speak out." She says she hopes that installing the Gwen Alert might help women think about who they could reach out to for help and start a conversation.
Letting a friend know that you're adding them to your alert system can be a "subtle hint," said Cacciatore. "It can be a little 'wink wink' — 'I think I might need help.' It can lead to the next step and the next step."
Likewise, San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church is starting a text service called "Safe for Women" as part of its "Women Overcoming Violence" program, in which women in unsafe or abusive situations can anonymously text to request to meet with a mentor for support or career advice. Women text a number that connects to Glide's staff, who then enter phone numbers from a database of women who have signed up to be support volunteers. Then the two women are connected via text.
"It's like a text hotline," says Sarah Austin, a mentor and volunteer who helped develop the program between Glide and the Tenderloin YMCA.
One of the advantages is that it's low-stakes and unintimidating, Austin says, and texting is an easy first step but one that "can lead to an in-person relationship."
Tools like the Gwen Alert are advances in women's safety, Cacciatore says, but her real hope is to educate women and girls to avoid abusive partner relationships in the first place.
"An abuser doesn't announce that he's abusive on the first date," she says. "They're charming, loving, supportive, until the relationship starts to change." She said she admonishes young women, especially when they start dating, to watch for warning signs. Women ages 20-24 are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Signs of abuse usually start with a partner eroding a woman's self-esteem, Cacciatore says. She said women should be wary of belittlement and control issues. "If they get jealous, start to put you down, accuse you of cheating for no reason, these are red flags. Love is blind and hits us hard — have the wherewithal to watch for the signs."
Lawrence, whose co-worker helped her through the process of leaving her abusive relationship, says women should trust their guts.
"There are signals in your body that scream out sometimes; sometimes you'll get a physical stomach ache, feel confused or find yourself wondering why your partner would say cutting things — but then you justify it," Lawrence said. "It's easy to tell yourself to be polite and not be judgmental — trust yourself and get out when red flags appear."
Her partner didn't start hitting her for seven years, but the psychological abuse and belittlement began much sooner, says Lawrence. "Abusive people are loving and caring and manipulative and they love you, and you want to love them," says Lawrence. "Eventually you can't recognize how far is too far," she says, and it's not as easy as telling your best friend — eventually, she says, she didn't have any friends.
Since Lawrence left her abusive relationship with the help of her co-worker, she has paid it forward. Years later she saw the signals in another woman at work, and Lawrence gave out her phone number with instructions to call any time she wanted to talk. Eventually, the woman did.
"It's that little trigger to stay strong, you need someone to tell you that it's going to be hard but it gets better. You get your life back, but you literally have to rebuild."