“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” — Benjamin Mee, We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives Forever
As former victims of abuse, we all faced the impossible battle waged in our hearts and minds, caught in the middle of an epic struggle between our need to survive and be free and the fear that has been in many cases savagely pounded into us. It is a desperate position to be in, held in limbo of an emotional connection to the abuser even as it is being pitted against you to keep you caught in their deadly grasp but knowing deep inside it has to stop. No one’s ability to reason, to fully understand what has been done to them, can ever survive this war unscathed. As we near the end where we finally begin to build the courage, the boldness, and the bravery to leave, our hearts are gashed open, our wills nearly broken, our hope stolen away in the darkness and hoarded in a secret place we are too traumatized to know still exists. Our need for survival, our inability to handle anymore, our desperation to get out and away is what pushes us over that precipice of fear that has been holding us back, simultaneously pulverizing the invisible fetters and chains which once bound us as we fly loose of our confines. Our worry that no one believes us, that we will be judged, mocked, criticized, or sometimes even ostracized takes a backseat, and we propel forward into uncertainty. Our mouths open and set free a flood, a torrent, that had been forcibly held back, dammed up by our own silence, and we do the impossible. We tell someone what has been happening. We show them the bruises and the cuts, the welts, the black eyes, broken bones. Our fear, our shame, our humiliation, and our pride lays in a heap at our feet. We take the risk of retaliation, and we speak; we take back the voice that had been ripped away, and we rise. With this insane courage, we all eventually rise.
There were many factors that held me back, and if you have followed my story for a while, you are well aware how impossible of a combination they can be. I had limited options due to my particular set of circumstances created by the man who abused me, and leaving was a risk I did not know I could take. While a few misguided people have said that the restrictions in reporting were only manufactured in my head as a result of the fear, it was reality that available avenues of reporting the abuse and it being handled in a manner where I was not put in additional risk by those who were supposed to help me were few. I had to battle my way through worrying about the safety of my family even as I worried about myself trying to muster my insane courage to leave. In the end, I had to flee and accept losing everything in exchange for life. I was no longer willing to risk my life to appease a monster that only spiraled further out of control. There was no one I could trust, because in three towns that span across the countryside one after the other, he was working with authorities who were very appreciative of the benefits his manipulation brought them. I could not join in their dance with the devil and risk them helping him out of trouble yet again and at the same time jeopardizing my family or myself… more than had already been done.
My insane courage meant talking to someone who did not know where I could go….. but had to ask others for help. This was my danger. Word of mouth. Putting something out there that, like feathers in the wind, could never have been taken back. I had to do something unthinkable. My insane courage meant having to trust when I had none to give, and even before him, I never exactly handed out my trust for free. I obviously do not regret having this insane courage now, but in the moment, and the minutes and hours that ticked by, I felt violated, almost as if he had somehow managed to break through the wall in my head and know what I was doing. But once I started talking, I couldn’t stop. The flood came out, and my dirty secret handed over with reckless abandon to someone I had no reason to believe I could trust to tell only someone who would know where I needed to go. Insane courage. Benjamin Mee was more right than he could possibly know. All I needed was twenty seconds of embarrassing bravery – revealing my shame, throwing my vulnerability at another’s feet, sobbing uncontrollably, and talking incessantly of things she should not have even imagined were possible – this bravery saved my life.
Not everyone is as private as I am about some things (and I know a few of you are raising your eyebrow at me describing myself this way after what I have revealed across these digital pages), but if you are, you would understand why I was so excited to hear about this when it was first up and running, and why I desperately wish I could have had this accessible when I left. It would have saved me from having to face humiliation so publicly if I could have simply just asked for one of the girls’ phones at work or went online through my workstation and found this information myself. It would have made the transgression I committed against him feel less like a mountain and more like the act of courage it really was. Breaking my silence in the way I had to was traumatic for me, but it no longer has to be this way.
Sometimes, when you learn something, it becomes a part of you in a way that nothing else ever could. It takes hold of your heart and impels you forward into the world, leaving a legacy behind you that touches thousands of lives. This path in particular made itself known to Preston V. McMurry, Jr. after he and his second wife learned about the circumstances she endured as a child. Follow me all the way back to 1992 where Theresa’s Fund first began. For over twenty years, he has been working to raise money and assisting domestic violence services organizations primarily (but not exclusively) located in Arizona. So far, over $49 million has been raised. Just a few of the beneficiaries are the East and West Valley Child Crisis Centers, Emerge, and Sojourner Center.
Enter his son Chris McMurry who, after spending several nights roving about the internet, discovered that while there was a wealth of domestic violence information available online, it was not an easy search. Knowing the critical importance of having this information readily accessible, even mobile friendly, he set out on a mission to begin compiling data for DV services. Chris easily admitted to me that this was a “massive undertaking,” and several weeks into this journey, he was contacted the by Denver NCADV and soon ended up partnering with them to create a critical database that would give ease of access to a host of domestic violence services…. even on a mobile device. The release of domesticshelters.org was finally realized, and those now seeking to escape abuse or those who may feel overwhelmed trying to help someone they love get resources they need to leave are now the beneficiaries of this joint effort.
I thought for a moment about how much work it took me to compile the lists of links I have for the US and International, because not only did I have to search for them, I also took the time to follow each link and verify that they were still active. Just as I had sacrificed hours upon hours (and several nights of sleep) to compile my simple lists, I knew this undertaking was time intensive, so my curiosity got the better of me. And I had some questions, because no one takes on something like this without truly caring about what they are doing. (These are exact quotes taken from our conversation.)
Me: How much work actually went on behind the scenes in order to compile a current, accurate listing of the shelters and services you have included in the searchable database?
Chris: If you can imagine collecting up to 156 pieces of data on each of roughly 3,000 organizations – a potential total of nearly 500,000 fields of data – it may be easier to put into context how big a job faced us when we set out on this journey in January, 2014 (we completed the database in June, 2014). The data gathering involved about 15 people, thousands of phone calls and thousands of emails. I would estimate it took about 1,000 hours of collective effort to create this one-of-a-kind database. Just identifying all 3,000 organizations was a giant task in and of itself, since there is no one place where even that simple list exists … let alone trying to gather the 156 possible data points on each organization.
Me: What services or legislation do you feel would have the most positive impact on domestic violence services and why?
Chris: My personal belief is that reducing and eliminating domestic violence is most impacted by changing mindsets. I do believe that legislation and services can play a role in making that happen, but I believe the greatest impact is had through education, awareness and families. Like all ills that plague societies, change takes time and relentlessness. When my father started Theresa’s Fund 22 years ago in 1992, I don’t recall domestic violence being near the topic that it is today. To me, the then-and-now comparison indicates progress. Still, there is a long ways to go, and we have to both increase services to help those experiencing domestic violence, while simultaneously beating the drum louder and louder until everyone shares the view that abuse as entirely unacceptable.
Me: How do you feel about the dramatic increase in attention the media is focusing on domestic violence due to way the NFL handled Ray Rice?
Chris: Most of what I read and heard has been very negative toward the NFL. Sure, the league could have done things differently. The NFL has acknowledged the error in its way and has taken some very material steps toward change, which is a good thing. Rather than harp perpetually on the NFL’s missteps, I tend to view what’s happened and is happening from a positive perspective: this is one of the best things to have happened to the domestic violence movement in a long time. The topic of domestic violence was headline, front-page news for about three weeks. Has that ever happened before? And if you share the view that the biggest change comes from awareness, education and families, the coverage and conversation has done nothing but advance the cause. I’m sure other sports leagues, and possibly even elements of corporate America, are adjusting their conduct standards. And when kids (and adults) see people they idolized being punished for these acts, it has a positive effect on kids/adults making different, better choices going forward. As for the media releasing the video and information, the only thing that will put a stop to that is if society stops paying attention to inflammatory, sensational coverage. If the sensational stops generating ratings, the media is less inclined to cover it. So, not dissimilar from domestic violence itself, change is up to us as citizens, consumers and a society.
And the last question, for all of us who have experienced the devastation of abuse firsthand, there is this final exchange:
Me: If you could say anything to those currently suffering abuse now to help give them courage to come forward, if you could say anything to survivors still in the early stages of healing, what would it be?
Chris: I’m certain that I’m not qualified to give advice. But, I will say that developing and launching domesticshelters.org has brought me closer to the topic and people involved than ever before. In the process and every day, I see firsthand that there is an enormous network of people who can and will help, both professional and not. People who are experiencing and have experienced domestic violence hopefully know that they are not alone … that there are so many people who want to help … that it is not their fault and that they should not be embarrassed … that it is very important to have the courage to escape … and that there are countless examples of amazing people who have made a safe passage to a happier life.
A safe passage, a choice selection of words, because this is exactly what domesticshelters.org can help those still trapped in abuse and those who have already left find. All by entering your zip code in a search box. Also available on the site are articles, DV FAQs and statistics, signs of abuse, and even links to forums and chats. If you are being abused, ask to use someone else’s phone to search so your abuser cannot track it on your device if possible. If you suspect someone you know is being abused, offer a listening ear. You may be turned down, but you can do your homework ahead of time, so if they do come to you and ask for help, you are armed with some suggestions. Even if none of this applies to you, visit the site anyway and spend some time looking around at all the information available. Be ready to help someone find their insane courage. You never know when they are going to need it.