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First Person: 'The shame did not belong to me. The shame belonged on him'

(Wilder Fleming/WBUR)
(Wilder Fleming/WBUR)

Editor’s Note: This ‘First Person’ diary contains explicit details of physical abuse. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, use a safe computer and contact help. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233), or visit https://www.thehotline.org.

This is part of an hour on domestic violence and traumatic brain injury. Listen to the full hour here.

1 in 4 women are victims of intimate partner violence in the United States, according to the CDC.

The suffering caused by domestic violence is emotional, spiritual and physical. But there’s one aspect of that suffering that is almost invisible: brain injury.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Too often traumatic brain injuries are going undiagnosed and untreated in survivors of domestic violence yet can lead to long-term impacts that affect memory, concentration, balance and vision.

And some survivors have lived with these symptoms for decades but they do not know why, or did not know why, like the woman you are about to hear next.

Now warning, as we are listening to stories of survivors of domestic violence some of these stories contain explicit details of physical abuse.

You’re about to hear Freya Doe. She shared her story with us — and the abuse she suffered from the very beginning of her first marriage, when she was just 18 years old:

FREYA DOE: In the very beginning, I thought I was happy. I thought I was getting the things that I wanted and needed emotionally. Looking back, I wasn’t happy. I was always in emotional turmoil, to be quite honest. There was a lot of tears. There was a lot of crying. But he was very good at convincing me that I was happy. And that he was the one for me. And again, it wasn’t until I was much older that I looked back and realized that I was not content. And what was happening was not love. It was obsession. It was manipulation. And in a lot of ways, it was torture.

I was not allowed to leave the house. I had one friend that was his friend’s wife, who I was allowed to hang out with. I wasn’t allowed to get a job. And as time progressed, he got more and more frustrated with things at work. He was in the military, so he couldn’t get upset with his sergeant. So he would bring that anger home with him, and lash out at me. Anywhere from walking in the door and flinging his keys at my head, to grabbing me and slamming my head against the wall. If I said, how was your day? I might get punched. It was a constant situation of not necessarily knowing who was going to walk through that door. If he had a good day, things would be OK. If he had a bad day … anything goes.

There was a day when he had been drinking in the morning, and I had gone out and done laundry and I brought it home. And he was upset about something that someone had said to him, and got into a fight with me. And punched me in the face first and then picked me up and threw me off a porch. And then proceeded to jump on top of me, and repeatedly slammed my head into the ground and punched me in the face. Eventually, I woke up on the floor. And then he just stopped dead and looked at me and said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Your eyes.’ And he stood me up, and I went over to the dresser and I looked and the blood vessels in my eyes were starting to burst.

That convinced him to allow me to call 9-1-1. But he kept saying, ‘I don’t want to get in trouble.’ ‘I don’t want to get in trouble. If you call 9-1-1, they’ll find out what I did.’ And I said, ‘Listen, I will just tell them that I fell off the porch, that I was dizzy and slammed the door into my face. It’ll be OK. Just just let me call them, I need to go to the hospital.’

And they came. They got me under the backboard. They put the neck brace on. They got me in the stretcher. I’m completely tied down. And the guy in the ambulance gets in and he’s sitting next to me, and my husband is standing on the end of the ambulance, looking down at me, as this guy says, ‘Did your husband do this to you?’ And I just shook my head as much as I could, which was not much. And, ‘No, no. Of course not. He would never do something like that to me. He loves me. He would never. He would never hurt me.’

They did 22 X-rays of my head, neck, back and chest. And I was in the hospital for five days. And a neurologist came in to see me, and he said, ‘Well, looks like, you know, you’ve got a concussion.’ And he said, ‘You know, you’re probably going to have some light sensitivity for a while and you’ll have some migraines, maybe. But the blood will drain out of your eyes and you know, everything will go back to normal.’

I just thought, ‘OK, well, you know, by the time the blood drains out of my eyes, the migraine should probably go away and light sensitivity will probably go away.’ And the funny thing is, is that neither has ever gone away.

And it wasn’t until about 15 years later that I started having some cognitive issues where I would be talking to somebody and all of a sudden in the middle of conversation, I would just kind of stop dead and my eyes would look around. Because I could not for the life of me, remember what it was that I was talking about. I could be in mid-sentence and just all of a sudden, it’s gone. Everything I was just thinking is just out of my head, and I started thinking that I was getting early onset Alzheimer’s, or some kind of dementia or something to that effect. I chose at that point in time, from fear, to basically ignore that and just put it out of my head. Tell myself, it’s just something that happens to people. And then I started forgetting words. Like I knew what I wanted to say, and I could describe what I wanted to say, but the actual word that I wanted to use, I could not find.

And every time that I would forget a word or I’d forget what I was talking about, or I wouldn’t remember somebody’s name that I had known for forever. That stress would like spike. And I had also developed a lot of anxiety. I started having panic attacks and things like that, that’s how stressed this whole thing had gotten me.

It didn’t really dawn on me that I was still having these symptoms from that particular event. It never went through my mind.

CHAKRABARTI: Freya Doe. Now Freya is a pseudonym. And we are not disclosing her name or location in order to protect her safety. It’s been decades since those assaults – and the problems she was experiencing only got worse as the years went on.

But not too long ago, she found out the root cause of all of her struggles, and it was never what she expected:

FREYA DOE: I don’t think I ever put two and two together until when I saw the article that Dr. Valera had written. And I was reading it, and I’m looking at all of these symptoms from traumatic brain injury from domestic violence, and I’m like, ‘Got that, got that, got that, been dealing with that. Oh my God, I need to talk to this woman.’

It had been almost 30 years since I had the traumatic brain injury. You know, one of my traumatic brain injuries. But it was 15 years when I started noticing symptoms, but I didn’t know what those symptoms were related to. And it wasn’t until I spoke with Dr. Valera in 2016, 2017 when I finally had answers.

And having an answer to what was going on with me was such a relief. And it also allowed me to realize that what happened to me was not a shameful thing. The shame did not belong on me. The shame belonged on him.

I know now that sometimes what happens to me is neuro-fatigue. So if I’m working an eight hour day, by the end of that day, usually close to like the last half an hour or so, I try not doing anything that’s too brainy, so to speak. Because I know I could possibly make a mistake, because by that time of the day, I’m getting neuro fatigued. And when I get neuro fatigued I start stuttering. I have many times had to say to people now, ‘I apologize, but my weekend is super busy doing X, Y or Z, so I can’t do this other activity. Can we do it another weekend?’ Or, you know, I have to limit myself for the things that I can do beyond going to work, which kind of stinks [Laughs]. But it is what it is, and it’s what I have to do in order to keep symptoms at bay.

And I told her at that time that the reason I reached out to her was I didn’t think that there was anything that might ever be able to be done for me, to help fix me. But if my story, of what happened to me, if my brain, if studying something with me, would help someone in the future not have to ever have that question of, ‘Am I, you know, having early onset Alzheimer’s or some kind of dementia, or am I losing my mind?’ If I could in any way contribute to her studies and help anybody in the future, either not have to deal with that or to help them get answers sooner so that maybe I could help them discovering ways of helping to reverse these things. Whatever it is that I could do, I wanted to volunteer to do.

That’s why I donated my brain to the VA brain bank. They can’t have it now. They have to wait till I’m dead [Laughs]. That’s why I volunteered for anything that I could do, including speaking at these medical symposiums. Because I wasn’t somebody that got help within a few days, or a week or a month or even a year of the brain injury. As being somebody who it’s been 30 years, and I’ve really had no medical intervention for rehabilitation. I wanted to do what I could for anyone else down the line.

I have the most wonderful husband in the world. When I told him about everything that had happened to me, he just reached over and held me. And he cried for me. And he just said to me, ‘How could anybody do that to you?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. But they did.’ He is a very dedicated, loving, tender, sweet human being. And he has been there for me through so many things in the last. We’ve been together for … however long ago, 2006 was.

And we’ve been through so many things. And every day — I’m happy. There isn’t a day that goes by that there’s not a hug and a kiss. There’s always, I love you’s. I have The American Dream, without, unfortunately, without the children. But I got the house and the white picket fence and the husband and the dog and six chickens. I got a good job. Good friends. Have a loving family. And, you know, nothing in life is perfect, but life is pretty darn good.

CHAKRABARTI: As you just heard, Freya is remarried and most importantly – happy, safe and loved.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, there are resources available at our program’s website here.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.