If you’re breathing, there’s hope

Her first husband took his shotgun with him everywhere.

For Maria, it was a constant reminder of the fear and hopelessness she lived with daily.

Maria suffered through emotional, verbal and physical abuse in two different marriages.

For a long time she thought to herself, “If only I could do something better or different.”

In domestic violence situations, many victims blame themselves for the abuser’s demeaning words, name-calling, mind games and humiliation.

Maria’s first marriage lasted five years. They had three children together.

She had only known him for a couple months before getting married and said, at that time, she saw no threat of potential violence.

The abuse started before having her first child. While she was pregnant, he hit her in the stomach. After their first daughter was born he raped Maria two weeks after delivery.

“At first all the attention was on me, then he started threatening the kids and it got really scary,” Maria said. “I wanted to divorce him but I had to wait for the right time because I was afraid of what he would do to me.”

Despite life-threatening circumstances, leaving can be the most dangerous time for a woman who is being abused, according to a 1995 national crime survey from the United States Department of Justice.

In a rage he’d break down doors and tell her to leave.

“I was scared for my life and for the life of my kids,” she said.

During one incident, Maria said she snuck her kids over the fence, handing them one by one to a family member and safety.

Finally, Maria got the courage to leave. She called the domestic violence hotline and sought help through South Bay Counseling Services.

But soon he found her and she left town.

“I had severe headaches and nightmares of being shot by him and no one helping me,” she said. “I was anxious all the time.”

She later found out that both  of her daughters were molested by her husband.

“When I found out, I was devastated,” she said. Maria got out of that marriage soon after.

Cycle of violence

Maria grew up in a small family in Minnesota and her family moved to San Diego before she turned 4 years old.

Her mother was adopted and her father has six brothers and sisters.

Her father had a bad temper and would yell at Maria and her sisters and was also sometimes
physically abusive.

Maria said she felt like she was adopted and never belonged in that family.

Many years later she met her second husband. Careful not to make the same mistake, Maria dated him for years before tying the knot.

But the violent cycle continued.

She noticed behavioral changes in her husband immediately after they married including anger, drinking and fighting.

After her fourth child, the violence got worse.

“When you’re a battered woman stuck in a violent situation, you think to yourself, ‘where do I go?’” Maria said. Maria began seeing a therapist after she left her second husband.

“I put my children in therapy too because I wanted to stop the cycle,” she said.

She later got help at South Bay Community Services and was placed in a safe house. She was there for three and a half years.

While at SBCS, Maria volunteered for a juvenile hall maximum security prison program once a week.

“There I did one-on-one teaching, mostly to tell kids that they are valuable, loved and that they
have potential,” she said.

Maria’s motto was simple: “As long as you’re breathing, there’s still hope.”

Maria was in and out of court, fighting with her ex-husband over legalities for 25 years.

“It’s only by the grace of God that I never lost custody,” she said.

The healing process Maria grew up in a spiritual family, believing that everything
happens for a reason.

“The thing that helped me through the most was my faith,” she said.

“The thing that people don’t understand is that when they (abusers) threaten you, a lot of times the emotional abuse is worse than physical abuse because it always stays with you mentally.”

Maria took a job as a teaching assistant at a children’s center in San Diego and worked herself up
to an interim counselor after four and a half years.

“I wanted to give back because I knew what it was like to be a mother watching your kids go
through this,” she said.

In the early ’90s, Maria began attending Southwestern College, graduating with an associate
degree in social work.

While attending Southwestern, Maria had six kids and two grandchildren living with her.

She received the single parent scholarship award and later several college foundation scholarship awards.

“I needed to try to improve myself,” she said. “No one thought I could do it with everything that was going on. Sometimes you can’t wait for other people to believe in you. Sometimes you’ve got to believe in yourself.”

Some kind of normal

“When my son finally turned 18, he (the ex-husband) couldn’t take me to court anymore,” Maria said. “I began having a kind of normal life.”

“What I tried to do with my kids was be a role model for  them,” she said. “I needed to try to improve myself. To me, children are a gift from God and you’re responsible for raising them the right way.”
Maria said the experience has encouraged her to help others and she has dedicated the second
half of her life to going to school to become a psychologist.

She has five classes left before receiving her bachelor’s.

“Helping people is a part of who I am,” she said.

Advice from a survivor Maria spent some 15 years looking over her shoulder. “It’s a
weird way to live,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter how people get help, as long as they get the help. They (abusers) don’t get
better, they get worse.”

Maria said that you can’t control what someone will do but you can control how you react to

“I was letting my husband control my life,” she said. “South Bay Counseling Services helped
me a lot. They gave me encouragement and support. They gave my family and me a safe place.”

“If you sit there and feel sorry for yourself, it’s going to be harder,” Maria said. “I’m stronger now
and more resilient because of what I went through.”

Editor’s note: To protect her identity, The Star-News changed some details of Maria’s story.