The first time, a few scratches and a slapped face.
Then an apology.
Next, verbal insults and degradation — dressed only in underwear locked out of an apartment.
Another apology; this time shrouded in blame.
Then an attack with a switchblade. No apology; just blame.
Seven years ago, Heather Wheeler, 29, was a college student looking for a roommate. She opted to share a two-bedroom apartment with a girl she didn’t know well but who seemed friendly and responsible.
The first month all was as it should be.
By the second month, Wheeler said the two started to get into some minor arguments, with the roommate often commenting on her attire or pushing her to do more of the household chores. She would burst into fits of tears when Wheeler questioned her advice.
So Wheeler acquiesced. It wasn’t enough.
The roommate started to accompany her to her job at a fast-food restaurant.
“I thought it was a little odd, but I didn’t really care,” she said.
Wheeler then agreed to move to another apartment in a city farther away from family and friends; giving up her job and connections to all that was familiar. The roommate monitored all her phone calls.
Pushy, but seemingly benign, behavior quickly turned into something far more sinister. Uncertain even how it happened, Wheeler admits she found herself a captive in her own apartment. Arguments between the two turned violent; she suffered scratches, slaps and bites.
Aware something was awry, Wheeler went to the police. She didn’t mention the physical abuse. As this wasn’t a marriage, or even a romantic entanglement, their advice was simple: move out.
With no place to go, even after packing her bags, Wheeler figured “this was my life.”
Even when the roommate sliced her arm open with a switchblade.
A newlywed as of June, Wheeler said she is telling her story as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month because after years of staying silent, and absorbing blame, she wants to alert people that domestic abuse can occur even when people are not legally married, or romantic partners. She lived in a domestic violence shelter for four months.
She also wants them to know there are people out there who are eager to help, be it therapists, domestic violence shelter advocates, and faith leaders.
“I’m not alone,” Wheeler said she discovered.
“Abuse happens between anyone who wants power over another person,” declared Rhonda Orr, founder of Rhonda Orr’s Stop Bullying Foundation and advocate for adult and child abuse victims. “The more resistance the abuser gets from the person who does not want to give up their power, the more aggressive they start to become.”
Abuse need not be between a husband and wife, but rather anyone who is a relationship with someone else, she said.
Between roommates, Orr said she can see how one person might enter into the living arrangement as a more docile, people-pleasing partner, opting to go with the flow, and find that leads to an imbalance of power. In some cases, that can turn abusive, and violence is known to accelerate when the victim makes a plan to leave.
The good news is that this community has lots of resources to help people regain their control, according to Orr and other advocates.
Stepping Stones Agencies Lead Shelter Advocate Cori Burke said Wheeler’s case is atypical, but familial violence is a reality that can have far-reaching implications.
That is why her agency operates a confidential shelter, one specifically for residents in the quad-city region. The nonprofit agency also operates a 24/7, 365-day-a-year hotline answered by trained advocates able to help assess a situation, develop safety plans, and refer to the shelter or other resources, Burke said. The shelter operation includes awareness and support groups, with the agency planning to expand upon those groups in the community, she said.
In the last year, the shelter assisted some 200 adults and children as well as additional people who did not require shelter but needed services.
Burke is clear there is no easy fix to domestic violence; it’s not as simple as telling someone to just leave. With therapy, however, victims can find healing, growth and promise of healthy relationships in the future.
“It takes a lot of hard work, but there is a lot of hope out there,” Burke said.
Editor’s note: Two sources in this article are spouses of Courier employees.
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