To Hell and Back: A Survivor's Story

Editor's Note: Ricci Gay tells her first-person story of being a victim of domestic violence who persevered, with the help of CAO's Domestic Violence Unit, to lead a much safer life now. Her ex-partner pleaded guilty in Seattle Municipal Court to domestic violence property destruction in August and received a suspended sentence with 5 days of work crew imposed (leaving 359 days in jail available to revoke if he violates his conditions). He is not allowed any contact with her for 5 years; he cannot commit any new criminal law violations and cannot possess weapons. He has to pay her $3,954 restitution, do a mental health evaluation and follow any treatment recommendations. The court has the discretion to order him to do domestic violence batterers treatment and will be under its jurisdiction for 5 years. A resource for anyone experienced domestic violence is the Washington State Domestic Violence hotline at 1(800)562-6025.

My very first memories are like a stack of Polaroid pictures. The colors are hazy; none of the scenes are in themselves, a full memory. I remember speaking to my mother as a young adult, describing a chair by the door, a Christmas tree, the brick fireplace, a phone being slammed down, police coming to take my father away. Although surprised by my memories of that event, she colored in the lines, telling me that her husband, my father, broke her nose and she ran away with us and never looked back. We spent that Christmas in a home for battered women. I was three years old.

My childhood story is, unfortunately, not unusual. In fact there are many battered men, women and children in the world who suffer in silence every day. But those victims of domestic violence are ones that the general public understands. If I were to share the horrific stories of my grandmother being beat up by my alcoholic grandfather, the story of my mother's nose broken by her angry husband or even the sexual abuse of a childhood friend, most would agree that they too have experienced something similar or have stories of their own friends and family members who have suffered the same. However, I am here to talk about being a victim of another kind of domestic violence -- the kind that has no face. I realize now that I have the perfect personality fit for sociopathic behavior as well as perpetrators. My eagerness to please, kind smile and trusting attitude help me make a lot of friends but also lead predators to my door. I was raised in a good Christian home with a loving stepfather who had a kind smile. I was the second oldest of eight children and a natural worker, so I was immediately entrusted with my younger siblings and responsibilities in the home. Because I found joy in serving others, I really didn't miss out on the social activities and events that most normal teenagers had. Since we were poor, we also didn't have much money for those things so I found solace in my church youth group and artistic endeavors. As a Midwestern believer, I was taught that my body belonged to Christ, and that I was to only give it to a man in marriage -- dating and such was a sin. In some ways, this sheltered life protected me from many of those earlier bad choices that one makes; however, I was definitely not prepared for the real world when I moved out on my own at 18.

I moved in with my grandparents several states away, to Seattle, in the summer of 1998. I had one friend who lived two doors down who I had spent summers with since I was a kid, swimming in her family pool. That summer, I remember looking up from the grass and her father was staring at me. I felt a bit self-conscious but I was always a chubby girl and not entirely comfortable being looked at in my bathing suit. I came by one day and found him in the garage. I asked when my friend would be home and he asked if I wanted to go for a ride in his new Mustang. I knew that he wouldn't even let his daughter drive it so I eagerly accepted and jumped in the passenger seat. As we drove around he asked me if he could ask me a question. Being the polite child that I was, I answered, of course. He asked me if I would have an affair with him. I panicked; I could feel bile rising in my throat. I couldn't breathe and I was trapped in this car. He stopped at this lake and tried holding my hand as we walked. I started skipping and acting like a child so that he promptly dropped my hand. As we returned to his house he asked if I was offended. I tried to convince him to try counseling or something with his wife and when we got to his house, his wife and daughter asked us how the ride was. That was the first time I realized that I had to live in a silent lie. I went home and sat in the bath crying, scrubbing my hand and body clean as if I had been raped by this 50-year-old man with alcohol on his breath. He did not punch me or rape me or even touch me other than holding my hand, yet to this day I cannot pass by that house without wanting to puke my guts out. I am the face of sexual violence.

Eventually, I chose a lifestyle path separate from the church. My nurturing heart fell in love with for a sexually abused man who cried in my arms and struggled with anger and seemed to soften to my touch. As I discovered my own sexuality with him I was also introduced to what the words, "I am just having a couple of beers to relax" meant.

He convinced me that he was not an alcoholic and that he was a changed man. It wasn't until I lost a close friend over the relationship that I was able to see what it was doing to me. I no longer lived the life I wanted to. I was coerced into breaking many boundaries that I would not normally have done. This is the face of emotional abuse.

I was drugged and raped by two men who took me from a club on my 29th birthday; I was still technically a virgin and was left behind by a "friend" who couldn't afford to pay the entrance fee. When I woke up the next morning I was in a rage and screamed that I was a virgin! As they ran out the door they yelled back, you aren't anymore! I didn't report it to the police because of my own feelings of shame and self-loathing. I chose to go to the club unsupervised, I chose to put my drink down, I chose to dress provocatively. This is the face of sexual abuse.

My next few "boyfriends" gave equal trade, love and companionship for sex. I didn't seem to take note of my boundaries being pushed so far; I didn't even recognize them anymore. One day a boyfriend choked me while pleasuring himself; his hand crept around my neck and his look was violent towards me. He loved making me answer the questions, "Who does this belong to?" "This belongs to me, right?" When I tried to break that relationship off he wouldn't stop calling me, showing up at my door with flowers and treats, texting me all hours of the night, trying to win be back and abuse me again. This is the face of domestic violence.

My last relationship started out very different. The "cool guy" acted like he really didn't care whether I called him. Then he jumped full in, telling me that he risked getting fired to spend New Year's Eve with me. He showed up in a tuxedo and swept me off my feet. His stories about being in the military and a sniper even didn't bother me too much at first. He knew my stance against weapons but he had a strong voice for gun education and I accepted his stories as truth. Within a month he was declaring love to me, telling my friends he wanted to marry me and asking permission for my hand from my family. He would say things "in confidence" about his work that he was under cover, that he did government contract work and such things that made me question his words every day.

When I ran a background check on him to stand up for what I believed were lies, nothing came up and he presented documentation for a few of the things that I had questioned. Manipulating my embarrassment, he made me feel shame for not trusting him and I rarely questioned his past again. I remember the time he told me that he killed over 35 people in war, and got teary-eyed talking about one of them being a child soldier. I cried over these lost souls and my tears fell on his face and I felt we had truly bonded in that moment. I again took on the role of savior and felt that he had entrusted me with his wounded heart. Within a few months more and more lies came out and it was hard to trace any truths to the words that he was saying. As he appeared more and more delusional, I requested some space, for him to move out. That night when I didn't come home for fear of retaliation he destroyed our home with his bare hands and smeared his own blood all over the place. He texted me his bloody hand saying, "Look, I bled for you." This is the face of emotional and manipulating abuse.

Recently, two friends, Lindy West and Ijeoma Oluo, started the Twitter campaign, I Believe You | It's Not Your Fault. As I read some of the stories of other women and their accounts with physical, sexual and emotional abuse, I began to feel really angry. In my own life, the only person who had seen justice for domestic violence was my ex-fiancé and that took 10 months of legal battles and the support of the prosecuting attorney's office. If I hadn't had their support and a court advocate, perhaps I wouldn't have gone all the way through to seeing justice. I am sure there are many more victims who just have to give up because they feel it is not worth the trouble. But most importantly, are you one of those who don't see the domestic violence that you are in right now?

I have found my voice after five long years. It is still too quiet at times and I make mistakes that do not always help us survivors claim back the rights to our bodies. But I keep trying. I keep my head held high. When someone pushes be­yond my boundaries, I push back. It is time that we all join together and push back. You are not a victim; you are a survivor who has a story to tell. So tell your story, and tell it loud! Practice saying No loud and strong and teach our young ones to do the same. We are just one person amid a world of influence but our voice counts. And in the words of my friend, Lindy West, I Believe You- It's Not Your Fault.