My PTSD Was Not Caused on the Battlefield: Breaking the Silence Against Domestic Violence
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a serious condition that most people associate with soldiers on the battlefield and war veterans. This is particularly true in my hometown of San Diego, which has the nation’s largest population of military personnel and nearly 25,000 veterans receiving care for PTSD (from 2010-2016). However, few people are aware that PTSD is prevalent among victims of domestic violence. In fact, a study found that up to 88 percent of women living in domestic violence shelters have PTSD. Often, the trauma is as severe as military combat.
My name is Dovie Yoana King, and I am a survivor of domestic violence living with PTSD. I am also a victim’s rights pro bono attorney, single mother and local elected official. As we approach PTSD Awareness Month in June, I hope to get an early start in giving voice to other survivors of domestic violence who live with the invisible scars caused by this silent epidemic.
My Abusive Marriage — the Breeding Ground for PTSD
As an educated, professional and successful woman, it never occurred to me that I would fall victim to domestic violence and much less at the hands of a fellow attorney who appeared, by all standards, to be a decent person. During ten years of marriage, however, the façade unraveled and I endured repeated emotional, verbal, physical, sexual and financial abuse. At times, my spouse threw things at me, punched holes in walls and tossed furniture around the house while also shouting and viciously belittling me in front of our young child. I walked on egg-shells trying to avoid his explosive tirades. Over time, the frequency and severity of the abuse escalated and I feared for my life. Still, I was too ashamed to break my silence. I felt trapped, powerless and alone.
After enduring years of abuse, my overall health gradually declined and I developed unusual symptoms . Specifically, after the birth of my child, I started suffering from recurring violent nightmares about death, distressing memories, panic attacks and flashbacks. My mind was filled with intrusive thoughts at all hours of the day. It was difficult to concentrate and remember things due to short-term memory loss (and what I later learned was called “disassociation”), making it difficult for me to work. Further, I was on-guard and hyper-vigilant. There were physical symptoms as well. I suffered from insomnia and felt fatigued. I started grinding my teeth, losing my hair and shaking uncontrollably due to stress and anxiety. As it turns out, my marriage had become the breeding ground for PTSD.
Although I was unaware of it at the time, I became a “shell” of the person I used to be. My laid-back and affable personality gradually faded and I started to withdraw from my regular activities, avoiding family and friends. I became isolated and increasingly unable to function normally on a daily basis. PTSD had taken hold of me, and it was paralyzing.
PTSD and Domestic Violence
PTSD is a trauma and stress-related mental health condition. It occurs after a person experiences a traumatic event in which death or severe physical or sexual harm occurred or was threatened. PTSD symptoms are usually divided up into four types: (1) intrusive memories; (2) avoidance; (3) negative changes in thinking and mood; and (4) changes in physical and emotional reactions.
Enduring any length of domestic violence, whether it is physical, sexual, verbal or emotional, is a traumatic experience that may cause an adult or child to develop PTSD. In my situation, given the repetitive layers of abuse I endured, I could not catch a break nor properly heal from one traumatic incident to another. This exacerbated my symptoms and compounded the problem. My symptoms became debilitating.
As with most mental health conditions, there is no cure for PTSD. Yet, symptoms of PTSD can be managed to restore a person to “normal” functioning. Experts believe the best hope for treating PTSD is a combination of medication and therapy. Indeed, this has been the right combination of treatment for me and my child, who was also diagnosed with PTSD.
Recognizing the symptoms of PTSD is critical to getting help for oneself, a friend, colleague or family member. Stepping forward and getting help is equally important to reclaiming one’s personal freedom, health and dignity. I am fortunate in that I found help to break my silence and end my abusive marriage. I turned to the San Diego Family Justice Center, an organization offering free support groups and trauma-informed counseling for survivors and their children. Other things helped too. I adopted an emotional support animal and signed-up to volunteer at a restraining order legal clinic, which were instrumental to my healing. Finally, my child and I moved thousands of miles away from San Diego to Belmont, Massachusetts to re-start our lives in a new setting. This was a bold move, but has made all the difference.
Currently, my symptoms of PTSD are manageable. However, I am reminded of my disability on a daily basis when, for example, I am easily startled by an innocent knock at my office door or get fearful walking alone to my car parked in an underground structure. There are other challenges I face as well, such as recurring violent nightmares and panic attacks, but on the whole, I am on my way to making a full recovery.
While the healing process from domestic violence and PTSD takes time, and perhaps years, I am proof that PTSD does not have to be a life sentence. For those in need of assistance, help is just a phone call away.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (24 Hours)
Veteran Crisis Line
1.800.273.TALK (8255) — Veterans Press ‘1
Dovie Yoana King is an award-winning victim’s rights pro bono attorney, devoted single mother and survivor of domestic violence. She is the founder and director of SOAR for Justice (www.soarforjustice.org) and a member of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Dovie is a graduate of Brown University and Northeastern University School of Law. She currently works at Harvard Law School and is an elected Town Meeting Member for Precinct 7 in Belmont, MA.