Be Your Own Hero: Lisa Pous
Lisa Pous is a domestic violence survivor who now helps other women and men break free from similar cycles of abuse at SAFE (Stop Abuse for Everyone) in Austin, Texas. Lisa’s story kicks off our “Be Your Own Hero” series, inspired by an award Wendy received from a SAFE staffer (and roller derby champ) of the same name.
Where does your story start?
I was born in Saint Louis, Missouri. The home of lots of riots.
Yes, indeed. Can you tell me about your childhood there?
I was born into domestic violence. My father dropped me down the stairs once. I used to sit in a rocking chair with a red suitcase waiting for him to visit, and he wouldn’t come. At least these are the stories that were given to me.
How did you cope with that?
I entered the mental health system at age 5 or 6 trying to find out what was wrong with me.
How did you end up in the mental health system?
I would say horrible things and be reactionary and angry. You know, “I hate your husband… I don’t want to do this.” I just wanted my dad back, you know, typical product of divorce. I was in the 2nd grade the first time I skipped school. I ran for a long time and got punished because I was an “ungovernable youth” and wouldn’t behave for my abusers and oppressors.
The labels started young. The stories I was being fed about myself— about being broken and the problem — started young.
So how did you get from there to here?
I spent a lot of time in halfway houses, detention centers, and on the streets. They used to call them teen runaways; now they call them homeless victims.
I refused to be quiet. I refused to stop talking about it. I refused to stop being angry because it was all I had left. I was the one that could fight for me.
In those circumstances, I met other victims and survivors and people from different cultures with different perspectives.
When I did find healthy people, I was too much for them. It wasn’t safe to leave their kids around me because my idea of pushing the envelope at age 12 was very different. It wasn’t, you know, seeing an R-rated movie. It was hanging out with older boys, looking for affection.
When I was 16 in Austin, running the streets, a guy approached me and put me up in an apartment. I still thought he was a hero. And he wanted me to pay rent but I had no way to, you know, what kind of 16 year old can pay rent? So when kids came by my door and I was crying on the floor, with no furniture, they became my hero.
Then I got pregnant.
Yes. I was on a bus trying to get back to my best friend in Florida but the ticket didn’t go that far. I ended up in a domestic violence shelter in Montgomery, Alabama. It was either that or Mobile, Alabama. Anyway, black women were all there hiding from men and I was watching their kids.
It’s funny, it was just a stop along my way; it didn’t occur to me that I was seeking safety like they were.
So that’s where you gave birth to your first child?
Yes, then my parents helped me get back to Texas where I tried to raise my daughter. I was working minimum wage, but pulling the graveyard shift so I got a little extra. I believe it was $3.50 at the time.
But I had no parenting skills. My mother ended up taking my child.
So what happened between there and here?
So then I got burnt out… and found my next hero and moved in with him. He sang Elvis songs off key. In Austin, that’s a bonus — if he can’t sing, he ain’t worth it. You know, he had the long hair and country twang.
But he was telling me who I was supposed to be.
He’d throw my food on the ceiling, telling me I couldn’t cook. I had this white picket fence idea, you know. I wanted that so badly.
So I had a second kid and then a third by him. He had a big family where everyone came together at Christmas. I thought I was getting a ready-made family.
Every time there would be a charge with domestic violence, we’d pack up and move — it was a circle. If you make it challenging for them [the State], by moving to the next county or out of state, they drop your case.
How did the authorities let that slide?
I’d write a well-worded letter, you know, “these things don’t usually happen”, and “we’re moving” and all the excuses that go with it.
I’d write it off, and tell myself “he’s under a lot of pressure”. I guess I had hope for us, even though he wasn’t the type of abuser who apologized.
And why did you accept that from him?
I had taken it from my childhood stories that I was the problem. If I could only cook better, clean better.
But it never got better; it only got worse. My kids snuck me in windows, hid me in closets, the whole bit.
And you didn’t leave?
I left, but I’d go back.
We lose a lot of power every time we go back — they get stronger and we get weaker, because we’ve proven we can’t do it without each other.
My kids would beg me not to go back. But in Florida [where we were living], the service provision was a two-week stay… What the hell is a two-week stay going to do for me?
So where were you staying?
We were staying in a house with holes in floor. The house was dilapidated, had rats, etc.
Things kept getting worse every time we ran but we kept running.
He used to say “you’ll never get out with the kids, you’ll be a welfare whore” and he was right. I have to say, the government as flawed as they are, they’ve taken better care of me than he ever did.
So he had your kids?
He took the two kids we have together and I didn’t have them for five years.
The night I came here to the shelter, it was raining and gray and I kept thinking “what have I done”. I left two of my kids… What kind of mom leaves their kids in a burning house or a sinking ship?
When was that?
2006, on January 26 — on his birthday. I thought I’d ruined my life by leaving him.
So why have you not gone back?
I realized my kids were gonna see me get killed.
So when I got here [to the shelter], they would remind me: I want to see my kids so bad, but I couldn’t go back. I was so worried he would kill me or I would kill myself.
I thought at the time that everyone would be better off.
What broke that pattern of thought?
Eventually I realized, even if I never dated again — even if I never found love — there would have to be a way to never go back to hell. The loneliest you can be is being with someone who doesn’t love you and still makes you have sex.
Being on my own is a different kind of lonely. Now I get lonely, I think “I could go out!”. I’m never going backwards.
What helped you realize that?
I would go to meditation class and they’d tell me to close my eyes, and at first I’d cross my arms and say “oh, hell no!”.
But it was a coping mechanism. Through that, I found out I was an alcoholic. I used online support groups, kept asking for help, refused to be quiet.
I kept sharing the embarrassing truth as people helped reframe things for me. I was pretty sure that I was the abuser. I had it in my mind that I was still to blame
I was going through custody court, which I lost. At one point, I quit fighting — it was hard to talk to my therapist and advocate and say “I can’t keep fighting”. A year and a half of not having my kids with me made it a lot harder to fight for getting them back and staying sober.
So I went into supportive housing. And my daughter has learning disabilities so I learned to advocate well to get the help I wanted, to find out who would serve me best.
I learned to advocate for myself and my kids.
That’s amazing. What was that process like?
I was putting myself together and it was messy and I was drunk pulling my hair on the floor, but I did it.
I got SSI (Supplemental Security Income) and I applied for section 8 — the “miracle of miracles” — which I am still on. I’ve since worked my way off SSI.
My youngest daughter was able to get help and I eventually even took in a homeless student and got her though high school.
It all happened in the way that survivors manage to get stuff done, because we are badasses.
So you got on your feet, but you kept coming back here to the shelter?
I kept coming back to the shelter because it was the only place I felt comfortable in the world.
I was building tools and learning to trust this whole new way of being. I had new coping skills and learned how to respond to stuff, and did AA stuff on the side. But I needed the “strength-based support” that SAFE offers.
AA makes you surrender your power, but I was trying to find any grain of strength I had.
And now you’re helping to pass that on to other women.
I created an alumni program in supportive housing. We have a monthly meet-up with no agenda. We have agenda burn-out, so we operate with a very strict agenda — which is to have no agenda.
What do you all share in these meetings?
I tell them the truth.
You can take back your power. You can change your life. You can live in peace. You can change perspective. Anyone who tells you the opposite: that’s all lies and crazy-making. We can change ourselves and the world.
We don’t have to live that way. This isn’t damn cancer; this is something we can change.
If no one else will fight for you: fight for yourself. Be Your Own Hero.
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