Editor’s note: This is the third installment in an ongoing series looking at domestic violence in Knox County. See the fourth and final part in next weekend’s edition of the Sun-Commercial.

This is Bridget’s story.

Settled in a conference room at Hope’s Voice, Bridget fidgets with her long, beaded necklace and takes a deep breath, preparing to find the right words for her story of survival.

“I’m sorry, I have trauma brain this morning,” she said, “so I’m not thinking as clearly.”

The trauma her brain has endured is a result of living through decades of domestic abuse.

For more than 30 years, Bridget lived in fear of the person who vowed to love and protect her.

Though she has since escaped the abuser, there is still lingering fear.

For that reason, the name “Bridget” — one meaning strength and power — is used in this story to protect her identity.

• • •

Like so many other survivors of domestic violence, Bridget was just a teenager when she met a charming young man who said all the right things.

“Thinking back, he was a little too charming,” she said.

That man filled a void in Bridget that had been created by a difficult childhood.

Raised in a family with an abusive father and uncle, Bridget desperately craved the positive attention her new boyfriend gave her.

“I just soaked it up,” she said. “He told me I was the most beautiful girl in the world.”

However, not long into the relationship, his behavior took a drastic turn.

Struggling to relive the details of her first assault at his hands, Bridget stops for a moment to collect herself yet again.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she says, leaning against the table, her head in her hands — remembering.

The first time she was abused was in her own new car.

“We were just driving down the road, and I said something he didn’t like,” she said.

Before she could react, the man struck her face with the back of his hand and broke her nose.

He didn’t stop there.

“He tried to drag me out of the car, but I managed to get my door shut,” she said.

The person who once seemed to provide such a safe space was on top of her car, kicking her windshield while hurling degrading, misogynistic insults.

Eventually, he managed to pull her out.

“He beat the tar out of me right there in the middle of the street,” she said.

As with most abusers, the violent outburst was quickly followed by an apology, begging Bridget for forgiveness.

“And I did. I forgave him,” she said.

Not long afterward though, Bridget realized she was pregnant.

“Back then if you got pregnant, the thing to do was to get married,” she said. “He asked, so I married him.”

With deep reservations, she walked down the aisle in her white wedding dress and married the man who would go on to brutalize her mind, body and spirit for decades to come.

“Everybody said I looked like I was going to my own funeral when I walked down that aisle,” she said.

Some of the most emotionally difficult moments for Bridget, though, came after the birth of her son.

Her former husband rarely had a job, so she says they struggled to make ends meet and often had very little food in the home. And once, she says, he cooked the last bit of food for himself, sharing none with either her or her son.

“My son was crying for a bite. I was begging him to feed my son, but he wouldn’t,” she said.

“To see your child begging for food from his own father and not be fed — that was one of the worst things.”

For nearly an hour, Bridget described 30 years of violent outbursts and the long-lasting impact of her abuser’s actions.

She was shoved, choked, dragged by her hair, stabbed and held at gunpoint.

She sustained a dislocated knee, two serious neck injuries — resulting in two surgeries — and she suffered mini-strokes, which were mostly likely stress-induced.

Like nearly all those living in abusive relationships, her tormentor also isolated her from family and friends.

“To me, the emotional abuse was even worse than the physical. Physical injuries heal, but the emotional abuse really sticks,” Bridget said.

Because domestic abuse is a crime that revolves around power and control, most abusers try to keep that control over their partners by insulting their intelligence, integrity and self-worth.

And Bridget can clearly recall all those moments.

Treating her as though she were incompetent, she says her abuser would often say things like, “Do you need me to draw you a picture?”

Other times — often while resting to recover from the very injuries he inflicted — he would call her lazy.

She’s also faced the question so many survivors of domestic violence have to endure.

“ ‘If it’s so bad, why don’t you just leave?’ — I’ve heard that all my life,” she said.

It’s an overly-simplified question that neither addresses the root of the problem nor does it point the finger of blame at the person inflicting the violence.

For Bridget, “the question should be ‘why does he abuse?’ ”

Men and women living in an abusive home have any number of reasons for staying, ranging from fear to a lack of resources and even religious convictions.

“I was afraid he would kill me, which is why I stayed so long,” she said. “The few times I did leave and go to a women’s shelter, he always found me.”

But Bridget did finally escape, as a result of her own strength and a coordinated effort of three different agencies: Hope’s Voice, the Knox County Sheriff’s Dept. and a local in-home healthcare service.

As a result of her injuries and illnesses brought on by the abuse she suffered, Bridget, too, had access to help from a healthcare aide.

After some time working with Bridget inside the volatile home, the healthcare worker reached out to a supervisor for advice.

They, along with Hope’s Voice and the sheriff’s department, started to devise a plan -unbeknownst to Bridget — to help her.

And finally — ready to make that leap of faith and escape once and for all — Bridget one day silently held up a handwritten note to her aide that simply said, “I’m ready.”

“He told me, ‘today is your day to die,’ and I believed him,” she said. “So I stuck up my sign to tell her I was ready to leave.”

But, adds Bridget, the health aide immediately feigned an emergency phone call and left the house.

“I thought she was leaving me there to die,” she said.

Instead, as her husband began to choke her while she sat on the couch, Bridget could hear the sound of sirens in the distance.

Det. Mike Fisher came through Bridget’s door that day and was one of many who helped her begin a new life.

Hope’s Voice stepped in to assist with necessary steps like getting the locks changed and hiring an attorney.

Friends and family members her abuser said didn’t love her, too, stepped up.

Now, many months after leaving the abusive relationship, Bridget is experiencing a newfound freedom.

One of her greatest joys, she said, is simply driving alone in a car. She doesn’t care if she gets a little lost along the way, so long as she is in the driver’s seat — in control of her own life and destination.

She also has a job she enjoys and her health has drastically improved.

Thinking back on all she has survived and the new life she leads today, she offers one piece of advice for others who are being abused.

“Don’t ever give up,” she said. “There is always hope.”

Those in need can call Hope’s Voice at 812-886-4470 during regular business hours. Their crisis hotline, staffed 24 hours per day, can be reached at 812-899-4673.

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