October 30, 2001
By JOSH NICHOLS
Daily Press writer
Editor’s Note: In the ten years Advocates Crisis Support Services has had a domestic violence support group in Craig, a male has never sat in on a session with the exception of Group Facilitator Gary Gurney. The idea of allowing a reporter to sit in on a session was first met with skepticism, but after a group discussion, and an agreement that no pictures would be taken or names used, group members agreed to allow the reporter. The reason Advocates knows there are other women out there who are being abused, and they want them to know that help is available.
A group of women sit around a table picking from two bowls of jelly beans, sipping coffee and talking about their lives. Two relax on a couch in the corner.
There are about 10 women present. Some of them are old enough to be the mothers and grandmothers of others in the room.
They talk about their children, friends and jobs.
The women could be taking part in pre-meeting chit chat for the PTA or a church group.
But they’re not.
With the slight shift of an eye, if you dare, one’s attention is drawn to a poster hanging in the room a black and white picture of a woman with cuts and bruises all over her body. The poster reads: “Someone who loved me did this.”
A sign that hangs on another wall reads, “I thought being abused was a part of life,” while another poster asks, “If there’s not consent, there’s rape.”
The women in the small room aren’t there to plan an annual club fund-raiser.
The posters on the wall indicate why they’re there. They are all trying to cope with the hows and the whys of being the victim of domestic violence.
Group Facilitator Gary Gurney, a psychotherapist from Steamboat Springs, asks who would like to start, and passes a stuffed animalreindeer to his right.
The first woman takes the reindeer.
She reports that she is currently happy being away from her significant other.
She says that when she got together with her significant other recently, he said some things that upset her.
She didn’t respond, though, because she “didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.”
Gurney sees an opportunity to make a point.
“As long as you have that fear, you’re not in a relationship,” he says. “It amazes me how many people live in those relationships.”
Another group member chimes in, “You need to lay it out there now that you’re not living with him.”
Before passing the reindeer, the woman says she realizes that she needs to work on being more assertive, and promises to try to do so in the future.
The next two women in the group pass the reindeer without speaking. They aren’t comfortable talking at the moment.
No one objects.
The next woman confidently takes the stuffed animal, volunteering to talk.
Before she begins, she hesitates.
“I’ve had a rough two weeks,” she says. “I realize I’m not dealing with the raping as well as I thought I was.”
Fighting back tears, she tells of a recent experience when she couldn’t handle a doctor touching her during an appointment.
She’s afraid to have someone touch her because her last boyfriend raped her a lot.
“How are you going to deal with that?” Gurney asks.
She begins crying harder and tells the group she doesn’t know what to do.
With no medical insurance, and Medicaid that has run out, she cannot afford counseling.
She has to leave the room. Another group member follows.
The reindeer continues to be passed around the room.
The different members of the group begin to open up with more detail. Some have good reports to make on their progress, others are not so good.
Some are still in abusive relationships, while others are out of them, and still struggling to find a way to cope with the pain.
Almost every woman in the room has been meeting with the group for at least six months, some for up to five years.
They joke and laugh about some of the stories that can be joked and laughed about, and offer consultation on other serious issues.
They know one another well, asking about family, friends and jobs.
One woman who is desperate for a place to live is offered a spare bedroom by one of her fellow group members.
Gurney asks one woman how her grandmother is, and another about her job search.
“How’s he doin’ on the drinkin’?” He asks another woman in regard to her boyfriend.
One woman reports that she recently had an argument with her significant other, but she was proud, because she didn’t get mad and throw anything at him.
The group laughs again.
Gurney sees another opportunity to make a point.
“There’s going to be conflicts,” he said. “What’s important is how you handle the conflicts.”
Toward the end of the session, a woman who was initially leery to speak earlier, finally opens up.
Currently, she is involved in a risky situation at home, a string of many she has had in the past.
The obviously soft-spoken woman vents her anger in a whisper toward the end of a long discussion.
“I’m about ready to have a nervous breakdown,” she says through tears. “I can’t deal with it anymore. Sometimes I wish I was a man, and could just go out and beat the snot out of these guys.”
She says that she’s beginning to shut down, and no longer say anything so that she doesn’t upset him.
“If you sit there, say nothing and take it, you’re saying ‘I’m powerless,'” Gurney tells her.
Gurney has traveled to Craig for ten years to facilitate the Advocates Crisis Support Services group sessions.
In the past four years, Advocates has served over 400 people every year who call them seeking support for an experience with either domestic violence or sexual assault.
Advocates director Pat Tesmer is quick to point out that this is 400 different people.
This number does not include women who call in a second, third and fourth time requesting help.
Already this year, Advocates has received well over 600 total calls.
When an Advocates representative receives a call, they attempt to advise and help the person as much as possible.
If the person calling fits the criteria and is interested, one option might be to join the support group.
Once a week, Gurney gets together with the women. Sometimes, only two women make the meetings, while at other sessions up to 15 women can attend.
For many of the women, the sessions are vital, if not lifesaving.
“For a lot of women this is their only outlet,” he said. “A lot of women have been isolated or controlled. They weren’t allowed to have close friends.”
The sessions are more far-reaching than many realize, he said.
“My thought is that people only see the service as serving domestic violence,” he said. “It goes into so many different areas of their lives; from finding a place to live, to financial issues to family.”
What occurred at the last meeting occurs often, he said.
“‘I’ve got an open room in my apartment. You can stay in it if you want.’ You hear a lot of that,” he said. “There’s a lot of support among these women for one another.”
Confidentiality is also very important, he said.
Not just anyone can attend the meetings. They are screened before they are accepted to make sure their situation qualifies.
This enables women to feel more secure and be more open, he said.
“Many of the women have spouses who do not even know they are attending the sessions,” he said.
Fear is an emotion that runs rampant through most of the women in the group.
“When you have fear, it really sets you up for feeling powerless,” he said. “You can’t have a relationship like that.”
Conquering that fear is one of the group’s main objectives.
“When they are no longer fearful and begin taking their own responsibility, they’re no longer afraid of saying the wrong thing,” he said.
Gurney said they don’t just want to focus on a woman’s situation with her abuser, but instead on what she can do to change her life.
Most of the time, he said, the abuser cannot be changed.
“When they start looking at themselves, and realizing that they’re responsible for themselves, they start feeling the opposite of helpless and hopeless,” he said.
Pat Tesmer, director of the local Advocates chapter, said often people don’t understand why women allow themselves to get into abusive situations, or why they leave one abusive situation just to go directly into another.
“If you’re raised in an abusive family, human beings have a tendency to seek out what is familiar,” she said. “If you ask people what is normal, the answer is different for everyone.”
She agreed that the support group is the only outlet for many women.
“For victims, isolation is such a huge component of their lives that this is the first step in reversing the process,” she said. “It is called a support group because abuse thrives in secrecy.”
The discussions are so all-encompassing because abuse is not just one part of a woman’s life, it affects every aspect of their life, she said.
Gurney estimates that 80 percent of abuse cases involve alcohol or drugs, but Tesmer said that even if all substances were removed from the planet, abuse would still occur.
“There are many people who batter when they’re drunk,” she said. “At the same time, there are people who drink to batter.”
Drinking is often used as a scapegoat for those who batter, and they often drink with the intentions of battering later.
When they feel they are losing control of someone, they drink, put some of their brain to sleep, and then batter, she said.
Karen Aragon is a victim’s advocate who has been working as a group facilitator for six months, making her less familiar to the group then most of the women she counsels.
Aragon said her experience has been educational.
“I’ve had an opportunity to meet women I likely would not have met in other places, and I’ve come to admire them,” she said.
Women need the support of the group, she said, because the problem for these women lies in the one place where most other people receive their support the family.
The most difficult part of the job, she said, is the fact that many of these women who she talks to for hours, are going back home into the abusive situation.
“You have to focus on the fact that each time you’re together, that’s a positive step,” she said.
One woman, who attended the group five years ago, said without Advocates, she might not have been able to get through, and eventually out of her abusive situation.
“I was worried that one morning I was going to be so beaten up and broken up, that I would not be able to get up at all,” she said.
Despite the fact that she is still dealing with harassment, her life is better now than it was before she sought help from Advocates, she said.
“The Advocates are the best people in the world,” she said. “I would trust them with my life.”
Advocates has helped, and is still helping another woman who since being domestically abused, has been in the group for close to six years.
“I love the group,” she said. “I just love all the ladies. We’re like one big family.”
What women learn in the group, she said, is tools and strategies to calm an at-risk situation, while not allowing it to get too heated.
The woman who offered another woman a place to stay at the last meeting is an example of how much these women care for one another, she said.
“We all try to lend a helping hand if we can,” she said. “What happened that night was really neat.”
Aragon also has a theory on why the women allowed a reporter to sit in on the session.
“We want to increase awareness about domestic violence,” she said. “Because it’s everywhere.”
It’s an understatement to say that people like Gurney and Tesmer are important to the woman.
“They’re like family to me,” she said. “I visit them about everyday. If you need to talk to them, they’re always there for you.”
Everyone interviewed agreed that there is a need for a battered-woman’s shelter in the community.
One woman at the meeting even looked at the reporter and said, “Everyone needs to know that this town needs a shelter. Many of these women have nowhere to go.”
Tesmer said that a grant is about the only hope of getting a shelter in Craig, but community support would be necessary in sustaining it.
Tesmer said she has to apologize for getting on her soapbox at times when talking about the issue of domestic violence, but it’s difficult not to when you deal with battered women on a daily basis.
The women who she makes continual attempts at helping have her respect.
“These are strong people who deal with dangerous situations on a daily basis,” she said.
“These people aren’t victims,” he said. “They’re survivors.”