Confused by the gray
By Josh Johnson
Splash Staff Writer
The man who helped Jackie Wagner move out of her Liberty Lake home of more than 10 years was "a wonderful guy." Money was tight, so when he offered to let Wagner and her two kids move into his Coeur d'Alene home, it seemed to be a prudent choice.
Wagner was attending classes to become a nurse practitioner, and every dollar counted. What's more, this was a man who gave her cards, held the door open for her and gave her a hug after she had a rough day.
"He was like a dream friend," Wagner said. "I didn't see any warning signs at all. Then he said, ‘Why don't you just move in with me?' It went against my values, but I was like, ‘Well, I really need to save the money.'"
On the outside looking in, it was hard to disagree. He was a handyman who helped everyone in need. He was polished and polite.
"Little old ladies and families with 20 kids thought he was just this wonderful guy," Wagner said. "And he is. Except when he gets mad. And no one sees him when he gets made except in his home."
"For me, I've always seen the Hollywood version of domestic violence - a busted lip, a black eye," she said. "And that wasn't happening to me. It was more of a verbal outrage, explosive displays of emotion that can control you a little bit."
As a nurse, she knew it would be hard to explain away a black eye, but until that happened she found herself often explaining her swollen eyes. The tears weren't from allergies, of course, but that was her public explanation. The appearance of "having it all together" was part of what was trapping her, she found.
"Everything looks great on the outside," she said. "He seems like a really nice guy. It's the confusion of the gray. ... I think that's the hardest part. I wasn't the black or the white. I was the gray."
Early on in the year she spent in her abuser's home, she called the Coeur d'Alene Police Department to try to bring more clarity to "the gray."
It took several police contacts over a year's time before she finally came to terms with what the officers were telling her. No, she hadn't been thrown against a wall yet or hit with a fist.
"I've been talking to you now for a year," she said one officer told her. "Do you need to get smacked (before you will make the decision to leave)? Do you need to be thrown against the wall? That's what you're saying to me."
Wagner said she would debate with some of her closest girlfriends from class about whether she was truly in an abusive situation.
"I had girlfriends who were saying, ‘You are in one of those situations,'" she said. "I'd say, ‘No, I'm not. It's my fault.'"
Slowly but surely, the perception changed as she debated what it would take for her to make the decision to leave.
"What does it take?" Wagner said. "I guess it's a personal decision of where do you want your peace of mind to be. Do you like the drama? Do you want the drama? Do you think you deserve it? After a while, I realized no one deserves it."
One major trigger was her children, now ages 13 and 14.
"They are so resilient, it blows my mind," Wagner said. "I thought for the most part I was keeping it from them, but of course that wasn't (entirely true). I would tell them, ‘This is a bad decision, but it's not going to define us. We will get through this.' I tried to be as honest with them about stuff, but I knew I had to be a role model. I knew I couldn't let myself get beaten up, so to speak. Or else they would think it's normal behavior."
She said it really came down to being honest with herself, and the kids were a "blessing" in helping force that decision.
"You need to be accountable to what you are doing," she said. "You have to say, ‘This is not what I want for my kids. This is not what I want for myself.' We have an obligation to protect our children. It's not always that clear when it's just you, but when you've got little ones, it's kind of a blessing."
Liberty Lake Police Chief Brian Asmus said domestic violence takes many forms, and some in Liberty Lake have been more verbal while others more violent. While he said it is not as common statistically in Liberty Lake as many similarly sized communities, it's been growing (see table below).
Domestic violence in the city of Liberty Lake
Source: Liberty Lake Police Department
This column originally appeared in the March 8, 2012 issue of The Splash
Splash Guest Column
I am a single mom and in the final months of graduate school for my practitioner license. I have two children, both honor students in a local junior high. Because of my schooling and long hours at work, I decided to move in with a man to save money and pay down some debt. For a while, things went very well and the four of us were very happy. However, around this same time last year, about two months after we had moved in, circumstances began to change.
Because of financial constraints, I found myself justifying the outbursts as my fault and played down the situation. After all, he was paying the rent. My living there was enabling me to pay down my debt.
But as the episodes unfolded, I would tell myself not to panic and if I learned to modify my behavior a little better, maybe it would modify his. This worked at first, but then the cycle continued to where anything would set him off, and usually at the worst times. For example, before I was out the door to take an exam, on the boat in the middle of the lake or, worse, in front of my kids.
In less than a year, I had contacted 911 dispatch four times for domestic violence. Each time after speaking with the police, I'd minimize the abuse and convince myself I was being over-reactive and to stick it out just a little longer until graduation, then money would be better and I could leave. But the outbursts worsened, and I was paying a hefty price of my self-worth. He was winning the battle to control me, and I was believing I was unlovable, ugly and difficult to live with.
The last event was at 5 o'clock in the morning, less than a week before Christmas with the shouting, the four-letter words and name calling echoing down our street. When he stormed out, slamming the door behind him, two police officers arrived. One went to find him, and the other stayed with me, this time insistent that I go to a shelter. I wondered: What am I waiting for? Money?
As I cried on the policeman's shoulder, he told me life was too short and if I continued to make money the priority, I would wake up one day still broke with my kids grown up miles away or worse, damaged. "The stuff" didn't matter, the local gossip didn't matter. What was here, what was now, that's what mattered! My game face and the minimizing of my situation were not working for me anymore, and I was clearly in big trouble. My children are 13 and 14, I'm an educated woman with two degrees - when is it ever a good time to be homeless?
I dropped the kids off at school and headed to the shelter. Driving around and crying, I started praying - like I've never prayed in my life. I had been angry with God for a while but decided today was a good time to settle the score. It was time to take accountability for my mistakes, own up to my fears, own up to my poor judgment and own up to the fact the kids were suffering, too.
Along the way, I passed a rental sign not far from my kids' school. I called the number from my cell, and by noon I was filling out a rental application. Knowing I had no money, I called my bank from my car and told them my situation. While still on the phone, they cash advanced in my checking account all the funds I needed for a move-in deposit. I was speechless. At 3 p.m., the time the kids came home from school, I had keys in my hand of our new home.
The next day (my birthday) my bank called and informed me that I was approved for a refinance on my car, and my payments were lowered to half. Then, I discovered I had a mutual fund I had been paying into for years I didn't know about (God's birthday bonus). It was the best birthday present of my life!
From this experience I have learned a valuable lesson about life and about myself: I do believe in miracles. I do believe that in our moments of real need, real accountability, and genuine remorse ... we are not alone.
Now, two months later, the children and I are thriving. Yes, money is tight, with a stop to the food bank on occasion. More importantly our home life is stable and all of us are doing well emotionally and in school. My daughter recently received an award for outstanding achievement, and I will be graduating this spring.
If you are in a similar situation that I was in, I understand the fear. Nonetheless, our obligation as parents, family or friends is to protect those we love. I found strength and courage to press past that fear in a time of great personal doubt and faith. Look for the nobility within yourself and show by example to your children the power in this trait. Believe me when I say, you will not be alone when you take that first step out.