Showing domestic violence survivors ‘life and love after abuse’ | Windy Citizens | Chicago Reader

Showing domestic violence survivors ‘life and love after abuse’ 

Even as COVID-19 traps victims home with their abusers, Chantelle Branch wants people to know they have options.

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Windy Citizens is a new series profiling people we think you should know. The debut Windy Citizen is Chantelle Branch, 38, a domestic violence specialist. This is her story as told to Sarah Nardi.

My own abusive relationship began when I was 23. At the time, I didn’t see the red flags because I didn’t know what the red flags were. I didn’t understand how what I saw at the beginning would lead to more abuse. 

I’d known him for years before we started dating. We went to the same high school, rode the same bus. He was outgoing and friendly. Everyone loved him.

We were already comfortable around one another, so once we started dating, it got serious quickly. My life was really taking off at the time. I was traveling a lot for work and everything just felt exciting. But then the abuse started. I remember we were driving home one day and I happened to say something about one of his guy friends. It was a really casual, offhand kind of comment.

Out of nowhere, he hit me. He hit me so hard that my contact popped out of my eye. And I remember thinking, “Oh my god, I’m driving.” I couldn’t believe he did that. And what’s crazy to me is that I just kept driving. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just drove home. 

Of course he apologized. He promised it would never happen again, but it did. The cycle began. At first he only did it once in a while, then all the time. That’s how it happens. That’s how women lose their power.

I tried to leave him a few times, although he never knew. But I always had to come back for financial reasons. He controlled everything. My money, my apartment, my car. I remember going back to him once while I was pregnant and telling myself that I just needed to make it for a little bit longer. Just until I could get the baby out. And yes, he abused me while I was pregnant. I would have to curl up on the floor while he kicked me so I could protect my stomach.

Then one day, he strangled me. No matter how bad things had been until then, I knew that my situation had finally become life or death. I was working as a hairstylist and I’d been stashing money away. Ten dollars here and there. Two days after the strangulation, I pretended to be folding laundry while he left for work. I waited for him to circle the block. Twice, like he always did. Sometimes he would come back into the apartment to make sure I wasn’t with a man or talking to anyone on the phone. After I saw him go around the block a second time, I grabbed the clothes I’d been folding and ran. 

I remember running down the block to my car in the rain. I was crying. I had no idea where to go. I called the number for a domestic abuse hotline that I’d heard on the radio, and they gave me the address to a shelter in the suburbs. I picked the kids up from daycare, drove to the suburbs, and never looked back. 

Since escaping that relationship, I’ve done the work of transitioning from a victim to a survivor. I’ve created an entirely new life for myself, and my mission is to help other women do the same. 

I’m now a certified domestic violence specialist and the founder of the My Fearless Future project. I want to empower survivors, showing them life and love after abuse. I also want to educate younger women, especially those in college and high school, so that they’re able to identify the typologies of a batterer. The more you know about abuse, the less likely you are to become involved in an abusive relationship. I want to teach younger women to identify those red flags that I missed. 

My Fearless Future had live events lined up through spring, but we had to cancel everything because of the shutdowns. And what we started to see very quickly was that domestic abuse was skyrocketing. Victims were suddenly trapped at home with their abusers with nowhere to turn. So we decided to transition our efforts into building an online platform to help people cut off from outside support. 

We’ve hosted a series of Facebook Live events with advocates, therapists, and experts. Through these discussions, we’re providing information about everything from managing stress and mental health in lockdown to obtaining orders of protection when the courts are closed. We’ve also started an online support group for survivors who need a safe space to share.

Last month, My Fearless Future was contacted by a woman needing immediate help. We were able to move her out of danger and into temporary accommodations. Now we’re working with her to figure out a way to transition her family from crisis to a stable environment. It’s our hope that we can help her get into a local shelter where her healing journey can truly begin.   v

If you or someone you know is the victim of or at risk for domestic violence, help and resources are available by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 (SAFE), or by visiting the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s website, ncadv.org.

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