Thriving after domestic violence – a survivor’s story

Thriving after domestic violence – a survivor’s story

LiQ_Mag_July_2015_CoverThis article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Ruby Pratka

Charlotte Habegger was putting clothes in the washer when she realized something wasn’t right.

“I wanted to put it on ‘hot,’ because it needed to be washed in hot water, but I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, if my husband finds out, there’s going to be trouble.’”

She sat down for a few minutes and realized she was terrified.

“I thought, ‘Is he actually going to beat me? Well, no, but he’ll be angry.’ The kind of thing he would do, and he did, was not talking to me for three days. Definitely there was payback for me using hot water. It seems so small, but I realized I was worrying all the time about things that were so small.”

Habegger was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and raised on the Caribbean island of Martinique, where she met her husband-to-be when the two were still in high school. Educated and articulate, she speaks fluent French and English with an unmistakable Caribbean lilt. She tells her story with the same forthrightness that she uses in her current job as a small business owner. The stereotype of a domestic violence survivor – cowed, mumbling, scarred – is just not there.

“I was married, had kids, working on a PhD, and everything on the outside looked great. I don’t look like someone who would experience domestic violence. But anybody could experience something like that,” she says.

For years, she didn’t consider her relationship violent at all.LiQ_Mag_Sub_Banner

“He didn’t really physically abuse me in a way that I would have noticed at the time, except for sometimes shoving me into things. Now I would consider that abusive, but at the time it was just something that had happened a couple of times,” she says. “For the longest time he didn’t hit me, and he didn’t do the kinds of things you see in the movies…I thought, don’t arguments happen in all relationships?”

The last straw, she says, was when she noticed the rest of her family suffering as a result of her then-husband’s behaviour. “He was taking it out on the kids, and at first I didn’t intervene, for a number of reasons that made sense to me at the time – until the day that I did. His reaction to me trying to stand up for my son was to look at me for a second, shove me into the wall and walk away. This was the person I’d been with for 15 years at that point. It had never happened like that, and then I saw him do it. And that really was the point of no return.”

Three months later, over the Christmas holidays, she packed a bag of clothes and supplies for her children, who were eight, two and less than a year old at the time, and moved to a women’s shelter.

Shelter staff tried to convince her to leave her husband immediately, and though the couple separated, it would take another year before Habegger could make a more long-lasting decision.

“Separation may have eventually been my solution, but it’s not the solution; there is no the solution,” she says. “I’m a Baha’i, and in a Baha’i marriage you’re supposed to wait for a year before getting a divorce.”

Habegger came through the ordeal with a new, empowering outlook on life, but it took a lot of hard work and reflection for her to get there.

“There were so many clues along the way that you would think I might have seen them, but it took a long time,” she says. “It started with not [respecting] things that were important to me. My family, my friends, my spirituality, and my hobbies were important to me, and little by little he took them away from me. Of course I argued and insisted, but at one point I gave him the power to decide that, without realizing it. A little compromising is part of being in a relationship, but when you start compromising with things you really believe in, you go deeper and deeper.”

She pulls out a chart detailing the evolution of someone who has experienced violence, from victim to survivor to thriver. Victims, according to the chart, place their own needs last and experience feelings of unworthiness and shame. Survivors have learned to seek help and are conscious of the fact that they are “wounded and healing.” Thrivers express gratitude for the good things in life and place themselves first, out of a conviction that investing in oneself is the only way to function and eventually help others.

“I’ve gone from victim to survivor to thriver,” she says, citing the help and support of her friends and family for helping her make the transition. “Anyone in a similar situation would definitely need support to make any kind of lasting change.”

Habegger now lives with her three children in Loretteville, works as a healthy-living consultant and sells artisanal spice blends. She has started planning a trip to China, where her parents now live. “My future plans are making everything better and taking time to enjoy it,” she says.

In the past year, she has founded a networking circle for female entrepreneurs and started speaking out about her experiences.

“I don’t know if I’m an activist, but I would like people to know what domestic violence is, what it isn’t, and how it can affect anybody.”

By sharing her story, Habegger hopes to contribute to improving the lives of others because, as she says with a smile, “I would rather my life be useful.”

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About Author

Ruby Pratka

Ruby Pratka grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, studied in Ottawa and took the roundabout way to Quebec City via Russia, Slovenia, France, Switzerland, Belgium and East Africa. In addition to writing for LifeinQuebec.com and Life in Québec Magazine, she also contributes to other media outlets in English and French. She enjoys keeping a close eye on international affairs, listening to good music and singing in large groups.

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