The Courage to Leave
One Woman’s Journey to Freedom & Fulfillment After Escaping Domestic Abuse
Photography Provided by KelGrand Photography
It all started so sweetly, or so it seemed. Deb Ahern was working at a pharmaceutical company when she met Philip*, an EMT who showered her with attention.
“He called me constantly and was always asking about me,” Ahern says.
They began dating and later moved in together. It was only after they were living together that Ahern learned that Philip had a pregnant ex-girlfriend. But she loved her new boyfriend and stuck with him. Then, in July 1992, she became pregnant. The pair were married on Valentine’s Day 1993. Once Ahern became Philip’s bride, his attentiveness turned possessive as he demanded to know of his wife’s whereabouts 24/7.
“He’d find fault with my friends so that I’d stop hanging out with them,” she says. “He also never wanted me to visit my parents.”
It didn’t stop there. He began calling her at work to keep tabs on her and grilling her at night about who she talked to that day. He demanded that she come straight home from work and checked the mileage on her car to ensure that she did. He demeaned her with derogatory names and told her that her administrative assistant job was useless.
“He said I was ugly and fat and that no one else would ever want me,” says Ahern, who internalized all of the negativity. She was pregnant with Tyler when Philip got angry and punched a bi-fold door that came off the hinges and landed on her. She tried putting the incident out of her head, but more unfolded, one after another.
“Once I was holding Tyler on my shoulder when Philip started berating me for talking to men at work,” Ahern says. Philip’s eyes got wide and his face turned hot with rage. Then he accused her of sleeping with her coworkers and smacked her across the face so hard she felt like her eye exploded. From there, the physicality escalated.
He punched her in the jaw. He hit her in the head with skillets. He burned her with cigarette lighters. One day he beat her left side until she was gasping for air.
“I saw hate and craziness in his eyes. I remember thinking that was the night he was going to kill me,” Ahern says. He fractured her ribs and left her side black and blue. One time, he accused her of flirting with a waiter. When she denied it, he repeatedly spit in her face.
“It was so degrading,” Ahern says. After each abusive incident, Philip bought Deb red roses, promising never to do it again. But more fury always followed.
Finally, one night she couldn’t take it anymore. She shuffled into the bathroom, void of dignity and hope, and searched the medicine cabinet for pills. She found a handful of narcotics left over from surgery and reasoned that it was the only way to escape her pain. She pressed the first pill to her lips when suddenly she spotted 3½-year-old Tyler out of the corner of her eye. He was standing in the doorway with his head cocked to the side like a curious puppy.
“What are you doing, Mommy?” he asked innocently.
In that instant, she abandoned her plan.
“I knew I couldn’t leave this world,” Ahern says. “I’m here today because of Tyler.”
Though she chose not to die, she didn’t know how to live. Then one day she saw a talk show where women were discussing their abusive marriages.
“I realized I wasn’t alone,” Ahern says. Later that day, Philip stormed into the kitchen and issued a harrowing threat.
“If you ever try to leave me,” he seethed, “I will cut you into so many pieces, no one will ever find you, not even your family!”
Ahern realized that if she stayed with Philip, there was a real chance she wouldn’t survive.
Soon thereafter, Philip began having panic attacks so doctors prescribed Paxil, which curbed the physical abuse. About that time, Ahern learned Philip had a girlfriend on the side. Between his fixation on the other woman and his new medication, Ahern felt empowered to break free from the relationship. She rented a small apartment for her and Tyler and, for the first time, they settled into a peaceful existence.
It was a struggle making ends meet. The electricity, gas and phone were shut off when she couldn’t pay bills. And she and Tyler ate a lot of mac-n-cheese. Nevertheless, life was beautiful in the absence of fear.
“We painted Tyler’s bedroom bright yellow and danced to MC Hammer,” Ahern says. “We went on walks and bike rides.”
Not that life was all rosy. Philip spewed hateful rhetoric about Ahern anytime he was alone with Tyler so that when Tyler returned from weekends with his dad, he’d holler, “I hate you, Mommy! You’re awful!”
Ahern knew her boy was only repeating the narrative fed to him by his father. Still, it stung. Ultimately, she attended counseling to sort through her pain. She was shocked when her therapist told her she was suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Ahern thought only soldiers returning from war endured PTSD.
“You went through your own war,” the counselor said.
To help rebuild her self-esteem, Deb engaged in positive self-talk to replace the negative words that had played on loop in her mind for so long. Now she uplifts others by leaving sticky notes on windshields with messages like, “You’re beautiful,” “You matter,” and “You’re worthy.”
In November 1997, Deb went on a blind date with an engineer named Jerry and they married in 1999. Since leaving her abusive marriage, Ahern has built a happy and successful life. Not only did she give birth to a daughter, Riley, in 2001, but she also became a registered nurse, worked as the assistant to a former Mayor of Indianapolis, ran her own legal nurse consulting business and is now the point person for recruiting 150 team members for IU Health West’s $83M, 50-inpatient bed expansion project as well as 26 positions for the upcoming Joe & Shelly Schwarz Cancer Center at IU Health North. She’s also currently earning her RN-BSN degree and has completed training and has volunteered at a golf outing for Sheltering Wings, a Christ-centered organization that provides emergency housing for survivors escaping domestic abuse.
At Sheltering Wings, Ahern started a “butterfly blanket” project where she makes fleece blankets for moms and children with a butterfly in one corner and a handwritten note that encourages them to stay strong and reminds them that life will get better.
“I’ve done more with my life after exiting the abusive situation than I did before,” says Ahern, who remains close to her ex-stepdaughter, Amanda and her two children who call her “Grandma Deb” even though they aren’t blood relatives.
Ahern encourages any woman who is in an abusive situation to seek help. She recognizes how difficult this can be when one feels trapped in a cycle of abuse but promises that life can and does get better when you tell someone you trust who can help you escape.
“It seems easier to comply with the abuser’s requests than to fight back and risk getting hurt again,” Ahern adds. “But you are worth it. You can survive. Abuse is not the end of the road. I’m living proof.”
Signs of Domestic Abuse
The following are 8 signs of mental and emotional abuse used by one person to gain power and control over another:
- Intensity — Lying or exaggerating, over-the-top gesture, bombarding you with texts or calls
- Jealousy — Behaving irrationally when you have a new friend, accusing you of cheating, demanding to know your whereabouts
- Control — Telling you how to dress, checking your phone, following you, withholding money
- Isolation — Insisting you only spend time with them, preventing you from seeing friends, forbidding you from leaving the house
- Criticism — Calling you overweight, ugly, stupid, brainwashing you to feel worthless
- Sabotage — Making you miss work or school by starting a fight, hiding your money, keys or phone, destroying your self-esteem
- Blame — Making you feel guilty, blaming you for their problems
- Anger — Overreacting to small problems, violent outbursts, threatening to hurt you or your loved ones, making you feel afraid
For help, call 800-799-SAFE or visit endabuse4good.org
*name has been changed