As is often the case with partner violence, the daily emotional and psychological damage Smith suffered lasted much longer than her physical injuries.
“I think what a lot of individuals experience on a daily basis is what I like to call the invisible scars, the invisible attacks,” said Smith of victims living in the aftermath of abuse. “You know, we don’t see it physically, but it has lasting damage.”
Smith also believes violence against women has become accepted in popular culture, such as reality television. This normalizes violent behavior.
The public’s fascination with the on-again/off-again relationship between pop icons Rihanna and Chris Brown has been noted by critics as an example of this as well. But Dr. Gardere cautions against being too critical of victims of dating violence like Rihanna.
“No one can force Rihanna into not being with Chris Brown,” said Gardere. “She has to live her own life and make her own decisions even if she’s not being a role model. No one goes to jail for not being a role model and no one should be scoured by the media for not being a role model.”
For Smith, her abuse was a matter of shame.
“I didn’t want anyone to know what I was going through,” she said. “I didn’t want this to be another relationship that ended.”
Smith, who is also a domestic violence and sexual assault counselor, motivational speaker and author, helps many women like her who stayed with their abusers out of fear, because of financial ties, due to low self-esteem, or for religious or other reasons.
A common misconception is that victims of domestic abuse can just walk away or simply not answer their abusers’ phone calls. Yet, they are often psychologically crippled and seldom want to do things that may provoke more threats or another attack from their partner.
This is one reason Smith counsels her clients to get help and develop strategic plans for leaving their abusers to ensure their safety.
“Seventy-five percent of murders are committed after a women leaves. A woman is twice as likely to be killed after she leaves,” Smith said.
When it became clear that she needed help, Smith was lucky to have the resources to seek it. She began seeing a psychiatrist and eventually gained the strength to develop her own escape plan. Three years later she founded Purple R.E.I.G.N. because she knew that unlike her, many battered women and men don’t have the resources to safely leave their abusers.
“I said, ‘Well, if I’m going through this, what about other women who can’t afford a Dr. Levine[?] What happens to that woman?’” The lack of resources available to victims of domestic violence is a key problem, particularly in communities of color.
“There are less resources for African-American women, therefore it might tend to be much more difficult to break out of that cycle of abuse, because of a financial dependence on the abuser,” said Dr. Gardere.
Smith’s organization caters to women in these types of communities. The nonprofit agency specializes in programs and services to inform, educate and empower victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Their services include crisis intervention counseling, advocacy, educational workshops, legal help and other services.
The organization has also secured a facility that will act as a safe house for victims who are ready to leave their abusers.
Some believe everything happens for a reason. For Smith, the reason behind her abusive relationship is clear. Her mission is to help other survivors become “overcomers” of their abusive relationships. In this way, her darkest period in life became an essential prelude to her life of service to others.
“I really wouldn’t have been able to understand the experiences for victims,” Smith said, “especially those that unfortunately don’t survive.”