Invisible Impact

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**This story is about intimate partner violence and includes explicit descriptions of violence. We’ve also removed some identifying details.**

At 32, Stacie found herself single and without children. Her first marriage had ended after years of trying for a child. She was lonely. 

Then she started dating a new man. 

He showered her with gifts and compliments. But there was something about him that made Stacie uneasy. He had a brutish demeanor.

After a few months of dating, he proposed. And shortly after, she found out she was pregnant. It was unplanned. And to Stacie, it was a miracle. She didn’t think she could have kids. She was overjoyed that she might finally be able to have the family she dreamed of. 

She was about five months pregnant when her fiance started to get violent with her, shoving her against the wall. 

After her son was born, for a little while, the violence stopped.

But after a few months, her fiance started being violent again. And it got worse. He would ram his head into her head. Stacie didn’t tell her family about the abuse or go to the cops. Her family lived hours away. His family lived in town and they had money and connections to the court system. When she thought about telling her sisters or her mom about the violence, she imagined that they would be horrified. That they would be ashamed of her, that they would ask her: How could you be with this person? So she kept it a secret. 

*If you are in an abusive relationship or know someone who is, these resources can help.* 

As her relationship with her fiance continued, Stacie found it harder and harder to visit her mother and sister, who lived about three hours away.  She used to drive up for the weekend every month or so, but planning for that simple trip became a challenge.

Even though she had her list, it would take her half the day to get everything together. And by then, it would be too late and she’d be too exhausted. Or she’d get a terrible migraine and have to lay down.

She didn’t understand why she couldn’t get organized and follow through on her plan. She blamed these changes on the stress from having a two year old and working full time. 

Stacie didn't realize it then, but while her outer world was in chaos, her inner world was beginning to unravel, too.

Full script below:

ALLISON: This is Bodies, a show about people solving the mysteries of their bodies. I’m Allison Behringer. A heads up, this episode is about intimate partner violence and includes some explicit descriptions of violence. We’ve also removed some identifying details.

I’ve come across a lot of stories about domestic violence. I’ve heard about people who stayed with a partner who harmed them, even after months or years of physical abuse.

And I always understood these stories one way: I thought that the reason why people didn’t leave was psychological; that they’re under the emotional control of their abusive partners. Or were afraid their abuser would hurt them worse or kill them if they tried to run away. I also understood the logistical reasons — like lack of resources or having children involved. And those reasons are all true. 

But the story in this episode has given me a whole new understanding of another reason why many people struggle to leave their abusive partners

This is Stacie’s story.  

At 32, Stacie found herself single and without children. Her first marriage had ended after years of trying for a child. She was lonely.

She worked at a financial company where her job was to put together proposals and budgets for million dollar contracts. She loved her work. 

She also worked a second job as a manager at a restaurant. And one day, there were two kids running around unsupervised. When she found their father, he hardly said a word to her. But after that, he started coming around, trying to talk to her. He was single too. He kept asking her out. He was handsome, with big muscles. And eventually she agreed. 

They started dating and he showered her with gifts and compliments. But there was something about him that made Stacie uneasy.

STACIE: He just had a demeanor of brute, you know, like if he was not happy, it was the hulk kind of attitude. 

ALLISON: One night, after a few months of dating, they were having dinner at a restaurant and he proposed. Stacie felt pressured to say yes. And shortly after, she found out she was pregnant. It was unplanned. And to Stacie, it was a miracle. She didn’t think she could have kids. 

She was overjoyed that she might finally be able to have the family that she dreamed of. But she was scared.

STACIE: I didn't want to have a child with somebody who was temperamental and always flying off the handle about nothing. But I was so happy to be blessed with a child that, you know, I thought, well, I can make this work.

ALLISON: Stacie loved being pregnant. 

STACIE: As he grew the feelings, the fluttering. I didn't feel fat and ugly, I felt just glorious. I wanted that boy so bad. 

ALLISON: She was about five months pregnant when her fiance started to get violent with her, like shoving her against the wall.

STACIE: I felt trapped because I thought he had a right to the child. And I didn't know what to do. I guess I thought that after I had the baby, it would stop. It was the most wonderful thing for me. Why wasn't it for him?

ALLISON: Late in the evening, one day in March, Stacie gave birth. After her son was born, for a little while, the violence stopped. And those first months with her son were the happiest she’d ever been. She daydreamed about the games they would play and the trips she’d take him on. But after a few months, her fiance started being violent again. And it got worse. He would ram his head into her head.

STACIE: Headbutting was his favorite. He would headbutt me until I got dizzy and fell down. One of the things that is most humiliating about being beaten is you lose control of your bladder. So here you are getting beat. You wet yourself. You're just… made to feel like nothing. 

ALLISON: Stacie didn’t tell her family about the abuse or go to the cops. Her family lived hours away. His family lived in town and they had money and connections to the court system. 

STACIE: I knew it was wrong. And I was embarrassed, of course, to be in this situation. But, I was scared that he would take my son from me. 

ALLISON: Multiple times, Stacie asked her abusers' parents for help. She asked them to talk to their son, to try to get him to stop hitting her. The only help they gave was when his mom came over to help Stacie clean up after his violent outbursts.

When she thought about telling her sisters or her mom about the violence, she imagined that they would be horrified. That they would be ashamed of her, and ask her: how could you be with this person? So she kept it a secret. 

As her relationship with her fiancé continued, Stacie found it harder and harder to visit her mother and sister, who lived about three hours away. She used to drive up for the weekend every month or so, but planning for that simple trip became a challenge.

STACIE: I would make a list of, okay, here's what I need. Here's what my son needs. OK. Toiletry list. Food list. And I would gather all that stuff up. I would have everything packed in bags and ready. So we could just get in the car on Saturday and go. And Saturday would come and … I couldn't. 

ALLISON: Even though she had her list, it would take her half the day to get everything together. And by then, it would be too late and she’d be too exhausted. Or she’d get a terrible migraine and have to lay down.

She didn’t understand why she couldn’t get organized and follow through on her plan. 

She blamed these changes on the stress from having a two year old and working full time. 

Stacie didn't realize it then, but while her outer world was in chaos, her inner world was beginning to unravel, too.

She tried to minimize the abuse by staying away from him as much as possible. When they watched TV in the evenings, she sat on the opposite couch. At night, she slept as far away from him as she could in the bed. She was always reading his mood, trying to gauge what might set him off. But no matter what she did, he just kept hurting her. 

The abuse mostly blends together in Stacie’s memory, but one time, he almost killed her. The next 45 seconds is where the story gets graphic, if you need to skip ahead.

She was in the living room. Her son was about two, and was down for a nap. Her fiance was mad about something, and the next thing she knew, he pushed her down and started to strangle her. 

STACIE: I thought, I'm going to die. He is going to kill me. And my baby is in the crib in the other room. And at that point. I knew I had to do something. So I bit the tip of his nose. Oh, so disgusting, the taste of blood. But it worked because he got off of me. He stopped. 

ALLISON: She felt dizzy and nauseous. The edges of her vision faded to black. She felt like she was inside a dark tunnel. 

STACIE: And I could just hear my son crying. That was when I knew I had to get away from him.

ALLISON: But every time she thought about making a plan, she couldn’t think straight. She questioned herself. She couldn’t make a decision. It was just like trying to plan those trips to see her mom. She just couldn’t.

And then one Saturday, three months later, she was given an opportunity. They were in the garage and he started to headbutt her. Some neighbors heard her screaming and called the cops. 

When the cops showed up, they started asking her a bunch of questions: Was this the first time? How often does it happen? 

She tried to answer, but she couldn’t process what they were saying. Her head was pounding. They kept asking questions she thought she had answered. She couldn’t remember any facts or dates or times. Or give them any details. 

STACIE: They thought it was because I was trying to be vague. And protect the man. And it wasn't at all. I wasn't trying to protect him. I just simply couldn't answer the questions. And I remembered sitting there crying. Saying I just don't understand. I don't understand. 

ALLISON: She showed them the marks on her body. She showed them the wet clothes that she had just changed out of. And they arrested him. Stacie filed a restraining order against him, and finally, he wasn’t allowed in their house. 

For the first time in almost three years, she wasn’t getting hit on a weekly basis. She found that she was able to think a little more clearly. She called her mom and her sister and for the first time, she told them that she needed their help. They sat around her kitchen table and strategized her escape.

She needed consent from a judge to leave the state with her son, so she hired an attorney. 

She spent hours going over the legal documents. She could read the words, but the meaning wasn’t getting in there. It was frustrating to Stacie because her JOB was to read legal documents. And here she was, not able to comprehend this very important legal document. 

By this point, her son was 3 years old, and he was having trouble sleeping, so Stacie made up stories to tell him to help him fall to sleep. 

STACIE: And it was about. Queen Mama and Prince [BEEP]. So whatever was happening, I had these characters going through it, but then had them coming out with a happy ending. You know, it's a bright, sunshiny day at the castle and Queen Mama got Prince [BEEP] up for breakfast and poached him eggs — he loves poached eggs and — had chocolate milk and. And they had a wonderful breakfast picnic outside. And then Prince [BEEP] decided to go ride off on his unicorn and go find his friends to play. Iit was funny when he actually put two and two together and was like, you're queen mama and I'm Prince [BEEP]. 

ALLISON: After she finished the stories and her son fell asleep, she’d crawl out of bed and apply for jobs in the new city. It took her hours to write just one cover letter. Six months passed before she was able to get everything in order. Then, one Friday night, Stacie told her son a new story. The Queen and the Prince would be leaving. They would be moving to a far off castle on a hill. 

Saturday, her family arrived early in the morning. They packed up the necessities, and Stacie drove with her son asleep in the back seat. And as they approached their new city and new home, the landscape changed.

STACIE: There were trees everywhere. It was gorgeous. It was like I was driving into this beautiful forested area, and I remember thinking how beautiful it was. And this is my new life. Yeah I cried and they were happy tears. And then it was just like this engulfing feeling, seeing all the beautiful trees and the bluffs. I did this, I really did this. We did this.

ALLISON: Stacie knew that she would have to keep fighting in order to overcome the emotional pain and fear of violence. What she didn’t know, and what would take years more to uncover, was that her abuser left an invisible mark — One that would mean a lifelong battle against the consequences of his violence.

We’ll be right back.

---

ALLISON: At first, Stacie was hopeful about their new life. They were going to be happy. 

They were living in the same city as her mom and sister. Stacie got a well-paid job as another financial company. 

Her son was 3 years old. She knew her abuser’s violence would have lasting effects on him. And right away, she tried to find a child psychologist for him. But there was a 10 month waitlist. He started having outbursts at school. And he started to headbutt Stacie. 

STACIE: It was awful, it was triggering. Here's something that an abuser has done to me, and now my baby, my most prized love is doing the same thing. I was terrified. You can't discipline and teach a child the proper way when you're scared. 

ALLISON: She was trying so hard to be a good mom. And to do the right thing for her son. She was angry at herself. Why hadn’t she escaped sooner? Why had she let things go on for so long? And on top of the guilt, she was in a constant fog of exhaustion. She felt like a zombie.

She would oversleep and then her son would be late to school. Or sometimes she’d forget to pick him up in the afternoon. 

He was in elementary school now and Stacie was worried about how tuned in he was to everything she was going through. He often wanted to play catch or go for a walk, but he’d ask her beforehand, Mom, do you have a migraine today? A lot of the times if she did, he’d be careful to go quietly to his room and play with Legos.  

Stacie fell asleep at stoplights, sometimes with her son in the back seat.

STACIE: One time we were sitting there and I mean, we were like three blocks from home. I remember BEEP being like, Mom, the light's green. Go. Wake up, mom.  And that's when I was like. I don't know if I should be doing this. I don't know if he's safe with me. I questioned, you know, am I a good mom? 

ALLISON: Her migraines got worse and worse. She was having them every three days. 

STACIE: One migraine could last four days, five days... I lost all vision in my right eye. I would vomit and not be able to talk. I just thought it was stress from work, not getting enough sleep. I wasn't attributing it to anything. I just couldn't figure out why. 

ALLISON: She was hardly getting by at work — but kept trying to push through. And she had outbursts of her own. And got into arguments with her mom and sister. 

STACIE: I would just get upset over the least little things. Like a smell. You know, just cooking something. And it would set off a migraine. And I would just lose my temper and be like, why do you have to cook that? They're like, what did that monster do to you? I started thinking, did he change me? You know? Am I like him now? And I couldn't understand why I was losing my temper and just getting out of control with rage.

My sister, she's like, who are you? You are not my sister. And I was like, no, I'm not. I've gone through enough. I've changed.

ALLISON: This was a horrifying realization; that both she AND her son were struggling with anger.

How could she help her son out of his, when she couldn’t control her rage either? 

Eventually, she went to her primary care doctor for help with the migraines, and she got referred to a neurologist. At first they thought it was MS and they ran a bunch of tests. And then the neurologist started asking her about any past head trauma. 

STACIE: And I said, oh, I had a car accident when I was 20. And I was like, and then, you know, I was punched in the head and head butted. And he's like, well, when was this? And then he was like, anything else? And I said, well, I was strangled and he was like, okay. Did you — were you out at all? Did you see tunnels? 

ALLISON: Stacie told him about how her vision would narrow every time he hit her in the head. How she was getting hit in the head multiple times a week.

STACIE: He's the first person I ever told about all of the head butting and getting punched and... 

ALLISON: You hadn’t told anyone about that?

STACIE:  No, because I didn't think it mattered.  

ALLISON: The neurologist told her something that she had never considered; That it was very likely that she had suffered concussions — or traumatic brain injuries, as he called them. And  that having those traumatic brain injuries over and over had caused damage.

And he said that her symptoms — the migraines, the forgetfulness, the fatigue were all symptoms of post concussion syndrome. These symptoms could last up to five years after the head trauma.

The neurologist told her that the most important thing she could do was to rest. This would be the only way her brain could heal. But how could she rest? She was working full time, raising her son. She needed to survive. 

Stacie continued to feel guilty that she was being a bad mom. She didn’t have the same patience that she used to. Or the knack for coming up with creative games. She was TRYING to have patience. But it seemed to have just evaporated from her personality. She became depressed and didn’t leave the house besides to go to work. 

Years passed. Her son turned 8. He was getting better. Stacie was not.

STACIE: In fact, I was getting worse to where I couldn't read anymore. I couldn't do math. I couldn't even read a clock. 

ALLISON: She went back to her neurologist.

STACIE: You know, I was like, what is wrong with me? What can we do? And he said you have to rest, your brain is a very delicate organ. And it just needs rest.

ALLISON: Then he paused for a moment, and he said, worst case scenario, this could be CTE. CTE stands for Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It’s the most extreme outcome of repeated traumatic brain injuries. He told her he didn't want to jump to that quite yet. So little is known about CTE and you can’t actually diagnose it while a person is still living.

STACIE: So after that appointment, I Googled CTE and then it was like, oh, my gosh. All the rage and the getting out of control over nothing. My symptoms matched CTE so closely. 

ALLISON: The classic symptoms are impulsive behavior, short-term memory loss, problems thinking, personality changes and emotional instability. It’s invisible to brain scans and can only be physically diagnosed during an autopsy. Symptoms normally don’t start until years after the traumatic brain injuries. It’s a neurodegenerative disease, which means that with time, it gets worse. There is no cure. 

She read about all the hockey and football players who are suspected to have CTE. Like Aaron Hernandez, a football player, who killed two people at random. He died by suicide and when they examined his brain postmortem, they found a severe case of CTE.

STACIE: I was like, holy cow, what if I have this? You know, now, not only am I trying to make sure my son doesn't grow up to be a monster, but his mom might be turning into a monster also. 

ALLISON: Even though you can’t officially diagnose it until you look at a person’s brain after they’ve died, Stacie found a study for CTE in people who are still alive. She was eager to participate in something that might help doctors learn more about this.  

STACIE: So I sent in my information and asked if I could participate in this study. Well, I wasn't male or a football player, so I didn't qualify. They said, sorry, you don't fit the parameters. 

ALLISON: But the people running the study did tell her about one researcher — a neuroscientist named Eve Valera, at Harvard Medical School. She’s one of the few people who study brain injuries in women. Here’s Dr. Valera:

VALERA: Women who are in partner abusive situations are very misunderstood in my opinion. And the brain injuries they endure are completely overlooked. 

ALLISON: Back in the 90s she was a student studying neuropsychology. She also volunteered at a domestic violence shelter. There, she noticed that many of the abused women had very specific symptoms.

VALERA: Fatigue, depression, anxiety, dizziness, light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, nausea, headaches, memory problems, attention problems, lack of focusing.

ALLISON: At the time, most people assumed these symptoms were all psychological — the effects of emotional trauma. But the women were telling Dr. Valera the stories of their abuse and how much of it involved head trauma — getting punched in the head or slammed into walls. That’s when Dr. Valera realized women might not just have psychological trauma. 

VALERA: They report a lot of the same symptoms  that are reported by people who sustain traumatic brain injuries. This seems like an obvious thing that’s going on. And when I looked in the literature, there was absolutely nothing there. There wasn’t a single article. Nobody had looked at it at all.

ALLISON: Dr. Valera called up a well-known researcher in domestic violence.

VALERA: And I said, “Why? Why aren’t there any data on this?” She said, “It would be really hard. The people who know domestic violence don’t necessarily know brain injuries. And the people that know brain injuries aren’t aware of what’s going on in domestic violence.”

ALLISON: Dr. Valera’s work has bridged that gap. But there was, and still is, very little research funding for studying brain trauma in women.

In the early 2000s, reports surfaced of NFL players and war veterans with symptoms years and decades after their brain injuries. The public outcry led to a burst of research. Dr. Valera watched an explosion of interest in the devastating effects of traumatic brain injuries … in cis gender men.

Meanwhile, researchers like Dr. Valera still have to fight to generate interest in studying brain injuries in cis gender women. It’s been over two decades since she made the connection between domestic violence and brain trauma.

VALERA: So what we know about concussion more generally with respect to women is almost nothing. We know very very very little about concussion in women more generally. If anything, women seem to fare more poorly when it comes to concussion.

ALLISON: The research is still young. But some evidence suggests women’s physiology plays a role. Like, women tend to have less developed muscles in their necks compared to men, so a woman’s brain may be whipped around more because there’s less muscle to brace an impact.

It’s difficult to say how many survivors experience head trauma — it’s not a standard question asked by law enforcement or even domestic violence shelters. 

And the CDC doesn’t collect any data about head trauma for its domestic violence statistics. 

Peer reviewed articles of women seeking shelter from partner violence puts head trauma rates between anywhere between 30 - 74%. When Dr. Valera extrapolates her own research, it suggests that 31 million American women may have had traumatic brain injuries. and that 21 million of them have had multiple. 

VALERA: This is a tremendous segment of the population. One in three women report physical or sexual violence. We don’t know the exact numbers in terms who are sustaining brain injuries or repetitive brain injuries, but even if you take a fraction of that, it’s still way over the number of NFL people and Iraq and Afghanistan folks put together. It’s not even comparable. There is no reason to doubt that this is a really serious public health crisis.

ALLISON: The best way to heal after a traumatic brain injury is sleep and rest in a calm environment, then ease back into regular life once your symptoms improve. Stress keeps the brain vulnerable and prolongs recovery. And it increases the chances of permanent brain damage. 

But for a person in an abusive relationship, their life is stress.

When Stacie was sustaining all of her brain injuries, she was juggling housework, a kid, a career, all while trying to protect herself and her son from a violent partner. Later, she was fighting for custody of her son in court, planning an escape, trying to find a new job in a new city. And earning enough money to take care of her son. There was no time for her brain to rest and heal.

And here’s the other big thing that Dr. Valera made clear to Stacie: having a traumatic brain injury makes it harder for people in violent relationships to leave. 

VALERA: I think there is a victim blaming that goes on a lot in these situations. There's definitely a misunderstanding of, you know, what these women are enduring and whether or not they really even can get out of a relationship safely.

ALLISON: There are so many reasons why people in abusive relationships don’t leave — like PTSD, lack of resources, or fear of being killed. And to be clear: any of these obstacles alone can make leaving extremely difficult. 

But people with traumatic brain injuries have an extra obstacle. They have to escape — all while their injured brain is making them forgetful, unable to plan, unfocused, anxious, and depressed.

And so, often they stay. Often to be hit in the head, again, before their brain has healed. And trapped in a cycle of repetitive injury that can turn temporary symptoms into permanent ones. Robbing a person like Stacie of what makes her who she is: her brain.

STACIE: Dr. Valera was the person who really helped me understand what he did to me. That he's the one who took my life. From me. I mean, yes, I'm living and walking, but...me, who I was, what I can do, is gone. The fact that she had interviewed hundreds of other women like me and we all were the same, had the same problems. How we suddenly just had trouble making decisions or making plans. 

ALLISON: Stacie thought about how she couldn’t even pack up her things to visit her mom. Or when she couldn’t answer the cops’ questions. Or how it took her three years to leave. 

STACIE: Suddenly I understood. And, and I kind of gave myself leave of the guilt. Because I understood I couldn't leave him. I tried. I knew it wasn't right, but I just couldn't get it together. Everybody always says these women never leave. And I realized, well, it's because we can't. I couldn't leave because I had a traumatic brain injury. 

ALLISON: It’s been almost two years since Stacie met Dr. Valera. The reality is, there is no fairy tale ending to this story. The violence that her abuser did to her has caused permanent damage. She still lives with depression, PTSD and migraines. She still has trouble counting money. She sleeps a lot — sometimes napping for 5 hours a day. And she can’t work. She and her son live on disability. Stacie will probably never work and earn an income again.  

But there’s one thing the abuse can’t rob her of: Stacie knows that she’s not the only one. She joined group counseling for survivors of intimate partner violence. She goes to this group every day. She is on medication to control her anger and help with her depression. 

As for her son: he’s in middle school now. Last month, she planned his 10th birthday party — something she wouldn’t have been able to do before. He still struggles with memory problems and PTSD. He’s in counseling and sees a psychiatrist. 

STACIE: Trauma is in fact, passed down. I will break the cycle. And we're doing that through therapy and good old talking. You know, I don't hide anything from him. We...We face the facts. We talk about if he throws a fit, you know, I'll be like, well, how does that make you feel? Does it remind you of anything? 

ALLISON: She doesn’t worry anymore about who he’ll become. In fact, you can feel her pride when she talks about the kind and thoughtful person he is growing into. They make a good team. 

Before bed, they read aloud to each other, alternating chapters so that Stacie can practice her reading. Challenging her brain in a healing environment increases the chances it will be healthier when she’s older. In other words, she’s finding ways to hold off a degenerative condition.  

STACIE: I'm fighting for my life. I'm not just gonna sit back and let it happen. I don't think about what might have been, I think about what we will be. 

ALLISON: Stacie’s victories are small now. But they’re hard fought — and each one a great act of resistance against violence. 

A final note: We recently checked in with Stacie.

And she told us that social distancing during Covid has been really hard for her. She can’t go to group counseling in person and the increased isolation makes her condition worse. She’s still doing virtual therapy several times a week — but it’s just not the same.

People who are in abusive relationships right now face even greater challenges during COVID. If you are in an abusive relationship, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1−800−799−7233, or text LOVEIS, that’s one word L O V E I S to 22522 or go to thehotline.org.

The Ohio Domestic Violence Network also has resources specifically for head injuries at www.odvn.org

We’re including additional resources in the shownotes and online.

RESOURCES

Resources for making plans:

Hotlines and numbers: 

Read: 

By Eve Valera: 

Watch + Listen:

 

Host and Producer: Allison Behringer
Producer: Mervyn Deganos
Associate Producer: Hannah Harris Green 
Editors: Stephanie Foo, Sharon Mashihi 
Composer/Sound Designer: Dara Hirsch
Mix engineer: Myke Dodge Weiskopf 
Additional editorial support:Camila Kerwin
Story Consultants: KalaLea, Caitlin Pierce, Cass Adair
Research Assistant: Liz Charky 
Managing Producer: Kristen Lepore

Credits

Host:
Allison Behringer