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I sat in my mom's house not knowing what to do.
My body still ached from being beaten by my husband a day earlier. But he kept pleading through the door: "I was drunk. I'm sorry. I'll never do that to you again. I know I need help." I had a 2-week-old baby. I wanted to believe him. I opened the door.
I had a crush on Dietrich White back in junior high. When I ran into him almost a decade later in 1997, I was 21 and even more attracted to his sexy smile and blue eyes. I was thrilled when he asked me out. I was living with my mom in Hot Springs, Arkansas, while I took time off from college to heal from complications of endometriosis surgery. I tried to fill my time by running a booth-rental business in a crafts mall, but many of my friends were away at school and I was lonely.
Dietrich and I became a couple and spent nearly every day together. He said we were soul mates, brought me flowers, and took me on a trip to Florida. Two months later we were engaged. We moved in together in Little Rock (about an hour away from my mom), where Dietrich owned a carpet-cleaning business. I intended to return to school, but Dietrich said he earned enough to support us, so I could spend my time decorating our home and planning my dream wedding.
Dietrich and I rarely argued, but sometimes he got jealous and claimed I looked at other men. I was flattered that he was so in love with me that he couldn't stand the idea of me being with someone else. I wish I had known then that jealousy is often a warning sign of an abusive personality.
Our idyllic life didn't last long. Within a few months Dietrich had lost many of his customers and became distant. We had our first fight when I couldn't find him at his jobsite one afternoon; I smelled beer on his breath when he came home. "Where the hell have you been?" I demanded. He lied that he had been working and headed for the shower. I got so mad I threw a glass-covered candle at the bathtub. Dietrich stormed over and slapped me hard across the face. No one had ever hit me before, and I was stunned. "Did you just hit me?" I screamed.
"You made me do it!" I remember him shouting back. "You have no right to attack me when I've been working."
Later I apologized, and he said, "We never need to do that again." I tried to forget about the incident, but the next day my mother saw my black eye. "He was drinking, and I started it," I tried to explain. She exploded. "I don't care about the circumstances," she said. "No man can do that!"
Dietrich's irrational jealousy erupted again a month later when he accused me of sleeping with a friend of his. He canceled our wedding, which was just two weeks away, and asked me to move out. My parents lost thousands of dollars, but my mother was relieved. I was devastated.
On what would have been our wedding day I found out I was pregnant. After my endometriosis surgery, my doctor had told me I was infertile, so we hadn't been using birth control. The timing was terrible, but I was thrilled to learn I could have kids. My mom urged me to have the baby on my own, but I didn't want to be a single mother. Besides, I believed that a child would complete our little family and make things better.
When I was eight months pregnant we finally got married -- in a judge's office. Then, after our son was born, Dietrich's business tanked and we had to move in with my mom. After she left for work one morning he said he had overheard us talking about my high school boyfriend and accused me of planning to see him. When I denied it he called me a liar and punched me several times in the face. I fell and the baby started screaming. I had never seen Dietrich this enraged. "Please stop!" I begged hysterically as I tried to reach the baby. He'd calm down and let me nurse the baby, but then he'd explode and come at me again.
At first I had white flashes in front of my eyes and a pounding pressure in my head, but my adrenaline kicked in and I felt dazed and couldn't tell where I'd been hit. Seven long hours later he told me to wash the blood off my face. I thought the nightmare was over, but as soon as I climbed into the tub he came into the bathroom and started choking me under the water until I passed out. I was sure I was going to die. He must have pulled my head out of the water in time because I came to, stumbled out of the bathroom and discovered that he'd taken the baby. By the time I called my sister-in-law to come get me, Dietrich had returned. He had calmed down, told me the baby was at his mother's house and took me to the hospital.
My mom found me in the ER, where they examined my black eyes and bruises. When the doctor asked what happened, I said I fell down a flight of stairs. He didn't ask any more questions and I was released. When we got home, Dietrich had brought back the baby, but my mom made him leave. She called the police the next day, but they said you have to call within four hours of a domestic-violence incident in order for them to make an arrest (the state law has since been changed to 12 hours). That evening Dietrich came over to apologize. He said he'd been drunk the night before. He swore he'd go to Alcoholics Anonymous. He promised we'd go to couples counseling. Three days later I let him back in.
My mom was furious. It's hard to explain how anyone could stay with someone after being hurt like that, but I had convinced myself it was because of the alcohol and that this one incident had gotten out of control. I knew that Dietrich loved me. I wanted to believe he was truly sorry and would never harm me again.
I felt reassured when Dietrich made good on his pledge to attend a couple of AA meetings. He thought we needed a clean slate, so in the fall of 1998 we moved almost 1,000 miles away to Tampa, Florida. Those days were the best of our marriage. He found work laying down tile; I helped out while the baby slept. We took our son swimming in the ocean, and Dietrich toted him around in a baby carrier. He also fussed over me and bought me a beautiful silk bathrobe and diamond bracelet. I really thought he had changed.
But six months later Dietrich couldn't get any more work. That's when he started to abuse me again. During an argument he pushed me and broke my arm. Again I lied to doctors at the hospital and said I had fallen down the stairs. And to my surprise I found out I was pregnant. We eventually ran out of money and moved back to Arkansas. After our second son was born, in November 1999, Dietrich attacked my mom when she tried to stop him from driving drunk with the baby in the car.
In 2001, three years into our marriage, I finally got up the courage to leave. My parents were so relieved and rented me a house. Dietrich begged me to come back, but even though I learned I was pregnant for the third time, I stayed strong and filed for divorce. He said there was no way I could care for three kids on my own, and that scared me. So by the time I delivered a third son, Dietrich and I were back together.
I know it sounds crazy now, but I really didn't think I was a battered woman -- at least not yet. Then one May night in 2002 Dietrich beat me so badly with a child's chair that he broke my nose, shattered my knuckles, and fractured several bones in my face. My mom called the police. My hair was full of blood and my body was covered in gashes and bruises. I needed 65 stitches; Dietrich was arrested and charged with domestic battery in the first degree. The court added child endangerment charges since he had attacked me with the kids around. While he spent some time in jail, he was released on bond.
You'd think the severity of that beating would have been the last straw. This time, though, I thought jail had really scared him. During Thanksgiving at his parents' house that year he acted as if he had really missed me and the boys. I was moved by his sincerity and, during a weak moment, yes, we had sex. As luck would have it, since Dietrich would never let me use birth control, I got pregnant for the fourth time.
As the Arkansas trial drew closer, Dietrich started to unravel under the pressure and, afraid of jail time, fled to Ohio. He threatened that if I didn't join him, he would kill my family. Now that I knew what he was capable of, I was terrified he would do it. So I told my parents I was taking the kids to see friends but instead left for Ohio. They frantically called Dietrich's relatives and hired a private investigator but couldn't find me for more than a year. I wasn't surprised that the beatings continued in Ohio, but I was shocked when one night in 2004 someone called the police, and they arrested Dietrich and me. We had a fourth son by then, and I was charged with child endangerment for allowing the kids to witness the violence.
The threat of losing my kids was the turning point. I had no idea how much they had suffered. I was devastated when I looked through their coloring books and saw they had scratched out all the faces. I thought I had protected them by making sure they were in another room or sleeping. But who was I kidding? Of course they heard the fighting and saw the bruises. Of course they lived in constant fear, too.
I knew I had to make it up to them and prove myself as a mom. So I completed all the court's required parenting classes and attended a domestic-violence support group. Dietrich begged me to drop the charges from the beating in Arkansas, which would increase his sentence. But I wouldn't do it. My mom was so proud. In the end he was sentenced to serve 18 years in prison. After seven years of marriage, our divorce became final in 2005.
At age 30 I returned to Arkansas to start over. Now I work for the Saline County Safe Haven, a local domestic-violence shelter. I've testified before the state legislature to raise money, and I speak to women to help them recognize the signs of abuse. I was proudest, though, when I completed my training to be a police officer. I was recruited to handle domestic-violence calls, and it feels great to help women find a shelter or get legal help. More than anything, I try to make them understand that they're choosing to continue the cycle of abuse every time they go back. I wish I had learned that lesson sooner.
The boys know their father is in jail and isn't allowed to contact them. They don't talk about him much, but occasionally one might say, "I wish our dad wasn't so mean so he could be with us." I put them each in counseling for about a year, and except for some minor anger issues they all seem to have recovered. I'm proud of them. They're all so loving, get good grades, and play school sports. I spend as much time as possible with them and organize my schedule so I can be home when they get out of school.
Dietrich will be eligible for parole in June, and I know he'll get out eventually. He may try to find me and get me to come back as he did before, but I'm a different person now. I won't let anyone hurt us ever again.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2010.