Christina DeBruyn

Since leaving her ex-husband three years ago, Christina DeBruyn earned her degree in 2019 in health care administration, got a job as a domestic violence advocate working for CASA and enrolled in Habitat for Humanity, where her home is currently under construction.

By the time Christina DeBruyn left her husband, she had been in and out of hospitals for anxiety and depression and her weight was down to 83 pounds.

“I was so skinny,” she recalled about her abusive relationship, “people must have thought I was doing drugs because I was so skinny.”

When she began dating her future husband she didn’t see the signs that he would become controlling. Soon enough he stopped her from continuing college, kept her from getting a job, dictated what friends she could see, and got electronic access to her phone call records and emails.

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DeBruyn, now 36, wants other women to avoid the mistakes she made. The Chronicle interviewed her in 2017 when she was still attending a support group for abused women that was hosted by the Citrus County Abuse Shelter Association (CASA).

“What was I thinking?” DeBruyn told the Chronicle recently, shaking her head in retrospect about why she stayed with her husband as long as she did.

Sunshine Arnold, chief executive officer of CASA, said a spouse’s steps to control the other is often gradual and the person it’s directed toward often doesn’t recognize it until it’s too late.

And it often starts as, “I want to take care of you,” Arnold said. Or maybe the victim first perceives it as a spouse or partner being protective, Arnold said. 

In DeBruyn’s case, she said her ex-husband tried to control every aspect of her life and tried to limit her exposure to other people outside their relationship.

So when she wanted to go to a job interview and have her own salary, DeBruyn said her ex-husband would create a reason to keep her from going, such as telling her at the last moment the family car had a mechanical problem and was unsafe.

She said he later used economic fears to try and keep her from leaving.

So when DeBruyn tried to leave the relationship, she said her husband reminded her, “You can’t make it on your own. You don’t even have a job.”

And as with many domestic abuse cases, children were involved.

DeBruyn said she had become like a mother to her ex-husband’s two children, as well as mother to a child they had together.

DeBruyn thought she was alone until she went to CASA for help and met other women in similar relationships.

Control and intimidation were common themes that ran through all the abusive relationships.

In a survey of 571 people in abusive relationships, MentalHealth.net reported that nearly 21% of participants said their partners controlled the time they spent with friends and nearly 17 percent said their spouses controlled where they went.

Meanwhile, 57% told MentalHealth.net they have felt fearful or uncomfortable in their relationships.

About 50% of men and women victims of domestic abuse reported being the victims of physical abuse.

But Arnold warned that often domestic partners are not physically abusive, but rather emotionally abusive, and as a result their victims may think they’re not abuse victims.

Every month the National Domestic Violence Hotline receives more than 27,000 calls for help. It’s estimated that more than 10 million Americans annually are the victims of emotional or physical harm from their partners.

DeBruyn said the first time she recognized her ex-husband was controlling was the day they married. She recalls he had been drinking and said she now belonged to him.

She remembers thinking, “what the hell did I do” marrying this man?

Things only got worse.

But DeBruyn said she wanted the relationship to work.

According to MentalHealth.net’s website, victims stay for many reasons.  

Her reasons for staying in the relationship were common among abuse victims: children, promises to change, fear of being on your own, thinking their partner loves them, or maybe thinking they deserve the abuse and can’t find anybody better.

To keep peace, she said she would often put their children to bed and try to be asleep when he came home from work.

That was about the time she was losing weight and suffered anxiety attacks, severe enough she went to emergency rooms.

Studies show there is a correlation between domestic violence and depression and suicidal behavior, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

Studies show that domestic abuse, whether physical or emotional, often becomes too much for its victims who then suffer from depression and often see suicide as they’re only way out.

Partner problems were identified in 26% of all suicide cases, according to a study published in 2019 in the Journal of Injury and Violence Research. Domestic violence played a role in 43% of suicides, according to the study.

Regardless, DeBruyn said her ex-husband was bound to be mad about something and would let it out on her or her son from a previous relationship.

About 42% of people stay in abusive relationships between one to three years. More than 10% stay seven years or longer.

In 2016, she decided to leave her ex-husband and requested the court grant her a protective order. She said the court did.

But like many women, she gave him another chance when he promised he would change. He didn’t.

In 2017, DeBruyn finally left her ex-husband.

One of the reasons was her stepdaughter encouraged her to leave her father, DeBruyn recalled.

DeBruyn left and took her two children from a previous relationship with her, along with their shared daughter, and moved in wither her parents in their two-bedroom, two-bathroom home. It was crowded, but it was better than her home with her ex-husband.

She attended support groups hosted by CASA and enrolled in college again and in 2019 earned her degree in health care administration. She got a job as a victim advocate working for CASA.

She enrolled in Habitat for Humanity, where her home is currently under construction.

She said that only after she left her ex-husband did her son tell her he had also been violent against him when DeBruyn wasn’t home.

Arnold said part of the process was not to only empower CASA’s women of abuse, but also the children who were exposed to the domestic abuse.

“Children can learn it from watching mom and dad,” Arnold said, warning that children will often grow up to abuse their spouses. “For some of them that’s how they saw their dad treat mom."

The job is then to educate children that the domestic abuse they saw was not acceptable.

One in 15 children are exposed to domestic violence annually, according to a survey by the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence. Of these children, 90% are eyewitnesses to this domestic violence.

Domestic violence also costs financially.

Between 21-60% of victims of domestic violence lose their jobs because of reasons related to their abuse, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The cost of partner violence is estimated to exceed 8.3 billion annually.

Like most people who have been the victims of domestic abuse, DeBruyn said she is especially sensitive to potential signs that she is around someone who could be an abuser.

She also periodically reviews her notes from CASA’s support group meetings to make sure she never again becomes involved with an abuser.

Her goals, and the goals she thinks would help many others, is to be independent, not rely on others, and be able to pay her own bills.

And don’t think it can't happen to you, DeBruyn warned.

“A lot more people than you think are in (abusive) relationships than you think,” she said.  

Victims of abuse can contact CASA for help at 352-344-8111.

Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.