Domestic Violence: A Hidden Cause of Chronic Illness

An alarming 44 percent of women say they have experienced abusive behavior from a partner. Years after the bruises from domestic violence fade, the physical effects can linger in the form of serious health problems—migraines, arthritis, even gastrointestinal disease. Our groundbreaking investigation

by Alexis Jetter
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Photograph: Photographed by Julia Fullerton-Batten

Telling a woman she’s risking brain damage by staying in a violent relationship is also essential, says Gael Strack, a former prosecutor in San Diego and the cofounder of the National Family Justice Center Alliance, a legal and social service agency for DV survivors and their children. “Women tell me all the time they wish they’d understood, the first time they reached out for help, the consequences of having been strangled,” Strack says. “Because they wouldn’t have gone back. But no one is telling them that. Because we, too, missed it for years.”

Yet it’s precisely when women leave that the violence often turns deadliest. Maggie,* 58, now a lawyer, was 26 when she first tried to leave her husband. But that only set him off: Armed with a rifle, he held Maggie prisoner in their home, disconnecting the phone lines so she couldn’t call for help. When she finally managed to get away, he stalked her for nine months, repeatedly choked her and abducted their two-year-old son for months at a time. In 1982, he beat her face to a pulp, even as their son, then three, tried to put his body between his father’s fist and his mother’s face. After throwing the boy from the kitchen into the dining room, the man bashed Maggie’s head against a cast iron stove. “I was unconscious for at least 20 minutes,” she says. “When I opened my eyes, he said, ‘That’s it, bitch. You’ll never see either one of us again.’ He took my son, who did not know for two months if I was alive or dead.”

The police, whom she called many times, offered no help. “Gee, lady, what did you do to deserve this?” she says an officer asked when he found her bleeding from the head injury, her eyes swollen shut, her right retina partially detached and her eye socket shattered. The damage was so severe that cerebral fluid was leaking from her nose and eyes. Yet the hospital staff largely ignored her. “‘Weren’t you in here last week?’” Maggie remembers the nurse asking idly as Maggie sat, unattended and bloody, floating into and out of consciousness. “The whole attitude was that it was my fault for not leaving.”

Maggie has long suspected that the savage beating she received 30 years ago triggered the chronic bronchitis, sinus infections and asthma from which she now suffers. But she couldn’t find a doctor who took that idea seriously. On the day she went to the hospital, Maggie says no doctors examined her; they just suggested she take Tylenol. And because hospital technicians didn’t get a good X-ray of her sinuses, they never found the fragments from her shattered orbital bone. For decades, Maggie complained to her doctors of pain behind her eye. “But as soon as I explained how I got the injuries that I thought were the cause of the pain, they told me it was psychosomatic.”

Finally, in 2002, Maggie saw a new doctor, who ordered a CAT scan, found that bone fragments were blocking her sinuses and had them surgically removed. But the damage was done. Fifteen years after she left her husband, Maggie was diagnosed with asthma, which was exacerbated by the sinus infections. Now the combination of steroids and antibiotics she is taking simply to breathe are damaging her immune system, affecting her blood sugar levels and sending her blood pressure sky-high.

As someone who has devoted herself professionally to ending domestic violence, Maggie doesn’t waste time on self-pity. And her son, now grown, has a successful career in law enforcement. But she rues the years lost to illness. “I’ve had 30 years of pain because of the abuse,” Maggie says. “Nobody in my family has asthma or any memory of anyone in the family having it. It’s a great mystery: Why do I have it and nobody else does?” Ultimately she has come to believe that her asthma is from “the stress, the unrelentingness of what my ex-husband put me through and fear for my son.”

First published in the November 2013 issue

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