She sits on the expansive wooden floor of her rustic, small-town home, head bent forward onto her knees. It appears to be a relaxing, meditative pose, possibly to regain equilibrium in her demanding world, but her shoulders convulse and muffled sobs can be heard coming from her folded body. How long would she stay in this position and what brings her there?
Every evening Enya stumbles through her front door, drops her outerwear–depending on the season–just inside. Her frayed canvas bag lands squarely on the kitchen table. It’s her catch-all for documents from work, scraps of paper inked with scribbles pertaining to clients or reminders from conversations, minutes from recent committee meetings, and lunch remains. She grasps her head with both hands for a moment, tosses her glasses onto the kitchen counter, then brushes unruly strands of hair back from her face. She reaches for a bottle of medication from beside the fridge, pours herself a glass of chilled water, and pops a handful of pills into her mouth. She drags her feet as she moves, holds onto furniture until she reaches this very spot on the floor. Here she collapses. Every evening.
Enya is in her early fifties.
One evening, after this mystifying ritual has gone longer than most nights, Enya rises and sits in a wooden rocker next to a floor-to-ceiling window facing snow-covered rocks, trees and mummified globes that transform into blooming shrubs in the springtime. She picks up a plain dark green notebook and begins to write.
It’s been twelve years and yet it feels like a few months.
Back then, I spoke with Jennifer in the break-room, like I had for years. But this time was different. She confessed that the reason she frequently wore dark glasses, even in the office, was not due to problems with her vision. She had done so to cover up damage inflicted to her face by a capricious man in a blind, narcissistic rage.
Twelve years ago my pragmatic mind looked for a quick solution: contact a local domestic violence shelter and all related support services. But, there was nothing. Nothing at all. No services to assist women in critical situations whatsoever. Not in a fifty-mile radius!
I was dumbfounded and set out to do something about it myself. I would see to it that this community–my town–would have the resources we needed to help Jennifer. I would spearhead establishing a facility for victims of abuse first, then put all peripheral services into place. There was nothing I had ever put my mind to which I hadn’t completed. Successfully. I can do this, I told myself regularly.
I researched clinical and legal aspects of such a venture, talked with people, approached property owners, asking them to provide space, met with people from town council, law enforcement and the mental health professions. What I found astounded me: indifference, denial and outright resistance. Not one person saw a need. After all, we had never had the need for this service before; why now?
It took eight months of coming up completely empty before I realized I would need to change my approach from a social/business focus to education. I wrote editorials for the local paper, began a podcast highlighting the prevalence of abuse, invited experts to provide training for local medical and counseling professionals. I offered free classes at the local YMCA for bystanders–those who know someone who may be a victim of abuse. The first three classes had no attendees. Only relentless promotion finally brought the first few participants.
That was the beginning. It was two years before I was even allowed to speak about the need at a town council meeting. Then another year-and-a-half before a local businessperson said he would think about leasing space for a small shelter, with an additional 9’x9′ space offsite for counseling.
I was ecstatic. We were moving forward. I had known all along that I could do this. I was a Byrne, after all. But, had I known then what I now know, I may have faltered. The more I spoke about the need to protect and fight for the wellbeing of women and their children, the more people opposed me. Not only casual acquaintances, but people I had known for years turned viciously against me. Initially they took aim at my project, as they called it, but when I was undaunted, the attacks became about me. This ugly resistance, more than the mountains of bureaucratic paperwork, compliance to codes, licensing of property and personnel, took a grueling toll on my body and spirit.
Yet, I pushed forward. It took nine more years before the shelter for women and children would be stable and functioning. At the six year point I had my first full-blown migraine, complete with violent nausea and vision disturbances. This is where my nightly routine on my floor began, since that–along with high doses of medically prescribed pain medication–was all that brought relief.
It’s been more than six months since I handed the day-to-day operations of Hope Restored–location not publicized–into capable hands, yet the physical and emotional toll is a price I still pay. My life blood.
When I speak with Enya, it is to ask her to deliver the commencement address at her Alma Mater. Prior to this, I had known nothing of her journey; I simply know she is a tenacious advocate for women, children, the environment, buying local and many other issues of justice–as she calls it.
Over freshly-brewed coffee in a locally owned coffee shop, she hands me the dark green notebook, then follows up with a crisp verbal commentary on the price of activism.
© Julia Penner-Zook, 2015