Independence Day

FINDING LIGHT IN THE AFTERMATH OF DOMESTIC ABUSE

It was the kind of attention that really made a girl feel special. He cared, right from the start. He cared about what she was wearing. He cared about where she was going. He cared because he was afraid of losing her, and she fell hard and fast.

“He needed me,” recalls Jessica Yaffa ’98. “He thought I was beautiful. For a girl with low self-esteem, it was intoxicating.”

In retrospect, the signs were all there, but at the time, Yaffa, then a high-school senior, thought it was true love. “My parents didn’t like him because they would hear us arguing, but I worked really hard to protect the relationship.”

Nonetheless, her parents made it known that when it came time for college, she would be leaving San Diego, largely to break up the couple’s unhealthy bond. “I fought it and fought it, and went to the closest school to San Diego that I could get to, which was Whittier College,” she recalls. “But I didn’t connect with the school, and begged and pleaded to come back to San Diego.”

Her sophomore year, Yaffa’s parents said she could go to USD, so long as she lived on campus. “They wanted me to have the total college experience.” It was a great sentiment, but in truth, she spent every moment not in class under the watchful eye of her boyfriend, who had grown even more controlling.

“Finally, one night I decided to hang out with my roommates and watch some movies. I called and told him I had a bad headache, and I’d see him in the morning. I knew he wasn’t going to like it.” That was an understatement. He came and got her, causing an ugly scene.

“Once we got to his house, he hit me over and over again.” The next morning, she woke up determined to get out. He was just as sure she should stay: “He said he was so sorry, it had never happened before, he’d been drinking, he was sobbing.”

For months, he was on his best behavior, and life went on. Her father passed away during junior year, a loss that pushed her further into the relationship.

“The September of my senior year, things got far worse,” she recalls.” Now married, the couple had a 4-month-old baby, and the family was scraping by financially.

“By then, there were physical assaults on a daily basis. I was living like a hostage.” An episode when the baby was 15 months old pushed her over the edge. “He went after me when I was holding my son, and ended up hitting him in the mouth with a closed fist.”

Although Yaffa filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order the next day, things did not immediately get better: Even though she got a job at the YMCA and was able to pay the bills, her ex-husband had a right to visitation, and he got abusive more times than she can count. “There were dozens of police reports on file the first three years we were divorced, but nothing was done.”

At one point he did go to jail for eight months for assault with a deadly weapon and child endangerment when he tried to run her off the road after visitation with their son. Upon his release, supervised visitation was ordered.

Things were going reasonably well, considering. That’s why she didn’t think twice when he wanted to meet up at his family’s home to pay some back child support. A nightmare followed. He brutally attacked her for hours, leaving her bruised from head to toe. “I went straight to the police.”

This time, they picked him up immediately. In February 2001, it was finally over. Her ex-husband was sentenced to 29 years in prison, and Yaffa was free at last.

“The world thought I was doing quite well, but I continued to make poor choices, and had no self-respect, no self-esteem,” she recalls. Finally, a close friend told her, “You’re worth more than this.” The friend — who eventually became her husband — was heavily involved with The Rock Church. Initially Yaffa was uninterested, but eventually decided to give it a shot.

“I very quickly started to be clear about God’s purpose for me, and that I’d been given a beautiful gift to come alongside others who’d felt as alone as I had. I approached the church to start a domestic violence ministry, and for our first meeting, we set out 10 chairs. Seventy people showed up.”

Today, Yaffa travels the country speaking at colleges — including USD — about redefining dating abuse, the need for self-worth and elimination of stigma. Her ministry has served more than 6,000 people, and works to educate police and help crisis call operators to approach domestic violence with greater sensitivity and compassion.

Her just-published memoir, titled, Mine Until: My Journey Into and Out of the Arms of an Abuser, is available on all e-book devices as well as in paperback through Amazon. Yaffa hopes that her story will change the way that each of its readers thinks about, talks about, responds to and stands up against domestic violence.

While she used to worry about going public with her story and putting her name out in the world, now, she has come to a kind of peace.

“There’s a lesson here, not about him, but about me. Do I want to live in bondage or in freedom? I choose freedom.” — Julene Snyder

For more, go to nosilencenoviolence.org. If you or someone you know is involved in an unsafe relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233

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