I’m Not Sorry
Story / Tonya Wells
It happened slowly. There were red flags. But, when you’re young and in love, you don’t see those so much. Plus, he was the most brilliant person she’d ever met. And, charming. That smile.
Toss out everything you think you know about domestic violence and its stereotypes: low income, uneducated, bad family life. For Krissi Cox, the stereotypes don’t ring true. Cox grew up in Cape Girardeau in a middle-income, two-parent household. She went to a private Catholic school. She had a happy childhood. She had a good family. After high school, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She tried two different colleges but didn’t find a fit at either. Her best friend was moving to Florida for a job portraying Cinderella at Disney World, so Cox decided to go in search of her own fairy tale, or at least a decent future.
“Our apartment was around the corner from the Orange County Jail. We lived in a very colorful neighborhood. Someone once ran his car through our front door,” she laughs.
She landed a job at a nice hotel, and by all accounts was enjoying life on her own for the first time.
“I loved everything about that job. I met really cool people. I was having fun with friends,” she smiles remembering the wild times with girlfriends in sunny Florida. But she knows we’re here to talk about more than her happy memories. She’s here to talk about the thing most people who know her would never guess. And, she’s nervous.
“I almost couldn’t,” she says. “I was really nervous. I’m not sure I’ve told the whole story beginning to end before? I wasn’t sure I could tell you,” she looks down. “I’m nervous what you’ll think.”
Nerves weren’t only present on her side of the table. In a quest to tell inspiring stories about the alumni, students, faculty, and staff of Southeast Missouri State, I had approached Cox, a coworker, about sharing her experiences for an article. It was a big ask because I knew some of the details, though not everything. I knew we’d be talking about domestic violence, a big topic. I knew we’d be talking about the worst parts of her life, moments she still relives to this day. I knew there would be tears. What I didn’t count on was how much laughter there would be. It’s probably that laughter that’s helped Cox survive. It’s what she’s betting on for her children.
If you met Cox today, you’d see a professional with a good job, a single mom to two, and someone liked and respected at her office. You wouldn’t peg her as a domestic violence survivor or someone who had her children removed from her care or someone living on public assistance. And that’s probably the idea Cox wants people to understand more than anything. You can’t know what those people look like. Because it can be anyone.
IT STARTED AT A PARTY
“He was cute. He was in the army, and I liked that. I thought he was the smartest guy I had ever talked to. That was it. We were inseparable.”
Months passed, and she says there were things, things she should have noticed.
“He said he was going to college after getting out of the army. Sure, he had no car, no place to live, but what does that matter when he’s making you feel special?”
She says there was drinking, but they were young. They were partying, and she’d drink too.
“We went away for the weekend, and we got into an argument over something, I don’t remember. I walked out of the restaurant, and this guy approached me and asked if I was okay,” she says. “And, my boyfriend almost beat him up. He was yelling, and acting really violently toward him. I’d never seen anyone do that outside of a movie. I was scared and wanted him to stop. I remember thinking if I comfort him, he’ll stop.”
And he did.
“He said ‘I’m sorry.’”
The next week, she learned she was pregnant.
“We moved in together, and he found a job,” she says. “For me, it felt like a switch had been flipped, though it probably wasn’t really like that.”
She didn’t feel special anymore. He would work and go out with friends. Pregnant, she wasn’t partying with him. When he was home, she says there was criticism of her almost constantly. She found herself not seeing her own friends, and now that they lived together, he controlled the money. She says he did use drugs, but she dismissed it. She dismissed most of his behavior because he was still the charming guy she fell for, and she was convinced their troubles were her shortcomings. She says her life was best described as lonely. Her days were filled with nothing except trying to do things better, so he’d be pleased. She says he yelled, often. Then, she discovered he had suffered from bipolar disorder since the age of 16.
“My reaction to anything is always, I have to find out as much as I can about it. So, I researched it. I read book after book, and I told him this is manageable. You just have to find a doctor and a treatment plan.”
More importantly, she now had hope.
“In my mind, this was what was causing the angry moods. I attributed everything to that,” she says.
His treatment plan wasn’t what she’d hoped. She says he began doctor shopping to get Xanax. She speaks this next part very clearly as though that will help her express the weight of what she wants me to understand.
“I thought he was smart; he was everything. He was telling me I’m nothing, that I’m not smart. And, that’s all I was hearing because he was the only person I saw on a daily basis. I always feel like when I share I’m going to disappoint people who expect to hear about my black eyes and bruises. I didn’t feel abused. I blamed his illness, and yeah … I thought it was me.
“The first time I saw him punch a wall, I was sitting in a rocking chair in another room. And, I can remember seeing him standing there through the doorway,” she says framing her vantage point for me. “I was telling him I wanted him to stay home more. He put a hole through the wall.”
She says she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
He told her it was her fault, that he just couldn’t take her being right on top of him, nagging.
“Some days, I still can’t differentiate it. That’s how an abuser can make you feel crazy. Even now, I have to cross it out and trust myself. I was sitting in a chair in the other room. I wasn’t near him.”
So why stay in that environment?
“He said ‘I’m sorry,’” she smiles and shrugs, telling me simultaneously it’s something hard for even her to fathom now. “Three and a half years of punching walls and intimidating me. Every wall in that apartment had a hole in it.”
The first time he touched her in anger was a Thursday afternoon.
“He had been drinking, and he got his keys to go. I panicked. He couldn’t drive drunk. It was my job to keep him safe, but he didn’t want me to try to keep him from going out. He grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me into the wall—it didn’t leave a mark,” she interjects quickly.
I feel myself grimace, realize I’ve not contained my reaction. “I know,” she laughs. “You wouldn’t recognize that me, would you?”
She’s right. The Krissi Cox I know is bright and bubbly. She’s outgoing and friendly. She doesn’t mince words. She’s confident. She seems to be having a good time whatever the assignment. She has two children she loves beyond anything. And, most importantly, she doesn’t seem like she’s someone who would put up with abuse, physical or mental. So, how does the strong woman sitting in front of me exist with the woman making allowances for being thrown into a wall because it didn’t leave a mark?
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, reasons for staying are complex. “Abuse, physical and mental, happens when one person feels entitled to power and control over their partner and chooses to abuse to gain and maintain that control.” Victims know more than anyone the reality of the abuser following through on threats and the extent to which the abuser will go to maintain control.
“Then, I got pregnant again.”
New daughter Kaci joined her older brother Kaden. But the birth wasn’t initially as joyous as Cox had hoped. Her daughter was born with a cleft palette.
“My only reaction was ‘is she going to be okay?’” Cox cracks up inexplicably. “My doctor, says to me without missing a beat, ‘oh yeah, if you’re going to have a genetic disorder, this is the one you want,’” she pauses, composing herself. “I believe God has given me people like this doctor throughout my life whose sole purpose was to help when I needed it.”
Cox says now they were a family of four, and he got a really good job. She assumes he must have been as charming at work as he could be with her. His use of Xanax continued, unbeknownst to her. But after running out of multiple prescriptions, he suffered a seizure at home. She called 911 and followed him to the ER with two kids in tow.
“I felt like I was adrift in a boat in a storm. I was just trying to find my balance. I was so angry standing next to his hospital bed. He said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
The sorrow didn’t turn into treatment despite all her efforts. The drug use continued to the point that despite having a nice income, she would get up early the day his check was deposited to pay all their bills and buy groceries.
“I had a debit card that I couldn’t do anything important with other than take care of household things. And, I used it as soon as I could because I was terrified he’d spend all the money and then what would the kids eat?”
She knew it couldn’t continue, but she also didn’t see a way out, and again she believed. She believed it was her fault they argued. Her fault he left and drank. Her fault they weren’t happy. She decided her only way out was to go back to school. She started community college to become a nurse. She felt like if she was working toward something, she wouldn’t feel worthless, and if she could just be better, they’d be happy. But this loss of control over her brought more abuse.
“I was the reason we weren’t succeeding,” she says. “We,” she air quotes, “made a list of rules of things I would or wouldn’t do that would help us: not nag, not gain weight, make his favorite meals. But the whole time I was cooking, he’d yell about how slow I was or how it wasn’t any good.”
She pauses and smiles.
“Kaden does remember that. Even now, whenever I cook,” she says, “he makes such a big deal of saying ‘this is such a good meal. Mom, you did such a good job.’”
She loses her composure for the first time since we’ve been talking, breaking at the thought of that memory for her child. I feel her pain, knowing her son saw her beaten down, metaphorically if nothing else. Why? Why not leave?
“Those kids! How was I going to take care of them? He wasn’t going to let us leave.”
That is perhaps the most difficult part of her story. People who are abused are not at fault, but we often jump to that conclusion. If she had left. If she hadn’t put up with the abuse. Our need to solve the problem puts the solution on her shoulders instead of the solution simply being you should not try to control your partner. You should not convince your partner he or she has no worth. Yet, talking with Cox, even I asked repeatedly why she would spend one more day with someone who made her feel so bad.
Dr. Steven Stosny writes in Psychology Today that what “makes emotional abuse so devastating is the greater likelihood that victims will blame themselves. If someone hits you, it’s easier to see that he or she is the problem, but if the abuse is subtle … you are more likely to think it’s your problem. Emotional abuse seems more personal than physical abuse, more about you as a person.”
ONE PHONE CALL
Things continued to decline, including spending much more money on drugs, and then she says he bought a scale.
“He said he was worried he got cheated,” she says shaking her head, fearing the real purpose might find him as more supplier than user. She knew her kids couldn’t stay. “I called my mom. I told her everything. She called my dad who called me immediately. He had told my mom we weren’t doing this slowly because he was afraid I’d get killed. He said there are three tickets at the airport for us. We left.”
She called from the St. Louis airport to say she and the kids were taking a vacation to see grandma and grandpa and that the two of them would no longer be a couple.
“He said he’d kill me and bury me where no one else could find me. My dad took me to get a restraining order.”
While Cox was getting a restraining order in Missouri, he was getting an emergency order in Florida to have his children returned. Then, he came to Missouri.
“I had to go back. I wasn’t a kidnapper. While he was pounding on my sister’s door here, I went back to Florida to a Safehouse. I was so blessed to have a spot with two kids. The judge said I had to give him the kids until custody could be determined. I wanted to run. My parents said you have to do this legally. The Safehouse said if you leave, we can’t protect you. If you give him the kids, we fight. So, the police came to pick us up for the transfer. I remember the lady officer who drove us looking at me in the rearview mirror, and she said, ‘honey, if I could turn this car around, I would.’”
At the police station, Cox was met by Jeanie Goldman, the director of the Safehouse, a “pretty, suburban lady” she describes as classy. Cox says she can’t adequately explain to anyone how it felt knowing she would have to leave without her children and hearing them scream for her as she explained they had to go with their dad.
“I had an attorney, but Jeanie said, ‘I’m getting you someone with a little more bite.’ She wrote grants to get women good attorneys. I had to find a job. So I would work, and then go home to the Safehouse, and cry and someone would give me a hug. There were so many women there who had it so much worse than me.”
Cox says she would get voicemails of Kaden screaming because his dad couldn’t calm him down. Then, after six long weeks, her prayers were answered.
“My attorney’s name was Sly Gruner. She was from Alabama, and she had a thick accent. She got me weekend visitation.”
Cox says with the visitation, a parent drops the children off at a room in the police station where there are toys and an officer, then the other parent arrives 15 minutes later to pick up the children. Cox took her children for a weekend. She says they loved the Safehouse where there were 75 other women and children living. They had such a good weekend; she told her friends she simply couldn’t take them back.
“They said ‘you can,’” she smiles, realizing how very much those positive words meant to someone who had been told for so long she wasn’t capable of anything. “I arrived at the station, and he had a wreck on the way there … on drugs. In the visitation, if the other parent wasn’t there, you got the kids until the next transfer date. I had never heard such cheering as when I arrived back at the Safehouse with my kids.”
Cox says he gave up custody, knowing he’d ultimately lose. In mediation, he threw a chair. At their last visit, he agreed that to continue the relationship with his children he had to fulfill requirements like having a stable job and being in treatment. Cox says he hasn’t talked to his children since 2009.
“It makes me mad,” she says. “I don’t want him to fight for them, but I want him to fight for them. They are so worth it.”
She needed to get back to Missouri and start their lives over.
“After getting up every day for a month and half without my kids, everything else was easy.”
Cox got a job and found them a home, then was laid off when the place she was working closed. She found another job and signed up for public assistance to make ends meet. That’s something she admits was difficult, but in her mind, she would do whatever it took to provide for her children.
“Most people look at me and just see a regular person. I want them to put a face to that because poverty, crime, victimization, they don’t just look like one thing.”
Cox accepted a job as a receptionist at the Southeast Missouri University Foundation in 2012. She started back to college and after stumbling through a few majors, found her passion in criminal justice.
“School was easy after I found that. I just wanted to learn about helping other people and why people do what they do. Learning what makes people victimize eases my pain. It proves to me that the things he said about me were about him, not what I could or couldn’t do.”
I ask if her kids were excited at her college graduation, and she says not really. “They always assumed I could do it.”
In addition to getting her degree, she’s volunteering for Court Appointed Special Advocates, where volunteers are paired with an abused or neglected child to be their advocate. Of her assigned child, she says, “She is a force. She’s going to do something, and not because of me. She just has it.”
After three years at the Foundation, she was promoted to an executive assistant.
“I will never forget telling her about her promotion,” says Southeast Vice President for Advancement and Executive Director of the Foundation Bill Holland. “Her eyes just welled up with tears when I explained what the salary bump was. I didn’t think it was that significant. She said, ‘now, I can get off welfare.’ Oh, that just hit me.”
For now, Cox says her family is happy and healthy. She says because of her age at the time, Kaci doesn’t really remember much, so she’s curious about her dad. Kaden does remember.
“He doesn’t want to talk about it much. We talk a lot about forgiveness. He worries about his dad’s illness and if it’s hereditary. I explained it’s not a concern because it depends on how you handle it. Many people have mental illness, and they live great lives with medication and treatment. I try not to focus on the bad with them. Sometimes they’ll do something that’s funny, and I tell them it’s just like their dad.”
She thinks it’s important to talk to other women in similar situations and tries to be supportive as friends of friends are introduced to her for advice. For those with no experience in this realm, she says she wants them to understand it.
“I know in-depth how you can get in that situation. When you are told everyday you’re nothing, you stay with the person who says ‘I can
save you, I can make you better.’”
As for publicly telling the masses her story, she sighs relief as my seemingly unending questions seem to
taper off, then begins to express the reason for sharing intimate details of a life that no longer exists.
“When I came home to Missouri, I felt shame. I still feel shame sometimes. It’s hard to be vulnerable. I did this for the one person who’s going to read the article or pass it along. I hope she doesn’t say ‘this isn’t me.’ I hope she sees herself in the good parts and knows it’s worth fighting for. You don’t know what someone else is going through ever. Look around. Someone might need to hear your words.”
Hours after draining conversation about abuse, being humiliated, legal battles, drugs, losing her children, learning the welfare system, being a single mom with a full-time job and going to school full-time, I ask about the journey to where she is now, and she smiles.
“I’m not sorry.”
October 19, 2016
October 19, 2016
October 19, 2016