Angie Ruff is a mother of four and an Assistant Manager at the Goochland Free Clinic & Family Services Clothes Closet, a low-cost community thrift store. She shared with Richmond Justice her story of surviving domestic violence.
When my dad died, my whole world collapsed. He and I were extremely close. I lost interest in a lot of things. I met the man who would become my ex-husband a month later. At first, he filled an emotional void left by my dad's death.
Things were fine at first. We argued like normal couples do, but it wasn’t until we started living together that I realized that our fights weren’t going to be a once-in-a-while thing. Early on, we stayed at an efficiency hotel and one of our neighbors kept slamming drawers. He blamed me for that. He blamed me for everything. If it rained, it was my fault.
The physical abuse was bad, but the emotional abuse was really bad. I’ve been called every name you can imagine. He’s accused me of horrendous things. His mouth was so vile sometimes, I actually preferred the physical abuse to hearing the nasty things he said to me. When he did hit me, he made sure not to leave any bruises or cuts that would be visible to other people.
I didn’t have family close by; my sisters live on the West Coast. And we moved so often that I never made friends or had any connections. We were always being evicted or kicked out. The electricity was always being turned off. If I talked to anyone but him, he accused me of sleeping with them. He was extremely jealous. Even talking to a cashier at the grocery store would set him off. I stopped looking at people.
At one point, I contacted Hanover Safe Place to try to figure out an alternative place to live. But it was hard: If someone called me at the wrong time and he picked up, it would be bad. He worked, but I never knew when he was going to be home. I never knew what mood he’d be in. The kids and I walked around on eggshells. He told the kids that if they said anything to anyone, they would be taken away. My oldest son and I experienced most of the abuse. But then he picked up my middle son by the throat. That was the last straw. I thought, “I don’t want to die here. I don’t my kids to ever be left with him. And I don’t want any of my kids, but especially my daughter, to think this is okay. This is not how anyone is supposed to be treated.”
Safe Place gave me phone numbers for domestic violence shelters. I called some that didn’t have openings, and others wouldn’t allow my eldest son to stay with us because of his age. I couldn’t have him separated from us—I couldn't part with my son. So we stayed with my husband.
He didn’t allow me to work for many years. In the last two years of our relationship, he finally let me. But he’d immediately take all of the money I earned. I finally hid away enough money to buy my son a cell phone. He kept it in his room. One night, my ex came home in a bad mood. I didn’t realize it, but apparently I was fidgeting and that agitated him. He started punching me and my son heard it. He called the police, but he was so distressed that he couldn’t remember the address. The police eventually came; they were able to figure out our address from the cell towers. I hid from them at first. But my son told me, “Mom, you have to talk to them. When else are we going to get out?” I did, and they arrested my ex for assault and battery on a family member. He went to jail for the night and was told to stay away from us for three days. The police interviewed me about that incident, but they didn’t ask about the larger situation. They weren't uncaring, but they didn’t ask what I wanted or needed for my family. They gave us some brochures, and left.
My daughter was very close to him; she and our youngest son had never been physically abused. We had a family meeting and she begged us to stay with him. She wanted him to "just have one more chance." The five of us are very close. For her, we let him come back.
You hear about the “calm before the storm.” Things were okay for a while. He was supposed to be on probation for two years and take anger management classes. He didn’t go to all of the classes. But at his one-year review, they said, “You’re done.” He talks a good game. He can be very charming, so in court he never came across in a negative way. He had previously gone to jail for failure to pay child support to his ex-wife, but he was given work release. They didn’t make him finish the classes or probation. They gave him a pass.
We were about to be evicted again, and his brother’s wife invited us to stay with them. My ex wasn’t working at the time, so he’d sit there drinking all day. After a fight he picked with her, my sister-in-law decided he had to leave, but welcomed the kids and me to stay. I told my ex, "I’m done. I can’t live like this anymore. The kids deserve better." He didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. "What are you talking about?" he said. "I’m not leaving my kids." I was determined. "Your brother’s going to take you somewhere else tomorrow," I told him. "You’re going to leave us." I realized I didn't have feelings for him; I was just surviving.
He left, but he called me constantly. He kept asking if we were going to get back together. I don’t think he ever realized what he did wrong. His excuses were: "I was drunk that night." "I was taking pills." "I was messed up back then." But he never changed.
When you’re in a situation like that, you worry that people won’t believe you or that you don’t fit the criteria of an abusive relationship. I thought, "Well, he’s not abusive all of the time. And it’s not always physical abuse." I didn’t know that domestic violence could mean a lot of different things. I didn’t know that him not permitting me to work was economic abuse. I didn’t know that domestic violence is emotional and mental, not just physical. I thought that without proof, it would be my word against his word. I didn’t know what would happen with my kids if I sought help. You want to be believed, but you don’t want to be judged. I’ve been asked "Why did you stay? Why didn't you just leave?" I’ve been told, "Well, that’s the life you chose." That made me wary of telling anyone. And a lot of the agencies I reached out to made me feel like a case number. Or they said they couldn’t accommodate us.
My sister-in-law suggested that I go to Goochland Free Clinic and Family Services. I'd heard, "No," so many times, but I finally heard, "Yes, this is how we can help you." I don't know where we'd be without their help. We moved into emergency housing. We put a chair under the door for a few months, worried that he'd show up. After a while, we were able to relax and be ourselves. It was a weird feeling; we weren’t used to coming home and not having to watch ourselves. I heard my kids laugh and play again.
After many months, I was able to finalize our divorce. I found a lawyer who would work with me. All but one of my kids has gone through counseling. I’ve gone through counseling. I still go sometimes, because it’s still hard and I still have triggers. That was ten years of my life.
I’m in a Facebook group of people who are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence. People have reasons for not leaving: they’re worried about being judged, they’re worried about the consequences. Everyone’s situation is different. Some still love their spouses. There may be kids involved. My counselor told me that, on average, domestic violence survivors try to leave seven times before they’re able to get out permanently. Getting help isn’t simple. I tell people, "It's hard as hell and scary to get out, but you've survived this for long. You'll survive this, too. Love should never hurt." I share my story because if I can help one person, it's worth it.
I describe leaving him as, "getting out," the difference between being "on the inside" and "on the outside," and I hear other people describe it that way, too. Because it is like prison. You can’t do this, you can’t see these people, you can’t talk to those people. It's a personal hell.
It’s been three years since we got out, and today I’m extremely happy. I’m happy with the person that I am. I met a great guy who loves and understands me. We’re getting married at the end of this month. He loves my kids, and they love him. Thanks to Habitat for Humanity, we’re homeowners for the fist time ever.
Justice, to me, is seeing my kids happy. It’s the kids showing him and showing themselves that he was wrong to say, "You can’t live without me." We are living without him. They know we have a house and we're not going to be kicked out. The electricity is not going to be turned off. They can be themselves. There are happy times and good surprises. Justice is every step we take toward a better life.
— interviewed October 4, 2016
Reporter, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Daughter and mother
Veteran and mother of two
Procurement Manager, CARITAS
Assistant Manager, Clothes Closet
Attorney, Virginia Poverty Law Center
Director of Access to Legal Services
President, Muslim Chaplain Services
Director, Carrico Center at UR Law
Case Manager, VA Supportive Housing