ROCKINGHAM — Although Tiffany Neal had a three year friendship with who was to become her husband, she never saw all of his sides — including the abusive side — until they started dating.
Neal shared her story Monday during New Horizons Life and Family Services’ annual domestic violence candlelight vigil in front of the old Richmond County courthouse.
“At first, I felt like I could fly because I was so happy,” she said. “After some time, though, we started disagreeing on things and that is when I started seeing a completely different person.”
She said the verbal abuse started about six months into the courtship, but she didn’t recognize it as such.
“All I could ever think was ‘What had I done to make him so mad to the point of calling me vulgar names?’” she recalled. “What did I need to do to fix this?”
Neal said he would always blame her for saying and doing things to make him angry and that she was “crazy enough” to believe it.
The verbal abuse continued for about another year and a half, but Neal said the day the physical abuse started will always stand out “because it’s the day everything changed.”
“It’s crazy how a simple disagreement could lead to something so horrific,” she said.
After rolling her eyes during an argument, Neal said she suddenly “had a hand wrapped around my throat and could not breathe.”
“Of course, he let me go after a few seconds and apologized,” she said. “That is the moment I should have walked away and never turned back.”
But she stayed.
Neal said she dealt with being choked during arguments for years and was always told it was her fault for pushing him to react that way.
After several years, she finally started standing up and not backing down — which is when she says he started hitting her in the face and banging her head against the window of the vehicle while driving down the road.
Neal said she had become so afraid of her husband that she wound up pulling a knife on him — but he did the same.
“I literally thought I was going to die that day,” she said.
Despite the years of abuse, she stayed.
“Sometimes I would pray to God to take me because I did not know how long I could deal with any of it any longer,” she said.
The pair had two daughters: the first in 2014; the second in 2017.
When she was left in labor at a gas station because he was drunk, Neal said she decided at that point that she no longer loved him.
Still, she stayed.
However, she did realize that she had to work on bettering herself.
Finally, two years later when the kids almost witnessed the abuse, Neal said she “had to do something.”
“I could not allow them to grow up with such toxicity in their lives,” she said.
“So I did the only thing I had not done: I got down on my knees and prayed to God to help me leave an abusive marriage; for strength, even when I was terrified.”
That same night, after he left the house, Neal said she changed the locks on the door and filed a restraining order.
She credits the counseling from New Horizons for helping her recover from the ordeal.
Those services, according to Executive Director Karen Bostick, are free of charge.
“There is help for everyone experiencing domestic violence,” Bostick said.
Domestic violence affects people regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, race, religion or nationality, according to Lakeshia Gibson, court advocate and community educator.
“The devastating physical, emotional and psychological consequences of domestic violence can cross generations and last a lifetime,” she said.
Citing research, Gibson said domestic violence cost Richmond County $2,161,513 last year.
“This epidemic is not going away soon,” she said. “However, the first step to eradicate domestic violence is to talk about it.
Like Neal, there are many women — and men — who stay in violent relationships for various reasons.
The staff of New Horizons paraded in front of the gathered crowd displaying small posters with some of those reasons:
- “… because we had a child together.”
- “… because I thought he loved me and he said he was sorry.”
- “… because I was broken.”
- “… because I was ashamed and he threatened to hurt my family.”
For those who help domestic violence victims, Bostick said it’s important to focus on getting them out and not focus on the reasons why they stayed.
New Horizons also gave thanks and small gifts to the first responders and those in the justice system who sometimes put their lives on the line when helping victims.
“It makes a difference … to come in contact with a friendly face,” Bostick said.
She added that it’s not always easy being on the rescue side.
“When you hear someone’s story, you need to hold yourself together,” Bostick said.
The event concluded with a release of purple and black balloons, each bearing the name and weapon used in the death of one of the 47 people killed in North Carolina domestic violence incidents so far this year.