“I didn’t want my son growing up in this environment.”

After leaving an abusive relationship, Sofia* didn’t know how she and her young son would move forward. With the support of a women’s shelter, she began taking the first steps toward a brighter future. Now, she works at the shelter, helping other women begin to rebuild their lives. As told to Jessica Howard.

THE DAY my husband threatened to smash a mirror on my head, I knew I had to leave.

We were having a terrible fight when he threatened me, and then took my phone when I tried to call 911. I managed to take my 3-year-old son and my purse, and run out of the house to the car. It was the middle of the night and I was in my pajamas. I didn’t even put shoes on.

I had wanted to leave my marriage long before that night, but didn’t know how. My ex-husband had become jealous, controlling, and was always putting me down. He would look at my Facebook account and ask questions like, “Who is this man?” and I would have to explain again and again. If I left my baby son at home with him and went to get groceries, he would call within minutes, saying, “When are you coming back?”

He knew that I wanted to leave our marriage, so whatever I did was suspicious to him. I lived with an overwhelming feeling that nothing was enough — he was going to be jealous and angry no matter what.

We had gotten married soon after I moved to Canada, so I didn’t have family or friends of my own — my marriage was my world. My ex-husband always reminded me that I was dependent on him financially, and that I would have no one else if I left.

After our son was born, things got worse. My ex-husband criticized me for the time and attention I gave to our son, who has autism and ADHD. That was another barrier for me: How could I provide the educational programs my son needed if I was on my own? I felt trapped.

But I also knew I didn’t want my son growing up in this environment, feeling the way I did. So my son gave me the strength I needed to act; I had to leave to give him a different future.

The night that I left, I drove to the parking lot of my church and contacted the pastor’s wife. They took me in and helped me find a shelter that had space for us. We spent 5 months there, beginning to face our new reality. I cried a lot during that time, struggling with fear, guilt, and self-blaming. But the counsellors reassured me that I had made the right decision for myself and my son. They helped me look toward the future instead of the past. That reassurance was a key part of my experience.

I had the impression that shelters were scary places but that changed once I began to meet other women and children who also faced abuse. My son adjusted and began to play with the other kids; I made strong friendships with some of the other moms. Since the shelter provided me my own room, and I no longer had to face daily arguments, I had the security and space I needed to think: What were we going to do? How would I support myself and my son?

The shelter staff connected me with a real estate agent and we began the process of selling our house; it was difficult at first because my ex-husband refused to leave. Eventually he did, and my son and I moved back in – but not for long, because my ex-husband returned and I had to call 911. After that experience, every time that I heard a noise, I thought he was breaking in.

When we sold the house, I was able to pay off some debts and rent an apartment. We felt safe again, and my healing process continued. Every morning, I was so grateful. I remember thinking, “I can breathe, I can sleep in peace, I can do whatever I want without worrying that it’s going to cause an argument.”

When we left the shelter, I had a strong feeling that I wanted to return — to give back what I received. It was a life-changing experience. But at the same time, I was busy with my son and still trying to figure out how I would make a living.

Eventually, I went back to school to become a community service worker. When the time came for the internship in the program, I realized: “This is my opportunity to go back to the shelter!” After the completion of my internship, I had the opportunity to work as a receptionist in the shelter. Then, a full-time women’s counsellor/advocate position opened up, and I got it.

Because of my first-hand experience, I feel empathetic and I can relate to the pain and fear that women in the shelter are feeling. Sometimes, to connect with a woman, I share a little bit of my story. I tell them they will find strengths they didn’t know they had.

When I look at my life now, I am proud. I’m able to provide for my son. I have a new partner whom he trusts as a step-father. We have more family around us, so I feel supported and loved. Everything I went through made me stronger and more confident. I’m happy, but I still want to do more to support women who have experienced abuse as they rebuild their lives.

The shelter where Sofia stayed and works has received support from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

*Name has been changed for confidentiality.

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