Whatever image you have of a domestic abuse victim, erase it from your mind.
Dr. Cessna Winslow, a public relations professor at Tarleton State University, shatters the idea many of us have of women who find themselves in abusive relationships.
“I was an award-winning journalist. I worked for ABC news and had a master’s degree in public relations management,” she said. “I was a strong person.
“He was like a Jekyll and Hyde. There were red flags in the beginning - lying and manipulation - but I excused it. I ignored it because I wanted to believe the best.”
Through the years, the manipulation, isolation from family and friends and belittling intensified, eventually turning her into what she calls the “shell of a person” she once was.
“He controlled all the finances and when you control the finances, you control everything,” she said. “He would belittle me until the point I was crying, then video me and threaten to share the recordings on social media. He told me I was crazy.”
Like many victims of abuse, Cessna knew her life was troubled, but she didn’t know how to escape.
“He racked up $40,000 in credit card debt and cleaned out a couple hundred thousand dollars we had in investments and my inheritance,” she said. “I have no idea where the money went.”
The years go by
Cessna learned to live with the abuse, isolated from family and with very few friends.
“He tried to drive wedges between my friends and me and my family and me,” she said.
Eventually Cessna began working on her Ph.D and in the last 10 years of her marriage, lived through a worsening crisis.
“That’s when the abuse got really bad,” she said. “He always called me ‘stupid, dumb and pathetic.’ Those were his words for me.”
In December 2013, an argument between Cessna and her abuser escalated and she ended up locking herself inside a bedroom and calling 9-1-1.
“I feared for my life,” she said. “When the police responded, they spoke to me in private and informed me that physical domestic violence starts with emotional and verbal abuse.”
The police encouraged her to seek help, and a short time later she sought counseling.
A few months later, she suffered a serious health issue.
“I was in intense pain and unable to stand or move. I repeatedly asked him to take me to the hospital, but he refused, telling me an ER visit was too expensive,” she said.
Hours ticked by and her leg swelled to four times its normal size. After 14 hours she was finally taken to the hospital where doctors warned that her leg may need to be amputated.
“Meanwhile my abuser stood eight-feet away showing no emotion. His only expressed concerns were about the cost of my care and the disruption to his schedule,” she said. “After I stabilized and my abuser left, a doctor asked ‘Are you being abused?’”
That’s what she calls her “aha” moment.
In April 2015, Cessna got a job teaching at Tarleton State University and moved to Stephenville four months later.
“I wanted to move as far away from him as I could,” she said. “I kept it quiet and didn’t tell anyone about my experience. I was embarrassed and ashamed.
“When I got to Stephenville I began to feel like a new person.”
Today, that “new person” is living in a new home she built and is in a healthy relationship with a man she has been dating for more than a year.
“I couldn’t be happier,” she said.
And she has forgiven her ex.
“I had to forgive someone who is not sorry and accept an apology I never received,” she said. “But I had to do it, the bitterness will kill you.”
Cessna and her students are working on a project that assesses students’ perceptions of domestic abuse - a problem she says touches college age men and women.
“There isn’t a semester that goes by that a student doesn’t come to me with a similar story,” she said.
She tells people that are suffering from domestic abuse to seek counseling - and get out.
“I want to be clear that women can be emotional abusers too,” she said. “Don’t ignore the signs. If someone is stripping away your self esteem, get help. If family is telling you that you’re being abused, get out. If your gut says this is bad and your friends are validating it, get out.”