When Felicia Simpson was married to a man who was beating her, she said she took on his habits.
“For me to deal with what I went through, I smoked cigarettes and I drank heavily. Not wine, I drunk whisky. [I would] just wake up in the morning [and drink],” she recalls.
“He woke up drinking whisky. He woke up smoking cigarettes. So that’s what I found myself doing,” she said.
One in four women are abused in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 44, according to a report released last month by the Centers for Disease Control. In many situations, the victim’s substance abuse has been used against her in court, particularly in child custody cases.
Drunkenness is the best predictor of domestic violence, according to Larry Bennett, professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. One out of four Americans has a substance abuse problem or mental disorder.
Simpson, who is from Chicago’s southside, endured years of abuse, once suffering a broken nose after her former husband hit her in the face with a beer bottle. She finally divorced him, moved away with her three children and founded A New Me Foundation, an organization focused on breaking the silence surrounding domestic violence. Simpson has written two books on the subject.
“He only did it when he was drunk. If he was sober, [it was] beautiful, you can’t hear a peep out of him. How often did he get drunk? Pretty often,” said Simpson during a recent interview.
“To this day, I can’t stand the smell of cigarettes,” she said. “Please don’t put whisky in front of me!”
Simpson said she also does not like to use makeup because it reminds her of the years she spent covering up her black eyes. “You will not see me with fingernail polish, eyeshadow, makeup unless it’s a special occasion,” she said.
She also said she does not wear jewelry because her abusive former spouse bought her so many items of jewelry after he injured her. As in so many abusive relationships, he was remorseful following the violent incidents and would apologize, promising never to hurt her again and offering presents to make up with her.
Bennett, who studies domestic violence , said many victims turn to drug or alcohol abuse as a way of coping.
“I’ve seen that many times,” he said. “I’ve been a part of that… where they lost custody of the kid because of their own substance abuse problems, which they have developed as a way of coping with the trauma of being battered by the guy who got custody.”
Substance abuse is also a common factor in elder abuse, according to experts. Often the caregiver is an adult child who withholds food or money in order to finance a drug habit, according to Osvaldo Caballero, supervisor of the elder abuse program at Metropolitan Family Services.
“Financial exploitation takes a lot of forms… taking stuff from the house to sell it for drugs, using the house as a drug setting to sell or to do drugs with friends,” said Caballero.
Many seniors refuse to report abuse because they fear living in nursing homes, he said. Victims of intimate parter violence fear leaving their abuser because they feel that it is safer to stay.
But leaving is the most dangerous time in a violent relationship, said Bennett. Most abusers seek to control their victim; when the victim leaves the relationship, the abuser is often most violent.
“The worst advice you can give to a friend who is being abused is to tell her to just leave,” Bennett said.
And the problems for women who do decide to leave are just starting. Often a victim cannot leave because she has no where to live. There are only 112 beds in Chicago shelters. There are no shelters for male victims.
Domestic violence victims who decide to leave but cannot find a bed often become a part of the homeless population, according to Gwyn Kaitis of The Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network. These victims are advised to go to the nearest hospital or police station, where they often have to wait for hours or overnight with their children, Kaitis said.
Victims with children or a substance abuse problem are less likely to be accepted by a shelter; only two shelters accept adolescent male children. And plus, victims who continue their substance abuse while they’re in a shelter are more likely to be asked to leave, so as to protect the other recovering shelter residents, said Kaitis.
Some of the most successful programs are jointly run by shelters and substance abuse treatment organizations, said Kaitis, so the victims get counseling for their domestic violence traumas and their substance abuse at the same time.
“Nobody really thinks that substance abuse, depression or other kinds of things like that cause people to be violent. But they do keep people from getting help. They keep people from taking advantage of opportunities available for being safe or not being violent. They keep people from following what the judge says,” said Bennett.
Fifty percent of men ordered by a court into treatment don’t complete their sentence, which may include substance abuse programs or battery intervention programs, according to Bennett. Batterers who attend intervention programs are urged to do so in a group setting because they are likely to meet others who are recovering from substance abuse and build a support system.
“Nobody can spot somebody’s substance abuse problem quicker than somebody who is recovering from a substance abuse problem,” said Bennett.
“Domestic violence is a crime that thrives on silence. It thrives on people not knowing what you’re doing. It occurs through all parts of our society, through every social group, every ethnic group [and] every religious group. It occurs everywhere,” said Bennett.
The national domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)