Since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, SFR spent some time interviewing Kristin Carmichael, the domestic violence specialist at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. ---
Carmichael, the former residential shelter manager at Esperanza Shelter and author of X that Ex: Making a Clean Break When It's Over, coordinates domestic violence response and treatment at the hospital and its many clinics. This interview has been condensed and edited slightly for clarity and length.
SFR: How did you get involved in the domestic violence issue?
KC: I've been interested in working with what are considered women's issues—although they're really everyone's issues—since college. I have a degree in psychology and, when I graduated from what was then the College of Santa Fe, I saw that Esperanza Shelter was hiring. I didn't think I had the qualifications, quite frankly, so I called to see if I could volunteer. And they liked me, so they hired me, and that really began my career path working with survivors of abuse and folks getting out of bad relationships.
Did you have one particular turning point when you realized it was your calling?
That's a really good question. I feel like I have turning points about every day. I don't know if it's so much a single event that motivates me to continue as much as an ongoing passion for the work, interest in the work, how different it is every day and the good that I feel like I can do through my role. I mean, those are the things that, in an ongoing way, make me want to continue to do this work. I can't ever imagine not doing this work.
Does it ever stress you out?
In fact, really, it is my job to put myself out of a job, you know? So I really try to keep my eye on the ball in that way because, if you're not careful, you end up losing sight of the fact that we really want to end this. With breast cancer, we talk about finding a cure. With domestic violence, I don't know that people use that language that much; many times it's just doing what you can to make things a little better. But I would like one day for hospitals not to need my position and for Esperanza Shelter to not need to be there and us not to have to even do this interview.
The City of Santa Fe recently issued a press release advertising training to help friends and loved ones deal with victims of domestic violence who won't or can't leave the person who's abusing them. Talk about your book, X that Ex, and why there's a need for these kinds of trainings.
Maybe the majority of folks who have a manipulative or controlling or even physically abusive partner will not end up separating from them forever. Usually, what happens in these relationships is there may be some sort of process where someone comes and goes from the relationship—but many times, the relationship remains intact, to some degree, forever. That's not always the case, and certainly I don't want to give the impression that folks who are abused never leave, or that they want this, or that this is what they dreamed of as a child, because it's not. It's not. And something that I hope the book does a good job of is talking about how offenders strategically and purposely and consciously close doors for survivors of abuse or people who find themselves in these kinds of relationships in order to keep them from being able to leave and stay gone forever. Which, again, is why I wrote the book, because I—both at Esperanza and the hospital—see a number of individuals who have separated and are struggling to say separated for many reasons.
So it can be combination of offender trying to get that person back and person also wanting to go back…
Absolutely—feeling lonely, still feeling love for that person. And how much of that is really a genuine emotion or something that's been planted in them by the offender? It is an offender strategy to make the person who's being abused feel responsible for them, feel pity for them, feel grief for them—maybe more than their own emotions, want to take care of them. So if an offender can 'successfully' make a survivor feel that way, that can really limit their ability to ever leave and stay gone.
I'm sure a lot of people who face abuse never thought they'd find themselves in that situation. How does it happen, and how do you prevent it?
When I do trainings with audiences, a lot of times, I'll say, 'If someone hits you on a first date, would there be a second date?' And everyone says no. Unfortunately, folks who need power and control in relationships—offenders of domestic violence—know that. And so they will not show that part of their personality until they have prepped someone such that they will deliver that blow and it will act to further cement that relationship, not send them running. The ways that they prep a survivor to have that outcome is through emotional abuse, isolation and verbal abuse.
And so, over a number of months or maybe even years, they form that bond and they work on that survivor's self-esteem. And once you can convince someone through repeated exposure to certain forms of abuse that they're worthless—that they don't deserve better, that it's their responsibility that this is happening to them—then you can introduce violence, and it won't necessarily send them running.
You're painting a picture of someone who's very calculated about this. Doesn't it also happen that people just make mistakes?
That's a great question. There are relationships that are conflictual, where maybe one or both partners will fight in ways that look abusive like verbal abuse or even hitting. But the difference between domestic violence and a conflictual relationship or a mess-up would be the pattern. So what's important about domestic violence is the overall pattern of coercion, manipulation, stripping of dignity, disrespecting—those are the most important qualities that separate domestic violence [from isolated mistakes], and that is why offenders are so dangerous.
We hear about the cycle of abuse—like, if your parents abuse you, you're more likely to abuse or be abused. Do you notice any geographic or demographic trends in who's affected by domestic violence?
It is very complex. New Mexico, statistically, has a huge issue on its hands—not something that we should feel at all comfortable ignoring or thinking will go away on its own. And I don't believe we're getting in front of the issue here in New Mexico; we're chasing it. And that's not to say that some people aren't working very hard—because, certainly, they are—but as a community, as a state, we don't have what it takes right now to deal with this issue.
And I will say one of the strategies that offenders use is isolation. So if you think about the rural parts of the state—just by virtue of geography, how isolated folks are who live there, what services do they have, who is out there telling them that this isn't normal. Particularly if it's a generational issue, who's out there saying, 'You don't have to live this way' or 'Here's another option, here's another way to be'? So that is a real concern, particularly in the rural areas. But really, this can happen to all different kinds of folks. And I do talk to survivors who say, 'I didn't think this could happen to me'—and yeah, it can. And so it's almost a disservice to people that they believe these myths that it's only a certain kind of woman or certain kind of person this happens to.
Why is New Mexico's domestic violence problem so bad?
I have some thoughts on it, and these thoughts evolve as I learn more and more about the situation here, and I don't think we know 100 percent. But some of my thoughts are, because it's a generational issue and because we don't have the resources to combat it effectively, those generations continue to produce more and more children who grow up and have this issue. It's a horrible, terrible legacy that we bestow on our children here in New Mexico. Again, I think it's a question of resources. I also think it's just a question of information. Part of the reason I wrote X that Ex was because, even when I would work with people at the shelter and have three months to work with them, I couldn't communicate all this information, because they're trying to find housing and get their kids in school and put shoes on their feet. And, at the hospital where I work now, I have a limited ability due to time to pass on this information. So I think some of it is just people being educated.
You mentioned us not having the resources to get in front of it. What should or could we be doing?
Certainly shelter space is an issue—and the quality of shelter space. Other issues would include child care for survivors so they can be looking for a job or going to counseling or in some other way bettering their life, making themselves more resilient to what their offender is trying to do in order to get them back or get back at them. We certainly could arrange our courts and legal systems in a more effective way to where we are prosecuting domestic violence at a higher rate. And really holding offenders accountable, I think, is important—and not because I think offenders get better in jail, but because, if an offender goes to jail for any length of time, it gives that survivor a chance to really think about what they want and a chance for intervention, maybe to seek shelter or for a counselor to work with them. Many people who want power and control will cut off all those avenues.
When it comes to the legal system, I've heard both sides—that prosecution isn't aggressive enough, but also that laws can sometimes be too strict, and the wrong people get arrested.
I don't think our legal system—or our criminal justice system, law enforcement—is set up to deal with the entirety of abuse. At best, it will be able to address physical and sexual abuse. But the other forms of abuse—the other tools that offenders use to strategically trap survivors—verbal abuse, isolation, threats, intimidation—those are largely untouched by those systems. And those, in my mind, lay the foundation for what abuse will be and what it is. So if those systems can't touch that foundation, we really have to work as a coordinated community to address the issue and not just rely on systems that haven't been developed to deal with the whole issue.
But how do you measure things like threats? It would just be one person's word against another.
That's why I don't think law enforcement or the judicial system can handle this whole burden. But there are other systems that can take pieces of that. I would say every system in our community—whether it be the faith community or schools or medical or social services, really any system that you can think of that operates to maintain the health of our community—if they were educated about the issue, they knew signs and systems, they knew 'how to intervene if somebody makes a disclosure—if we had our systems aligned, we could do so much more, and we could catch this earlier before it turns into such an issue that the kids are growing up and displaying these behaviors or somebody's being killed.
Are there any states or local governments you know of that are doing this effectively, that we can model ourselves after?
There are states that have much lower incidences of domestic violence. And I'm not an expert on what they're doing that's more effective but, certainly, those models are out there, and if we have a commitment to this issue, we could do those things here.
Where should that commitment come from? Where can we find the resources you were talking about earlier?
There's a number of different ways that we could start to get in front of the issue. Some of it could be legislative. Some of it could be greater resources—and that means financial resources; we have to pay for these things, it won't just happen on its own. But really, again, we need this coordinated community response where everyone understands the severity of what's happening here and comes together and takes on their own piece of responsibility.
I'm not one to think that our state government per se will solve this for us. This is for each of us to dig deep and find out what we can do, whether it's becoming a big brother for Big Brothers Big Sisters and role modeling to a child healthy behavior or calling 911 when we hear an argument that sounds like it needs some attention or donating your time or money to a shelter. But it can't always be someone else's problem or something we don't have time for.
The other piece is just getting educated about it. I talk to a lot of family and friends who want to help, but they don't know howm and they end up saying things like, 'You just need to dump him, he's a loser, what's wrong with you that you stay?' or 'What's wrong with you that you still love him?' Gosh, I understand where those messages are coming from and their need to really try to jolt that person out of this relationship, [but] it's really ineffective. I mean, it makes you the bad guy instead of the ally that you are for them. Reading a book like X that Ex or contacting a shelter and finding out more information or getting online—there's lots of materials online about this issue. The quality of the helper you will be to someone else is dependent on what you know. If you're just using trial and error to figure out what works best, folks can really get hurt that way.
You have resources on your website, right?
I do—my favorite resources, [and] I've been in the field for a long time, and I've really read a lot on the issue.
Any final thoughts?
I just want to say, the thing I think is most special about the book is its ability to help the reader predict what the bad ex they have will do next. And, because what bad exes do is strategic and calculated, it is to some degree predictable. So if folks read this book, they will be able to determine what their ex is most likely to do and stay one step ahead of them. And that's really important, that folks not be surprised by these strategies and that they know beforehand what could happen—and not just from a place of physical safety, but emotional safety. So I think that's maybe, of a lot of good things, the best thing about it.