A Note from Tracy Schott, host, Voices4Change Radio Show — It’s a pleasure to welcome Lisette Johson to the show today. In October 2009, she was shot several times by her husband at close range. With her then 12-year-old daughter as a witness, he turned the gun on himself and took his own life. Lisette has made it her mission to share her story so other women won’t suffer the same trauma. She’s raised her voice and touched thousands at conferences and universities around the country, including Homeland Security, TSA, and the US Navy.
Lisette also has a powerful blog, ShamelessSurvivors.com, where she reaches and teaches people around the world. In addition, she has been featured in The Huffington Post, Washington Post, USA Today, Time, NBC, NPR The Takeaway, BBC, and our documentary “Finding Jenn’s Voice.” She has also testified before Congress and the Virginia General Assembly and has been instrumental in championing legislation protecting women.
In our interview today, we talk with Lisette about “The Dangers of Leaving an Abusive Relationship.”
Lisette shares: “Why doesn’t she just leave?” It’s the question we hear all the time in conversations about intimate partner violence. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’s not always safe — and too often can be lethal. Our guest, Lisette Johnson, is a survivor of an abusive relationship and was nearly killed when her husband shot her 3 times before turning the gun on himself. Lisette had been married for over 20 years and recently told her husband she was leaving when he chose to end their lives instead. Lisette will share her wisdom on leaving an abusive relationship. We’ll look at the emotional, social, and practical processes and deepen our understanding of the complexities of “just leaving.”
Please scroll down for our Q&A, and be sure to listen to our interview on Facebook Live, 1 pm EST on Feb. 19, 2021.
Tracy: You were married 21 years. What changed that made you feel you had to leave the marriage?
Lisette: The entire relationship, even before we married, had been a series of small and sometimes not so small abusive events. I put each one in a compartment and went about my life, but eventually, so many of the walls started to crumble. In the end, it was like putting a finger in each hole in a dam, and I ran out of fingers. The dam was cracking, and I couldn’t keep it all separate.
One precipitating event was being diagnosed with a lung tumor during an urgent care visit for bronchitis, which turned out to be a misdiagnosis of massive proportions. Still, the 10 days of diagnostic testing brought my life and legacy to my children’s front and center. I was thrown into a deep depression after the steroids I was prescribed for bronchitis and ended up in inpatient psych for 7 days. I called it the spa, the first place I’d been able to relax in years. Finally, I had time and space to reflect. I knew I had to make changes and sought therapy when I got out.
Tracy: How was therapy helpful to you?
Lisette: Interesting thing about therapy is it’s garbage in, garbage out. I wanted to fix my marriage, but I wasn’t ready to be fully honest with the therapist. I shared the redeeming parts of my relationship, more so my life as a mom, business owner, friend, and glossed over the real truth. Maybe I wasn’t fully ready, to be honest with myself.
During that time, my best friend, concerned my husband was the cause of my depression, sent a screenshot of an email I had sent her 9 years prior casually mentioning I told my husband I was tired of being criticized and put down and if he didn’t stop I would leave him. His reply was, “If you mess with my life, I’ll put a bullet in your head.” So I excused him, saying I’m sure he didn’t mean it, and then went on to ask her to keep the email in case anything ever happened to me.
Tracy: That’s alarming. So your friend kept your email for 9 years and then sent it?
Lisette: Yes, it was alarming to the therapist too when I shared it! I would sort of leak some information, then withdraw that he wasn’t really that man; he was the father of my two kids, a rock while I was in the hospital, my reasoning simply because he watched the kids and likely he had others doing so, but in my mind, of course, he wouldn’t do that.
I desperately tried to reconcile the man he kept presenting himself to be with the man I wanted him to be. When the therapist called me on it…… I stopped seeing her.
I instead sought therapy from a young, newly minted therapist, Dr. Brown, thinking he was about my husband’s sons’ age from his first marriage, and of course, he would talk some sense into him. Instead, Dr. Brown quickly declined to meet with both of us, stating I was his patient. He then bombarded me with challenges to my excuses with examples of how interactions worked in healthy relationships.
It began clear that not only was the relationship deteriorating but also that the abuse was escalating. I could no longer deny that my husband’s emotional, financial, and psychological abuse was a danger to our kids and me whether I stayed or left. I chose to save my kids from the relationship example we were providing them. With the email idling in the background, I knew doing so would be like navigating a minefield.
The healthier I got, the sicker he got. He began stalking me, following me, showing up places I hadn’t told him I’d be. He read my mail, my email. He reached out to my friends, portraying me as bipolar, even to Dr. Brown. He accused me of sleeping with Dr. Brown, my girlfriend, of cheating. Of running up my credit cards, frivolously spending money. Indeed my credit cards were maxed as I solely took on the burden of 100% of the children’s needs and expenses with no contribution from him and shared household expenses. Finally, he insisted he would use my therapy visits to prove I was an unfit mother and get full custody of our children, that I would never see them again.
I had the urgency to get out but kept walking the tightrope, hoping I could somehow control the timeline, mitigate his escalation. But, as my co-FJV survivor notes, it’s like you are trying to reel in a tornado. Impossible.
Tracy: How did you respond to his intimidation and threats?
Lisette: I stayed the course to exit the marriage. Years earlier, I felt like I’d invested too much in giving up when I considered leaving. By this point, differently, I understood there was no turning back. I couldn’t unknow what I knew, couldn’t cover it up anymore, and put a fancy bow on it after the ugliness after it was revealed.
Ultimately taking back my power, not backing down, left him, the only option in his mind, to take back control the only way he thought he could….by trying to murder me. Though I’ll never be certain, I think his suicide was an afterthought realizing even though he shot me 4 times, I was still running away. I think he knew he was screwed.
Tracy: What, if anything, would you do differently?
Lisette: I guess I hope that anyone who hears this and any of it resonates will seek out a domestic violence agency to help with safety planning. That includes support systems like friends, family, medical and mental health providers, even divorce attorneys referring clients.
Seeing the escalation the last week, my attorney advised if anything happened over the weekend to call 911 and then him. He perhaps had a 6th sense that the dynamic had somehow shifted.
Unfortunately, DV agencies use physical violence as a litmus for danger and emergency shelter, and we know that control is a higher predictor of lethal violence than physical abuse.
Tracy: Yes, statistics are breathtaking, as too many women killed by their partners never report prior abuse.
It took me a long time to admit that a smart, successful, plugged-in woman can experience abuse. I could tackle anything in my life, surely; my partner wasn’t subjugating me. That just wasn’t who I was. I was no victim. Except — I was. And if I had been brutally honest with myself, if I had any sense along the way that he MEANT what he threatened, I could have been open to DV services.
I did actually call the agency I now work for after the bullet in my head threat. Unfortunately, they offered little more than counseling and a community shelter description. Every day, I would still go to my office, hardly a safety plan as we develop now with clients.
Tracy: You are an advocate now? How do you approach your clients?
Lisette: Everyone is different. I don’t share my story with clients. It is their journey, not mine.
I did feel my husband was capable and spent a good deal of time dismissing my gut. I know I also needed to hear brutal truths to be validated. We need that urgency, that adrenaline, to get moving. So I tap into my experience without directing theirs.
The first thing I ask is, do you want it sugar-coated, or do you want me to be straight with you? 100% of the time, they say straight. And I TELL THEM WHO HE IS. These guys share too many commonalities. They’re apples from the same tree.
Clients aren’t expecting this. Instead, it seems enormously validating to them as they grapple with trying harder, trying to fix the relationship, fix him, and fix themselves.
I’m honest and say I’m not a therapist. I’m not your dear person. I’m here to help you stay safe, and if you don’t understand his motives, his methods, you can’t be one step ahead of him. If their danger assessment and history indicate he has the potential for lethal violence (i.e., to kill them), I am honest. I applaud them for staying safe until that time and encourage them to listen to their gut. Then, develop a realistic plan for them.
Does it help? I can only hope. Intervention at any stage has to help.