Life

I Got Away From My Abuser and Moved Into a Shelter. Now I Have COVID-19.

A woman walks down a hallway.
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Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This anonymous as-told-to essay from a survivor of domestic violence living at a temporary emergency shelter in New York City has been edited and condensed for clarity from conversations with Jessica Militare.

Years ago, I got out of an abusive marriage and later met someone else. What shocked me was that this person was even more abusive than my ex-husband. I couldn’t believe it happened to me again, but worse—he was physically, sexually, and mentally abusive. This time I was too afraid to leave; I didn’t want to put myself or my family in danger. We eventually broke up, but the abuse continued through stalking and intimidation. I reached a point where I couldn’t sleep or walk outside without fear, and I couldn’t live like that. Growing up, my father abused my mother too, and I didn’t want that in my life. I prepared myself for a long time, working with therapists and people who help survivors organize to leave. That first day was the hardest: I have a daughter in her 20s from my marriage, and I wasn’t sure when I’d see her again. But I was willing to do whatever it took to get a safe place for me. I didn’t know where I was going, because our destination is confidential.

In December, when I got a unit at this shelter, I was so happy that I could start my life over. My days were usually spent taking a walk, going to physical therapy, awaiting and going to doctor’s appointments, and getting in touch with family. I used to work as a photo editor, and I was updating my Photoshop skills and hoping to get better. I get my blood checked every few weeks at a hospital clinic. When I was there in early March, I saw people wearing masks, and people sick and red with a temperature in the waiting area. I thought, this has to be serious.

Then we had a meeting at the shelter when they found out the coronavirus is dangerous. Every resident was told what we should do, how to keep everybody safe. We got a package with a mask and gloves. All groups were canceled, and we started having individual appointments by phone. There’s a communal kitchen downstairs, but for safety, it’s closed. We got informed that a person who was with us in group therapy was either exposed or had the coronavirus, so we were asked to stay in our rooms for quarantine. If you had kids, they were not allowed to play together. People were trying to talk but keep their distance. People were scared. It was terrifying. We don’t know what our situation will be, or where we’ll go next, because this is a temporary shelter.

In late March, I had big chills and a sore throat, and I lost my sense of taste and smell. I contacted my doctor, and they said that I probably have the coronavirus. I wasn’t tested at the time because the hospital said it was not testing people. My doctor told me to stay in my room and, if my symptoms got worse, call for an ambulance. I have asthma, heart problems, and other health conditions, and when I heard about the risk to people with underlying conditions, that scared me. I was like, OK, so basically I’ll be left to die.

Luckily I started improving, and my doctor told me my quarantine was over in early April. But by the middle of the month, my cough and heavy breathing came back stronger. I told my doctors at the hospital while getting my blood checked, and they decided I should go to the emergency room. I was taken to the COVID-19 unit, finally got tested, and kept overnight. The next day my oxygen levels went up and I was sent home and given an antibiotic, but I went to another hospital two days later and was tested for the coronavirus again. After having a chest X-ray, it was revealed that I have pneumonia, and back in my room two days later I got the test results: positive.

I was worried about my breathing and my lungs hurt—I actually slept in my chair for two days because I couldn’t lie down without being in pain or having shortness of breath. I’m in my room under quarantine again, and for now, I’m stable and trying to stay positive. The symptoms come and go. I feel better, and then it starts hitting me again. Mentally, it’s devastating. I do not feel safe and free from this. The only thing I can smell is the scent of lemon in my tea close to the nose. I lost my senses on March 28.

Isolation is hard, but I’ve been trying to do whatever I can to get healthy. I’m lucky we still have contact with our social workers and therapists, and we can talk with them when we need it. Since I’m not able to leave my room, the staff leaves me food at my door. They are all really helpful, and I’m so grateful for them. Before this, I was going to physical therapy for injuries and awaiting surgery, but now everything is on hold. The pain is horrible, so I have to find a way, even if I’m weak, to get strength. On YouTube I watch virtual walking videos and do my 10-minute walk in the room, walking with my laptop back-and-forth. It takes my mind off the stress. I also contact my family by video chat. Some of them got sick. My daughter lives with her boyfriend, and I check on them every day. A week before the coronavirus lockdown began, she and I had lunch together, and we had the chance to hug and laugh. I keep this in my memory—at least I had this one day.

A lot of survivors of domestic violence outside haven’t gotten help yet and now are in worse conditions. You can imagine if you live in an abusive relationship and have to stay home with this person all the time. Some people are not only in the middle of emotional and sexual abuse, but they’re abused financially so they’re not able to leave. It’s not an easy decision to even get away.

From my experience, it was hard. It’s not just you get here and you’re fine. I never saw that side of me, how deeply I’m scarred. Some people can’t even imagine how it feels. But I’m much better now, and I’m glad I did it. At Barrier Free Living, they help you organize and do it the safe way. It’s important not to forget about places like this.

With the coronavirus, my strength vanished. I’m lucky that I have some skills and can adapt. If I survive this, I want to help somebody else, lift people up. Maybe art and music therapy, or an exhibit to donate money to the shelter.

I have no place to go when my time is up here in a few months, and my court date was pushed back. I have an order of protection against my abuser, but for my safety I can’t go back home. I don’t know my future and I’m worried about my family, but I have the strength to move forward. My grandmother told me, even after rain, the sun is coming up. That’s my motto now. Even with the bad days, the sun will rise and you will see brightness. I have things I never saw. I have things I want to do.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for confidential support, or Barrier Free Living’s hotlines at 212-533-4358 or its Deaf Services Team at 646-807-4013.