Beacon of Hope offers women in harmful relationships support

MIFFLINTOWN – She thought she was going to die.

The grip he had had on her left her lungs burning and left her unable to see anything but blackness.

A flash of her children’s faces came to mind, and she suddenly had the power of men twice her size as she fought back.

But she couldn’t tell anyone.

The police came that night in December 2012, but she kept silent. She could not let anyone know.

This is a story many women in the Juniata Valley silently face. Beacon of Hope Counseling in Mifflintown is offering a place to find community and support for those in unhealthy relationships called Empowerment Group.

The group counseling session held once a week at the office along William Penn Highway is based on curriculum from the book “Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men,” by Lundy Bancroft.

One of the women actively taking part in this new therapy group is Jesse Hoffman.

In most cases of abuse, women choose not to speak about their experiences because of the impact it has had on them. Hoffman has decided someone needs to speak for the speechless.

She didn’t always feel this way, however.

“I told my doctor I didn’t need counseling. My family doctor called me six times in one day. I got really upset with them. But they told me, ‘Look, you have been under our care and it is on your chart that you’ve been abused. You need help.'”

She left her abuser this past August after a full year of life-threatening physical abuse. But she was far from healed.

She said she felt stupid. She said others in her life told her she was stupid to ever get into such a relationship in the first place. After the relationship was over, she said the pain was still real and the thoughts overwhelmed her.

“One night I had all I could take,” Hoffman said. “(My daughter) picked my head up off the pillow … she said I needed to do something. She said she was afraid I was going to die.”

At barely 100 pounds, she said she was in “hard core, rough shape” in November 2013 – three months after the physical abuse ended – when she finally decided to seek therapy with Beacon of Hope Counseling.

During that same time, licensed social worker Megan Von Fricken was contemplating starting a therapy group for women who visited Beacon of Hope’s offices who all seemed to have something in common – they had been victims of abuse and they needed to no longer feel alone.

Von Fricken phoned Denise Shugarts, a former co-worker, and asked her to join in helping form the group.

The goal, the two social workers shared, is to unlock the power of hope. The term P.O.W.E.R. is broken down as: Persevering through struggles, being Open to new ideas, gaining Wisdom and insight to become Empowered in Reaching the best version of herself.

Goals include defining red flags in unhealthy relationships, developing coping skills and developing a healthy support system in a safe, therapeutic environment.

Looking back at her experience, Hoffman said she can see what would have been the warning signs.

Her first red flag came in the form of her abuser’s outbursts. She said she mentioned something her abuser did not like one evening while she stood at the sink doing dishes. He ended up busting a coffee cup against a cabinet, shattering it to pieces on her.

He apologized with all sincerity, and she decided she must have been the one who was wrong to ever make him angry. Soon it took very little, and the man she loved was angry at her. She began keeping a notebook so she could jot down what made him angry and to do her best not to do those things again.

Von Fricken noted other warning signs include attacking the victim’s self-esteem, jealousy, and isolating the victim from friends and family – all things Hoffman experienced.

Family and friends could not understand why Hoffman would leave and then return to the abuser. They did not know the fears Hoffman had as the abuser threatened her life, her children – and even his own life.

“I was just in survival mode.”

Von Fricken pointed out that “survival mode” is essentially what happens to a victim.

“Men like this have a very entitled attitude … they feel entitled to everything you should give them,” Von Fricken said. “It can wear on you and wear on you until you are at the point where you are keeping a notebook on how to deal with him.”

The most dangerous moment, Shugarts said, is the one that is most necessary – when the victim decides at long last to leave.

After 12 months of bruises and sheer terror, Hoffman said one night she had enough.

“I stuck to my guns,” she said, knowing it could get her hurt or worse. “I didn’t care how it ended. It ended. I was injured. But it ended.”

A friend met her at a local gas station that night and lovingly but firmly made her call the police. She has since had a protection from abuse order.

The group therapy has been an asset to her that has helped her grow, she said.

While there are currently only three women actively attending, the social workers said they hope to start new clusters of individuals to meet at different times. An evaluation of each individual will be done prior to entering the group therapy. For those with PFAs, the $30 cost per session is usually covered by crime victim funds. Some insurances even cover some of the cost.

Hoffman said being able to share her story with other women and tell how she gained courage to get out and get therapy has helped the healing process and is helping others heal as well.

“I have critics who say I’m talking to get attention,” Hoffman said. “It’s not about attention. It’s about being an advocate.”

For more information on the group therapy sessions, call 436-8406.