Lessons from a Recovering Doormat

I’m delighted to have Kelly White as my guest today. As a non-profit executive, Kelly has spent over 25 years leading and growing community-based, non-profit corporations; including a decade as the executive director of SafePlace, the domestic violence and sexual assault services program for Austin and Travis County and, more recently, as the executive director of Chicago Foundation for Women. She also worked to develop a national violence prevention and intervention program for people with disabilities.

Kelly has received numerous awards, including the United Way/Capital Area Non-Profit Executive of the Year, the ROSE Foundation’s National Award for formerly battered women and in 2003 the SafePlace Shelter was renamed the Kelly White Family Shelter in honor of her “Decade of Dedication.” This was a particularly memorable distinction since Kelly readily acknowledges that she was once a battered woman who had to seek shelter for herself and her children from an abusive ex-husband. She’s also the author of A Safe Place for Women: How to Survive Domestic Abuse and Create a Successful Future Here’s what she had to say.

What was your first impression of your husband before you married? My very first impression was he was extraordinarily good looking. But I felt something about him that gave off little warming signs. I broke our first date.  There was definitely a red flag that said there was something that was not good but I didn’t pay attention to that warning. He wore me down, which was pretty much the story of our marriage. He wore me down to get me to do what he wanted me to do. It was about power and control—“How do I get her to be what I want her to be.”

How did you feel the first time you were abused? It built over time. I don’t know if I realized I was being abused. He said what I had done had made him do it. The first time it was truly directed at me was when he turned the couch upside down on top of me. And then he convinced me he wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t stopped by my ex-boyfriend’s house to pick up a plant. I thought he’d help me get the plant out of the car and instead he turned the couch upside down. So I got to the point that I blamed myself. I thought I made him do it. It was a cold anger; then he was appropriately sorry. I want to be clear. I hadn’t caused that. I know that now.

Why didn’t you leave sooner? I left a lot of times. We’d go into counseling. The counselor said things like, ”If you could do this, it would be better.” I tried to change jobs, dress right, talk right. In the end, I finally got divorced and the abuse escalated. I had 2 children and a good job. He threatened to kill me. He was extraordinarily scary. I stayed in the community I lived in. I had 2 tiny children, a house and friends. I shouldn’t have to be the one to run away. I should be protected. Then my three year old son got hurt trying to protect me from his father. It wasn’t fair but I needed to run. I gave my house back to the bank, quit my job, moved to another state and built a new life for us.

What gave you the courage to leave the life you’d built? The fact that my child was being hurt. Not badly hurt. He got in the way and was thrown across the room. I left for my children. But I still hadn’t left for myself. It took me years to recognize that I deserved better. Often battered wives don’t recognize they deserve better. You have every right to live a happy and fulfilled life. We are taught as women to be pleasing and to ingratiate ourselves. We’re supposed to be pretty. We’re not supposed to have our own power. Boys are supposed to be in charge. We teach our boys that they’re always supposed to be in control—be powerful and competitive. These messages are still out there.

How did you get back on your feet? When I ran away I was the executive director of a non-profit. So I knew how to do it. I had to have a job. I responded to a blind ad in the Denver newspaper. They didn’t say what it was in the ad and I sent in my resume. When they called me for an interview it was a for a battered women shelter.  They hired me. They did ask me if I had ever known anyone who’d been abused. I just responded yes. It took years before I talked to the board that hired me. I helped stabilize and grow that organization.

How did you recover? The huge piece of growing beyond abuse to lead an empowered positive life. A large part was the work I did with other women. We shared our stories and our lives, listening and growing and knowing how alike we all were. An important piece was recognizing how incredibly lucky I was. My job to level the playing field by giving back. It was important that I wasn’t alone. I built a community and worked with other battered women and learned about myself. I’m an executive director, not a counselor. I run the [business end of the] program. That’s what I know how to do. But in my book, A Safe Place for Women, I told their stories and in telling theirs I told mine, and learned about myself.

What’s the main message you try to get across to people who many be abused? It’s okay to have a good life and you deserve a good life. Do safety planning. You can call for help. I always give the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline–800.799.7233

How do you define yourself now? I define myself through my family, community and my work. I married that man because I was a fixer and I still try to fix things but I learned not to try to fix a man. I’m more discriminating at what I fix. I have a wonderful husband and children. I’m very blessed!

What would you like to tell someone who is being abused and is scared to leave? You can get through this. There can be great things on the other side.  When I first met women in the shelter in Denver, I had so much compared to the other women. Many were abused their whole lives. They didn’t have my education. How could they make it? But I was wrong. They did make it. If we can give people the hope and spirit, they cannot only survive, they can thrive. In my book I tell stories of many of these people. You will see look at what this person has been able to accomplish. On the other end it’s about healing—moving forward and living an empowered life.

Why did you write this book? I found myself waking up in the middle of the night thinking about it and thought if I was writing chapters in the middle of the night I had to write it. In the world of causes, everyone cares about it and it goes away. The reality is there are too few shelters and not enough money or enough resources that address these kinds of problems. I wanted to tell the stories of so many people I met along the way. They’re my heroes. I want people to know about them

Yeah, my story is in the book and I also talk about the programs and agencies. I think the battered women’s movement is an important story. It also talks about the history of violence against women. Just turn on the news and you’ll hear about domestic violence homicides. We’re so focused on violence overseas but what about here?

Check out Kelly White’s book, A Safe Place for Women. If you are being abused, or think someone you care about is being abused, use the resources in Kelly’s book and get help. That’s self-love!

Take the self-love challenge and get my book, How Do I Love Me? Let Me Count the Ways for free at And you can post your loving acts HERE to reinforce your intention to love yourself. Read my 31 Days of Self-Love Posts HERE.

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