In light of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I offer the touching story of my friend Cheryl O’Neil, a true warrior against violence and abuse.
Cheryl’s life is a testimony that even after decades of painful abuse, healing and restoration is possible.
After high school graduation, nineteen-year-old Cheryl O’Neil looked forward to the time when her boyfriend would return from his service in the Navy so the two could begin their lives together. As months went by, another man, who will be referred to in this story as “Doug”, showed interest in Cheryl.
“He came on strong, like he was my protector,” Cheryl said. “He was going to take care of me. When my boyfriend returned home, Doug pressured me to break off the relationship and choose him instead. As a child of nineteen years old, I thought he really did care about me. In the end, I made the wrong choice and stayed with Doug.”
From the beginning of the relationship, Doug exhibited jealous and controlling behavior. When Cheryl and her girlfriends went for a ride in a male friend’s Mustang, Doug flagged them down and beat up the driver.
“I didn’t understand then what it meant, but looking back, of course I can see the red flags.”
Doug and Cheryl had met in February and married in November of the same year. Soon after the wedding, Doug began dictating Cheryl’s choices.
“I have always been into fashion and enjoyed shopping for clothes. Doug told me, ‘You need to stop wearing those kinds of clothes. You need to dress like a wife now.’”
When Cheryl became pregnant with their first child, Doug’s abuse became physical.
“The first time he hit me, I said ‘You not only hurt me, but you could have hurt our baby too.’ I went to my grandmother’s house and stayed there for a day. Doug’s mother called my grandmother and accused her of harboring me. She said that I needed to go home to my husband. She convinced my grandmother that Doug and I should seek counseling. I agreed, but it didn’t last long.”
Doug continued to isolate Cheryl, insisting that she stay home alone in their country home with no telephone.
“When I went into labor, I had to walk down the road to the neighbor’s house. Luckily someone was home to make sure I got to the hospital.”
Cheryl was delighted to become a mother to a baby boy, Dennis. Though Doug enjoyed being a father, he continued working to isolate Cheryl from the family and friends who wanted to be part of their lives.
“He didn’t want me to be around friends because they supported me. He didn’t want me to be around family because they supported me. If he could limit my connections, he could make me feel like he was the only man in the world. He really didn’t like my beliefs. He once threw my Bible right across the room. When it came time for Dennis’s baptism, Doug went along with it publicly, but that night he beat me again. Every time there was a significant event in my life, he had to exert his control.”
“At that time, I did not believe in divorce. I really felt I needed to stay with him – that he was my cross to bear. I felt sorry for him. He’d had troubles with reading, and his mother had ridiculed him. I thought I could make him better. I thought if I could just convince myself to keep loving him and caring for him, some day it would all be okay.”
“Like so many victims do, I tried to change myself. I remember looking at him after he beat me and saying, ‘What did I do this time?’ And he always had a reason.”
Those were lonely days for Cheryl. She was twenty-two years old, spending days and nights home alone with her two young sons while Doug went out drinking. He would disable the vehicle before leaving so that Cheryl had no way out.
“I was a spitfire. Deep down, I didn’t want to put up with crap from anyone. I went out to the car and plugged back in whatever it was that he had unplugged and left hanging there, and took off with the kids to Grandma’s house! He was so mad. He hollered at me, ‘What man did you have over here? Must have been a man that fixed the car!’”
A few nights later, he’d been out for several hours and I had a knock at the door from a deputy from the sheriff’s department. The officer told me that Doug was passed out drunk in his car at the end of the street. The officer took the keys out of the ignition and gave them to me so Doug wouldn’t drive. Of course, Doug thought I had taken the keys and called the police, so I got beaten again.”
When my grandmother passed away, I convinced him that it was a wise financial decision to move into her home. We sold our home and moved into town, and for the first time in years I felt I could breathe a bit. There were neighbors living in close proximity to our home. Those were the only days I didn’t get beaten.”
Four years later, they moved into a more spacious home. Within weeks, the physical assaults resumed.
“I remember running out of the house when I knew an attack was coming, but then becoming terrified that he would hurt or kill my kids. What if I heard a gunshot from inside the house? So I changed my plan and hid in the closet or in the attic so I could protect the boys.
“I could hear him coming after me, moving boxes around, threatening, ‘If I find you, bitch, I’m gonna kill you. I’m gonna kill you.’ My classmates were fighting for their lives in the jungles of Vietnam, and I was fighting for mine in my own home, fighting against someone who was supposed to love me.
“He never did touch the kids. I told him he’d better not, and he knew I meant it. I said, ‘You touch my kids, and you’re gonna die. You’ll fall asleep, and I’ll kill you.’
“I once overheard his brother-in-law saying something to him about mother hens protecting their young, and I was so grateful to him for that comment.”
Over the years, Cheryl’s circumstances lead to an intense battle with anxiety and depression.
“I got sicker and sicker until the mental health professionals I worked with sent me to Green Bay for medication. At that appointment, the doctor asked me, ‘Does your husband ever hit you?’
“’Only when I deserve it,’ I replied.
“He pounded his fists on the table and shouted, ‘NO ONE deserves to be hit.’
“I know he was trying to drive home a point, but can you imagine what that did to me? I shrank to nothing in my chair.”
The doctor prescribed medication to help Cheryl cope, but she didn’t like the way it made her feel.
“My parents both had drinking problems, and I was afraid to drink or put chemicals into my body, so I came off the medication and struggled through years of anxiety and depression.”
It was a dark time for Cheryl. She kept quiet about the abuse, telling herself she could take it, but soon she faced the tough reality that her sons were also being affected by Doug’s violence.
“It was an awful situation to be in. I didn’t believe in divorce, and I wanted my children to have a father – and in many ways he was a good father. But of all the regrets surrounding that relationship, the absolute worst part of it all was that my children grew up in a home where they saw physical violence taking place.”
“One day, we were getting our tires changed at Fleet Farm, and my son Ken said to me, ‘Uh-oh, we’re in trouble. Dad’s mad. Look at his face, Mom. Look at his face.’
“It broke my heart to see that even my kids were picking up on Doug’s warning signs.
“Another time, we were leaving a party as a family, and he started pounding on me before we even got on the road. I remember the boys’ voices from the back seat saying ‘Mama didn’t do anything. Mama didn’t do anything…’
“A few times, Ken got involved. He’d step in and say, ‘No more drinking, Daddy. No more drinking.’ Eventually, I was being hurt even when he wasn’t drinking.”
Although the boys were never struck by their father, Cheryl’s abuse went on for twenty years.
“Ater Dennis went off to college, Doug came to me and said he was leaving. There was someone else. He packed some jeans and shirts and took off, and we didn’t hear from him. A few weeks later, I called his mother – I figured she had heard from him. I told her he needed to come and get the rest of his things. When he finally did come home, I told him we needed to file for divorce. He said, ‘Let’s talk.’
“The boys were at a friend’s birthday party, so he had me alone. He told me there was something in the car that he wanted to show me. He beat me in the car, took me down the road, and dumped me on the side of the road.
“After that, the boys were done. They were calling the police. Ken said, ‘I’m going with you, Mom. I’m going to get those divorce papers with you.’
“Even after all that, I was still ashamed at the idea of divorce. I was still keeping all of it a secret from everyone. My friend Pat from church was starting a prayer group at the time, and I went over to her and told her that I needed help. I didn’t know what to do.
“My pastor, Loring Prest – he was a gift from above. He was the one who truly helped me to see that God would never have wanted me to be abused. He helped me to realize that God may not “like” divorce, but He was going to see me through it.”
Loring mentored the children. He went to divorce hearings with Cheryl. He was a caring and involved minister in Chery’s time of need.
“I also had a counselor named Norm Jasmine who helped me immensely. He showed me the power and control wheel. He talked to me about habits of perpetrators of abuse. For the first time ever, I thought, Maybe it’s not all me. Maybe I’m not alone. They have words for this. Other people go through this too.
“I began receiving counseling services at Caring House. I still remember Carole Schinderle greeting me at the door with coffee as I came in. Being there was such a gift. I was able to really relate to people about the life that I had lived – the pain, the inward judging.”
At Cheryl and Doug’s first divorce hearing, Cheryl finally had the opportunity to publicly state who Doug really was, and what he had put her through. At the end of the hearing, Ed Lovato from the sheriff’s department wrapped the handcuffs around Doug’s wrists and said, “I’ve waited a long time to do this. You are under arrest for domestic violence.”
“It took four years for the divorce to actually be finalized. Doug kept avoiding the paperwork. At one point, the judge looked at the court and said ‘This woman is going to be divorced today.’
“‘I’m not ready,’ Doug said.
“The judge replied, ‘I don’t care. She deserves to be free of you.'”
“After the divorce, a staff member from Caring House contacted me and asked if I would consider volunteering at the shelter. I dragged my feet, but they convinced me to give it a try. Eventually, I became a shelter staff member.
“I worked nights at Caring House, and I remember saying to Ken, who was a young man at the time, ‘Ken, I have to work, but I need you to call me when you’re home. I need to know you’re safe. I need to know you’re home.’ And bless his heart, he would call. Those boys were so good to me.
In addition to working at the shelter, Cheryl was operating a day care during the day. She loved her work, but was exhausted by the hours and demands.
“I remember praying, ‘God, I’m tired. If you want me to continue pursuing my work at the shelter, I need a sign.’”
The very next day, the Caring House director came to her and said, ‘Cheryl, I have an open position I’d like you to fill as the Child and Teen Advocate.’
Cheryl told him she had to take some time to think about it.
At the time, she had begun dating a man named Jim. That evening, she told him about the offer, and he said, “What do you need to think about?”
I agreed to the position, and it was absolutely wonderful. Of all the jobs I’ve done in my life, the most meaningful work was with those kids.
Three years later, the director of The Caring House quit, and Cheryl was asked to fill in as the interim director for three months.
“They called a special board meeting, and afterwards, the chairman handed me the key and said, ‘Here you go, kid. We’ll be talking.’
“I was terrified! At that time, I didn’t know how to do the grants, or any of it! I just had to learn by doing. I contacted different domestic violence agencies and muddled through.
“Six months later, I contacted the board chairman and said, ‘I think you need to find a director.’
“‘Why don’t you do it?’ he said.
“’No way,’ I said. ‘This isn’t for me.’
“Once again, I asked God for a sign. I knew I shouldn’t be testing the Lord, but I still asked.”
“My pastor at the time, Carl Hammer, stopped me and said, ‘Are you the director up there?’
“’Nooooo’, I said. ‘I’m waiting for a sign from God about what I should do next.’
“’I think he’s given you the signs!’ he said.
“I agreed to take the job, and shortly after, there was some turmoil. We feared Caring House would be defunded. I thought, ‘Here I am this little battered woman, and I have to figure out how to keep this place going!’
And she did.
Twenty-two years later, Caring House Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services is still in operation, functioning as a safe place for women and children to find shelter, and a voice for those who may not otherwise be heard.
“People say things to me like, ‘Cheryl, you’ve done such great work.’ But I haven’t — I’ve just been God’s tool. I’ve just hoped I could carry out what He needed me to do.
“This work has been so healing for me. In helping others, my own injuries have been healing. There are still some sore spots, but healing takes a long time.”
During the years of healing and rebuilding her life, Cheryl was given another divine gift – the gift of a man who would love and honor her in the manner in which she deserved.
“I spent all those years asking God to change Doug, and instead He gave me Jim. Jim has taught me so much. He is the most patient and compassionate person. I’m so thankful for the ways he has taken care of my boys, and that they have had the opportunity to learn from his quiet, understanding ways.”
“Both of my boys have become incredible men and fathers, but I know they still carry the scars of what happened in our home. We all do.
“Years later, it all seems so clear. I know the Lord didn’t want my abuse to happen. But I also know that with Him, I was able to take the experience and turn it around into something that would help others.
“I truly understand what the women in the shelter have been through. I remember it clearly. I remember that after an assault, I would say to myself, ‘I survived. This is good. This is okay. I survived another one.’
“I know how hard it is for women to leave. I know that sometimes people do not feel safe to stay, but they also aren’t safe to leave.
“I know how crucial it is for them to reach out and talk and talk to someone. To talk to their friends, their clergy. Hopefully everyone is well-versed enough these days to know that women shouldn’t be receiving the message to stay and take it.
“My hope for battered women is that they would know that help is available.
“Get the safety planning done. Trust your faith and your resources. Listen when God talks to you. Know that there is something better on the other side, and that healing truly can happen.”
Thank you, Cheryl, for sharing your journey and reminding us that God is still in the business of trading ashes for beauty. So much love for you! ❤ Stacy
For more information, visit Caring House online or call the toll-free hotline: (800) 392-7839
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-7233
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network: (800) 656-HOPE
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5 thoughts on “Grand Edits with Cheryl O’Neil: Revising Life after Domestic Abuse”
It was irresponsible for her to have subjected her children to this lifestyle. I do not believe she would have protected them from him if he had begun to physically abuse them as well. She was already allowing him to emotionally abuse them. Then she allowed her young son to start stepping in. Become her protector. As a mother her job is to protect her children. She should have been lawfully held responsible as well as her husband. 20 years? If a person won’t walk away from it as a childless couple, that is her decision. The moment he touched her as a pregnant woman is the moment she should have stepped out of his life. What brought me to your blog is your incredibly insightful story on your decision to not let a community member befriend your son. I expected this piece to be along the same lines. A strong woman who would also protect her children, and her story after leaving him as soon as she found out who he really was. Not someone who seems to enjoy the attention her allowed abuse brings her.
Thank you for reading Cheryl’s story and taking a moment to leave a comment.
Before I address any other points, I’d like to speak to the idea that Cheryl seems to enjoy the attention her abuse has brought to her. I have known Cheryl for years and can confidently say that she is in no way telling her story to seek attention. I have attended the same small church as Cheryl for decades and had never even heard her story. She does not broadcast this around. I approached HER to share this story, and not vice versa.
I can also attest to the fact that Cheryl has dealt with decades of inner torment for what her sons went through during their childhood. Anyone who reads this story can see how devastating the abuse was not only to Cheryl, but to her boys as well. Cheryl would be the first to recognize that. It has haunted her for years.
What seems to be missing from the assertion that battered women should simply walk away from their abusers is an understanding of the way abusers manipulate and control those victims in ways that make it incredibly difficult to leave. (See the Power and Control Wheel here: http://www.ncdsv.org/images/powercontrolwheelnoshading.pdf) Tragically, many women who do choose to leave do not make it out alive.
Though I commend any woman who walks away from an abusive relationship before it gets out of hand, that is not Cheryl’s story, and I would never cast stones at her without knowing what it was like to walk her path. I am deeply proud of my friend for making the protection of women and children into her life’s work, and I’m also grateful for her willingness to share her story with hopes that other women and families may not have to endure what she endured.
I hope my insights help you to understand who my friend really is, and encourage you to speak with compassion about those who have truly been through hell on earth.
Wow. To know the story behind the passion is overwhelming. Thank you for sharing Cheryl and for framing the story so well Stacy. It’s inspiring to see your strength. May God continue to use for good what satsn intended for evil. So thankful that you and your staff at the Caring House are there for those in need as well as bringing awareness and justice to those aldo in need. Much love.
Well said, Chad. So thankful to know Cheryl and to have the Caring House in our community.