Suffering in silence was never a reality Sarah Gustafson thought she’d face as first-time mom, nurse and wife from a loving family, but several years into an abusive relationship, no one knew her pain.
“Growing up in our house, I was never exposed to any form of abuse,” Sarah said. “I thought this must be that fairytale life. You just become blinded to some of those small red flags. It was really his show…how he wanted things done, what I was going to wear, where I was going to work, who I was going to hang out with, what I was going to do with my life, when I was going to have a baby. It really put a strain on relationships because then people were cut out of my life.”
Shortly after the relationship started, friends and family describe a vibrant daughter, sister and friend who became distant and didn’t seem like herself. Her sister Anna Bryl recalls that Sarah stopped returning phone calls and close friends say Sarah’s once gregarious style suddenly changed.
“Her spunky personality had kind of dwindled a bit,” said friend and nurse colleague Ann Mason. “I probably didn’t recognize all of the signs of true verbal abuse. It has opened my eyes because that person you wouldn’t expect the most, someone who has it all put together who has a great degree, a wonderful son, is not someone you would expect to be in abusive relationship.”
Thankfully, Sarah soon confided in her family and sought help from the East Grand Forks Police Department who recommended she contact the Community Violence Intervention Center (CVIC). Once introduced to CVIC’s advocacy and therapy services, the team helped Sarah consider her options for safety planning and next steps.
“After Jordan was born, things really escalated and it’s because the attention just couldn’t be on him,” Sarah said. “This is a hidden form of abuse where it’s secret. It’s mental and emotional. At the beginning, things were not physical. When I was getting ready to leave my home, things turned physical. I got very scared. I remember going downstairs with Jordan as an infant. We hid in the basement bedroom. He had taken the keys so I knew I didn’t have a way out of the house. I just looked at my son and said: ‘I’m going to get us out of here.’”
With help from CVIC’s team and partners as well as her family and friends, Sarah was able to leave her abusive relationship and build a new life free from interpersonal violence, and emotional and financial abuse. She has since remarried and is a proud wife of Aaron and mother to Jordan and Nora.
She wants to share her experience so that others who may witness signs and symptoms of abuse can assist their friends and family in similar situations. She recently spoke to more than 700 guests of CVIC’s Judd Sondreal Memorial Rise and Shine for Peace Breakfast, an annual event designed to raise funds and awareness of interpersonal violence. She encouraged attendees to reach out if things don’t look or feel right, and be a resource for those who may not have the courage to ask for help.
“Working as a nurse practitioner and being able to refer patients I see to CVIC at UND. That has all come full circle, too. I want people to know that if they’re in this situation that there is always a way out,” she said.
Explore our website to learn more about the advocacy services CVIC offers.