What Krystal loved most about her work was the chance to help people. No matter what was happening at home, she could do her rounds with her elderly patients, smile as if nothing were wrong, and forget—for a minute or two—what a mess her life had become. She was exhausted, so much so that one day, she sat down in a patient’s room and didn’t get up. She hadn’t slept for three days. Now she did, while the patient she was supposed to be feeding lay helpless nearby.

She awoke to see her supervisor hovering over her. There were no excuses this time. She was fired.

In the next six months, she lost two more jobs. She’d never been fired in her life, but between the booze and the coke and him, she couldn’t hold it together during the day. She tried to lose weight by throwing on a plastic workout suit and running in the Houston sun. It was never enough. He’d call her at work to see where she was. He’d even call while she was in church. Lord, she thought. I can’t even talk to you without him getting jealous.

She tried to tell her biological mom about the abuse. Krystal had met her again when she was 18. Their relationship was touchy, a myriad of disastrous arguments followed by forgiving conversations. Her mom didn’t understand: “You’re going to leave this house and these cars? You’re going to leave all this?” Krystal talked to friends, to people at her church, and always heard the same responses. It can’t be that bad. He’s just struggling. He’ll change. Don’t leave him. Maybe some couples counseling would help.

She started searching the Internet and found a list of 10 things that may mean you’re in an abusive relationship. She checked off all 10. She looked at Terrance’s ex-wife—a single mom raising two kids—and marveled at how great she was doing. The children dressed well. She always seemed to have money. How could Krystal be doing so much worse with a man in her life? If it ever occurred to her that maybe the problem was him, not her, Krystal didn’t dwell on it.

She convinced herself she could stand it. After all, her perceived alternative was homelessness for herself and her kids. This didn’t keep her from threatening to go away. “It’ll be a cold day in hell when you leave me,” he’d say. She’d repeated her threats so many times he probably didn’t worry about it anymore. He did show concern once, in the fall of 2009 while they were getting high in the garage. After she warned him again, he said, “I love you, don’t say that. Before you leave me, let’s just talk about it.”

“OK,” she said. “You’re right.”

Hitting rock bottom can be abrupt—a free fall followed by a thud. For Krystal, it was a slow crawl. She knew it was all going so wrong. But she didn’t know how to stop. Couldn’t imagine how she’d get the energy to make a change. Didn’t think that anyone would believe her or help her.

That all changed one day when a social worker visited her house, looking for Krystal.

“That’s me,” Krystal said.

“I’m from Child Protective Services,” the social worker said.

Krystal wanted to laugh. She almost couldn’t help herself; it was funny. The social worker began reading from a report. Everything she said was true. The children had recently spent the night sleeping on a neighbor’s porch. Krystal had checked into a hospital that evening to recover from anemia and depression after yet another fight with Terrance. Before she left, she’d told the kids to stay at a nearby friend’s house. When the neighbor wasn’t home, Jay and Adara decided that sleeping outside—Terrance never hit the kids but was verbally abusive to them—was better than returning home without their mom.

The social worker read on. They knew about all of it: the fights, the drugs, the parties. But Terrance was home and came to the door, so Krystal lied. “No, my children were not outside,” she said. “They were in the house, and I don’t know who reported this.”

Jay and Adara seemed to understand, too, because they quickly echoed the lies. We were at a neighbor’s house. Nope, we weren’t outside. Weeks later, social services called and told Krystal the case had been dropped.

Her fear intensified. She’d saved her kids from foster care, but for how long? What would she do the next time Child Protective Services knocked on the door? She thought about killing Terrance. She sat in the medication room at her latest job, staring at the drugs. It would be so easy to stop the abuse. As quickly as these dark thoughts arose, she chased them away. Then she sobbed. She had no way out. 

If she was a mess, her kids were even worse. Adara walked around with her head bowed, timid and withdrawn. Sometimes at night, Krystal would find her daughter stuffing food in her pockets, just in case there suddenly wasn’t anything to eat. The dogs would trail after her in a pathetic parade. Jay was failing in school and stealing from just about everyone except his mom. Although Terrance seemed to tolerate Adara, Jay pissed him off. He constantly berated the teenager, warning Jay that he’d soon be in prison. After seeing the anger grow in her son, Krystal couldn’t disagree; Jay was out of control.

Over the six or so years the violence took place, Adara had devolved from a spunky girl to a sunken teen, and Jay, once small and frail, was now over 6 feet tall—and increasingly angry. How long before he fought back? Too many nights, Krystal wondered: Am I going to die here? Who’s going to take care of my children? He doesn’t care about them or me. I am going to lose my children over this.

There seemed to be no end, so when it finally came, it surprised her, too. Terrance hit her one night and when Jay shrieked, the sound was unlike anything Krystal had heard before. It was primal, and it told her something had changed in her little boy.

When she left her first husband, it was to protect Jay. Why was Terrance so different? On the night after she’d stowed the luggage with her friend, Terrance ordered Jay to go upstairs and take a shower. Before another argument could ensue, Krystal said no, she was taking the kids for ice cream.

Her friend was waiting for them outside the house. “Are you ready?” she asked. Krystal couldn’t stay and wait for Jay to turn into everything Terrance thought he would. She couldn’t spend another day choosing him over her kids.

“Yeah, I think I am.”