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Life with Gracie: CNN anchor opens up about domestic abuse

This being December, you won’t likely find any mention of domestic violence.

October, of course, may have been different. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence claims the 10th month of the year as its time to raise awareness.

No one is likely to take exception with that. Knowledge, as they say, is power.

CNN’s Christi Paul knows what I’m talking about and we find it curious that we don’t talk about this, well, every day.

Paul, the Atlanta-based anchor of “New Day Weekend,” lived through years of abuse and recently detailed her journey of recovery in “Love Isn’t Supposed to Hurt.”

And yet, each year in this country, 10 million men and women are physically abused by an intimate partner. One in three women and one in four men will experience domestic violence, and three a year will be murdered like my sister, shot dead by her husband in the winter of 2001.

On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.

Paul has four years of hindsight in her rearview mirror, and looking back the warning signs were as clear as day.

Even before she started dating him, the man she calls Justin in her book was prone to violent outbursts.

Her first memory was during an argument in the newsroom.

When she apologized, he turned and cursed at her.

“I was shocked,” Paul said during a break recently at CNN. “Nobody had talked to me like that in my life and certainly not after an apology. It was very strange.”

But after experiencing a series of personal losses, including a family friend who committed suicide, Paul said she reasoned life was too short to hold onto grievances, that everything you love could be gone in an instant.

Since their newsroom fight, she’d grown close to Justin. Besides being extremely charismatic, he could be really kind and caring.

“I know that’s who he was in his heart,” she said. “I loved him.”

Still when he got a job offer in 1996 to move from West Virginia to Boise, Idaho, and asked her to come along, Paul vacillated. She’d just been offered her dream job as the morning and noon news anchor at WKYC in Cleveland.

Do I take the job or do I follow the man? she kept asking herself.

Even though the market jump to Cleveland was huge, Paul chose Justin and Boise.

She was on the phone planning their nuptials, when he threw another fit. The phone call was costing him money.

Why would anyone want to marry you, he screamed as he walked out the door.

Paul was about to call her mother and ask if she could come home when he called and apologized.

Weeks later in August 1996, they were married.

After the wedding, the outbursts escalated to Justin punching the walls, shoving and shaking her so hard he left bruises on her arms. He’d threaten to punch her in the face.

Any small thing would set him off, but Paul endured.

In those still moments alone, she wondered if she’d ignored God’s way out, if she should have taken the anchor position at WKYC. Did she fear being alone that much?

She reasoned Justin loved her, that it was easier to just stay. She was going to make this right, prove to him she loved him, that love lasts.

Paul’s faith in God, she thought, demanded she do nothing less. She’d vowed before God, family and friends to love Justin through the good and bad times.

“I couldn’t just walk away because it had gotten hard,” she said.

But it was more than that. The abuse was eating away at Paul’s self-esteem. She was questioning her discernment and worth.

Two years in, it had gotten so bad, she called Justin’s parents and told them she was ready to leave. They helped the two of them seek counseling. Things got better, then worse, then better but she never felt safe. She felt grateful she didn’t have kids.

Four years in, Paul finally was ready to listen to that small, still voice within her: You are never going to be who I need you to be if you stay here.

“That’s when I checked out,” she said.

With her therapist’s help, Paul came up with a plan to leave. Knowing leaving is the most dangerous time for women, they decided it was best to be far away when she told Justin.

When she arrived back in Ohio, she called to tell him she wasn’t coming back, and in October 2000, four years after she’d vowed to love him until death, Paul filed for divorce.

Here’s what she wants people who find themselves in an abusive relationship to know:

Deciding to leave is far more excruciating than leaving. Faith calls us to eschew divorce, but God doesn’t put people on earth to be abused. No matter how ugly your truth is, you can’t change it until you face it. There are people out there who will love you … but love isn’t supposed to hurt.

Paul was in Phoenix by then and by year’s end met a chemical engineer from Chicago named Peter, the exact opposite of Justin. He was self-assured and self-controlled.

On June 21, 2002, the first day of summer, they were married on the beach in Kauai, Hawaii.

The couple has three daughters. They plan to return to Hawaii next year on their 15th anniversary to renew their vows, hopefully with the same officiant.

Paul said she decided to write “Love Isn’t Supposed to Hurt” for her daughters because no one is immune to what she experienced. If, God forbid, they ever find themselves in an unhealthy relationship, she wants her daughters to know they can always come to her and that on a very real, raw level, she understands the struggle.

Paul credits her healing, in part, to counseling where her doctor encouraged her to make lists, including how the abuse benefited her. She thought it was outlandish at first, but it helped her see the lessons in the abuse, including not allowing it to wreck the rest of her life.

“It’s a choice,” Paul said. “Continue where you are or do something different.”

It also helped her learn how to forgive and recognize “who is for you and who isn’t. You can forgive someone and still cut them out of your life. You have the right to do that.”

To this day, I wish my sister Jennifer had made that choice but she didn’t. Her husband killed her.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month ended in October. That doesn’t mean the danger has ended, and this being the holidays, when people are attending parties and drinking alcohol, chances are it might even increase.

Let’s keep the discussion going. It could mean the difference between life and death.

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