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Crystal Sanchez is a survivor. But a decade after leaving her 8-year relationship with an abusive boyfriend, she decided to change her title. She now considers herself a “soul nurturer and healing coach.” Her goal today, at 33, is not just to survive, but also thrive, and to help other female victims of domestic abuse do the same. We talked to her about her journey.
When did your relationship with your abusive boyfriend begin?
Sanchez: When I was 14. I was a freshman in high school.
What were the first red flags that something wasn’t right?
Sanchez: He would always end up in fights with other, older guys. Toward me, there were really no signs for the first, maybe, eight to nine months. But then he started making comments about what I was wearing, telling me he didn’t like me speaking to certain people. He started being a little more controlling, and I saw his anger come out if I didn’t do what he wanted. I think I was just really young and I didn’t know … I thought maybe he likes me, maybe he just doesn’t want me talking to other guys.
Did it begin to escalate at some point?
Sanchez: Yes. It started with the rough grabbing and then escalated to head butting, which he usually did when he thought I would look at another guy at school. He punched me in the back of the head, but I had long hair, so you couldn’t see the bump. I remember one time, he asked me to hold something for him and I didn’t hear him, so he head-butted me and one of his friends saw it. He just made a joke about it. Every time something like that happens, you feel even more alone, like nobody truly cares.
Did you ever tell anyone, like your parents?
Sanchez: I never told anyone. I felt like I could handle it. And I felt this need to protect my parents—I didn’t want them to feel responsible or guilty in any way. But my mom says that she saw changes in me [at the time]. She noticed my smile left, and she would hear me crying in my room. I ended up in the hospital a few times for anxiety attacks. I thought I was dying. I was hyperventilating. I was told I just wanted attention [by the hospital staff] and that I should see a therapist. I went a couple of times but I never told the therapist about the abuse.
Looking back, what barriers do you think stood in your way from leaving this guy?
Sanchez: There was always this hope that [our relationship] could be like it was in the beginning. I truly believe I was brainwashed, something abusers do when they strip your identity and replace it with one they want you have. Plus, I didn’t want anyone to think negatively of him. I was trying to protect myself because, what would people think of me for choosing him?
You were almost free of him when you were 18, but something happened, right?
Sanchez: He and his cousins had gotten into a fight with some older men and one of the men was killed. We had been broken up for six months, but I went back to him. I can’t really say why. I think I was always trying to be the rescuer and I knew that this was a really difficult time for him. But I also felt shame that I was dating this guy who had a hand in killing someone. How could I ever build a future with this person?
[Sanchez’s boyfriend pled guilty to felony assault and received only house arrest for several months. The two broke up again, but a year later, her abuser got into a near-fatal car accident and Sanchez came home from college to be his primary caretaker.]
What was the final straw for your relationship?
Sanchez: I had this gut feeling that I didn’t want to be there [with him] for the rest of my life. I told myself, ‘This is not going to be your life forever.’ Then I found out that he was talking to other girls, all while I was helping him learn to walk again. That’s when I made my decision I was done. A week later, I moved to California [from New Mexico]. I changed my phone number and that was it. He let me go.
How did the abuse affect you long-term?
I spent a lot of years healing, trying to rebuild myself, trying to get to know who I was. I saw I wasn’t the same girl. Before [the abuse], I was the most outgoing person. After, I didn’t laugh. I didn’t speak up.
Now you’re working on turning this experience into something positive that can help other survivors?
Sanchez: I finished my college degree in psychology and I had a lot of different jobs. I went on a spiritual journey to find my calling. All the signs kept directing me to this—advocating for other survivors. Ever since I decided I wanted to help other survivors have a voice, I’ve felt a purpose.
There are a ton of resources for victims to help them get back on their feet, but the most difficult part after you get out of your situation is learning how to function again. You’re broken, living in this darkness. I help women realize their full potential.
Sanchez runs a non-profit organization called It Stops Here dedicated to ending domestic violence by taking a unique approach through film, technology, and curriculum.
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