Awareness can reduce dating violence

Melissa Dohme Hill’s personal story should serve as a warning to the dangerous heights dating violence can reach.

She was a 20-year-old college student when she agreed to meet her abusive high school ex-boyfriend for one last embrace and goodbye, on Jan. 24. 2012.

What followed was a brutal attack that left her almost dead in front of her Clearwater home. Hill was stabbed 32 times in the neck face, arms and hands. The blood loss from the attack caused her to flatline four times and have a stroke; she underwent many surgeries to reconstruct her face and body, along with years of physical and psychological therapy.

Dating violence survivor Melissa Dohme Hill, right, was the featured guest speaker at a Pasco-Hernando State College’s (PHSC) dating violence awareness seminar last month at the Porter Campus in Wesley Chapel. Also seated is PHSC associate dean Natalie Epo. (Kevin Weiss)

Her then-boyfriend, Robert Lee Burton Jr., is serving life in prison for the crime.

Today, Hill serves as a full-time domestic violence prevention advocate for the local nonprofit organization Hands Across the Bay’s domestic violence division, working to inspire and educate others through her personal experience. She also recently started an alpaca therapy farm in San Antonio with her husband, serving local domestic violence survivors, first responders and children who’ve experienced trauma.

Hill was the featured guest speaker at Pasco-Hernando State College’s dating violence seminar last month at the Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch. The event was part of the college’s community awareness series open to the students, faculty, staff and the public.

Speaking to an audience of dozens in roundtable discussion, Hill outlined disturbing dating violence trends, red flags that signal how an abusive relationship could become deadly, and steps to safely break up from an abuser, among other related topics.

At the seminar, it was revealed the Centers for Disease Control reports nearly one in 11 females and one in 15 males have experienced physical teen dating violence in the last year.

Hill first turned her attention to break up violence, which she called “a horrifyingly rising trend, an epidemic.”

The period of time after leaving an abusive relationship, Hill said, is the most dangerous.

The speaker observed, “Think about this: In an abusive relationship, this person is your everything, and when someone loses their everything, they’re capable of anything.”

With that, Hill urged those who are leaving an abusive relationship to have a detailed plan.

Such plans include connecting immediately with a domestic violence center, such as Sunrise of Pasco County.

The plans also can include relocating, filing a restraining order, changing out phone numbers and door locks, and informing loved ones of the situation, among other measures.

Hill also urged those listening to avoid contact with someone who has been abusive in any way — whether physical, verbal or emotional.

It’s something Hill said she wished she could tell her younger self.

The speaker put it like this: “You don’t owe them an apology, you don’t owe them a hug, you don’t owe them closure, you do not owe them anything. You block their number, you do not contact them. You need to focus on your healing and your time, and give yourself some space to heal.”

In Hill’s self-described “toxic” relationship, the abuse was gradual. It started with jealousy, then morphed into verbal abuse, emotional abuse and, finally, physical abuse, she said.

“Domestic violence of dating violence doesn’t happen on the first date,” said Hill, noting her ex-boyfriend was at first “very loving and charming and amazing,” but, as time went on, he began nitpicking and criticizing, then belittling and name-calling.

When Hill tried to break up, her abuser threatened suicide.

That’s something that teenagers are dealing with “at epidemic rates,” she said.

Hill stuck by her abuser, who hurt her physically four times before the near-fatal attack.

Hill said it’s important to pay attention to “red flags” that a troubled relationship could turn dangerous.

Initially, something that seems harmless, like jokingly name-calling or drunkenly pushing or shoving a partner at a party, shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“You should not be in the habit of collecting red flags,” Hill said. “You don’t brush these under the rug, because they’re going to keep piling up to where there’s an explosion or it’s going to turn to physical violence.

“If you ignore the cycle of abuse —  the red flags —  it will turn to physical violence, almost guaranteed. …It doesn’t get better when these things are popping up.”

Hill mentioned the top five risk factors associated with homicide from an abusive relationship:  use or threat of use of weapons, threats to kill, strangling, constant jealousy, and forced sex.

Other high-risk factors include: recent job loss, violent criminal history, animal abuse, and a recent separation.

In the eight years since the attack, Hill has gone on to discover her life’s purpose, helping other domestic violence survivors, and spreading awareness and prevention tactics on dating violence.

“There’s so much power in sharing your story,” Hill said. “Sharing my story and speaking out has healed my heart, little by little, through these years.”

If you are in an abusive relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 (800) 799-3224, or text “loveis” to the National Dating Abuse Helping at 22522.

Published March 11, 2020

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