Like many women who’ve experienced domestic abuse, Tanya Romero never saw it coming.

About 10 years ago, after having recently divorced from her first husband with whom she’d had two daughters and a son, she reconnected with an old high school crush on Facebook. “I was at a very vulnerable stage,” recalls Tanya today, from inside her Esperanza Shelter office, where she works as the Shelter manager. “He’d meet me with a bouquet of roses and I found myself investing in him. I didn’t see how controlling he was.”

Nevertheless, Tanya fell prey to her abuser. They met in April and married in October. But she didn’t tell any of her family or friends. He’d already begun the mind games—threatening not to marry her if she didn’t succumb to his demands, among other psychological tricks. “But I thought– I love him, it’ll work out,” says Tanya. “But once we moved in together, the cycle of abuse intensified.”

Soon after marrying, he began to abuse her son. Her work performance declined. She let her appearance go. She took her kids to her mom’s house in Rio Rancho to keep them safe. Which was when “my family,” she says, “started to tap in to what was going on.”

By then, however, she was leading two lives: one she led at work and in public, the other behind closed doors. She had two sets of clothes; he’d inspect her when she got home; he’d text and call every five minutes, checking in on her.  Her family staged an intervention, but when she returned home later that day, he picked her up and strangled her, calling her a whore and a slut.

“I was in shock,” says Romero, who’d started wearing long-sleeve blouses and shirts to her job at FedEx to cover the bruises and cuts.  When FedEx management realized she was being abused, they offered her paid leave as well as counseling and support. Romero mustered all her courage and filed a restraining order. But when her husband showed up for his court date, he told Romero, “I love you and I miss you.”  He laid on the charm which, in retrospect, Tanya realizes was emotional manipulation.  But at the time, she bought it and moved back in with him.

Soon the violence worsened. Romero left FedEx, and became solely dependent on her husband. “He had total control.”  This story may sound unbelievable but Tanya’s story is like that of so many women who have suffered through domestic abuse.

Her abuser had a history of substance abuse. He was bipolar schizophrenic. He was also 6’ 1” and husky. He drank. He was hooked on opiates. “He put opiates into my vagina and I’d pass out and wake up being assaulted,” says Romero.

He would sometimes bite her. He would spit on her. He would demand that she get him drugs and one time when she refused he nearly tore her ear off.

“By then, the depression really began kicking in,” whispers Tanya. One night, she left the house in only a T-shirt, underwear, and flip-flops, with a few of her belongings stuffed into a black garbage bag. “He started chasing me and hit me with his car and I rolled off and he picked me up like a puppy and threw me into the car. I had to drive myself to the emergency room. The cycle went like that for a long time.”

She lived in sleeping bags on her grandmother’s floor for a year. And still, she moved back in with him.

Another time, he shoved Tanya in the corner and poured gas lighter fluid over her. He played with a lighter around her for hours, threatening to set her on fire.  She got away and went to her father’s home.

Back at the apartment one night, he put a switchblade to her cheek. He told her he was going to chop her up and no one would find her. She got into her car and drove. She got to a convenience store, and for the first time called the police herself.

“That’s when I went to Esperanza,” explains Tanya. “I was scared and came in with one bag and I was put in Room 1. Top bunk. And they gave me a roast beef burrito. I was embarrassed to tell people I was in a shelter.”

At a hearing, the judge told her, “If you do not get help now, next time I see you you’ll be dead in a ditch somewhere.”

Tanya went back to Esperanza and spent one-and-a-half months in shelter, then went to her dad’s home. Still. “He’d gotten his hooks in me,” says Romero. “He was very manipulative on Facebook.”

“But I’d started going to Esperanza classes at the Support Center and that had caused a shift in me,” says Tanya. “The more knowledge I got, the stronger I got.”  At Esperanza, she developed a relationship with her shelter mates. Her survivor sisters.

“My husband ended up overdosing after yet another big altercation we’d had,” says Romero. “He’d put out on social media that I was a druggie slut. Two hours later they found him dead.”

After much work and therapy, along with her father’s support, Tanya gradually came to terms with the abuse she’d endured. “He was a predator,” Tanya says in hindsight. “I’m loving and fun and carefree and he took advantage of that.”

Tanya got involved in One Billion Rising, an international domestic abuse movement. She also volunteered at Solace Crisis Treatment Center in Santa Fe. When a position opened at Rio Rancho’s Haven House, she took it. She worked there for three-and-a-half years. And then heard of a job at Esperanza Shelter.

“I loved what I was doing at Haven House but I also liked the opportunity of coming back here to Esperanza and to Santa Fe,” says Tanya. Still, it took her a few months before she realized the impact it would have on her. One night, working in the same space she’d come to for her own shelter, it dawned on her.  “I was getting a bed ready for an incoming survivor and realized I was in the same room and I was making up the same bed that I’d once slept in.”

Her experience and her work has shown Tanya how pervasive domestic violence is.   “I share my story because it’s not about me anymore–it’s about them,” emphasizes Tanya. “It’s about our shelter residents. It’s about the survivors. And surviving.”

Many of her relationships suffered. But the ones that survived are also stronger now. Her first husband has been supportive.  And as angry as her kids have been about the situation, “I own it,” says Tanya, “and that has helped.”

When she first started telling her story in public, her kids wouldn’t go and listen. Now, they see their mom as a strong woman.  “And the way I present myself when I speak,” she explains, “they feel safer.”

“He really brought down my self-esteem,” adds Romero, whose biggest disappointment was the way the abuse tapped into the lack of respect she had for herself. “How could I let this happen? I was preyed upon.”

And then there are those who ask, “Why didn’t you fight back?”  Others say, “You should be happy he’s dead.” Neither of which she sees as particularly helpful.

As a victim of domestic abuse, she regularly experienced terror and manipulation.  It’s easy to become so overwhelmed and frightened that you don’t know how to fight back. And as for being happy about his death, Tanya has compassion for him. “In order for me to move forward,” she admits, “I had to forgive. After all, his father was an offender.”

A natural go-getter who tends to reach out to others, going back to Esperanza Shelter and being there for others has been critical. “Being out and active in the community is important,” explains Tanya. “Teaching women here to find their voices is fulfilling. That’s my self-care. Being able to give back—that matters.”