Trigger warning: This story contains content about domestic violence, stalking and animal abuse. Please take care of yourself.
“I couldn’t even tell you how I did it, but I did it,” says “Athena Lisa.” “I had to wear like three different faces.” She hid what was happening to her from her children. Athena was being stalked. For seven years.
Athena was 29 with three children when she met her abuser. Like most abusive relationships, it started out fine. He was nice and sweet, and then he lost his job. “I was trying to help him find a job,” she says. “He was upset about something else, and I remember talking to him and trying to reason with him about a job and a plan, and he called me a bitch,” she says. She decided to pick up the laundry she was doing at his house. “When I went to get my laundry, he became violent and we began fighting,” says Athena. “This is when he busted my lip and choked me. I contacted the police. The ambulance came. I remember a detective came out and took pictures. And I went home. From then on, we had a breakup.”
He began stalking her. Though they lived far apart from each other, he walked to her house and threw rocks at her window. She called the police, and they talked to him and sent him on his way. “He must have been out of his mind,” says Athena. “He walked all the way back home.” A few weeks later, he was reported to police for abusing his daughter and was arrested. Athena’s case and his daughter’s case were attached. She had to appear in court.
“I remember when I went to testify, his friends were waiting outside to tell me not to go inside the courtroom,” says Athena. “I didn’t understand at that point why they would be there telling me not to get involved, and they kind of scared me a little bit. When I went into court to testify, I told them everything, but then I said, ‘I don’t want anything bad to happen to him.’ When I did that, it started a chain reaction and opened a door to hell.” Her abuser took that to mean she cared.
The stalking intensified. He had people give her gifts from him. He had family members calling her. “He was constantly watching me,” she says. “I never knew. I wasn’t paying attention. He knew my schedule. He knew my patterns. I wasn’t thinking. It was pressure from every angle.” She gave in to the pressure, and she opened the door. “He came back into my life to do the same thing again, and this time it escalated to another level.”
This time, it got so bad Athena lost her job as an LPN at a nursing home. “He would stand outside my job,” she says. “He would watch from the windows. He called several times back-to-back. I couldn’t think properly.”
Whenever Athena would let him in, she had to push him back out because it was too much fighting, too much violence. So he tried another tactic. He would create a problem and then have the solution. When one of her dogs got out, he would say he knew exactly where he was. “They kept getting loose,” she says. “The only way they could have gotten loose is if they had fingers.”
Once, she went to find the dog where he said it was, and he was there, too. Athena called the police again. “The officer looked at him and said, ‘You found the dog! You should be a detective or something,’” she says. “He was being sarcastic, but at the time, I didn’t catch on. I didn’t know the officer already picked up that he had probably let the dog loose because they see this all the time.”
Athena wouldn’t let him back in, but her dogs kept escaping. She even thought her neighbors were letting them out. When he stole money from her, that was the final straw. “I was trying to wean him off by distancing myself from him, but it wasn’t working, so it was like cold turkey,” she says. “No conversation, no nothing. It was always on and off, but he made it seem as if no matter what I did, no matter how many times I called the police, he was going to do whatever he wanted to do.”
Things got worse. Athena would call the police, he would go to jail, and he’d get out and walk straight from the jail to her house. “He would be standing on the corner in the mornings when I was dropping the kids off to school just looking at me,” she says. “He would be outside standing in my yard. He forced himself back into my life no matter what. If it wasn’t gifts, then he was right there in person. It was crazy. And when I cold-turkeyed him, he was driving up and down my street several times. He ate, breathed, lived me.” Other people were involved. “It became like a gang stalking,” says Athena. “And I never knew or even thought to ask if he was involved in a gang, but he was. It was an a-ha moment.”
He had people follow her to her new job in a town outside the city. He had family members contacting her phone company trying to get access to her account. “I would get a text message while I was sleeping saying my password had been changed,” she says. He went into the phone store where she had her account trying to get access to her phone that way. “It was a lot. He never stopped even when I had to go and testify against him the second time.”
The whole time, Athena was gathering evidence. “Before the trial, it was intense,” she says. “He was in jail, and the case kept getting continued and continued. That’s one of the things these gang members know how to do – work the system. While they were continuing it, my dog was killed. Her body was left in a field we walked past to go to the store. On Easter. That was a message.” Somebody tried to set her house on fire. Her mail was being intercepted. She’s sure she was poisoned by another man she had let into her life – who she later found out was a friend of his. Athena realized her abuser didn’t take a plea deal because she wasn’t supposed to go to court.
“They didn’t stop me,” she says. She testified, and he was in jail for almost a year. Athena moved before he got released and filed for another protection order because the other one was about to end.
In less than three months, he was stalking her again. “He found me,” she says. “He showed up at the gas station a block away from my daycare. He knew my schedule – the exact time I would be there – and was there before I got there.”
The police issued charges and a warrant – the third case against him. “He tried to get a restraining order against me – twice,” she says. “Of course, the judge denied him.”
Athena says navigating the system was not easy. “It was like a big game,” she says. He prolonged the last case from 2019 to November 2022 when he got convicted for a third time after her testimony. “It should have been over with long before,” says Athena. “He remained under the radar for a couple of years. This is a tactic, a strategy. They stay under the radar thinking that things will go away, or they can threaten me and scare me.” She feels like this chapter is just now ending. She is safe at Coburn Place.
Athena started working with Coburn Place early in her journey, trying to heal and move past what was happening to her. She attended support groups, and she moved into housing in the community. “My abuser found out where I was staying,” she says. “Things were coming up missing in my yard. I was constantly on guard. The unit itself wasn’t safe. I came in here one day to meet with my advocate, and she said, ‘We can have something ready and available by Friday.’ That’s how I ended up coming here.”
When she moved in, Athena was three months pregnant and sick. “I needed the support and help,” she says. “I had peace of mind when I came here, which is everything. It was like a weight was just lifted off me and I thought, ‘It’s time to rest.’” She was able to go to court and testify for the third time and still feel safe.
Athena now has a school-age daughter and an infant daughter. Her older sons moved in with their dads as teenagers. “I had to have a face of carrying on and moving forward for them,” she says. “Dealing with this, I had to make sure my kids went to school and had what they needed. [My sons] played sports. They knew something was going on, but they couldn’t see it. Only I could.”
Athena says her older daughter didn’t notice anything that was happening outside the home. “She’s like a butterfly – she does her own thing and doesn’t pay attention to stuff,” she says.
Her daughter wants her to find a partner. “She wants to see me happy,” says Athena. “But I don’t want her to feel like I need to be with somebody to be happy. I am loving myself right now. I am healing. I have healed from a lot of stuff, but I’m trying to heal on a deeper level.”
Athena says her daughter is developing a social life since they’ve been at Coburn Place. “She has more friends,” she says. “She goes to birthday parties and spends the night. To me, she has grown a lot.” Her daughter loves the new baby. “She helps me a whole lot. For a while when she first came home, she didn’t want anyone else to hold her.”
Athena and her daughter have been at Coburn Place for about a year. Her cases are closed. She is going to school for legal studies. “I have a few business ventures,” she says. “I’d like to help other survivors for sure. And with my legal studies, I plan on continuing working in domestic violence, especially with protective orders. I want to be an expert in that. The things I went through, a lot of women don’t survive.”
Athena believes women experiencing abuse need more support. “If we’re being stalked and harassed and things are happening to us because we’re going to testify, women are not going to testify,” she says. “I have a strong will. I experienced a lot as a child, which kind of helped me to keep moving forward. I’ve been through tough things.” She says because of her childhood, she normalized the violence. Her mother stabbed her stepfather in front of her when she was 8. “I experienced abuse and saw it very early,” says Athena. “I was raised in a rough family, and at the age of 17, my mother stabbed me.”
After she gets her associate degree, she will work on her bachelor’s degree. She plans to go to law school. “The laws are not helpful,” says Athena. “He was able to file a 404B, so while we were in court, they didn’t have to bring up the other cases he was convicted of that I testified in. That’s what I want to work on. I want to work on getting rid of the 404B in domestic violence cases with the same victim and the same abuser. That’s how women lose their lives.”
Athena credits her spirituality with helping her move forward. “When I look back at the things I’ve been through, it hurts,” she says. “But there’s a reason why I went through it and made it and came out the way I did. It’s contributing to my purpose in life.”
Athena goes to every event she can at Coburn Place. “You have the lady who comes in to do the yoga, the lady who comes in to do the workout – I absolutely love her,” she says. “I love the ladies who come in to do the group therapy. These women – I have things in common with them, and I can talk to them about whatever I’m working on.”
Athena appreciates the assistance with Christmas and the small things you never even knew you needed. “This is the first time I ever had sharp knives,” she says. “I’ve cut myself a couple of times and realized I have been working with dull knives my whole life, and now I have to use a different technique. That was a lesson on so many levels – the tools I had to work with were dull, but I made it work. Now I’m working on getting sharper tools, and I have to be careful and learn new techniques.”
She’s learning to embrace the things she never got to enjoy. “It had been a long time since I was able to sit down and read a book or sit down or just enjoy my children’s presence,” says Athena. “This is the first time I’m learning how to cook healthier meals. I can even put thought into the meals. I never had the time to even be able to do that. I wasn’t mindful. This is the first time where I’ve been able to pay attention to my overall health, and I can organize it and take action.”
For now, Athena is focusing on her financial goals and school. “I would like to own a house,” she says. “That’s what I’m working toward – home ownership, self-employment and freedom.” For her daughters, she hopes for a safe and stable environment so they can flourish.
“I told myself when I first walked through this door that when I leave here, I would not be the same person,” says Athena. “I said that and meant it.” She has already accomplished many of her goals – she had her baby naturally, she enrolled in school, and her baby is in daycare now so she can drive with Uber and Lyft. She’s in a program working on resume building and budgeting. “This is the first time I’ve been getting support to work on the different dimensions of my life, and I love it”, she says.
“I love me right now,” says Athena. “I like this new woman I’m becoming, and I like learning about myself. I’m learning what makes me happy and what my soul desires.”