It's only been a year since Christine Peterson cowered in her apartment, screaming for help while her ex-husband threatened to smash down the door.
But that agonizing moment now seems a world away. Set free after seven years of suffering his stinging abuse, Peterson has reclaimed a life of her own.
She's studying full time at Anne Arundel Community College, where she has kept up a straight-A average, and looks forward to graduating this spring to work as a paralegal.
The 29-year-old mother, her voice cracking with emotion, thanked the women working at Anne Arundel YWCA's battered spouse shelter Thursday night for giving her a chance to escape.
"If it weren't for you, I don't know where I'd be today," she said.
"This is my first full year of living in one town. Quite frankly, I've never lived in one place before for more than seven months."
During the last year, Peterson and her two young sons retreated to the YWCA emergency shelter three times when her ex-husband threatened to harm them. While she was staying at the shelter last winter, he kidnapped the couple's children, then ages 3 and 4, from their day-care center. The shelter staff contacted the police, who eventually tracked him down in Glen Burnie and rescued the children.
"There were times in the last years when I felt absolutely trapped," Peterson said in an interview after her brief talk. "I was so scared, I felt like I was going crazy. When he would get really angry, he would know just how to get to me."
Shelter director Margurite Askew pointed to the tall, copper-haired mother as one of the counseling program's shining success stories. The YWCA of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County opened the emergency shelter six years ago to offer a refuge for battered women and pave the way for them to break the cycle of violence.
"Not all of our stories are success stories, unfortunately, but some are, and we're glad to have helped," Askew said.
Peterson told her story to more than 100 shelter supporters, social workers, police officers and county officials to raise awareness about domestic violence. The YWCA sponsored a reception and hour-long seminar Thursday night at the Unitarian Church in Annapolis to mark National Domestic Violence Month.
Statistics compiled by both the YWCA Women's Center in Annapolis and national non-profit groups show the problem is not fading.
A woman is abused every 15 seconds in America, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. More than 3 million women are battered each year by their husbands or partners, including an estimated 200,000 in Maryland.
Women's advocates in Anne Arundel County believe that more than 5,000 women a year are assaulted, although only 10 percent of the incidents are reported to law authorities.
In the last fiscal year, 137 women and 197 children stayed at the county's emergency shelter, a 7 percent increase over 1989.
Peterson and her two sons not only found a refuge at the shelter, but also received counseling and support through a companion program founded by the YWCA a couple years ago. Without the counseling and support, Peterson said, she still would be stuck in a hopeless, abusive relationship.
She met her ex-husband in St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands seven years ago and fell head over heels in love. He was tall and handsome, a big man who enjoyed deep-sea diving. They married five months later, but the relationship soon disintegrated and ended in divorce 2 years later.
Peterson spent years on the run, moving to 10 different states while trying to escape from her ex-husband. She kept caving in and taking him back when he appeared on her doorstep.
But she was severely frightened by his threats when he suddenly showed up in Maryland last fall, after finding her address through a billing error.
While admitting she's "still nervous at times," Peterson believes her ex-husband no longer will try to reach her; county police and authorities from other states have several warrants out for his arrest. She's focusing now on "getting the kids stabilized" and fighting with other women advocates for new legislation to permit testimony about domestic violence when a battered spouse retaliates.
Peterson said she never screamed back or struck her ex-husband, but understands how years of cruelty and violence drive some women to the point of killing their spouses.
"I remember feeling absolutely desperate before," she said. "Like there was no way out."