Green plastic Army men line Maria Work’s new apartment window to keep safe the hope she almost lost.
Hope that dimmed when her marriage fell apart.
Hope she almost lost after being drugged and raped, twice.
Hope nearly shattered when the man she moved in with broke a glass over her head, beat her and tried to kick her out onto the street.
Hope hanging on between microwave meals living as a homeless single mother of two teenagers.
“Hope is the hardest thing to hold on to throughout it,” she said. “It dies so quickly and you do everything you can to hold onto it. There’s days when you think you are never going to get through it and that everything goes wrong.”
The 50-year-old Works said she likely would have given up if it hadn’t been for her two sons Chris, 19, and Joseph, 22, who is high-functioning autistic. Works moved into her Soldotna apartment in late September, children in tow, completing a personal journey through years of pain, transitional housing, court appearances, homelessness and uncertainty.
Looking back, Works sees she made the choices she did because she didn’t establish good personal boundaries, she said. She let people use her. She trusted too much. She didn’t know how to stand up and say no.
The Army men were among the first items unpacked at apartment number seven — her lucky number — and the boundary they now create keeps guard against the heartache of the last five years.
“It is nice to have some place I can call home again,” she said looking at Chris, who is applying to join the Army as a combat medic. “I was getting to the point where I didn’t know if that was ever going to happen.”
Works’ marriage began to spin out of control five years ago, she said, and although she and her husband are still friends, she felt staying with him would not be healthy.
From there she bounced between homes — about 10 in four years — desperate for a place to stay while her kids lived with their father.
“So I’d take the first place I could get and find out the people I was staying with were total scum bags,” she said. “As a female running into situations like that it is kind of sticky.”
At one point she moved in with a man who “would not keep his hands to himself.”
Within the first month of moving out, Works said she was drugged at a local bar and raped. A few months later it happened again, she said.
“I barely remember the second one, but the first one they must not have dosed me right because I came out of it about half way through and left,” she said, with a deep breath. “The second one, I just have brief images. I know there were at least three (men).”
Works isolated herself and didn’t tell anyone for months about what happened.
“The fact that I can’t remember much I think in some ways is a blessing,” she said. “Although it does creep me out sometimes because I’ll be going through town and I’ll see a guy looking at me odd and in the back of my head I’d ask, ‘Could he be one of them?’”
In a fragile state, she then moved in with a man she thought was a friend. She was living in his walk-in closet, sleeping on a foam mattress. The man she was living with started acting “bizarre,” trying to isolate her, keep her from sending text messages and becoming more and more controlling.
The first time she was hit was when she woke him up on accident, she said.
“I had bumped him; he thought I hit him and he hauled off and hit me,” she said. “Because he had just woken up, I made excuses.
“The second time he was drunk and broke a glass over my head, split my head open in five places, gave me a concussion and dumba-- me, I did like most women do in those situations, I thought, ‘Well, it is just because he was drunk.’”
Then he tried to throw her out of the apartment — “no shoes on, no coat, no keys.” Works said she tried to leave the situation and would stay for a few days with friends or her sons who were still living with their father, but she would return. She made excuses for his behavior, she said.
“I always thought I was doing something wrong,” she said. “My whole thing was I didn’t want to be kicked out on the street so I was trying to do everything I could to make him happy.”
Eventually she left, went to the authorities and landed at the LeeShore Center, a Kenai shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“We had him admitting (to what he did) on tape to the cop, prior history, photos, unbelievable photos,” she said.
After about a year of court appearances, Works lost her case against the man during trial and the fourth-degree misdemeanor assault charge was dropped. She still wonders what went wrong.
“I lost it for three days afterwards,” she said of her time dealing with the acquittal. “I don’t even remember the first few days after that, but I’m still glad I did it because it’ll be on record if he ever does it again.
“But also how can I face my kids if I don’t stand up and say what he did was wrong? How could I have peace with myself if I didn’t say what he did was wrong?”
Works’ eight months at the LeeShore Center changed her life in ways she never knew possible, she said.
“You know how you have those light bulb moments? There was one class they did on boundaries and it was a lighthouse moment,” she said. “I was able to take what I got from there and look over my entire life, and account for why I made some of the choices that I did. They really helped me a lot.”
Eventually Works and her sons were taken in and allowed to stay for about a year and a half in a room at the Merit Inn in Kenai thanks to the help of Love INC of the Kenai Peninsula. She gained custody of Joseph despite a seemingly endless amount of paperwork and more court appearances. Her family started to mend, she said.
Chris said he couldn’t quite understand all that was going on at the time. He was frustrated at points that his mother wouldn’t open up and felt like what was happening was his mother’s fault.
“I was used to being the parent,” he said of the time when he was still living with his father, going to high school and caring for his brother. “She gets us back and she is used to how it was before she left and so she was trying to do the mom thing, and there was some friction because of it.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Works said, laughing.
Being homeless, much like being the victim of sexual assault and domestic violence, presented its own new set of physical and mental hurdles, she said.
The constant fear and worry.
Not knowing if she and her boys are safe.
Always being “on edge.”
“You are waiting every single day for that knock on the door saying it is time for you to go,” she said. “It never goes away. Even though we are here now, and we are safe, I’m still paranoid about it because I am so used to having somebody to report to.”
But in the small Merit Inn room, the three began to heal between meals of microwave food.
“If it was just me, I would have done things completely different,” Works said. “I would have been out of here.
“I don’t know how I would have gotten through this without them. They have just been amazing support.”
During her time at the Merit Inn, Works made an impression on Catherine DeLacee, program development director and grant writer for Love INC. DeLacee said the Merit Inn helps a lot of women like Works who are recovering from domestic or sexual violence.
DeLacee said she noticed a “lot of integrity” in Works.
“I thought she was very brave because she had a lot of bad news over that four-year period,” DeLacee said. “She never gave up.”
Chris said he has noticed a big change in his mother — she now governs her life more based on her feelings and less about what others think, he said.
“She is a different person all around,” he said. “I mean she has always been a free thinking … very gregarious person, but now she is a much more assertive person as far as her personal will is concerned.”
Works said she wanted to share her story to help other women who might be in a similar situation.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she said. “I think it was more that I didn’t want to admit there was a problem. Denial is a wonderful thing. That and there is hope.
“Things can happen that are good. When you are at your darkest point, you need to know there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
By being open about her past, she also hopes to put a different face on domestic violence and homelessness — not all homeless persons fit the stigma society places on homelessness, she said.
“We never really told anyone because when people find out you are homeless it changes their perception of you and how they treat you and you don’t want that,” she said. “You want to be seen for who you are and not your situation.”
Moreover, Works said she is now aware of “how easily we fool ourselves.”
“A year before I ended up in LeeShore, I was sitting around with girls talking about domestic violence, saying, ‘I will never be that person. I pity the poor guy who puts a hand on me,’” she said.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the numbers — Domestic violence in Alaska
■ Women experiencing physical intimate partner violence in 2010: 9.4 percent.
■ Women experiencing sexual violence in 2010: 4.3 percent.
■ Rate of adults utilizing services for domestic violence per 10,000 in 2011: 89.7.
■ Domestic violence cases accepted for prosecution in 2009: 2,977, up 14 percent from 2008.
■ Domestic violence cases accepted and resulting in a conviction: 73.1 percent in 2009.
— 2012 Alaska Dashboard, gathered by the Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
■ Number per 100 Alaskan women who have experienced intimate partner violence in their lives: 48
■ Number per 100 Alaskan women who have experienced sexual violence in their lives: 37
— 2010 Alaska Victimization Survey, Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
— More information may be found at: http://dps.alaska.gov/CDVSA/default.aspx
— Lee Shore Center 24-hour crisis line: 283-7257