by Sue Ann Rybak
Hidden away in a basement on the New Covenant Campus, 7500 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, Menergy LLC, Philadelphia’s oldest counseling program for abusive partners and one of the oldest in the country, is working to end the cycle of domestic violence.
October is Domestic Violence month and, according to the CDC, 20 people a minute are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States. Domestic violence crosses every socioeconomic category, race, gender and age. It can be verbal, physical, sexual or psychological and affects both heterosexual and same-sex couples.
Carrie Askin, co-director and supervisor of the clinical services at Menergy, said the agency has a highly diverse clientele.
“When people think about who comes, they often think of the kind of monsters who chase their partners across the country, but that’s not generally the people who come to see us,” she said. “The people who come to see us are people you might recognize or identify with.”
She said many of the agency’s clients are well respected in their communities: police officers, therapists, teachers, doctors.
“A lot people that come here are rarely physically abusive, but they can be very emotionally abusive by cursing, yelling and saying mean things.”
She added the many people would be surprised to learn that one of the ways people can be abusive is “to shut down.”
“They don’t speak,” she said. “They glare. It’s not what people picture. It’s not your typical explosive behavior, but when you are living with that kind of climate in your house, it can be unbearable.”
And studies have shown that children who are exposed to domestic violence often believe that abuse is normal. Children that witness abuse are more likely to become victims of domestic violence themselves or grow up to be abusers.
Tony Lapp, a co-director at Menergy, said many of the agency’s clients have witnessed violence or suffered physical or emotional trauma when they were a child.
“And now because they have these deep-seated injuries … when they feel hurt, embarrassed or anxious, they will overreact because they are driven by these things they haven’t resolved. It’s not true for everybody we see, but it’s common.”
He said occasionally Menergy gets patients who have suffered a traumatic head injury that causes significant behavioral and emotional changes. For example, damage to the frontal lobe can cause a person to have verbal and physical outbursts or to become muted or seemingly emotionless.
No matter what the circumstance, Lapp said people need to seek medical help. Unfortunately, Askin said this can be very difficult for some people – especially men.
She added that our society doesn’t do a good job of teaching people in our culture what to do when their feelings are hurt, embarrassed or anxious.
“We teach boys, ‘never let anyone punk you, never let anyone hurt you, don’t be a baby, don’t be a girl.’ So, you have these big, strong bodies who are still doing the things that they were taught as a child. Don’t let someone hurt your feelings without retaliating.
“The thing we say in this room all the time is look if you are going to be successful in life you’ve got to know how to take a hit. You have to know how to have your feelings hurt and shake it off. Sometimes, your partner is going to say something you are not going to like. You have to know how to take a deep breath and not punish them. And we can help people learn how to do that.”
She said for people to begin to change there needs to be a system of accountability.
“In your home, if you are the abusing partner, your partner can’t hold you accountable and your kids can’t hold you accountable,” she said. “We can help hold people accountable, and we don’t do it like prison guards or probation officers. We really try to be warm and caring, but also, to be very, very clear that what you are doing at home is not OK.”
She said many of the agency’s clients have tried to change on their own and failed.
“This isn’t because they can’t change, it’s because it’s really hard to change on your own without support and without a system that can hold you accountable,” she said.
She added that people often ask her how she can feel safe working with a client base because she is a slender, petite woman.
“Most of the time I feel very, very safe and comfortable because most of the people who come here are only abusive in the context of their relationship or in the context of their family,” she said.
Lapp said people often refer to it as an anger management program but it’s not.
“It’s really not about anger management because they already shown that they can manage their anger in other places,” he said.
He noted that not everybody who walks in the door wants to change. He said 60 to 70 percent of Menergy’s clients are referred by the court. He added that in most programs that work with abusive partners that number is usually closer to 90 percent.
He said the agency often gets referrals from faith communities, human resource departments, therapists – especially couple and family therapists, noting that while a large majority of its clients are men, it also treats women.
“People who come here don’t really know what to expect,” Lapp said.
Askin explained that all clients are required to meet with a therapist three times as part of an evaluation.
“When you come here, one of the first things we tell you is that we are going to call your partner, so that we can get a clear sense of what it’s like to be in a relationship with you,” she said.
Askin said the call is confidential.
During the first session the client is required to role play the call. She said for many clients it’s the first time they had to face the hurt they are causing their partner.
Lapp said part of the evaluation is figuring out whether the person is willing to be honest.
“A decent number of people come here because they realize their relationship is threatened, either they are separated or they think it’s imminent,” he said. “In other words, they have something to lose.
We are really focused on people being safe. If a person is willing to come in humbly and show they are really interested in trying to change, they will get a lot of support here.”
Askin said the agency wants its clients “to be happy, to be peaceful, to feel connected, to love their family and be loved by their family “
This is not about punishing,” she added. “However, we are interested in people having appropriate guilt. The work we ask our clients to do takes courage. We ask our clients to take responsibility for the ways that they hurt people they love, and that is painful, but we know that you are more than the worst thing you’ve done.”
She said asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it’s “a sign of health.”
For more information about Menergy go to www.menergy.org or call 215-242-2235.