Nikki woke up, unable to speak or move. Her strong, limber 26-year-old body ached, struggling to sit up. She was confused, unaware of where she was or what she was doing there. Slowly, she realized her sisters and mother were circled around her bed. These women had been keeping constant vigil by her bedside since she was admitted to the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma days earlier. They explained that she had a tracheotomy and that speaking may be impossible. Her younger sister, Ivy, handed her a piece of paper and a pen.
Today, Nikki shakes her head in disbelief that her statement was not “Why am I here?” or “What happened to me?” Her only concern at the time was “Where is Man?”
Man and Nikki met when she was a teenager and dating his best friend. His given name was Edward but everyone called him ‘Man’ because in his social circle he was quite simply, “The Man.” Handsome, charismatic, and successful; it was easy for him to attract the attention of women. Nikki didn’t think Man liked her. She thought he spent time around her because he was interested in her best friend, but when Nikki and her boyfriend broke up, Man swooped in. She was 19 years old and easily impressed. He showered her with gifts, expensive meals, trips to New York City, and nights out clubbing on the town. Nikki’s family loved him, and for the first time in her life, Nikki was certain she had found true love. “Mom,” she proclaimed, “I’ve finally found the one.”
The couple moved in together after dating for almost two years. Man started limiting her activities; not only was he no longer taking her to New York City, but he also refused to let her travel there alone. He was furious when she returned home late from work. She rode the bus and couldn’t determine exactly when she would arrive home. He then started waiting for her at the bus stop. Gradually, Man started drinking more, almost always having a gin and juice in his hands.
Nikki made excuses for his behavior. She told herself his relationship with his mother was strained because as a child he witnessed her bring a string of strange men back to her home while his father worked to support the family. Nikki told herself that Man had difficulty trusting all women because of his mother’s transgressions. He often referred to his mother and sister as whores. Shed initially chided him for being disrespectful, but Nikki’s heart also broke for the little boy who saw his mother betray his father.
While Nikki was dealing with these changes in her relationship, her elderly father had a stroke. It was no longer safe for him to live alone so Nikki took her father into the apartment she shared with Man. Now Man and Nikki were fighting all the time. Her family tried to intervene. Nikki was so enraged when her older sister, Teasha, told her that she had to leave Man because he was mentally abusive that she stopped speaking to her. Nikki’s mother turned to her daughter one rare afternoon when Man wasn’t there and said, “Nikki, someday that boy is going to hurt you.” Nikki knew the relationship had problems, but she was convinced she could change Man. Her love and devotion to him would cure the pain his mother caused him.
Then, one day, she heard her father speaking to her mother when he thought she was out of earshot. “They are fighting so much these days and I am worried about her.” There had been moments when Nikki almost left Man, but something always held her back. That day, when she heard the fear and pain in her father’s voice she thought, “No more. I may be able to do this to myself, but I can’t allow my relationship to hurt my parents.” She called her best friend and said she and her father needed a place to stay for a few days. That same friend who had tried to convince Nikki to leave Man before only said, “You both have a place here.”
Nikki remembers how comforting those words were. “She didn’t chastise me. She didn’t say I’d been stupid to stay with him. She didn’t say it was about time. She just listened and told me she had room for me. That meant so much.” Nikki told her father she was going to pack their things and leave the apartment. Man was at work, so she had time to prepare before he returned home.
Nikki was packing her father’s closest as she heard the front door open. “The strangest thing about that afternoon was how did Man know I was leaving?” Her first thought was, “Now I am going to have to have a fight with him.” She sighed but continued to pack her bag.
He walked into the room and said, “You leaving?” She looked at him and simply said, “Yes.”
“You can’t leave,” he replied. “I’m leaving,” she turned around to face him as she said these words and saw he had a 45-caliber handgun pointed at her. He placed the gun on her face between the bridge of her nose and right eye.
“If I can’t have you, no one can.” Then he pulled the trigger.
The next thing Nikki remembers is waking up in the hospital room. The doctors did not expect her to wake up so quickly. In fact, the medical team was convinced she would never wake up. However, they had told her family not to tell Nikki anything as the shock could impede her progress. That didn’t stop Nikki from repeatedly asking through scribbled notes on Ivy’s pads. Finally, her family told her.“If I can’t have you, no one can.” Then he pulled the trigger. Go #Behindthe Statistics with Nikki, a survivor of domestic abuse and gun violence.Click To Tweet
When Man pulled the trigger, the bullet entered her left eye and exited below her right ear. Her father heard the shot and ran into the room, finding his daughter in a pool of blood. Man was next to her, dead from a self-inflicted wound. Her father ran into the streets, speech slurred from his stroke, screaming for the neighbors to call 911. As the medics attended to Nikki, her father experienced another stroke. The helicopter transported Nikki and her father together to The University of Maryland Shock Trauma. Nikki still remembers the first time her sisters brought her father into her hospital room. Though his stoke robbed him of the ability to communicate, his smile said everything.
Ivy, Teasha, and their mother were shocked when they first saw their sister after the initial surgery. They could not recognize her as her head was so swollen from the point-blank contact of the gun. “They said my head looked like a giant football.” First, the doctors told the family they did not expect Nikki to live. Then, when she woke up, they told the family Nikki wouldn’t be able to walk or talk for two years. When she started walking and talking, the clinicians said she would never walk without an assistive device and it would be years before she could return home and live independently. Two months after she was shot, Nikki walked out of the hospital without any assistance at all. The nurses all called her “The Miracle Patient.”
Nikki left the hospital, but her father remained behind. She went in to visit him with her sisters as often as she could. Each time he saw his girls, his face lit up with delight. On July 15, the family celebrated his birthday in the hospital. Nikki felt they reached a huge hurdle. Her father made it to another birthday. She felt certain he would soon return home with her.
The day after his birthday, the hospital called. Her father had passed. “I felt such guilt. He saved my life and in doing so ended his own.” She cried herself to sleep thinking she never should have taken him into her home to care for him. She was convinced he would still be alive if she had left him alone. Her mother reminded her that she would be dead had her father not been in the home, but that only made her feel more responsible for his death.
Nikki plummeted into a deep depression. She was used to going out, dressing up, and working. She begged her doctors to let her return to her job as a cashier at Old Navy but they told her she was not physically ready for such a demanding job. One of her doctors wrote to the Department of Motor Vehicles to inform the DMV Nikki’s license should be suspended as a result of her injuries. She cried when she looked at her reflection in the mirror and refused to let people take photos of her. She wore sunglasses to hide her eye even on cloudy days.
For five years, she rarely left home for anything other than work. Eventually, her mother, sisters and her best friend staged an intervention. The women told her how much they loved her and how worried they were that she wasn’t caring for herself. She tried therapy; it helped only slightly. The turning point came when she was working as a cashier at a pawn store. A man came in and held her up at gunpoint, with the same type of gun Man used to shoot her, a 45-caliber. She stood behind the register and all she could see, all she could hear, was Man holding the same gun and saying, “If I can’t have you, no one can.”
The pawn store robber took the money and ran. She survived again. “I realized then God left me here for a reason.” She started to attend church. She found a church that felt like home. A friend of hers suggested that she start volunteering for a domestic violence organization. She found Turn Around and began volunteering for their domestic violence hotline. Twelve years later, she still works the hotline six times a month in 10-hour shifts.
In 2012, she got married. Initially, Nikki thought she would never be able to trust another man, but slowly she learned she could trust Anthony. He drove her to and from work until she was able to regain her driver’s license in 2016. Anthony never pushed her for information about her injuries. Every other man wanted to know what happened to her eye. Finally, she asked him, “Why have you never asked me about my eye?” He replied, “Because I don’t need to know. When you are ready, you will tell me.” She knew that day she could trust him.
Nikki now works in a coffee shop. Her two boys, Isiah (15) and Anthony (7), are her proudest accomplishments. They know why she has an injured eye and of the importance of respecting women.
Jen and I both met Nikki’s sons when we went to her home. They are lovely young men. When we invited Isiah to have dinner with us, he politely declined because his mouth hurt from getting braces that day. When we offered to pick him up a milkshake, he gently asked if we could get something a bit healthier, but still pureed and cold. He is a junior black belt in karate and very disciplined about his diet. His little brother, Antony, sat next to me on the couch and flashed an infectious smile my way. He has followed in his brother’s footsteps and is also studying karate.
Nikki has come a long way from that awful day in March, but will never forget what happened to her. Bullet fragments remain lodged in her brain. The right side of her face is completely numb. She laughs that this is an advantage when she has dental work done on her right side as she does not require painkillers. She will never hear from her right ear again. She has constant headaches. Her balance is impaired. She can only see light and movement out of her left eye. The entire left side of her body is weak, and she suffers from hemiparalysis on the left side of her face. She still sees a slate of doctors every few months.
Nikki didn’t tell her story publicly until 2009. It was too painful to relive it and she was concerned about what people would think of her. She told her church congregation about Man and she realized that her story gave people strength. “See, the thing is, you can’t approach a victim of domestic violence like they are stupid. You can’t just demand they leave. You have to have an open-door policy. You need to let people know you are here and willing to be there for them when they are ready to talk, ready to leave their abusive situation, ready to confront their reality.” Now, Nikki wants to tell her story to everyone. She wants young women to know what she did not: You can’t change someone else, but when you are ready to leave there is a community waiting to support you.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, help is available. Below is a list of resources.
24/7 hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (that’s 1-800-799-7233).
You aren’t alone!
Written by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence
Photo by Jen Pauliukonis, President, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence