Free to Dream Again: A Survivor’s Story

A Living Hell
For 13 years, Independent Beauty Consultant – and mother of three children – Isabel Lima lived in fear, enduring physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of her partner.

“Basically I wasn’t allowed to think, wear the clothes I wanted, and he tried to isolate me from my family and friends. I had to ask three weeks in advance for permission to see friends and knew an argument would ensue when the time came to see them. I missed out on special occasions, even being by the side of loved ones during their last hours,” says Isabel. 

“I had no access to my hard-earned money. My pay would go in the account for bills, his drugs and his beer. I had to argue about getting clothes for the children. He kept reminding me that I was ok looking, but far from being beautiful. Putting me down was his way to control me.”

Isabel says the abuse lasted their whole relationship, and although she never loved him, like most abusers, he was able to “sink his claws in my brain from day one”. She lived with constant stress and her physical and mental health suffered.

She says the onslaught of sexual abuse was one of the hardest aspects to reconcile with.

“He made me do so many things against my will and against what I believe in. Things a normal person wouldn’t do. And since I was his wife, I had ‘duties’ to fulfill.” 

So why stay?

Partly because she felt the expectations of her European background assume she keep quiet and endure the abuse, as some women feel pressure from traditions – and maintaining a certain “family image”.

The other reason?

“He threatened to kill me and the children if I tried to escape. He used to say if the children were to die, they were replaceable,” she says.

“Another way to keep me on a leash was to make sure I was an accessory if he got arrested for any crime he had committed. His list was long. The authorities had a solid case against him, but because he made me witness or made sure I knew about some crimes, all was dropped to keep me safe.” 

I Will Survive
Although Isabel says she never dreamed of walking away, as she knew if she tried there would be a risk of death, one night she was pushed to the edge.

“Push did come to shove and I knew I only had moments to live. Courage came from life survival, she says, adding. “Up to this day, I’m still amazed how from being a victim, I clicked into survivor mode.”

Her and her three children escaped in their van with a frosted windshield, with her daughter’s head out the window to guide her through the streets. Then, all of a sudden, a song came on the radio she couldn’t ignore.

“Believe it or not, as all of that was happening, the song ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor was playing on the radio... And people think that life doesn’t send them signs?!”

With the help of her best friend, Isabel found a shelter far enough away from home that accepted children and had bulletproof windows. She stayed there with her children for two months, and although she admits she never though she would end up at a Shelter, “Thank God we did, because that place was safe. It was the prefect transition to our new life.”

A Beautiful New Start
While Isabel says it was that fight for her life that was the last straw, deciding to start a Mary Kay business might have been the catalyst for change.

She heard about the opportunity during a hair appointment (her step sister was her hairdresser at the time because it was the only way she was “allowed” to “indulge” in some girl time). “Normally she was the one making the appointment, but she received a call to visit because her hair colour was ‘probably’ due. I found it funny that she was the one calling me to set up an appointment, but hey, who was I to argue. So I took the bait.”

During that appointment, she remembers the door bell ringing and her step sister announcing, “Oops, I forgot to tell you a Mary Kay Beauty Consultant was coming for a pampering session...” 

Having had a pampering session in 1996, she loved Mary Kay and knew what to expect. And for an extremely shy person, she spoke about the products the whole time and barely let the Consultant get a word in.

“And that, with hair colour still on my head!” she jokes.

A few weeks later, she received a call to be a model at a dinner makeover. “And since I wasn’t really allowed to go out, the setting was just perfect. It was at my ex’s favourite restaurant and dinner was at a good deal, so he said ‘yes’.” 

During a silent car ride home, and after learning about the financial potential, her ex said, “Yup, you’re gonna do that Mary Kay thing and make money.”

At that moment, says Isabel, it clicked. 

“I never felt that I wanted to do the business. Not because I didn’t like it, but because there was no point to dream. I was in a situation that didn’t allow me to even think, let alone having a desire to accomplish something for me. So I knew then and there it would be my opportunity to get out of the house and enjoy myself while meeting, and beautifying, women. It was never about the money. It was about the freedom.” 

After starting her Mary Kay business, Isabel says her world changed: she gained confidence, and even started smiling.

“My newfound confidence drove him crazy. It rattled him that I was becoming stronger and turning into the person I was supposed to be my whole life.”

A Future of Freedom
While not every case is the same, recovery can be a long process for abuse survivors. For Isabel, it involved a lot of therapy, support, and self-love.

“I have to admit, I was very lucky to have so much help from the system, my friends and from my Mary Kay family. Today, I’m doing great,” she says. “Relapses do occur, but with time I’ve learned to detect the symptoms and address them adequately. PTSD is very real. It can’t be ignored and has to be treated.”

Today, Isabel’s life is “about me”. She admits people who know her today would never guess she endured domestic violence. 

“I am actually grateful that I lived it because without it, I wouldn’t be helping women in that situation.”

Isabel feels it’s important to add that sometimes women are silent about abuse because it brings shame – to their families and community. 

“I had to maintain the image of the perfect daughter in my community. My father still encouraged me to return to my abuser,” she says, adding. “Our country is so multicultural that a lot of women are in similar situations and don’t get out of it because of their families. They don’t receive the support they need. Only when my dad accompanied me to see a lawyer to review my case, he was finally able to make peace and support me.”

The most common question she receives? “How did you decide to get out?” 

My answer will always be: “Only YOU can make that decision; when your conviction is clear about savouring your freedom for the rest of your life.”

Isabel says taking that leap of faith was the hardest decision, but by far the best she’s ever made. 

“Freedom is one of the greatest gifts a woman can have and it’s too sweet to give up,” she says, adding: “I can dream again. Today I am not a survivor, but a VICTRESS.”