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Abuse survivor spins tale into book, play

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Published:   |   Updated: June 28, 2013 at 10:16 AM

Yolanda Lee lay in the mud on her front lawn, battered and bloodied and unconscious.

As she laid there, her husband grabbed a hose and sprayed her with water until she came to.

"It knocked me into a place of temporary insanity," Lee says of her abusive marriage. "I wanted to die. I prayed to God to let me die."

But Lee survived.

After a decade of mental, emotional and physical abuse, she divorced her husband. Lee said he was arrested 28 times for domestic violence and served time in prison.

As a way to deal with the pain and anger, she penned a book, "Someone Almost Loved Me to Death." The book was turned into a play, which will be performed Saturday at The Cuban Club.

Lee hopes her harrowing story - which emphasizes survival, not victimization - is an inspiration to other families dealing with the horror of domestic violence.

"I was embarrassed it happened to me," said the 45-year-old West Tampa native. "I was kicked, spit on, beaten, had guns pointed at my head, but I was raised to believe what happens in your house stays in your house."

Lee said she was emotionally abused as a child, which led to a life of drugs and promiscuity as an adult.

She knew her now ex-husband, John, from the neighborhood. The two crossed paths regularly on the streets, and in the clubs where Lee often performed as an exotic dancer.

John was well-groomed, street smart and into the same scene as Lee.

A month into their relationship, he hit her for the first time.

"He hit me with so much force, he knocked me out," Lee describes in the book. "My head hit the window so hard that it felt like he had shaken something loose in my head. It should have been a red flag, red blanket, red anything. Should have been the time to get out and away from this man right then."

But Lee didn't leave. They married four weeks later.

"I opened the door and allowed him to abuse me" said Lee, who has expressive eyes and a warm smile. "I allowed him to take complete control of my life. He told me I was stupid, dumb, ugly and worthless and I believed him."

Lee called herself a "puppet on a string" because of the control her husband exerted over her, asking his permission to bathe, even brush her teeth.

But through it all, she held on to the love of her five children, who many times witnessed the abuse, and to her faith.

Somehow, she found the strength to leave her husband after 10 years.

After divorcing him in 2001, Lee began putting her feelings to paper. She found it therapeutic.

"My dad always said, 'Never let the enemy see you cry,' but he forgot to tell me what to do with the anger," she recalls.

Three years ago, she met local playwright Nathan Dwayne Sanders and shared her book. The two wove her words into a raw, gritty stage performance that follows the arc of a relationship - from falling in love to the beginnings of feeling trapped to being physically and sexually abused to eventually leaving the relationship and becoming a survivor.

"When you talk to this young lady, it's hard to believe what she went through for so long," said Sanders, a Tampa police officer. "I was overtaken by her story, her perseverance and her love of God. To be able to see God's work and see where she is now in awesome."

Sanders said Lee's story also helped give him a different perspective about abuse victims.

"When you go on so many routine (domestic violence) calls, you tend to become complacent and put them all into one category," he added. "We always wonder, 'Why don't they just leave?' (Lee's story) opened my eyes and made me better understand why."

Unfortunately, stories like Lee's are not uncommon.

Last year, there were more than 7,000 domestic violence offenses reported in Hillsborough County, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics. According to The Spring of Tampa Bay, one-in-four women will experience violence during her lifetime.

Discussing the issue of domestic violence can help shed light on the violence, and help some survivors heal.

"Sharing and getting (your story) out certainly can bring attention to a horrible issue and brings a face to it," said Roseanne Cupoli, chief program officer with The Spring of Tampa Bay. "But while it can be a step in the healing process for some, for others there is shame and embarrassment that it happened to them. But it's the abuser that should be ashamed and embarrassed, not the victims.

Cupoli isn't familiar with Lee's story but said survivors can find strength in her story.

"When you're able to show it really is this bad, but this is what can happen when you overcome it and get out - it's a story of hope."

Lee, who now works for the Hillsborough County Bar Association, is on a mission to help other abuse victims and their children. She created Bethany's Group, a faith-based organization that helps families overcome abuse and become self-reliant. And she speaks publicly about her ordeal on behalf of Bay Area Legal Services, a nonprofit legal aid program she credits with saving her life. She is now on their board.

In 2011, Lee received the organization's first "Heart of Hope" award for breaking the cycle of domestic violence and empowering other families to take action.

"She has given such a great gift to our community by sharing her story, which demonstrates how her pain was transformed into strength and hope for herself and her children," said Margaret Mathews of Bay Area Legal Services.

Lee said bringing to the stage the story of such a terrible time her life is difficult to watch, even for her children, but she is thankful for the life she has today.

"I feel as though God gave me favor," said Lee, who is engaged to a kind, loving man who "caters to her like a queen." "So many people die in domestic violence, but God delivered his promise to me and here I am."

ccabrera@tampatrib.com

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