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Breaking the ties that bind

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NORTH BEND - Heidi Coogan watched as her abusive husband stood in front of two of her three children wielding a kitchen knife and threatened to kill himself with a quick stab to the chest. It was at that point about 18 months ago that Coogan, who had long suffered physical and mental abuse at the hands of her husband of more than a decade, decided her life needed to change.

In the middle of the night, while her husband sat in jail following the knife incident, Coogan and her children packed up their 1968 Chevy pickup and headed east with no destination in mind.

"The police told me to go far away. My husband just went over the edge," Coogan said. "We took what we could and left."

The move would eventually liberate Coogan from a vicious cycle of abuse, but it would find her on the run from her abuser for more than a year and ultimately push her out of a profession in which she had worked for more than 17 years.

The North Bend resident said in the beginning her marriage showed no signs of abuse. Coogan, who said she once scoffed at abused women on daytime talk shows and wondered why they just didn't leave, ultimately found herself in a similar situation.

About three years ago, Coogan said, problems that creep into numerous relationships began to surface in her marriage, only the result was far from ordinary. Arguments began between the two about Coogan's night-shift job at Safeway keeping her away from the home for too long. The arguments about the long hours soon turned into false accusations about infidelity from her husband, Coogan said, which led to violence and mental abuse.

The woman who once couldn't believe women stayed in such relationships soon found herself trying to justify her own abusive situation to friends and family.

"I hung on for way too long and let it get way out of hand," said Coogan. "But my ultimate fear was what would happen if I left."

Linda Olsen, director of Eastside Domestic Violence, the largest provider of services for domestic violence victims in Washington, said it is not uncommon for the abused to stay in unhealthy relationships. Many abused women are concerned that by leaving they won't have the proper finances to survive, and others have a compelling sense that the love that bound the couple to marriage will return, Olsen said. Others fear for their lives, she added.

"I've heard many women say, 'If he's here I know where he is, if he's not, I'm afraid he'll kill me,'" said Olsen.

Olsen said once the abused woman leaves, the chances of homicide jump 70 percent.

A couple of times Coogan grabbed the kids and the truck keys and vowed to leave her Snoqualmie home, only to be stopped by her husband. He would disconnect wires and dismantle parts to disable the truck, forcing her to learn how to repair the vehicle.

When she finally did manage to leave after that fateful day, Coogan's life became even more complicated.

Sensing that something was about to give, Coogan called her workplace and told them to take her off the schedule indefinitely - likely a couple of weeks. A week later she packed her truck and headed east to escape her husband, whom she had a restraining order against.

After landing in Spokane and securing housing, Coogan applied for her old position at a Safeway near her new home. It was just three weeks after leaving Snoqualmie that she learned she had never been removed from the schedule and had been terminated as a result. The termination would keep her from getting the Spokane job.

Coogan admits to never calling her work to inform them of when she would return or her whereabouts, but said the fear for her safety kept her from contacting anybody. Coming from such a small community, she was hopeful word of her situation would drift back to her former workplace.

A few months later, when her husband tracked the family down in Spokane, they moved to Ellensburg, where she was once again denied a job by her former employer. According to Coogan, the manager who could change the status of her employment eligibility has since moved to another location. The union representing the store has intervened, she added, but to no avail.

Officials at Safeway's regional offices in Bellevue would not comment on the issue as it is against company policy to do so in personnel cases.

Today, with her husband serving time in jail, the family is once again living in the Valley, with Coogan looking for work while her kids attend school.

"We came back here because of the sense of community ... we knew everybody," said Coogan.

With her truck in Kittitas county broken down - there's not enough money to repair it -Coogan has been seeking employment since her return, but with no vehicle, she said, she's limited. About the only bite she's had on applications is from a fast-food restaurant.

Times have been tough, but if there's a silver lining to the situation the now single mother said it's reinforcing the idea of family to her children.

"There were times when we all slept in the truck, but we were together," said Coogan. "When all else fails, this is what you got."

A longtime friend of Coogan's, who asked that his name not be published, said he's confident things will work out in the end.

"I think she's going to be fine," he said. "She's a real fighter."

Despite the uncertain future, Coogan said she's at a point she doesn't regret one bit.

"We're finally in a position where we can feel safe and be safe. Now we're finally back where we belong," said Coogan. "Either way, life is going to go on and we're going to make it."

Travis Peterson can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at travis.peterson@valleyrecord.com.

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