UPSTATE — The first time Robin Conn spoke publicly to a community group about the years of emotional and physical abuse she endured during her first marriage, she debated how much to reveal about those turbulent years.
“But someone has to speak up,” she said and decided that full disclosure could benefit both her and her audience. She shared her story of survival, detailing the dark days but emphasized the power of survival, forgiveness and the reality of a better tomorrow.
“There was a freedom in letting those feelings go and moving forward to empower other women to break the cycle of abuse and dependence,” Conn said. “I’ve learned a lot about healing through therapy and self reflection. My experience doesn’t define me. If I can survive, others can too. I have fought to get where I am today. I don’t have to fight anymore.”
For eight years Conn has been on a crusade to help battered women, having survived an abusive relationship with a drug-addicted husband and her own drug dependency.
“If I hadn’t been through it, I couldn’t understand it. My experience has brought me to who I am today,” said Conn, of Anderson, an Administrative Office Technology honor student at Tri-County Technical College.
After graduating in 2019 she wants to incorporate Totes of Hope, a personal ministry she founded years ago that is dedicated to helping women in domestic violence shelters by giving them tote bags filled with toiletries and teaching them how to be independent and to sustain themselves and their families. She also plans to help her (current) husband open a heating and air conditioning business.
At age 47, Conn doesn’t want to squander any opportunities.
“It can happen to anyone,” said Conn, who for 15 years endured and hid her marital struggles with her first husband until finally breaking free, finding her voice and moving her family to safety and security.
Conn didn’t pursue college after high school. Instead, she went to work in minimum-wage jobs as a waitress and a cashier at gas station.
“I always knew I could do more,” she said.
She married her first husband at age 21.
The abuse began slowly with jealousy and control but kicked into high gear several years into the marriage.
“He didn’t like my friends, so he alienated them from me,” she said. “He was very controlling. If I put on makeup, he said it was for someone else. I didn’t have access to a car.”
She was home-bound, never leaving except to pick up their three children from school or run errands. He knew her every move.
“It made me nervous, but I made excuses for him and his behavior,” she said. “I believed in my marital vows. When you take the oath, you do it for life. I believe in the sanctity of marriage.”
Her husband was dealing drugs and introduced her to the lifestyle. Recreational drug use grew into a full-blown addiction to methamphetamines for both of them.
“It was all around me. It was easy to get hooked,” Conn said.
Around their 10th year of marriage, she said he began to get abusive and even more controlling. He disabled the phone, leaving her at home with the kids and no mode of communication or transportation.
“He was alienating me from people to gain complete control, often locking me in the bedroom for days,” she said. “My mind was scrambled because we would be up for days at a time doing drugs with no sleep. I was on a short leash. It was a crazy time period.”
She admits she became addicted as well.
Their addiction led to losing custody of all three kids. The Department of Social Services removed them from the home for six months following an investigation of alleged domestic violence against Conn.
“I got sober and so did he,” she said. “We entered outpatient rehab and took steps to get clean.”
They regained custody, but the family was far from fixed.
Conn wanted out of the marriage but didn’t see how with him constantly monitoring her every move. In 2006 she had a plan to escape.
“The kids loved the library and he didn’t realize there were computers and internet there,” she said. “I began looking for a way out.”
It came in 2006 when he was arrested for violating probation.
“I talked him into turning himself in,” Conn said. “I told him what he wanted to hear — that I would be waiting for him after his release in 20-plus days.”
Instead, she formulated a plan to get out.
She and her brother rented a U-Haul and moved out of the house, taking the necessities for her and children. The family went to Safe Harbor (a place of refuge for victims of domestic violence and their children) for eight weeks.
“Even though I was away from him, I was terrified,” Conn said.
She filed for a restraining order, along with divorce papers requesting custody of the three children.
The divorce was granted and she was free.
After leaving the shelter, she rented a house from a family member and began to rebuild her life, re-evaluating her decisions and vowing never to settle again. At a crossroads, she was determined to find a purpose in life. Extensive family therapy and counseling helped to heal the wounds.
Within three years, she purchased a home.
A temporary job at AFCO led to a full-time position beginning in 2007 and lasting until 2012 when her department was shut down and she was moved from third shift to second shift.
“I had worked third shift but I needed to be with my children after school for homework and activities. So I gave up my job. It was the scariest thing I had ever done. I gave up insurance, a 401 K. I had never made more than $10 an hour and I was making $17 an hour. It was the best job I ever had. I bought a house while working there. I could finally care for my family. It was my security blanket. After a life of unrest, it was something I could count on. But my kids came first. It was hard but I relied on my faith to get me through,” she said.
It was at this time she began Totes of Hope.
In 2011 she met her current husband, Randy, and married him six weeks later.
“I just knew he was the one,” she said.
Her ex-husband also remarried, got sober and began to repair his relationship with their children. But Conn says in 2015, after his wife told him she was leaving him, he went on a jealous rampage that ended in murdering his wife and turning the gun on himself.
“He had so many demons that destroyed him,” Conn said. “Two things God laid on my heart were Totes of Hope — a project that is very personal to me — and going back to school,” she said.
During the time she was unemployed, her husband suggested she enter TriCounty.
“He is my biggest cheerleader. I knew it was now or never. I was the only parent my kids had left. I had to make sure I was all they needed to see in a parent. I have made mistakes but I am correcting them,” said Conn. “I had always preached school but I wasn’t doing it myself. I decided to show them it could be done. I want to be an example.”
She entered Tri-County 29 years after being an Upward Bound participant when in high school.
“I was scared. I hadn’t been in a classroom since graduating from Wren High School in 1988. A young girl in my keyboarding class befriended me and helped me tremendously. We are still friends,” she said.
Conn earned all A’s her first semester, giving her a spot on the President’s List, along with membership into the Alpha Zeta Beta honor society. She also has been named to the Dean’s List. Her goal is to graduate with a 4.0.
She also was asked to join the student organization, the National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS), which is designed to identify and develop students’ leadership skills using real-world applications. She serves as events coordinator for the organization.
Conn also works as an IT lab assistant at the Anderson Campus computer lab and at the Pendleton Campus.
Looking back she only has one regret — that her children had to endure the deaths of their father and stepmother.
“Those events changed so much for so many. The tragedy of their deaths affected so many people,” she said. “But I am strong willed and my path brought me to where I am today — to help domestic violence survivors.
“I understand their plight. I can empower them. I got out of a bad situation and they can, too. The more I accomplish speaks volumes to these women and my own children. There is a better tomorrow. I won’t stop here. There is so much I can accomplish. I just started a little later.”
Reach Lisa Garrett at firstname.lastname@example.org.