While most businesses are worried about surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, attorney, social worker and Buffalo School Board member Hope Jay has started a new business helping survivors of abusive relationships. But not just any abuse, "narcissistic abuse."
"The abuse started slowly...and it was verbal...and it was surprising. You know, I'd been married quite a while before anything happened."
To this day, it is difficult for Taunya Abaya to talk about it. Abaya is a certified financial planner and has a master's degree in Education. She is also a survivor of narcissistic abuse. Abaya wants people to understand how it can happen to anyone.
"What you aren't told is that people can change," she said. "Once it started, it's very hard for the person to stop. It continues to grow. And then the abuse started on the kids as they got older."
It continued over 10 years, privately. No one knew her marriage wasn't perfect until she filed for divorce, because the scars were psychological, not physical.
"You have fear, you have a lack of control, you feel powerless and it's not as easy to prove. If you've been hit, if you've been physically abused, you may have bruises to prove that," Abaya said. "Just talking, I can feel the stress of the fear. And the person will look you dead in the eye and say, 'I didn't do that. That didn't happen.' In their reality, it doesn't exist."
"Narcissism, itself, is misunderstood by the general community," said attorney Hope Jay. "I think a lot of people have this idea that when somebody's a narcissistic, it means they're vain, they care so much about their appearance, they're selfish and this kind of thing."
Jay is the a former prosecutor of domestic violence and sexual assault cases in the Erie County District Attorney's Office and founder of the new Center for Hope WNY.
"When it's this insidious, emotional and psychological abuse that people, partners, women, children are being subjected to on a daily basis by somebody like this, it wears you down. It beats you down emotionally. It beats you down psychologically. You start to doubt your own reality," she said.
Jay said "narcissistic abuse" means from someone who meets the American Psychiatric Association's formal diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD.
There is a comprehensive description on the center's website, but basically, an NPD is a person who is two-faced and very good at hiding who they really are. They are charming, yet arrogant, with a disregard for others. A false sense of humility is manipulative and full of lies. Perhaps a high-achiever, but with a sense of entitlement that is offended by criticism, because they are never wrong.
"It's so hard to make that decision, to say, 'Okay, I'm leaving this person.' Because there's the immediacy of, 'How do I do this?' And then there's the longterm of, 'How do I function going from there?' That abuser can still use his words to make you feel powerless and fearful," said Abaya.
"They absolutely need a net underneath them to help them through a very, very difficult, antagonistic, hostile process," Jay said. "Once an abuser feels they've lost control over a partner, the chance of physical violence escalating is significantly higher. We're gonna make sure when people come to us that they have their support system in place. My number one job is keeping people safe."
Jay, Abaya and the rest of the center's all-female team are not trying to duplicate what Buffalo's Family Justice Center does, that is, helping people in physically abusive relationships navigate the criminal justice system. The team describes the Center for Hope as a kind of one-stop shop offering civil and matrimonial advocacy, financial and real estate counseling, mental health support and holistic healing specifically to people in narcissistic abusive relationships.
"Fear has been your life. We will make sure that fear is not the basis of your life moving forward," Abaya said.
"But the thing that is most unique service I think that we're offering now is a support group for survivors of narcissistic abuse. It's the only one that I'm aware of in the community," Jay said. "It's specifically tailored to both educate survivors of narcissistic abuse about narcissistic personality disorder and the different types of emotional abuse that narcissists use in controlling their victims, and then to talk about ways to heal, how to set boundaries and coping mechanisms they can use moving forward in their life."
The support group will start in September and run eight weeks. The location will be disclosed only to participants. Until a physical space can be found for the Center for Hope, it operates online at centerforhopewny.org. A fundraising campaign is also starting for a permanent location and to help those who may have difficulty paying for services.
Jay said her legal practice grinded to a halt because of COVID-19, but that gave her the time and the inspiration to make an idea that has been "percolating" for years a reality.
"Because now people have been quarantined and stuck in their houses with their abusers for months on end, I think we're gonna see an uptick and a surge of people who are gonna be filing for divorce and/or custody now that the courts are starting to open up again," she said.