April 10, 2019

From hurt to healing

Basketball Hall-of-Famer Ruthie Bolton promotes therapy as a means of recovering from domestic violence — and education as the key to preventing it.

Basketball Hall-of-Famer Ruthie Bolton (pictured, left, with Brigid McCaw, MD, medical director of Kaiser Permanente’s Family Violence Prevention Program) promotes therapy as a means of recovering from domestic violence — and education as the key to preventing it.

Ruthie Bolton is a legend on the basketball court. The retired WNBA star played with the Sacramento Monarchs for 8 years and was a driving force on 2 U.S. Olympic teams that brought home gold medals, among many more accomplishments.

But it’s a different kind of strength that recently had a room full of Kaiser Permanente clinicians on their feet and clapping for her.

Ruthie Bolton is a domestic violence survivor. And she is telling her story to help others, with a special focus on getting help and empowering girls and women to remind them that they matter.

Not in her DNA to walk away

Bolton spoke in harrowing detail of her first marriage at Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California Family Violence Prevention Program conference in Oakland last month.

She said her drive and perfectionism in her sport were exactly the qualities that prevented her from leaving a dangerous 11-year marriage that included physical and verbal abuse, sometimes daily.

“I went through a lot of challenges in my career,” said the Mississippi native. “They said I wasn’t good enough. No school recruited me. I overcame it all. So, when I got into a troubled marriage, I didn’t know how to quit. That wasn’t part of my DNA to walk away.”

What should have been a joyous time — a marriage re-commitment ceremony and an Olympic gold celebration — was marred by a black eye from her husband. Even after family learned of her struggles, Bolton stayed.

“If he didn’t hit me, it was a great day and it must mean he does love me.”

Bolton reached rock bottom when her husband summoned her from the kitchen one day and she could see he had “a bottle of beer in one hand and a gun in the other.” She was afraid, but she knew it was time to go, she said. Bolton already had a duffel bag with essentials ready. She ran.

Finding her footing

Bolton said over the next few years she “was confused and lost. I thought it was my fault. I had one leg in and one leg out of the marriage. I didn’t know if victory was staying or leaving.”

Support from her large family of 19 siblings helped, as well as her wide network of friends.

Two and a half years ago, Bolton was encouraged to tell her story for the first time in an ESPN interview. She did — and hasn’t stopped since.

“I did it because I felt like it could save a woman’s life,” she said. “I did it because I wanted to heal, to be a voice, and to be transparent. I wanted to have just as much of an impact off the basketball court as I had on it.”

The news hit her former teammates hard. “They were in tears. They said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ But I was too embarrassed to tell my teammates.”

Later, after her divorce, Bolton remarried and started a family. During her children’s pediatric visits at Kaiser Permanente, she would see signs asking patients about domestic violence.

“I would see the signage everywhere, and they would ask in the exam room, too. I thought, ‘Wow, they really care.’ That really, really helped a lot.”

“You are making a difference at Kaiser Permanente. I salute you.”

Better days

Bolton, who now lives in Sacramento, is in therapy, where she’s learning a lot about herself, which helps her to advise others.

“Keep asking people if they need help,” she told the audience of clinicians in Oakland. “Because one day they may be ready to take it.”

Bolton also said that having people build her up helped when her self-esteem was flagging. “In my journey, if someone is sharing with me about their abuse, I make sure to remind that person of their greatness, elevate them, and encourage them to rise above. The focus needs to be on them — not on the abuser.”

After writing 2 books, coaching, volunteering extensively, and touring the world to speak about family violence prevention, Bolton continues to dedicate herself to her long-time Aim High program of clinics, classes, and workshops that “encourage young girls to keep their mighty power.”

“I owe it to the next generation, including my 9-year-old daughter,” Bolton added.

While she describes herself as still in recovery from the abuse, things are looking up. “The more I talk about it, the more healed I feel,” she said. “I continue to use my voice for women who don’t have a platform, so like me they can turn their pain to power.”

Get more information about Kaiser Permanente’s Family Violence Prevention Program. If you need help for yourself or someone you know who is experiencing an abusive relationship call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7.