This story was edited at 5:35 p.m. to correct information about Laureen Rugen volunteering for Family Crisis Services.

PORTLAND – Everyday objects can still fill Laureen Rugen with dread. They can take her back to a time when hammers would smash her elbows, vacuum cleaner cords would be wrapped around her neck, and her head would be thrust into the oven.

Rugen’s husband, Christian, used such items as the tools for his abuse over more than a quarter-century — until she killed him in 2008 and was charged with murder.

After details of that abuse emerged in her case, Rugen pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter under a plea agreement. The judge sentenced her to eight years in prison and suspended all but the time she had already served.

Rugen was free in one sense, but she had not escaped the effects of years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse or the consequences of that last, fatal clash with her husband.

Struggles with flashbacks, depression and alcohol abuse still lay before her. She feared that her relationship with her daughter was broken. She twice ended up in jail for violating the terms of her probation. She attempted suicide.

Today, Rugen is back in court, for a hearing for violating her probation by drinking alcohol. If the judge decides to fully revoke her probation, she will have to serve the eight years of her sentence that were suspended.

While drinking put her at risk of being sent to jail again, it also led to treatment that she feels will make the difference in her life.

After her arrest for violating probation, Rugen went into an inpatient behavioral program that had just started offering trauma treatment. She described it as giving her the tools she needs to deal with the ghosts of her past and move forward.

Soon after her graduation from the program in February, she said, the emptiness inside her started to fill.

“I think that’s when I started accepting what happened. And I knew it was going to be OK,” said Rugen, who is now 53. “It’s the most incredible thing I’ve felt in a long, long time.”

KILL OR BE KILLED

On the night of April 7, 2008, Rugen stabbed her husband repeatedly with a butcher knife. She called 911 early the next day, alerting first responders who found Chris Rugen, 61, at the bottom of the stairs.

Laureen Rugen told police that he had threatened to kill her, and that killing him first was the only way she could survive that night.

“But nobody — nobody — wants to go through this. It eats you alive inside. There isn’t one day that I don’t cry, that I don’t think of the fact that I was responsible for killing somebody,” she said.

For years, Rugen’s husband controlled her life. Trained as a plumber, she worked at hardware stores, but he handled her paychecks. She was not allowed to apply her own makeup, shave her legs herself, keep her fingernails long or wear dresses.

He decided whether she could get out of bed to use the bathroom. He put a stop to things she enjoyed, like sketching or creating computer screen savers.

The abuse left Rugen with a nerve and muscle disorder — caused by trauma to the head — and a fear of ordinary things and places.

Two months after her sentencing, Rugen checked into a motel in Casco and tried to commit suicide with an overdose of prescription pills. That act and the consumption of a beer were violations of her six-year probation.

She went to jail for more than four months, followed by placement at Crossroads Back Cove, where her treatment focused on substance abuse.

Rugen said she tried to kill herself because she hated that she had entered into the plea agreement. She believed she had acted in self-defense when she killed her husband but was in no shape to go to trial. Had she been convicted of murder, Rugen would have faced 25 years to life in prison.

Rugen also felt that no one understood what she was going through.

“They just wanted me to snap my fingers and have it all be over,” she said. “Little did they know, my brain was flooded with the stuff he had done.”

It was not until last year that those issues were addressed directly.

SCAR FROM A GAPING WOUND

In April, Rugen was arrested for a second probation violation. She said she drank whiskey to deal with fears that she couldn’t do anything right. She was anxious about a cookout with her boyfriend’s grandchildren, whose approaching arrival made her think about her own daughter.

Rugen’s probation barred her from contact with her daughter, who acknowledged during Rugen’s sentencing that her stepfather had abused Rugen but also said her mother should have sought help.

Rugen was returned to Crossroads Back Cove, and this time underwent trauma therapy. Her flashbacks continue, but she is better able to deal with them. She knows, for example, that a boiling pot of spaghetti will not necessarily be thrown at her, and can safely be drained.

Marion Klickstein, who has been Rugen’s mentor through My Sister’s Keeper, a jail ministry program, said that things others take for granted — like going to a restaurant — are very challenging to Rugen.

“Yet every time she breaks a barrier, it’s so thrilling. And she’s happy and realizes maybe next time it won’t be so easy to do, but she’s done it once,” Klickstein said.

Lisa Nash, Rugen’s probation officer, now views Rugen’s binge drinking as an attempt to ease the effects of her trauma. Nash said Rugen has made significant progress in recent months.

“It’s time, hard work. But it’s also a keen desire to have a different life,” Nash said.

The trauma that Rugen suffered is like a gaping wound that becomes a scar over time, said Laura Streyffeler, a mental health counselor based in Fort Myers, Fla.

“You can look at it, see it and know it’s there,” said Streyffeler, who specializes in traumatic stress and domestic violence. “But you can look at it without feeling the pain. You can look at it in your head without feeling it in your heart.”

SMALL TRIUMPHS SAVORED

These days, Rugen is living in Naples with her boyfriend, Don Merrill, a mechanic and equipment company manager whom she met online three years ago. They savor her small triumphs, like attending a stock car racing banquet despite her anxiety about large groups, and preparing dinner for friends even though the kitchen is fraught with objects that could trigger flashbacks.

She imagines she will drive again someday. Despite a nagging feeling that she will get in trouble if she’s caught doing something she enjoys, she hopes to take up photography.

She recently met with her daughter — the first time they had seen each other outside of court — and hopes they can mend their relationship.  

Telling her story is part of Rugen’s healing. Once afraid of going out because people might recognize and judge her, she now hopes that sharing her experience can help others escape abusive relationships.

Rugen has been talking to other women about domestic violence ever since her first arrest. She has been struck by the similarities of their tales: the partner’s initial charm and attentiveness, the increasing isolation and the unsuccessful attempts to leave.

In jail, other women admired Rugen’s sense of hope, said Jenny Stasio, who met Rugen through Family Crisis Services, a domestic-violence organization that works in Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties.

“I remember her saying how safe she felt in jail. She could finally sleep and have an aspect of safety,” Stasio said. “She was doing what she had to do, even though jail wasn’t the best place to be.”

Rugen has been in touch with Family Crisis Services about ways she can volunteer for them. She participates in an online group for women who are incarcerated for killing their spouses. She dreams of opening a home for abused women.

“I spent so long thinking I was a victim,” Rugen said. “And I am a victim, but more than ever I’m a survivor. I can’t keep being a martyr and a victim, because there’s way too many people out there that need help.”

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

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