Michigan Therapist Erica Carulli gives us the advice we need this October for Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
MICHIGAN—”Now, every time I witness a strong person, I want to know: What darkness did you conquer in your story? Mountains do not rise without earthquakes.” That quote comes from Katherine MacKenett and rings true to me as many of our loved ones are struggling financially, socially, and emotionally due to the pandemic.
While the reasons may seem logical and simple to us—job loss, sheltering in place, grief over the loss of loved ones to the virus itself—one area still seems taboo: domestic violence.
Domestic violence is not uncommon; in fact, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, intimate-partner violence affects more than 12 million people a year. That means people you know: your loved ones. Your friends. Families you spend time with, couples you know and love. People living right next door.
So knowing this information, you may be asking yourself, “How can I help?”
Let’s begin by talking about some of the ways you can help a loved one. Essential ingredients for completing this task list of Do’s are active-listening skills, a non-judgemental approach, and positive regard for the survivor.
How to Support a Survivor: To-Do List
Do: Respect the survivor’s autonomy.
Validate the survivor’s experience. They are in charge of their story. We are not. Believe what they are telling you. Offer resources, but don’t tell them what you think they should do; instead, provide the information and acknowledge that the decision to utilize the resources is completely up to them.
Do: Use your ears.
Listen attentively to what they are saying. Similar to respecting their autonomy, their story is unique and you should assume they are telling you the truth. You are not a detective; instead, approach the conversation as if they are the expert and you are the student.
Do: Provide support.
Respect the boundaries of the survivor. They are offering to be vulnerable with you. Allow them to pause, take breaks, or stop whenever they feel they need to. Encourage them to take care of themselves. By engaging in things together that the survivor may have enjoyed before the trauma, you are communicating to them that they are valuable and worthy of love and enjoyment despite what they’ve experienced. You may be of support to the survivor by providing them a safe place at your home to make phone calls, store important documents, or even keep a bag of belongings packed in case they need to leave immediately. You could further support them by offering transportation and/or child care.
Do: Help rebuild the survivor’s trust in others.
Although this may be a job ultimately left to the survivor and a professional, you can still ensure that you are doing your part by keeping your promises and being there for your loved one when you say you will. Allow your loved one to begin to develop trust in someone again, and let that person be you.
Depending on how comfortable you feel helping your friend, maybe you could spend time coming up with a safe word or phrase. Something like, “Next week the grocery store has lifesavers on sale.” To an outsider reading the message, it sounds unimportant, but to you, the helpful friend, maybe your predetermined codeword is “lifesavers on sale,” alerting you to potential danger and/or the survivor needing help. Maybe the codeword text means alert the authorities, or maybe it means to call the survivor. Setting up a codeword system that only you and the survivor know about may be a way to communicate without the abuser knowing, and may help the survivor by knowing there is someone out there they can contact in case of an emergency. Ultimately, this helps to reduce the feelings of isolation when involved in a relationship with an abuser.
Currently, due to COVID-19 and the stay-at-home orders, many abusers are working at home with their partners, leaving little time for the survivor to reach out for help. Local hotlines offer alternative services for survivors as well as friends and family members of survivors. Chat programs, emailing a crisis line, text messaging and other types of communication may be available due to the lack of privacy survivors have during stay-at-home orders and/or sheltering in place. Agencies are still offering help and services have been adjusted to meet the current need based on living in the middle of a global pandemic.
There are a few key things to mention that should be avoided when trying to help your loved one.
Things to Avoid:
- Telling anyone about the survivor’s experience without their consent. This is a breach of trust and it should be left to the survivor to decide if, when, or how they share.
- Appearing to know or believing you know better than the survivor does about their own story and that they should be “over” the trauma. Everyone’s journey to healing is different.
- Invalidating a survivor’s experience, making it more difficult for a survivor to tell their story to you or anyone else in the future. Remember, what they experienced is real, true and valid.
- Asking questions for your own benefit. Instead, allow the survivor to provide the information they feel comfortable sharing.
Since we are all human beings and not robots, remind yourself that it takes a strong person to be able to help someone who is struggling. One of the most important components of helping someone you love is taking care of yourself. Make sure you are taking care of your own needs, including physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Make sure you have a good, stable support system of your own to lean on. And if you are unaware of the effects of secondary trauma and the impacts of trauma on a caregiver, I would highly encourage you to learn more about these things. Exposure to trauma is also trauma. Taking care of yourself is incredibly important, for the survivor and for your own wellbeing.