How To Help Someone Going Through Domestic Abuse (From A Survivor)
My iPhone vibrates. "Just got your call! Emergency or mistake?" I've never been more grateful to receive a text. It's 3 a.m., I'm shaking in the cold, and he's leaving menacing voicemails.
Twenty minutes ago, I was dragged out of bed. He'd come in the door drunk, yelling at me. It's terrifying fighting off someone 6 feet tall and twice my weight. For the first time, I need to flee my house. But my wallet and keys have been confiscated. He smirks, "So you can't leave me." Intoxication has slowed his reflexes, so I grab some possessions, lock myself in the bathroom, and dash out the first chance I can.
"He hurt me," I sputter into the phone. My friend Ella does a breathing meditation with me and makes me carbonara and hot chocolate at her house. As I settle back into my body, a dam inside me shatters. I tell her partner and her how confused I am about his increasing volatility. It hasn't yet dawned on me that it's abuse. I believe he cannot control it, and it's simply a result of his alcoholism.
The four of us are friends, so I'm stunned when they say, "We've got to call the police." I don't want to get him in trouble for his drunken mistake, and they respect my decision. In private, my friend looks at me kindly and says, "I've been watching out for you for a long time."
This is the first time I've told her what he's done to me. I never cry in front of my friends, but I burst into tears when she says this because I'm relieved. I've always believed that I'm crazy, too sensitive, or not understanding enough. Those are the words he drums into me—the words that have shaped my perception of myself.
Here's the deal. I'm lucky my friends believed me. But I know how many other women aren't believed. They're told they're lying, or excuses are made to absolve the abuser. I also know it's hard to respond when someone discloses abuse because it's awkward and throws off your belief in the world as a safe place. Then you kick yourself for saying something stupid. Here's what you can do instead:
1. Believe them.
Just a few days ago, I asked Ella, "Why did you believe me?" You see, a small part of me continued to wonder if I was being dramatic even after I left him.
Ella simply said, "People don't lie about such things. If they do, then it's also a sign they need help." She gave me the biggest gift ever—the gift of bearing witness to my pain.
When you tell someone to "sit down, calm down, and relax it away," you aren't helping. Their sympathetic nervous system is firing away, and their subdiaphragmatic vagus nerve branch is in defense mode. Understand that their bodies are doing their best to cope with trauma, and no amount of logic will help. When the abuse is subtly coercive and leaves no visible scars, they're confused as to whether they're really being abused or they're just imagining things.
But I know it's awkward if you know the abuser—and if they present themselves as charming, kind, and giving—and believe me, many do.
Consider this for a moment: If this abuser was a stranger and doing the same thing to your friend/daughter/niece, what would you say?
2. Don't force them to leave or call the police.
For six years, I volunteered at the SPCA shelter in Singapore; whenever I saw an abused animal, I'd step in, wanting to remove the abused animal from its perpetrators.
But it's not as simple with humans.
We need to understand that they're in denial or not ready to leave, because a part of them believes, "He cannot control it" or "He's fundamentally a good man." Even if they're only 1 percent certain, never doubt the power of that glimmer of hope.
The combination of love, sentimentality, and compassion for an abusive partner makes it difficult to wrench themselves away. Trauma-bonding creates real biological changes in which people's bodies become addicted to the suffering of abuse—it's both horrific and makes them feel alive. If you've heard about Stockholm Syndrome, this is precisely it. Mind-boggling, and not for you to judge.
Often, abusers have psychologically beaten their victims down to the point at which they feel completely dependent or are in a state of financial and emotional enslavement. Unable to work due to mental health difficulties or raising children—or having all their money taken away—victims become further shackled.
It's hard enough to go to the dentist for most of us. It's infinitely harder to leave or call the police.
But here's what you can do. Call the police anonymously, so when your friend is finally ready, there's a case history that can be referenced.
3. Help them through their anxiety and trauma.
The monster in every abuse victim's life morphs into a monster in their head, too—no doubt they'll be battling trauma, anxiety, and depression.
If they had a prior vulnerability, the abuse will amplify it. And abusers are experts at taunting victims for any difficulties they suffer from, to break them further.
At my lowest ebb, I couldn't work, stayed in bed till 5 p.m., and avoided my friends. It was easier, because every time I went out, I'd be interrogated. My friends encouraged me to go to therapy; eventually I listened.
As I worked through the effects of abuse and healed old wounds, I reclaimed my power. I found the strength to build my business and start shining.
By the time I left him, I'd healed from my panic attacks. I don't know if I could have left if I hadn't started healing beforehand.
You don't have to be a therapist or a coach to help your friend. All you have to do is encourage them to shine in the little rituals in their life.
Ella noted, "You're making an effort to dress up now. You look good." She knew that the way I dress reflects my state of mind. We'd have fun shopping, and every time I made an effort to adorn myself, I felt stronger. It didn't matter if he'd interrogate me about who I was out with when I came home—he ended up accusing me of being lesbian or bisexual anyway.
Ella would also check in to make sure I was meditating. Engaging in a mindfulness ritual helped me through moments of pure anxiety.
4. Offer to be a witness.
If your friend decides to call the police eventually, offer to be a witness or go with her.
It's scary enough sitting in the police station, and I've learned that most front-line police officers lack the sensitivity or training to help domestic violence victims.
When victims go to the police, they want protection. So help them make their case. All you need is to tell the facts as you've experienced them. Or introduce them to a good solicitor if need be.
5. Help them face the things they avoid.
In my mind, pubs became "scary places" that would cause trouble later, since he couldn't stop drinking. Then, I was guilted with, "You don't go to pubs with me anymore; you've changed," and, "That's what all Brits do. You’re a snob."
I stopped going to pubs with my girlfriends.
One evening, Ella suggested, "Let's go to Lion and Lobster for dinner." I froze, "I'm scared of pubs." She simply said, "We'll go to the restaurant part if you'll be comfortable enough. The food's really good."
Her warmth showed me I was safe to dip my toe in. So, I enjoyed roast pork belly that night, in the British gastropub style that I'd missed.
In psychology terms, the more we avoid a place, the less chance we have to disprove our beliefs. Ella helped me do a behavioral experiment even if she didn't know it.
After I left my abuser, an administrative error for a Meetup group meant we had it in a pub. I surprised myself by saying yes. As the three of us sat there chatting for hours, it was heartening to see how we'd only had one drink each. It renewed my faith in a British institution, and today, I happily walk in for cocktails with my friends.
So, nudge your loved ones gently and help them to become alive again.
6. Take them out and talk to them.
At a dinner with my friend Mel, I was embarrassed by my ex's drunken behavior and the way he treated me. Yet, I wasn't sure whether I was being overly sensitive. Ashamed, I avoided Mel for a month.
Mel invited me out and sat me down. She told me compassionately, "I've seen what happened. I'm concerned."
She talked to me about the burden of keeping the secret of abuse and told me that the way he treated me was unacceptable. She called it the way she saw it.
In the two months leading up to leaving him, Mel checked in with me constantly over tea and cake. She was yet another voice of sanity that tugged me away from the mess I was mired in.
7. Offer them your sofa/bed.
A long time before I realized I was being abused, some of my London girlfriends knew about his drunkenness and paranoia. They'd offer me their beds as a respite. Even though he'd call me to check up on me and insist on hearing their voices, I was in a different place, where my girlfriends and I could muse, talk, and laugh about our lives.
It wasn't an escape; it was about being alive and being connected as human beings.
After my Brighton friends called it out as abuse, they offered me a roof over my head. During the nights when I fled my property out of fear, those rooms, hot teas, and warm duvets were my sweet salvation.
I felt guilty for inconveniencing them, but I realized I'd do that for any friend in the same situation. And this taught me one of my biggest lessons—asking for support is our birthright. We're here to elevate one another, and together we can go so much further.
On my 30th birthday, I toasted and thanked the five friends who'd believed and supported me. Because on January first of the year prior, I had sat on my bathroom floor shaking and in tears. I was confused and ready to end my life, deciding between barbiturates and jumping in front of a moving train. I couldn't believe how far I'd come.
Victims of domestic abuse aren't simply whining or looking for pity; often, they're looking for support, resources, and a voice of reason to bring them back to reality. That voice that says, "You're being abused, no matter how much you empathize with his story," breaking the spell of the abuser's clever manipulations.
My friends knew my abuser and myself—and I know how awkward it must have been for them. I can't begin to fully express my gratitude. If your friend is being abused, please shine your light of love and healing for them. You'll save a life and help that life to thrive.