Emily Jaycox editorial

How not to contribute to the stigma of domestic abuse

It’s not what I asked for

Sometimes life just slips in through a back door

And carves out a person

And makes you believe it’s all true

And now I’ve got you

And you’re not what I asked for

If I’m honest I know I would give it all back

For a chance to start over

And rewrite an ending or two

For the girl that I knew

Who was reckless just enough

Who can hurt but

Who learns how to toughen up when she’s bruised

And gets used by a man who can’t love

And then she’ll get stuck and be scared

Of the life that’s inside her

Growing stronger each day

‘Til it finally reminds her

To fight just a little

To bring back the fire in her eyes

That’s been gone but it used to be mine.

– Excerpt of “She Used to be Mine” by Sara Bareilles

As November was Family Violence Prevention Month in Alberta, at this time of year, we tend to talk a lot about increasing awareness of the issue, and how prevalent it is, as well as talking about resources that are available.

However, if we truly want to help victims get help, we need to break down the stigmas that may prevent them from reaching out for the support they need.

How many women take the brave steps to leave an abusive relationship, just to be disbelieved, shunned or criticized by one-time friends, or even family, who didn’t see the signs and don’t understand?

How many times have you heard damaging and disparaging comments like “She brought in on herself,” “She should have known better,” or “She’s leaving him? How selfish.”

(While I recognize that victims of abuse aren’t exclusive to one gender, for the purposes of this column, I’ll continue to use female pronouns.)

If you have a friend who has survived an abusive relationship, do you know how to support her?

Poll results recently released by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that only one in six Canadians felt confident they would know what to say or do to support someone experiencing sexual or emotional abuse.

For physical abuse, it was only slightly better, with one of five participants stating they’d know how to respond.

From my own perspective, here are some guidelines for supporting an abuse survivor:

She doesn’t owe you her story. If you can be a safe sounding board who won’t betray her confidence, great, but she gets to decide. Let her tell you at her own pace, if she chooses, and don’t push for details.

Believe her. She’s likely been told for years that her perception of things or her feelings were “all in her head” or “her fault” or “not that bad.” She doesn’t need you doubting her too. Women don’t tend to uproot their family’s lives without very good reason. It wasn’t a whim, or overreacting, or any other insensitive, victim-blaming narrative and it doesn’t have to make sense to you.

Don’t judge her. How she got into the relationship, or how she got herself out of it, isn’t for you to pass judgement on. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the situation, didn’t know what was happening or feel confused. She has a right to her choices and to feel safe and she doesn’t have to justify herself to you. Just be there for her.

Anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship, regardless of gender, finances or position in society and certainly regardless of intelligence or personal strengths.

It’s not just vulnerable people who can be manipulated to surrender their self-worth. Yes, while certain factors can put a person at higher risk of entering an abusive relationship, for others, who abuse is foreign to, it can also take them by surprise, because they have no context or reference point to it; they don’t recognize it and can’t believe someone would treat them that way for no reason.

We also need to recognize that emotional and mental abuse is just as valid, just as unacceptable, as physical abuse. A broken spirit is no less painful than a broken arm and takes far longer to heal and recover from.

The above song lyrics “She Used to be Mine” are from the musical Waitress, in which baker Jenna Hunterson is in an abusive relationship with her husband.

I like the song because it so poignantly portrays how one can lose their own sense of identity and self worth and the grief of losing that — perhaps not only from being in an abusive relationship, but also from the hard circumstances of life one can find themselves in, as well.

“Sometimes life just slips in through a back door and carves out a person and makes you believe it’s all true.”

So if an abuse victim has pulled herself high enough to start to “fight just a little, to bring back the fire in her eyes,” don’t be a person contributing to extinguishing it again.

If you know someone in immediate danger, call 911. Call the Family Violence Info Line at 310-1818 to get help anonymously.