The moment when Buffy starts to fight back against her abusive ex-boyfriend Angel in the season 2 episode “Innocence” from ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘
Grief and lament spring from the deepest parts of our soul because, however bitter the herbs and fruits they seem to bear, their real root is Love and I believe that it is Love who made the world and made us who we are.
– Malcolm Guite
So, the last year I’ve spent an afternoon a week helping women who are experiencing domestic abuse of one form or another. When I first saw the advert, I jumped at the chance. I wanted that frontline experience in a structured context, where I’d be supervised and trained; where I’d be able to reach far more people than I would on my own – and provide much more effective help.
I was asked to put in a year’s commitment. I had no problem with that. Things were generally static and stable at both work and home, so I had the capacity.
Thing is, over the last few weeks, all I’ve wanted to do more than anything else is finish my one year stint, take my reference and go. Next week will be my last session.
CONTENT NOTE: This posts lists a lot of abusive behaviours seen in domestic violence.
I’ve noticed the chill of this creeping, growing feeling over the last two months. At first I thought it was just my desire to really crack down and blog all the posts I’ve been planning in my head but haven’t got straight yet. Then I thought it was things being more busy and pressured in other areas of my life. But today, today I just thought to myself: I need to grieve.
I need to grieve the women (and girls) who’ve been physically abused in the name of “teaching them a lesson”. The women who couldn’t speak English. The women who had no recourse to public funds. Who had the stress of going through the family courts, of going to the police, of dealing with social services. Who had anxiety and depression. Who had considered taking their lives. Who had severe mental health disorders. Who had no money. Who had no friends. Who had no family or whose family was overseas.
Who had been in relationships for years and in marriages for decades. Who were afraid to leave because of what he might do. Who were afraid of being alone, who were taunted by the suggestion that maybe he might change. Who had lost their self-esteem and didn’t believe they could live without him. Who had been indoctrinated by their family and culture to stay subject to him.
Who didn’t have the words to name what he’d done. Who couldn’t put the pieces into a coherent narrative. Who had been disbelieved. Who had been fleeced by solicitors. Who had been denied legal aid.
Who were reliant on him for money. Who didn’t have enough to eat because he had habits to fund. Whose money had been stolen. Who were facing demand letters because of debts he’d built up. Who weren’t in position to get themselves into work. Who had to fight to get the child maintenance they were legally entitled to.
Who had been assaulted during and after the relationship had ended. Who were afraid because he knew where she lived. Who had been tracked down via third parties. Who had been stalked on social media. Who were worn out by uncertainty. Who lived their lives in continuous risk assessment.
Who had to leave because the tenancy was in his name. Who were pregnant and with young children. Who were children themselves. Who were pensioners. Who had outlived their children. Who’d been forced to abort. Who’d been forced to carry to term.
Who’d been lied to, let down and betrayed. Who’d been belittled, put down and called names. Who’d been threatened and intimidated. Who’d been beaten, choked and raped. Who knew where he kept his knives, his guns or his acid. Whose cars had been torched. Who’d been emotionally blackmailed with threats of suicide.
Death will swallowed up in victory on the last day, but for now it definitely is something, something dire and difficult, and we are all choking on it.
– Malcolm Guite
When you’re in the midst of helping people like this, the big risk is helplessness. That actually there’s nothing you can do, or that all you can do is just a small fraction of what they need. I think that was far harder than hearing about all the appalling things these women had been subjected to.
And there were amazing moments – when I could give a woman the words she needed. When I could refocus her effects and realign her perspectives. When I could tell her about her rights and the people who could help her further. “You’ve been really helpful” was a phrase I heard a number of times. One woman claimed that I’d saved her life. I don’t know, maybe I helped. I still saw her as facing huge challenges.
But I think the thing that got me down more than anything, was when there were very restricted routes for help. In particular, I’d arrive each time hoping I wouldn’t get a call from a woman with ‘no recourse to public funds’. They were the women, often from the EU (because EU citizens don’t need a visa to be in the UK), who’d been dating a man (but not married to him), who hadn’t been in work. These were often women who’d been subject to severe violence and needed to flee with their children. And probably their English wasn’t great. You see, these women don’t have any entitlement to housing benefit. That means they can’t get into the emergency accommodation that’s available for women fleeing domestic abuse (refuges). They have to apply for help from social services on the grounds that the council has a safeguarding duty to the children. It’s not the easiest thing explaining that to a frightened woman through a translator.
But then, it’s not like I’m the one who’s fleeing for my life.
Immigration law, family law, criminal law, civil law, tax law – you feel like you’re swirling around in a constantly changing environment. You feel giddy, you have to run just to keep up, but you still find yourself stumbling. And I’m meant to be the one helping people! It’s not something anyone can do on their own.
I’ll finish my one year commitment. Then, at the very least, I need a break. I might go back to it, or go back to it in other forms or contexts. I was very much in a culture of learning and development – which was just so valuable, and I hate the thought of leaving that behind.
At the same time though, I always knew this would be a stepping stone and I want to think really long and hard about where I go from here.
And I just need to take a moment and grieve.
I’m not sure I realised it was having this effect. You know, you hear stories about how some professionals work in really hard core environments but then come out after a while. Like it’s a season of work. But then there are others who are in it full time, long term.
On the one hand I feel pathetic that I need to take a breather, when all I was doing was an afternoon a week. From a place of mental privilege, too. On the other hand, maybe it’s like how your muscles ache when you’ve gone exercising for the first time in a while. You’re not used to it so you take the time out afterwards. That’s not giving up. It’s recognition that you have to build up your endurance over time.
Give me time.
For all the above, I didn’t specifically encounter FGM/cutting, trafficking, revenge porn. But I’m struggling to think of anything else. And yes, I did help a few men too.
To read more about the quotes from Malcolm Guite, check out his post about his soon-to-be-published anthology Love, Remember: Poems of loss, lament and hope.