by Anna Denson
Article also appears in The Mountaineer.
Domestic violence. Dating violence. Sexual assault. They are uncomfortable topics, to say the least. Often, we don’t know how to talk about these issues, or even how to think about them. It is easier to avoid addressing them altogether, imagining that they could never be relevant to our lives. So instead we stay silent, and unprepared.
But the truth is, these forms of violence can occur anywhere, to anyone, at any time, and it may not always be obvious. Domestic violence is insidious because it is often private. You may not be able to spot someone in need, be it a woman in the grocery line, someone in your book club, a quiet neighbor, a teenager new to dating, a coworker, or even a family member. To highlight October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I’d like to share my own experience as someone who was taken by surprise, and wasn’t prepared to help a friend.
I went to a decent high school full of decent kids, in an active and supportive community. There I had a particular friend — my oldest friend, in fact. We had known each other since childhood, and though we had drifted apart somewhat over the years, there was still a lot of love between us.
My friend began dating a guy I only peripherally knew. By all accounts, he seemed nice, so I had no reason to expect it would be anything but a normal teenage relationship. I didn’t know then that most abusive relationships begin with the appearance of normality, even ones which become violent later.
So when something happened, I never saw it coming. Suddenly my friend accused her boyfriend of rape, and everyone around us divided into camps. To my surprise, most of the support was for him – even amongst people my friend and I had known for years. They said that she had emotional problems, that she was looking for attention, that she was getting back at him for something. No one seemed to take her story seriously. My instinct was to side with my friend, but with rumors flying I really I didn’t know what to think or do. Overwhelmed, I just avoided getting involved.
In the end, I don’t know what the truth was, whether there was any weight to the accusations. I never spoke to my friend about it. And that’s my biggest regret – I never spoke to her. Whatever was happening, she was clearly in emotional turmoil, and I did nothing about it. Years of love and friendship, and I couldn’t even bring myself to ask if she was okay, because the subject was just too awkward.
Thinking about it now, I can see it clearly – how that year, I failed her as a friend.
We’re still in touch, a little. We occasionally comment on Facebook photos or trade recipes gleaned from Pinterest. I spend a lot of time wondering what really happened, and regretting that I did nothing to support her either way. But I never ask her about it. I guess I’m still a coward, in that way.
I hope, though, that even a coward can learn from past mistakes. So I try to face that uncomfortable question: what I would do now, if someone came to me for help? In high school, my friend stood up for herself against opposition and disbelief, but not everyone can face that challenge alone. Some people get caught in cycles of violence, and need the support of friends to break free. It’s difficult to think about. We plan for fires, tornadoes, earthquakes – but how do you plan for something like this? How do you plan for domestic violence?
It’s daunting, but there are ways to help a friend in need. Teenagers across Haywood are learning how to aid friends in violent relationships, through the Safe Dates program REACH teaches in local middle schools. Here are some of the program’s suggestions.
First, make sure you talk in private and keep what she or he shares in strict confidence. It takes courage to admit what’s going on in a violent relationship, and your friend may not speak up again if you betray that confidence. In addition, your friend may face real danger if the abuser finds out about your conversation.
Next, believe your friend’s story. Contrary to media publicity, research has found that only a tiny percent of survivors fabricate accusations. In fact, domestic violence, including dating abuse and sexual assault, is the most underreported violent crime in the USA, as well as around the world. Many people who are experiencing domestic violence feel isolated or marginalized, especially when their story has been dismissed. Let your friend know that she or he is not alone, and doesn’t deserve to be abused. There is no excuse for intimate partner violence, and it is never the victim’s fault.
Be careful, though – don’t carelessly advise your friend to leave the abuser. Most abusive relationships are very complicated. Your friend may still be in love, may worry about finances, may have children involved, or any number of other reasons compelling your friend to stay in the relationship. And because abusers often threaten to harm or kill their partners if they leave, leaving may actually put your friend in greater immediate danger. You must let your friend make independent decisions. At the same time, don’t give up – the average survivor gives an abuser seven chances to change their ways before breaking free. Stay supportive so that your friend has somewhere to turn when she or he is finally ready to seek safety.
In the meantime, help your friend create a safety plan. What has your friend previously done to stay safe? Does your friend have a safe place to escape to if necessary? Investigate ways to get your friend assistance, such as protective orders or, in the event of sexual assault, a free rape kit at the hospital. Be sure to research local aid organizations and identify those that offer shelter. Resources include the local sheriff’s office, hospital, or even crisis helplines.
Our local agency is REACH of Haywood County, which assists survivors of intimate partner violence and elder abuse. REACH provides confidential emergency shelter and a variety of other aid, such as legal advocacy, counseling, protective orders, and housing assistance. Call the 24-hour helpline for assistance or information, at (828) 456-7898. All calls are completely confidential, and can be made anonymously. You might also like to visit the REACH website at www.reachofhaywood.org.
After all is said and done, remember that most survivors do eventually leave their abusers. But if even if your friend is not ready yet, don’t give up. Breaking free of an abusive relationship is a process, and can take time. Just remember that your support can make all the difference to a friend in need.