We think of the Christmas holidays as a time for visits with friends and family, gift giving, and festive cheer, but for many women it is a period of increased danger. Each year, financial strain and family-related stresses lead to a seasonal spike in domestic violence. Between mid-December and mid- to late- January, it is estimated that domestic violence increases 30 per cent.
The Tri-County Women's Centre offers support and programming to women, including women who have experienced domestic violence. We are sending this letter--An Open Letter to All Women Experiencing Domestic Violence--to help raise awareness of the increased risk to abused women and their children during the holiday season.
In Canada, one in three women has experienced abuse at some point in her life, and ever six days a woman is killed by her partner. This letter was written by a woman whose case was designated "high risk for lethality,” which is why her full name is not included. A survivor, she wrote the letter to reach out to all the women who have not yet escaped domestic violence.
Bernadette MacDonald - Executive Director Tri County Women’s Centre
I am writing this letter because I have heard two stories in the past week that have reminded me that you are out there, and that you need support.
A few days ago my mother-in-law called for advice because a friend of a friend was preparing to leave her abusive husband. The woman didn’t know how to leave safely with the things she needed for herself and her two young daughters and needed information about the transition house and the possibility of a police escort.
Then yesterday my teenage daughter came home after volunteering in a Grade 2 classroom at her school. A little girl showed my daughter a new teddy the paramedics had given her the night before. The seven-year-old had called 911 because her mother's fiancé was choking her mother and she couldn't breathe.
Although my daughter was far too young to remember it, we were once in a similar situation.
I am writing to you because I have been where you are and I want you to know that you can leave, and that there is light on the other side. I am writing to you now because domestic violence increases significantly (some say 30 per cent) at Christmas time, when financial and family stresses peak.
I want you to be safe.
At the time I left my abusive partner, I didn’t even know what a transition house was. In fact, I didn’t even know that I was in an abusive relationship until a friend described what was happening to me to a national helpline. The helpline worker said it was “acute, classic abuse” that was escalating and I needed to leave as soon as possible.
At first, I was ambivalent about leaving, and, to be honest, it was a while before I knew clearly that it was the right decision. I found it very difficult to accept that I was in an abusive relationship and it was surreal to think of myself as a statistic--in Canada, one in three women has experienced abuse at some point in her life, and every six days a woman is killed by her partner. I also loved my daughter’s father and hoped to find a way to make things better, and I felt guilty that she might grow up without him. When I finally contacted the police it was because I had run out of options--the day I realized that he might kill me.
If you fear for your life, please trust your instincts. When it comes to lethality, the most predictive risk factor is a woman’s own fear. I know it may be hard for you to trust yourself because when your own instincts have been overridden time and again, it’s easy to lose track of what’s real, what’s true. But you can trust your fear.
As I write this letter, it is difficult to find language to describe the period when I began to recognize what was going on in my relationship. By the end, it was so harrowing, so chaotic...a collection of soul-destroying fragments. “Anger issues” turned to threats and control tactics, then, soon after our daughter was born, physical violence. It happened gradually and I didn’t understand for the longest time that all the fragments added up to what people call domestic violence.
Separating from my daughter’s father and the legal proceedings that followed were by far the hardest thing I have ever had to do, and there were times I didn’t know whether I could keep going. For me, leaving him was like leaving a cult; I could barely tell black from white, up from down.
Perhaps you know what I’m talking about. Living with Jekyll and Hyde is crazy-making, isn’t it? When everyone thinks your partner is a “great guy” and he is only cruel and explosive with you, you begin to feel that it’s your fault and that you are the problem. And because of the situation, you also develop two lives, two selves. I was “normal” on the street, in the grocery store, at baby group, but our life behind doors was violent, controlling, isolated. I had no money of my own and I had little contact with my family and closest friends.
At the time of separation, I was at the lowest possible ebb. But staying would have destroyed me, and God only knows what it would have done to my daughter. The truth is, if you can endure an abusive relationship, you can get through separation. I had no idea how much strength and courage I had inside of me. You too are stronger and braver than you can possibly imagine.
No matter how hard it is, you can do it. And if you reach out you will find so many people willing to help. I have dealt with more police, lawyers, crown attorneys, transition houses, social workers and victim services than I can even count. They weren’t all helpful, and some were very unhelpful. But there were many who I credit with protecting my daughter and me and perhaps even saving our lives.
Now, years later, I say a silent ‘thank you’ on a regular basis for some of the outstanding service providers who worked on my “case.” I remember an RCMP officer who looked me in the eye and told me he believed me; a legal aid lawyer who took my case even though my legal aid certificate covered a tiny fraction of the hours needed to resolve my family court situation; a Victim Services manager who went well beyond the call of duty in an effort to keep us safe; and an activist who changed the course of our lives for the better.
You too will find a circle of support, and who is in that circle will depend on your circumstances--whether you have children, your financial situation, your mental and physical health, etc. Mine included Victim Services, a family lawyer, an advocate, a therapist, police, a family resource centre, friends and family, and even members of my community.
Once people realized what we were going through many stepped up to offer their support. Friends took us in when we needed a safe place to stay and looked after my daughter when I needed to attend appointments or court, and the family resource centre let me use their phone and fax to deal with legal issues. There was even a small business owner who called to warn me if he saw my daughter’s father nearby. The generosity of the people in my circle and in my community was remarkable....but they could only help once I opened up about what was going on.
Perhaps the first step you can take in the direction of a new life of peace and well-being is to call your local transition house or women’s centre. The women who work at transition houses have expertise in domestic violence; it’s what they do day in and day out. Leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous and complicated, so you will need to talk with someone who can advise you properly and help you make a safety plan, ideally before you leave.
Leaving a life of violence and control was the greatest challenge of my life, and recovering took a long time. But I did recover and so can you. Today I have a loving and supportive partner who encourages me in all areas of my life and treats me with only love and respect. I also have another child, a feisty preschooler who will never experience violence in her home or see her mother broken. There is no question that my older daughter was impacted by the trauma and chaos of her early life, but she too has recovered and grown into a compassionate young woman, with a strong inner core and great resilience.
You deserve peace and happiness too. That is what I wish for you this Christmas.
With love and hope,
Resources to get you started
Here is a link to information on Safety Planning for women who are being abused: http://www.nsdomesticviolence.ca/sites/default/files/publications/NFF_Safety_planning_for_women.pdf .
To find the transition house closest to you, go to: http://thans.ca/our-shelters/
Here is information on the symptoms of domestic abuse: http://nsdomesticviolence.ca/get-help (Remember: not all domestic abuse is physical.)
This is a link to information for Neighbours, Friends and Families who want to help: http://thans.ca/get-help/friends-family/
Here is a link to resources at the Nova Scotia Domestic Resource Centre: http://www.nsdomesticviolence.ca/
Women’s Centres across Nova Scotia provide support and advocacy to all women, go to: http://www.womenconnect.ca/
Susanne Litke, a family lawyer at Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, says these are some important things to consider for your legal matter:
Consult early with a lawyer who understands gender-based violence
Gather financial and other important documents and personal items before you leave, if that is safe
Do what you can to protect children from conflict.
Keep a calendar of all times when a child visits the other parent
Consider filing for an Emergency Protection Order that could allow you to stay in your home and have custody of the children, if that is safe
Keep good notes of everything - it is a confusing time and easy to forget important facts
Seek counselling, parenting supports, dealing with trauma
Be gentle with yourself
Trust yourself and your own strength in decision making: you will know when it is the right time to leave