Breaking free from abuse is possible

Domestic abuse as an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.

For women and children who suffer at the hands of abusive family members, Covid19 lockdown dealt a double blow – it saw them locked in with their abusers.

However, Joanne Laskey, a clinical psychologist practising in the COPE Therapy team at Akeso Stepping Stones mental health facility, says it is possible to break free from abusive situations and move forward, stronger.

She says while psychological trauma can severely undermine a person’s confidence, overwhelming their ability to cope and often creating in them feelings of being powerless and fearful, freedom and recovery can and do happen.

Dr Laskey says an abusive partner is unlikely to change, and, in most circumstances, the only option for self-preservation is to get out of the situation before it is too late.

“Remember, the abuse is never your fault, no matter what the situation. Only you can take the necessary steps to get yourself and your children to safety. You need to carefully formulate a plan to get to safety.”

During the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children Campaign, she has shared advice on how to secure your own freedom and safety.

“No healing can occur while you are still being abused, and often it takes a great deal of time just to recognise that you are in an abusive situation.”

She says the abused person often blames themselves, or accepts the abuser’s justification of their actions.

“This makes it difficult for them to see past their emotional, and often financial, dependence on the abusive individual – to the possibility of a brighter future.”

While each individual’s experience of trauma and their response to it is unique, we tend to subconsciously recreate the moments of terror over and over, sometimes obviously, and other times subconsciously.

It is key for the abused person, she says, to build up the confidence to make the necessary changes to remove themselves from an abusive situation.

There are several practical steps you can take, she says to leave an abusive home:

1) Identify support. Do you have family, friends, neighbours, a doctor, mental health professional or social worker who could assist with

the practical and emotional support you need?

2) Identify where you could safely go. Members of your support network may be able to provide immediate shelter if you need to leave for your safety or that of your children.

3) Strategise when and how you would leave the house and get to a place of safety.

4) Get together the important things you would need to leave, such as documents, clothing, medications, some money and a phone, if possible.

5) Prepare yourself mentally and put your plan into action.

“All too often, people feel that extricating themselves from an abusive situation would be an insurmountable challenge. The despair of being stuck in an abusive relationship and continually re-traumatised can take a profound toll on one’s physical and mental health,” Dr Laskey says.

Social support, counselling or even in-patient mental health-care may be helpful in addressing some of the barriers to leaving an abusive home.

“Therapy can provide a valuable external perspective, as it is very hard not to be judgemental of yourself when you are in an abusive situation,” she says.

“Getting to safety is part of taking back your power, and no one but you can do this. Others can support you, but the only way to heal is to walk this road yourself, and this in itself can be most empowering.”

Once you are in a place of safety, you can take the time to mourn and grieve as part of processing all the emotions that come with making such an important change in your life.

“The process of returning to normal life requires breaking free of the effects the trauma has had on your behaviour because trauma disconnects us from ourselves, others and life. If trauma was experienced within a relationship, it is natural to become less trusting of others.

There are skills one can develop, with the help of a therapist, to help take back control and avoid similar situations in future.”

These include working on overcoming vulnerability and learning to engage in healthy relationships.

Dr Sandile Mhlongo, director of Akeso mental health facilities, encourages everyone to reflect on how they may be able to support those facing, or healing from, gender-based violence in their own communities.

“This year’s 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children Campaign has a further chilling significance with the increase of domestic violence reported since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.

Many of the societal problems we face have a direct impact on our mental health and well-being. This awareness, seeking help and taking charge of your life is an important starting point towards healing,” he says.

“It is incumbent upon all of us to take action against any form of gender-based violence and violence perpetrated against children. Do not turn a blind eye to the signs of abuse and violence against women and children. Be honest with yourself and others about harmful and destructive behaviours, including substance use, and if these are affecting your life and relationships seek personal help before the problem escalates further.”

Visit www.akeso.co.za for more information or, in the event of a psychological crisis, call 0861 435 787 for assistance.