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Women's Aid - The Survivor's Handbook - Surviving abuse

Surviving after abuse: Looking after yourself and moving on 

When the violence is finally over - you have arranged all the practical things like housing, money, schools for the children, and you feel reasonably sure that your abuser has stopped harassing you - you may be expecting to feel great. But that is unlikely to happen straight away. Recovering from abuse by someone who was close to you is a long process, and the damage may stay with you and your children for years.
 
Once you are away from the abuse, and it is safe to feel again, you may have a sense of anti-climax. You are likely to experience grief, pain and a deep sense of loss: your trust will have been betrayed, your self-esteem and confidence are shattered. In many ways it is like being bereaved - and as with a bereavement, healing will take time.
 
Looking after yourself
 
Treat yourself gently: don't rush the healing process, and don't expect to achieve everything you want straight away. Maybe you want to make huge changes - by changing your whole lifestyle, joining local organisations, returning to education, looking for a (different) job. This is all fine if that is how you are feeling, but if you don't want to change anything else at this point, that is fine too. It's good to have hopes and ambitions for the future, but try to set realistic goals and move at your own pace, rather than being concerned about what others might be thinking.
 
You may feel lonely and isolated: sometimes when you come home to an empty house or flat, it might seem that even an abusive partner was better than no one. Perhaps your partner cut you off from friends and family, so now you feel there is no one you can talk to or go out with. It may not be too late to re-establish contact with past friends - and in any case, you can think about making new friends and acquaintances.
 
Some of the things you might like to do:
  • Take time and space for yourself each day.
  • Reward yourself.
  • Do something you enjoy and are good at.
  • Take regular exercise (for example, try swimming, dancing, walking or climbing).
  • Learn a new skill (for example, yoga, meditation, self-defence).
  • Be creative: try drawing, painting, writing.
  • Practice relaxation exercises (for example, breathing exercises, tai chi, self-hypnosis or massage).
It's also important to eat well and to get enough sleep, if you can.
 
Gaining confidence
 
Living with someone who is always putting you down, criticising you, controlling you and being abusive or violent towards you will have sapped your self-confidence and your belief in yourself. You may find it hard (or impossible) to make decisions, even about small things - because your abuser did not allow you to make choices for yourself. You may find managing money very difficult: maybe your ex-partner controlled all the household finances; you are probably having to manage on a very limited income; and perhaps you had to leave behind many of your personal possessions.
 
You have already taken a huge step in leaving your abuser. Give yourself credit for that. Then think of all the other things you have achieved in your life, and build up a mental list that you can return to when you are feeling low.
 
You may find it helpful to talk about your experiences with other women who have also been in violent relationships. If you are not already in touch with your local Women's Aid refuge organisation or outreach service, you may find it helpful to contact them now, to see whether there is a support group you could join (or perhaps help to set one up). Contact the Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247, run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge, for your local contact numbers.
 
Products focusing on building self-confidence (such as self-help books, CDs and courses) are widely available. Some of these may be effective, at least in the short term, but none appear to have been fully evaluated (Emler, 2005). You may also find the following websites helpful:
  • www.thesite.org: Although this site is primarily addressed to young people, the sections on self-esteem, self-harm, body image, and health generally are applicable to all age groups.
  • www.ivillage.co.uk: A site that is described as 'the website for women',it contains a number of pieces on building self-confidence, both in personal life and at work.
There are many other websites which contain some free information but are primarily designed to encourage you to sign up to a course (which you have to pay for). For more resources, see view useful links.
 
Moving on
 
While you were with your abuser, you may not have been free to decide for yourself what kind of work you did, whether you took on paid employment or not, what leisure activities you engaged in, whether to study for more qualifications or to join an evening class just for pleasure. Now you have only yourself and your children to consider - but you may find it frightening suddenly to be responsible for making your own choices.
 
You might have had to give up your job because you had to go into a refuge, or move away to a different area to get away from your abuser. If you are claiming benefits, it may not be financially worthwhile to look for paid work at the moment - particularly if you have childcare to consider. Maybe you would like to re-train for a different kind of work, or go back into education, or do some voluntary work for a while. Or perhaps you don't feel ready to take any of these steps just yet.
 
You might find it helpful to look at some of the information and support available for single parents. For example, the website www.singleparents.org.uk brings together information, advice and first-hand experiences to help you manage and enjoy life as a single parent. Information on welfare benefits, childcare, the pros and cons of paid work versus voluntary work, full-time parenting or going back into education, are all covered. The organisation One Parent Families runs a Lone Parent Helpline on 0800 018 5026 and their website provides a useful 'helpdesk' with basic information on benefits, childcare and other issues. See www.oneparentfamilies.org.uk. They also produce a 'Lone Parents' Guide to Caring for a Child with Additional Needs' which is free to single parents.
 
Helping your children
 
Your children, too, will probably take some time to adjust to the new situation. They will almost certainly have been affected by the abuse they witnessed or experienced directly (see the section on Children and domestic violence for more information on this). If you have moved to a different area, they will probably have to attend a new school and make new friends. They may be finding it really difficult to cope with all the changes in their lives - such as leaving their home and friends, and perhaps some of their possessions - and they will look to you to give them the answers they need.
 
You may find coping with your children's needs very difficult at a time when you are trying to deal with your own problems. On the other hand, you may find it a helpful distraction, or even see it as a reason for carrying on. Be as honest with your children as possible; let them know how you are feeling and tell them that you love them. Try to establish a 'normal' routine as soon as you can, and show them that you can be relied upon even though their father or step-father has let them down. Listen to your children's concerns, and help them to find other sources of support (for example, from grandparents or other relatives, from teachers or youth workers, or from workers and volunteers at a Women's Aid or other domestic violence outreach service).
 
Although your children will undoubtedly be relieved that the abuse has stopped, they may still miss their father or step-father, and may blame you for taking them away from him. If they want to see him, that is fine if you feel it is safe for them to do so; but do look at the chapter on Making arrangements for children after separation if you are afraid that any contact will put you and your children in further danger.
 
You could encourage your children to look at the Women's Aid website for children and young people, The Hideout, www.thehideout.org.uk. The Young Minds parents' information service provides help for parents concerned about a young person's mental health and also has a variety of leaflets and booklets, including one which explores how divorce and separation affect children and young people. Young Minds provides information and support for young people themselves. Phone: 0800 018 2138. Website: www.youngminds.org.uk. Other organisations are listed in the sections on Children and domestic violence.
 
Further information
 
Ginny NiCarthy's handbook 'Getting free' (see References below) includes a number of suggestions and exercises for building confidence and coping when life feels hard. (Some of the practical information is out of date, however.) This book also includes some ideas for meeting new people and making new contacts and friendships.
 
The website www.hiddenhurt.co.uk has a section on 'How to survive after separation'. There is also a short section on 'Surviving violence' in the London Borough of Haringey's publication, 'I shall survive: A practical guide'. The website www.singleparents.org.uk (mentioned above) also has a section on 'healthy ideas', which covers, among other things, coping with stress, relaxation strategies and eating healthily.
 
You may find it helpful to read accounts of other women who have survived domestic violence. You could try 'Breaking through: Women surviving male violence' (1989) (Bristol: Women's Aid Federation of England), which can be ordered using the Women's Aid publications and resources order form. This publication includes personal stories, poems and cartoons, and ends with a section on 'What we can do for ourselves' which gives positive suggestions that might help you.
 
See also the section on Domestic violence and your mental health, which includes information and contact numbers for organisations that offer counselling or other support.
 
References
 
Emler, Nicholas (2001) 'Self esteem: the costs and causes of low self worth'. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation; summary available at http://www.jrf.org.uk/knowledge/findings/socialpolicy/n71.asp
NiCarthy, G. (1990) 'Getting free: A handbook for women in abusive situations'. Edited and adapted from the original American edition by Jane Hutt. London: Journeyman Press.