How Zombies Could Save Your Life

Sometime last year I received a flurry of Facebook posts flagging me as a top pick for my friends’ “Zombie Apocalyspe” Teams.  It seems my reputation for resourcefulness and roach-like adaptability was upping my social capital should our city ever succumb to famished and marauding hoards of the walking dead.Image of a zombie with only its deadened fingers and eyes visible, as it peers over the top of a book.

I actually took a Facebook Quiz and learned that I rated a high chance of surviving a Zombie outbreak and that I would likely be called upon to reestablish human civilization in the aftermath.

Some months later I stumbled upon a short news report that the Center for Disease Control had published a guide for “Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness”.  http://blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2011/05/preparedness-101-zombie-apocalypse/  I loved the twist…if you are prepared to survive Zombie Apocalypse, you’ll fare well during an Avian Flu pandemic, or an earthquake, or a 100 year flood…you get the idea.

Then, “The Walking Dead” hit AMC and I managed to watch a few episodes, though I spent most of my time with my eyes closed. The more I thought about Zombies, and Zombie apocalypses and Zombie Preparedness, the more I noticed what a team project surviving is.  To make it, even the most ‘rugged individual’ needs help.  Folks figure out quick that they must have each others’ backs, bring all their talents to the table and commit to the incredibly arduous, all-consuming, nerve-wracking task of surviving. And the more I thought of surviving, the more I thought about domestic violence.

The thing is, while Zombie pop culture can be hella fun, it turns out that the culture of violence in our day to day lives is a complete buzz-kill.

It’s fun to talk about Zombies and it’s fun to think about who would be on my Zombie team (we’d need a McGyver-type and a Dr Quinn Medicine Woman and someone funny to break the tension…) and to plan our thrilling escapes and feats of daring do.  But, while most of my friends are inclined to believe I would kick-ass during a Zombie invasion, and many have a hunch that “Get to Connie’s house” would be their first impulse when the Zombie’s start down their street, we all know that none of that careful speculation (or sassy use of terms like “kick-ass”) matters.  Because Zombies  aren’t real.  There will never be a Zombie Apocalypse.

0% of the population has been attacked by a Zombie.

But, 30% of the population has been attacked by a lover.

Violence in folks own homes at the hands of people they love is real.  And, even though it’s a lot harder to talk about than Zombies, surviving it requires real friends showing up with real, fierce, useful skills. Because friends help friends survive.

I have spent a lot of time in the last decade talking with anti-violence workers and policy makers and queer people about the fact that friends & family are the first people survivors turn to for help.  More than police (10%), or medical doctors (11%), or therapists (14%), or victim advocates (1%), survivors first disclose an assault to a friend or family member (64%).   Survivors rated victim advocates as the most helpful, law enforcement as shockingly unhelpful and friends and family somewhere in the middle.  Which is just about where friends and family rate themselves.

We have a general sense of what we’d do if we were up against the Zombies: we’d pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.  But, we can rest assured that we will never be put to that test.  On the other hand, we will all know folks at some point who are surviving abusive partners, or who are hurting their family members.  Still, most of us report that while we want to help a friend survive domestic violence, we just aren’t sure what to do.

But, there is so much we can do.  We can pick up the phone and call our friend and say, “I saw some marks on your arm, and if you ever want to talk about it, I am ready to listen.”  We can go to our son’s house and say, “I see you are struggling with your divorce.  I know it can be sad and scary and feel out of control.  I love you and care about you.  And, I’m taking the guns out of your house and storing them back at mine.  We can talk anytime you want, and I’ll have your guns waiting for you when things settle down.”  We can bone up on our listening skills and practice being supportive without “blaming the victim”.  We can check our assumptions and get humble.  We can share some of the struggles we are facing in our own life and ask for help.  We can prepare.

The natural impulse of survivors—to reach out to friends and family—can be more helpful.  And when it is, how many survivors could find real options sooner?  How many people who perpetuate violence could make the choice to change their behavior?  How much isolation, fear, pain and suffering could be averted?

That’s what this campaign is all about.

Donate to the National Friends & Family Domestic Violence Action Campaign and help us educate friends and family to better respond and reduce harm. 

Making the Case for Friends and Family

In 1997, advocates at the Washington State Coalition Against
Domestic Violence
created the Domestic Violence Fatality Review (DVFR) out of concern about the number of women murdered each year in Washington by current or former partners. Jake Fawcett, director of the Fatality Review writes: “Advocates believed that careful examination of these deaths could yield important insights into the response to domestic violence. They hoped that domestic violence fatality reviews would serve as a powerful tool to create knowledge and catalyze action from tragedy.”

Over thirteen years, the Fatality Review investigated 135 deaths in 15 Washington counties to identify problems in the community response to domestic violence—gaps in services, policy, practice, training, information, communication, collaboration, and resources. In 2010, the DVFR released It’s Up to Us: Lessons learned and goals for change after thirteen years of the Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review identifying eleven key goals for improving responses to domestic violence in Washington State.

We wanted to highlight the fifth goal on this list, which highlights the role friends, family and community members can play in supporting survivors and responding to community members who are being
abusive.

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Goal #5: Build the capacity of friends, family members, neighbors, employers, and coworkers to support domestic violence victims and respond to abusers.

by Jake Fawcett

Again and again, fatality reviews showed that victims reached out for help to friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. In almost all cases, victims told at least one person they knew about the abuse; by contrast, a much smaller proportion of victims sought court orders (51%), called 911 (29%), or contacted a domestic violence advocate (12%). In a few cases, friends and family members pointed out helpful resources, helped the victim make a plan to increase her safety, or offered a place to stay so that the victim could leave the abuser. In most cases, however, community members did not have the information or skills they needed to help.For example, in one case, the eight-year-old daughter of the victim and abuser told a friend’s mother about an incident during which her father had been violent and her mother had called police. The friend’s mother described being unprepared to talk to the girl or her mother about the abuse: “I was surprised by this disclosure and wasn’t sure how to address the situation with her. I didn’t ask [the victim] about the incident at the time, and regretted that decision.” The adult in this situation had a clear opportunity to help, but did not have the skills or knowledge to do so.

In at least twenty reviewed cases, neighbors knew about or witnessed the abuse. These neighbors were in a unique position to notice the violence and to intervene. Some victims talked with their neighbors about the abuse. Some neighbors saw or heard the abusers’ violent attacks or threats. In at least six cases, victims or their children at some point fled to neighbors’ houses to escape. Neighbors tried to help or intervene in a number of ways. One neighbor never met the victim but repeatedly heard her boyfriend throw her against the wall and threaten to kill her. The neighbor told police that whenever she heard the victim threaten to call 911, she would make the call herself. Another neighbor, who had repeated conflicts with the abuser, approached the victim about the conflict. The victim told the neighbor that her husband had a pattern of being angry and “dangerous.” The neighbor asked her directly whether her husband had hurt her and whether she was afraid of him, and she advised the victim to get the guns out of their home. While these neighbors took positive steps to act, most said they did not know what to do when they heard about the abuse, and they did not offer victims any information about victim services or resources. In thirteen years of case reviews throughout the state, no review panels were aware of organized efforts in their counties to educate communities about domestic violence through neighborhood organizations, Block Watch groups, or community centers.

In reviewed cases, communities completely lacked tools outside the legal system to respond to abusers’ violence. In many reviewed cases, abusers’ friends, family, coworkers, or religious leaders were aware of the abuse. In some cases, abusers specifically told others about plans to harm victims or themselves. Reviews demonstrated that people were often reluctant to involve law enforcement when a friend or family member was abusive, and they did not have strategies for intervening safely themselves.

Abusers’ violence and control eroded victims’ relationships with their friends, family members, and communities. This happened for a range of reasons, including abusers’ direct attempts to sabotage supportive relationships. In several reviewed cases, abusers took direct and extreme action to isolate victims from friends and family, including moving away from supportive family members, keeping the family in a remote area and preventing the victim from leaving the home, and threatening and punishing the victim with violence if she had contact with friends or family. In one case, the victim was so afraid of her husband’s threats that she rarely talked to any of her family members. A relative whom she did call occasionally said the victim “always called me collect, and she was always determined that I got rid of those records in case [the abuser] was ever around. She was always petrified he’d find out that I’d talked to her.” On one occasion, her mother called her at work to let her know she had sent some cash to her at her workplace. Her mother said, “I feel so helpless about being able to do anything and show her I love her. . . . I mean, that’s not doing much for her, but what could I do?”

In some of the cases reviewed, victims’ own choices, constrained by abusers’ violence, alienated them from their support networks. In one case, the abuser pressured his wife to buy and use drugs over the course of their fourteen-year relationship. When she was using, she would lose touch with friends who did not want to be around her drug use. Her drug use served to reinforce the abuser’s control and undermine her support system. Another reviewed case illustrated an abuser’s more subtle tactic of driving a wedge between the victim and her family. The victim’s sister described his pattern of provoking his wife while skillfully hiding his own abusive behavior. She said, “My sister is a very vocal person. There was a lot of screaming and shouting. And [her husband] is a very quiet, manipulative kind of person. And he would say things that would just kind of put a little finger in there and twist. But if you were to observe them, it would seem like my sister was always screaming at him. But you didn’t really notice his little subtle things.” As a result, the victim’s family was ambivalent about supporting her and seemed to side with her husband. Even after the abuser killed the victim and himself, some members of her family continued to blame her for the abuse.

These cases demonstrated some of the heartbreaking ways in which domestic violence cost victims their relationships with family and friends, which further limited their options to escape the abuse. They illustrated the need for resources to sustain friends and family in the often difficult task of supporting a victim of domestic violence; to help friends and family understand the violence and coercive control that victims live with; to give friends and family information about the kinds of help available for victims; to help victims identify supportive friends and family members and engage these people to support their planning for safety; and to help victims rebuild and repair relationships sabotaged by the abuser or damaged by the victim’s own behavior in the context of the abuser’s violence.

In recent years, review panels throughout the state have found that the
domestic violence advocacy programs in their communities are equipped to work with friends and family members of domestic violence victims. Some programs have written materials specific to family and friends. However, most programs have not made engaging with friends and family a routine part of their work, and very few have specific funding to support this work.

Steps Forward

Domestic violence programs: Include messages in public education, outreach campaigns, and media that are directed at friends and family members (for example, how to support a victim or where to call for help making a plan to support a friend).

—Domestic violence advocates: Routinely help victims rebuild their connections with family and friends and safety plan with their support networks.

—Clergy and religious organizations: Train staff about domestic violence and make an organizational plan for responding to abuse within congregations that prioritizes victim safety and abuser accountability.

—Employers:
Routinely offer information to employees about domestic violence community resources (for example, attach information to paychecks, post information in restrooms, or invite a domestic violence advocate to share information at a staff meeting).

National and statewide domestic violence advocacy organizations, men’s anti-violence organizations, and batterer’s intervention experts: Develop tools and strategies for community members to talk with abusers and encourage them to stop their violence.

Since this article was originally written in 2012, we’ve launch the National Friends & Family Domestic Violence Action Campaign Donate to help us educate friends and family to better respond and reduce harm. 

Some Things to Remember When You’re Supporting A Survivor…

This piece is adapted from Staci Haines’ excellent book, Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma. A version of this portion appears in Chapter 17 “Partnering with Survivors of Sexual Abuse. ”

It’s Not Your Fault 

One of the most difficult things for friends and family members of someone experiencing abuse is remembering that your loved one’s pain is not your fault. It can be easy to think that if we had just done something differently, this situation could have been avoided: “If I had just told Kayla that her boyfriend seemed like bad news the first time I met him, maybe things wouldn’t have gotten to this point,” or “I really should have been calling her—I just got so caught up in everything going on with work. ” While it’s always great to reflect on your choices and to think about how you might want to do things differently in the future, at the same time, it’s very important to remember that the person who has been abusing your loved one is the one who made the choice to cause harm.

Blaming yourself can be a really smart way to avoid feeling the emotions that come when you let yourself acknowledge the fact that someone you love is in pain, but ultimately, it will be more supportive, both for you and for your loved one, to let yourself experience these emotions fully. You can support your loved one, but you can’t fix or make the effects of the harm they’ve experienced go away. Guilt and shame usually make it difficult for us to be present—if I’m thinking “I should have… If only I had…” the whole time I’m listening to my friend, it’s going to be a lot harder for me to hear the things he’s asking me to do to support him.

Many years ago, when I was first training as a therapist, an instructor of mine said “People you’re working with are coming to you because they’re sitting in a fire. Their friends and family are often telling them to get out of the fire, or to put the fire out—and often times they have a lot of ideas about exactly how that should happen. Our job isn’t to get them out of the fire or to put it out. Our job is to be someone who can sit there in the fire with them. To be able to ask: “How hot is the fire today? Is it hotter or cooler than it was yesterday? What is on fire now? What are you afraid might catch fire next? And, perhaps most important of all: What’s fireproof?” Being a witness, being able to sit with and listen to your friend’s story is often the most valuable support you can offer.

No Saviors, No Patients

You are not a savior, and your friend is not a patient. She is not broken or hurt, and it is not your job to rescue her. When friends & family get stuck in savior/patient roles, it ultimately disempowers everyone. The truth is, it is incredibly courageous to come out about experiencing abuse and it is incredibly courageous to support someone in surviving and healing from that abuse. Many survivors and their loved ones stay in denial about the abuse instead. Acknowledge and appreciate yourselves and each other for this.

It will help you to learn about domestic violence, abuse, and patterns of coercive power and control. We’ve compiled an extensive list of resources about patterns of abuse, experiences of survivors, and the recovery process here. It’s much easier to avoid pitfalls such as savior/patient roles when you know what’s going on.

Practice viewing each other as whole human beings. Tell each other regularly what you appreciate about each other. Talk about the vulnerability and the strengths that you see in each other. Give yourself lots of props for hanging in there. No patients or saviors are needed.

Take Care of Yourself

As someone supporting a survivor, you need to be very attentive to your own needs. Often, friends and family of survivors give to the point of depletion, because the situation seems to call for it. Learning to recognize, negotiate and take care of your own needs will serve (and potentially save) your relationship with your loved one. While surviving abuse often creates moments or periods of intense crisis, the process of recovery and healing takes time. If you are committed to supporting your loved one over the long haul, it is critical that you keep your own resources intact and replenished.

Consider getting support for yourself as well. Supporting your friend will likely stir up complicated feelings for you, as well. Reaching out to friends or a counselor can help you get what you need in order be able to continue to support your friend.

Make sure to continue making time to do things you enjoy. Whether it’s a hobby, making art, exercising, or spending time with friends, make time for the things that give your life meaning. This can create a place of balance and renewal for you, which can help you continue to bring joy into your relationship with your loved one as they are healing.

You Get to Change, Too

When someone you love is healing and changing, you get to change too. By being a support, you are getting a close-up look at what human beings can do to each other. This may call into question some of your basic beliefs about people and societies. How could this happen? Why is this still happening? What can I do? Friends and family go through their own stages of denial, shock, feeling and integrating the trauma. It is normal to get angry at those who harmed your friend and to grieve the losses that she/ze/he suffered as a result of the abuse.

Showing up for your friend during this time can also expose some of your own experiences of harm or trauma. You may find yourself reflection on experiences from your own past, or coming up against issues you thought you had successfully avoided. You and your loved one can learn together and use your reflections and your growth to support one another in growth and healing.

Adapted from Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma by Staci Haines (2007). Published by Cleis Press, San Francisco. (Originally published as The Survivors’ Guide to Sex by Cleis Press in 1997).

Friends & Family Make the Difference (Part I)

This is the first of a three part series by a guest blogger.  This writer was interested in sharing some of the many ways friends and family helped her leave an abusive relationship.

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I went home to visit my family for the winter holidays. I had yet to identify my relationship as abusive or controlling– even though my then-girlfriend had thrown things (not at me), even though we got in fights almost every day, even though I had stopped going to some of the places I used to to go, even though I wasn’t hanging out with my friends as much, even though she yelled at me a lot.

I come from a family of arguers and yellers and as far back as I can remember we’ve all raised our voices during discussions and arguments. In some way, I thought that meant yelling wasn’t abusive. Being around my family for the holidays without my girlfriend, I observed how we all fought– how my parents fought with each other, how my brother fought with his girlfriend. I saw the raised voices, I saw how it happened and I thought to myself, “That’s different from my relationship.” I couldn’t quite put my finger on how, but knew it was different. It looked different somehow. It felt different.

A long table set with plates and glasses for a fancy meal.

I knew, then, that the arguments I was having with my ex were not okay. I started to realize that the way she yelled at me almost every day also was not okay. Even more importantly, this observation got me started in a process of noticing that it wasn’t just the yelling and the arguments that weren’t okay– what made the relationship truly and deeply not okay was that I wasn’t seeing friends as much, that I had stopped going to some of the places I wanted to go, that I had started to exercise less, that I had changed the way I dressed, changed the way that I ate. All those things (and the yelling, and the arguing) added up to a pattern of power of control that she was weaving around me.

My family may never know how important those holidays were. They never commented on my relationship and I never shared what it looked like, but being with them– seeing them in relationship to each other– started me on the path of looking at my relationship differently and exploring how I might be able to end the relationship with my abusive girlfriend, now my ex.


Friends & Family Make the Difference (Part II)

This is the second in a series of four short pieces submitted by a guest blogger.  This writer was interested in sharing some of the many ways friends and family helped her leave an abusive relationship.

 

“You have a choice, you may not feel like you do right now, but you have a choice.”

Those were the words spoken to me by my best friend when I was in the thick of my abusive relationship. At the time she said them, I couldn’t fully take them in because it didn’t feel like I had any choices, but they played an important part in many of my decisions around the long process of ending my abusive relationship. They helped bolster me when I decided not to let my (ex, by then)-girlfriend move in with me, and they resonated with me more and more as I managed to eke out more and more space to get out of the relationship.

My friend may have felt like those words didn’t matter much, because at the time she said them, I probably seemed to dismiss them. Not only did I appear *not* to be acting on them, but I flat out said they weren’t true. Inside me though, those words were deeply meaningful and so deeply important, especially as I had grown increasingly disconnected from friends, family and other folks in my life and was not hearing many messages about my relationship other than what my abusive ex was saying to me. Those words helped me know that even though my ex told me that I would have to leave town if we ever broke up, I could in fact (if I wanted to, if I could manage to) choose to stay. They helped me know that I could still make decisions. And it helped that my friend kept reaching out to me, kept holding on to me as much as she could even after I seemed to ignore her words.


Friends and Family Make the Difference (Part III)

This is the last in a series of three short pieces submitted by a survivor of domestic violence. She volunteered to write these for farout.org as a way to share some of the ways that friends and family members supported her (sometimes without even realizing it) in ending her relationship with an abusive ex-girlfriend. 

“Please never let me get back together with her again.” 

Those were the words I texted my best friend after telling her that my ex had punched me in the face, after I had gotten my ex out of my house, and right before crashing into a deep sleep. I sent the text before I had time to think about sending it. I knew if I even waited until the next morning, I wouldn’t be able to send the message. I needed my best friend’s support and (even more) I needed to say those words out loud so I could start making some of my private experiences more public. Choosing not to shine a light on what was happening in my relationship wasn’t helping me and wasn’t helping my abusive ex, who I deeply cared about. My best friend was leaving for a month-long trip and I knew she wouldn’t be able to actually support me while she was away, but knowing that she knew counted for me. Saying those words out loud, even though I would continue to sleep with my ex, hang out with my ex, and be yelled at by my ex, helped me continue to slowly but surely build on my plan to truly end things. Saying them gave me a feeling of wanting to be accountable to those words, even though from the outside it looked like no changes had happened in how I was acting towards my (now)ex.

When my friend got back from her trip, she listened to everything that happened, continued to help me explore options and stayed in my life, even though I was choosing to sleep with my ex, hang out with my ex, and be yelled at by my ex. I started to be able to share more about what my relationship with her looked like, the things I liked about it and her, and the things I didn’t like or that scared me about it and her. Sharing more with my best friend meant I was able to reflect on more parts of the relationship with my abusive ex to actually consider more of the options that were available to me.