It was just before reading break that I stood nervously fidgeting in front of the Gauntlet, about to timidly ask if I could write on the intricate and obscure issue of domestic violence. When asked why I chose such an unyielding subject, I explained how the issue has been woven into my life, first in the domestic murder case of my aunt, then in my own first hand experience and my family's subsequent devotion to prevention and awareness of domestic violence. In a gesture of goodwill, or malicious intent, the editor agreed to set a new volunteer on this difficult task.
It can be overwhelming how prevalent yet silent domestic violence is in society. According to the 2008 Canadian Domestic Violence Handbook, one in five women and one in six men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Alberta has the highest abuse-related murder rates in Canada, with Calgary one of the top ranking Canadian cities. A 2008 Mount Royal University study found that the 18-26 age range is most subject to abuse, particularly in dating. Chances are you know someone who has been affected by abuse. I myself have been a victim and my story is typical of most cases.
We first started dating in high school. People would comment about how well we complemented each other and to be perfectly honest, he was a good guy. That's usually how it is -- a great person unknowingly crosses the line from normal behaviour to abuse. When the person isn't stopped, he or she will keep crossing that line until it becomes a regular habit. My ex-boyfriend's abusive behaviour started when he began to isolate me from my friends. When I spent time with other people, he would make me feel guilty about not spending that time with him. He said he didn't trust one of my best friends and that I shouldn't hang out with her so much, so I stopped seeing her. He even said I shouldn't continue my relationship with my sister and I listened. It got to the point that the only friends I was in contact with were his. After about a year, I felt isolated from everyone, including my family.
Thanks to my mom I eventually saw what was going on. I started talking about what my boyfriend was doing and she recognized his actions as emotional abuse. She showed me websites, videos and articles explaining what was going on, yet it still took a few months to start making my way out.
The deciding factor came when I decided to try vegetarianism. My boyfriend made me feel guilty about the choice, didn't support me and even cried, all over a new diet. When it came to the point where he asked me to choose between him and vegetarianism, I ended it. We continued to date on and off for the next few months until, thanks to my support system of family and friends, I called it off for good. I was only able to leave by sharing my situation with others.
Even though the level of emotional and psychological abuse was minimal, it took me seven months to be completely free of the abuse cycle.
The cycle starts in a "honeymoon-esque" period. The abuser then tries to reaffirm control, often when there is a lack of control in other areas of his or her life. If an abuser feels a partner has "stepped out of line," they will unconsciously use manipulative ploys to maintain control over their partner. He or she apologizes, blames a bad day for the outburst, and things return to normal. But as time goes on and the behaviour isn't corrected, the interval between abusive instances gets shorter and shorter until it disappears entirely. The abuser starts blaming the victim for the abuse, rather than an external source.
Abuse occurs when a human being tries to achieve or maintain control over another. It becomes domestic abuse when the abuse occurs between two people in a relationship ÂÂ-- friendship, marriage, dating or even between family members.
According to Never Give Up co-founder and president, my uncle Adam Frisch, a gradual pattern is the key to recognizing an abusive relationship.
"Everyone has bad days and that's normal. So if your partner is in a bad mood, that's not abuse. It becomes abuse if a pattern becomes apparent, that the partner starts blaming you for external stressors."
This cycle can be symbolized as a whirlpool -- you are swimming along, meet a fancy new fish in the sea and come to a whirlpool. The first abusive incident is the mouth of the swirling body of water. The abuser apologizes, but if you don't correct the abusive behaviour the cycle continues and you are drawn in deeper. Before long, you're at the bottom of the whirlpool, drowning.
"The reason that domestic violence is so rampant in our society is because of lack of knowledge and of speaking out," says Frisch. "Victims are ashamed of the failed relationship and so they keep silent." However, as Frisch explains, "only once the victim vocalizes the issue can the victim be helped."
Never Give Up was founded when Frisch and Darlene Dorchak, my mother, lost their sister to domestic violence. Out of the tragic loss, they dedicated themselves to raising awareness of what Frisch calls a "silent epidemic." Only through awareness and knowledge will people know where the line is and avoid crossing it, or will stop such behaviour before it becomes severe. For that reason, NGU focuses on raising awareness of domestic violence by organizing speaking events across Alberta. They also approach corporations, asking for donations to shelters such as the Discovery House and Sheriff King.
The maintenance of power over an individual can be achieved by physical, emotional and psychological, sexual or financial abuse. Physical abuse -- acknowledged in our society and often immediately recognizable -- ranges from pinching and shoving to shaking and punching. Most people only associate abuse with physical contact, but there are other, more subtle types.
Constant put-downs, criticisms, intimidation and isolation from a support system constitute emotional and psychological abuse. An abusive partner uses guilt and coercive measures to manipulate his or her partner into doing what is wanted. Financial abuse occurs when one partner controls all of the finances and monopolizes financial decision-making, so one partner must rely on the other for economic support. Sexual abuse is also seen in domestic violence cases -- one partner may either force or deprive sex as a means of control. Of course, there are gray areas in labeling actions as a certain type of abuse and any attempt at labeling compels people to view the abuser as a villain. In actuality, an abuser is a regular person who has learned hurtful behaviour. They don't cackle or laugh maniacally and often can't see that their actions are wrong. This is why education about proper behaviour is needed.
"When a victim is silent, they not only keep themselves away from help, but also the abuser. The abuser needs just as much counseling as the victim," says Frisch.
Never Give Up advocates help for perpetrators. The abuser will never be at fault because, in his or her mind, the victim caused the abuser to act.
My ex-boyfriend treated me in a way that I now recognize as emotionally abusive. However, during the relationship, I didn't register the behaviour as abuse. My gut would tell me something was amiss, but I couldn't identify what was wrong. Frisch calls these gut feelings "red flags." Once you are aware that issues exist, you can voice them to family and friends that you trust and start getting help. There are also many resources around campus, such as the Women's Resource Centre, the Native Centre, the Counseling Centre and Campus Security, where students can seek help.
Almost everyday, the Women's Resource Centre runs a Peer Support program headed by volunteers as an outlet for anyone needing to talk. Wearing orange t-shirts, they will sit with you and direct you to resources. The Women's Resource Centre also runs social meetings for both men and women to start building support systems. The Native Centre offers a wide range of resources for people looking for help, including counselors and visiting Elders. The Counseling Centre, located in the Wellness Centre in MacEwan Student Centre, offers individual and couples' counseling. According to the Counseling Centre's website, they offer drop-in and scheduled sessions -- the first three for free. Resources and self-help workshops are available. And of course, if one feels threatened on campus, Campus Security can help. These resources, along with friends and family, are all opportunities for victims to speak out. Despite this, many victims are reluctant to voice their situation.
"Because the issue is so private, there is a lot of shame attached to abuse . . . [caused by] the 'stand by your man' phenomenon," University of Calgary professor Dr. Leslie Tutty explains. Tutty holds the Brenda Strafford domestic violence chair and has been involved in women's violence prevention and research for over 20 years. "It's ironic for the victim to be ashamed because they aren't the ones being abusive."
Because of the shame and embarrassment a victim feels about his or her situation, they might hint at the subject or past abusive incidents around family and friends, testing reactions.
"They will also be worried about repercussions" from speaking out, says Tutty, likely either from the abuser or social stigmatization. Friends should notice these hints, and not shy away from the sensitive subject.
"What a friend should do is ask for details. The most important thing is to be supportive," Tutty advises. "Don't feel you have to give advice, just show that you are worried and ask if there is anything you can do to help."
Discovery House shelter Manager of Community Relations Marla Ferg also encourages support for the victim.
"When someone comes to you about their situation, you should point out help [and] show concern for the person."
Of course, speaking out is only the first part of the battle.
"It takes many interventions to break the pattern of abuse," Ferg explains. "An average woman will go back [to the abuser] several times before breaking free."
Discovery House is a second stage shelter where women and children stay long term after leaving emergency shelters. Upon exiting Discovery House, 94 per cent of clients successfully escape past abusive relationships and continue living in the community. Clients of Discovery House stay for up to a year, receiving age specific counseling so they can reenter society violence-free. As a result, Ferg advocates counseling as one of the best ways to heal. However, she adds that "education, life skills and connections with community resources" are also important for families to break the pattern of domestic violence.
I can say from experience that without my family's support I would not have had the confidence to speak out and leave the relationship completely. It is thanks to the resources and education I received that I have become who I am today.
"The best thing is to be honest to yourself," Frisch adds. "Trust your gut feelings. Love shouldn't have to hurt."