Some days I don’t feel like I belong. I feel like an imposter in my own life, or like my life doesn’t belong to me. It’s a disorienting feeling and very difficult to describe to others. When I’m depressed or coping with PTSD symptoms I often feel like I’m faking it. Like I’m pretending to be something I am not, or I am not what I am supposed to be. I don’t fit in anywhere, even within my own life,which I struggle to believe is actually MINE.
During the workday, I help abused women. I’m a counselor, a support worker, a health care professional, a peer supporter, and I help others. I believe that I am good at most aspects of my job, especially those related to support work. I have slowly developed some confidence that I can help other women. That my experiences may have some meaning because they have given me the skills to deeply connect with others who are living with abuse, trauma and the impacts of violence.
But it’s incredibly disorienting when I leave work and am forced to deal with abuse, trauma and the impacts of violence in my own life. Sometimes I feel confused, sometimes I feel like my life can’t really be this bad, this difficult, this out of my control.
Sometimes I feel like I’m living inside a public service announcement for domestic violence awareness. How can I truly help others, when my own life is still being impacted by an abusive ex-partner? How can I truly help myself? How can I separate the past from the present, the triggers from the actual risks? How do I stop this terrible helpless, disoriented, exhausted feeling? Can I be a good support worker if I can’t solve the problems in my own life? If I don’t follow my own excellent advice?
Last week I was at a doctor’s appointment with my children and my ex-partner. It was very difficult and very triggering. The doctor was asking the kids questions that they obviously couldn’t honestly answer with their father sitting in the room. I felt a deep sense of pain and discomfort. I wanted to tell the truth to the doctor about what my kids are struggling with, but I knew that if I said too much it could have impacts on my kids’ safety with their father.
The doctor asked questions about “do you feel safe?” and “do you have thoughts about harming yourself?” On one hand, I was glad to see that this doctor was asking mental health and abuse screening questions. On the other hand, I felt panicky and unsafe because the situation was so impossible.
I remember a time years ago, when I went with my then husband to the emergency room for a migraine. The triage nurse asked me “do you feel safe in your home?” The question made me pause, stop and think. I knew that I didn’t feel safe in my home, but I also knew that answering honestly would cause something to happen. My husband was sitting only a few feet away. I didn’t know exactly what the “something” would be. I hesitated for a second and answered “yes,” the only real possibility in that moment.
But I was thankful that the question was asked, because on a different day, or for a different woman that question could have been the permission and the space needed to disclose domestic violence or sexual abuse.
Health care professionals MUST ask these difficult questions. They must ask their patients about thoughts of self harm, thoughts of suicide and experiences of violence. They must ask if their patients feel safe at home. These questions are vital and open a potentially life saving door.
But if the professional doesn’t have a clear plan as to how to handle a disclosure, they can do more harm than good.
Don’t ask a question you don’t want to know, or aren’t prepared to know, the answer to.
Don’t ask if someone feels safe, unless you are prepared to help them find safety if the answer is no.
Don’t ask someone if they feel suicidal unless you are prepared to support them, connect and hold space for them.
Don’t ask about abuse unless you are willing and able to support, believe and validate that potential disclosure.
Please, don’t ask questions unless you are willing to help or do what is needed to find help.
Sometimes it’s not enough just to believe someone. Sometimes that person might need concrete help and support. Health care professionals need enough time and enough resources to provide this help. They shouldn’t be rushed in their jobs, they should be given adequate time and privacy to complete interviews. They should have training in trauma informed care. They should have resource lists, with shelter numbers, sexual assault centres and other options available. And they should receive specific training around handling disclosures related to violence.
It was so triggering for me to be in a situation where these questions were asked in front of my abuser. Where I knew my children didn’t have the ability to speak freely. This situation was not conducive to health. When in doubt, children could be interviewed alone. Or if the doctor sense there is something complex going on, they should follow up. In a timely manner!
I know this doctor could sense the tension. I did get the impression that she believed and could tell that I was afraid. I didn’t feel like she did harm or had ill intent. But I’m still constantly frustrated how many adults, doctors and counselors “believe” my children, and “believe” me, but have either no power, or no will to actually intervene to influence change. The systems that have the power to intervene don’t believe (or are too slow) and the systems that do believe, ultimately have little power to impact the situation.
It means something to be believed. But if the dangerous situation is allowed to continue indefinitely, it makes it difficult for survivors to trust. It makes it difficult to feel safe and supported, anywhere. It makes it more and more difficult to continue to disclose and continue to ask for help. It makes me feel crazy. It makes me feel like an imposter in my own life. Where nothing makes sense and what I know to be right and fair and good is not able to transpire. Where I can’t effectively protect myself or my children. Where I help others by day, and feel panic, helplessness and fear each night.