I’m not a victim. I’m a strong, independent woman, earning a six-figure salary at a top investment bank in the City. Yet in the summer of 2020, three months after lockdown, I did the unthinkable.
I finally built up the courage to contact a domestic abuse support line. I had endured 18 years of abuse by my ex, always thinking that because he never left any blood or obvious bruises, the abuse was not real. He isolated me from my family and friends, controlled how I used the kitchen and the home, belittled me and pushed me around, and left me in hundreds of thousands of pounds of debt from loans he coerced me into taking. I’d reached a point where he was now threatening to take away our daughter and using whatever lies or manipulation with authorities to achieve that. I was at breaking point.
As I made the first call, I waited for someone to answer. No one did. I tried another support group. No reply. I left emails and I trailed through the online forums looking to just ‘connect’ with someone, anyone who I could just talk to about what I was going through. I received no reply and the call-backs could take weeks sometimes months. It just made my feeling of hopelessness and isolation even worse.
My experience highlights the need for more funding to be invested into community based services including helplines who can provide survivors the support they need. My experience also made me realise that there was a need for some sort of peer support.
So, in January this year, myself and another survivor who I met at an online domestic abuse zoom call, connected. We set up the Domestic Abuse Survivors Group (DASG). Its mission is simple; to support each other after abusive relationships break down, and effect child-focused, safety-first positive change. It has been a life-changing source of support that myself and many others couldn’t cope without. Our group grew fast as domestic abuse is very common, but one that is still very taboo to talk about. Most people we spoke were victims themselves or knew of other people who had experienced domestic abuse.
DASG initially started operating through vetted, online chat channels. We set up small WhatsApp groups to connect each other. The rationale for this is that many of the online forums are complicated to login to or the reality is the psychological barrier to logging in felt too big. Having access to other survivors on an easily accessible tool like WhatsApp or Telegram meant 24/7 access. DASG survivors share information, resources, twitter feeds, latest news on domestic abuse, help, training, zoom calls…and if anyone is feeling a little down, you have another survivor to speak to, even if they only just listen.
We have rules to respect each other and to ensure the channels are ‘inclusive’ as well as respecting anonymity and court confidentiality. We have male survivors, disabled survivors, successful business women, university lecturers, Oxbridge alumni, teachers, people from all walks of life and backgrounds. Some say more and others just observe and that’s fine. The one thing we have in common is the shared history of abuse and trauma we have endured. And very often the ongoing abuse that continues to prevail and especially via the family courts. We retain our anonymity and respect court confidentiality rules at all times. Half of us don’t even know each other’s real names, but it doesn’t matter. We are there for each other as a community and fill a vital gap in the services out there today.
I recently watched the channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ documentary called ‘Torn Apart’ about the forced removals by the police of children from their homes to go and reside with the other parent (who are often ‘abusers’). In watching this, viewers are led to believe that it’s quite ‘rare’ that something like this happens. Let me tell you, it is not. We have at least four survivors who have had their children forcibly removed or at risk of forcible removal. This has led to another channel that is dedicated to campaigning and lobbying for institutional change. One thing many of us are impassioned to do, is to prevent the ongoing abuse we have endured via the very institutions that are there to protect us. The voices of our children are often getting lost in the noise of the one-way conflict from our abusers, but we are campaigning to change this. We are working with external organisations to change the narrative on what domestic abuse looks like and how it impacts our children. The change needs to happen at many levels from the judiciary, police, social services, schools, and medical professionals.
DASG has made me and many of our other members realise one thing; you are not alone. That leaving an abuser is often harder than staying in the relationship. And that going through the family courts can be harder than the abuse we have endured.
But the smiles on our children’s faces in trying to secure their future and safety is not a fight I can ever give up on. I am not a victim. I am a DASG survivor.