CW- Domestic Violence
By Olivia Potter-Hughes, NUS-USI President
For anyone who knows me, I do not generally shy away from personal conversations. I have always been if anything, a bit of an over sharer and somewhat lacking in a filter around my opinions and experiences. When I ran for NUS-USI President, I gave a speech for my election campaign in which I said,
“The women’s movement in particular has, and will always, hold a special place in my heart. I spent a large part of my childhood in situation of extreme violence and as an infant my mother and I were homeless. If it wasn’t for a local young mother’s refuge, we would have been on the streets. Although domestic violence is not exclusively experienced by women, statistics from Women’s Aid show that 84% of victims are women in prosecuted cases. Obviously, I am a woman, and if I win this election I would like to use that fact to collaborate with the Women’s Officer on a wide range of issues faced by women and girls in this country – because if it wasn’t for women’s organisations and women’s movements that came before us, my life could have turned out very differently.”
I hope that since being elected, I have been true to my word. I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to attend March for Choice in Dublin alongside USI, to work with NUS-USI Women’s Officer Hannah Rooney to organise a student bloc for Rally for Choice; to march with Reclaim the Night in Belfast; to work with Reclaim the Agenda in participating in the fabulous work that is done around women’s rights in Northern Ireland from the Rally Against the Two Child Cap Rape Clause and the March of the Mummies to scrubbing graffiti off the women’s mural on the Peace Wall; to work with the National Society of Apprentices around the barriers faced by women in apprenticeships; to meet with an MLA from each of the five largest parties in the Northern Ireland Executive and raise the issue of free, safe, legal and local decriminalised abortion access in this country; and to continue to maintain and build upon the relationship between NUS-USI and the fantastic organisation that is Alliance for Choice.
I have also learnt a lot this year. I have learned that as an angry feminist, I have been ignorant to many of the atrocities faced by the trans and non-binary community, seeing women’s issues in a women only bubble. I have learned that there actually is an International Men’s Day and that it is not utilized by the ‘what about men’s day-er’s’ whatsoever. I have learned that in my personal life, I am not as unshakable on the subject of domestic violence as I have been telling myself.
When I think of domestic violence, for me personally, I think of power. I think of lying in my bed at night hearing bangs and screams from downstairs. I think of knowing exactly what was going on, because I’d seen it, because I could hear it, and imagining it. Imagining worse. I think of being hyper aware and immobilized. Of witnessing violence, of experiencing it, and of being completely and utterly unable to do anything about it.
For me, coping with my experience is something I have done in a simple way. I refuse to let it hold any power. This was something I had believed was healthy, was a sign of strength and that I was a strong independent woman who was in charge of her own destiny. I learnt the hard way that this was actually an unhealthy coping mechanism that probably contributed massively to my struggles with my mental health throughout my life.
I have spent many years struggling with depression. In my mind, saying anything that vaguely resembles, ‘I feel like this because this happened to me’, means handing power back to a situation which I absolutely refuse, with every fibre of my being, to allow to hold any further power over me. I still struggle with this. I see it as a devastating concept that that person who made me feel like I had no power, none, could still have any ability to make me feel like that again. To take my power, even a fraction, even theoretically.
I was completely fine with this until I found myself in a situation where a person who I care deeply about, who is all but family to me and who has been one of the most important people in my life, for most of my life, found themselves in an abusive relationship. When they began to tell me what was going on in their personal life I continued to use the brutal honesty that we have always shared with each other about all of our thoughts, feelings and experiences. I told them that I thought that they deserved better, that they should get the hell out of there and never look back and that they should never, ever be made to feel like that or treated that way by anyone, let alone someone who claimed to love them. That might not have been the right thing to do, but it was what felt right to me at that time and in the context of our relationship.
I knew from what had happened with my mum how isolating the experience could be, how from the outside looking in it can seem so hard to understand why a person might stay with an abusive partner, but that it is such an intricate, deeply personal, horrific and traumatically difficult experience to undergo that cannot be simplified to ‘just leave them’. I was so worried for my friend that I didn’t understand that this was having an effect on me until I hit a breaking point.
I broke down completely. I didn’t understand why this was making me feel the way it was. I knew I was deeply concerned for my friend’s wellbeing and that I wanted to support them and help them however I could, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the extent of what I was experiencing. I called my mum in hysterics and had my eureka moment when she pointed out to me that for me, this wasn’t just about my friend. I wasn’t just scared for them, I wasn’t just mad at their partner. I was scared for her. I was mad at her partner. I was scared for me and I was reliving, subconsciously, a significant amount of trauma that I had tried very hard not to look at.
I spent a long time trying to wrap my head around that. Honestly, I still am. I have a lot of guilt for how I reacted afterwards as I realised that I wasn’t emotionally capable of providing my friend with the support that they needed anymore because of my own issues, and I temporarily withdrew after recommending some professional support services.
That situation made me feel powerless and taught me that I still really struggle when confronted with feelings of powerlessness. I have learnt a lot of things this year but in my personal journey I believe that may be the most significant. When looking at the problem of global gender based violence it is so easy to feel powerless. I am aware that I do have power and a platform in my role in NUS-USI President, and I want to use that power to do my part in trying to tackle gender based violence and to help restore the feeling of power to those who have had it taken from them.
I am very happy to say that my friend is no longer with that person and that they are safe and on their own journey to emotional healing. They consented to me talking about this and they wanted to be part of this campaign and to say that “for nearly two years it cost me my dignity, self-respect, and sense of self to realise that I was worth so much more than what they gave me. Acceptance of being in an unwarranted, intolerable and truly unacceptable life was the hardest part, but it freed me. Use your voice. Accept, and therefore love yourself before others, for it will be the strongest armour you have”.
I hope that this blog might make you think for a moment about power. About how fragile it can be and about how you would react and support someone in crisis if they needed you in a time of powerlessness. About what sort of platform you have and how you might use it to contribute to tackling the issue of gender based and domestic violence against all genders. And lastly, to highlight some of the organisations that you can signpost to anyone who is having a similar experience for professional support and help in these situations, because I have learnt from experience that there are times when you are not able to provide a friend with the support they might need:
Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline
The 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline is open to anyone affected by domestic violence regardless of gender, sexuality, disability, age or ethnicity.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, help is at hand. No one deserves to be abused. You are not to blame for the violence or abuse and you do not have to put up with it.
If you are being abused, physically, sexually, financially or emotionally, you have choices. Support is available in many forms. You can contact the 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline – 0808 802 1414 for initial support and to consider the options which are available to you. The helpline is open to all women and men affected by domestic violence.
You may not want to leave your relationship at this time. Whether you decide to end the relationship with your partner or not, it is important to look after yourself and get support. Women’s Aid can help you begin to think about how to protect yourself and your children from harm.
Remember, you don’t have to be hit to be hurt and you don’t have to leave to get help.
Please read the confidentiality statement below before contacting us.
The 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline offers a confidential service for people seeking help and support. This means that when you call or email us you do not have to give any identifying information such as name, address or telephone number. However, if you do give us identifying information and we are concerned that a child is at risk or a criminal offence has been committed which the PSNI may not be aware of, we will have to pass on that information to the appropriate agencies.
Help for LGBT
If you are in a same sex relationship or identify as a transgender person and have any concerns about domestic or sexual violence, now or in the past, contact the 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline – 0808 802 1414
Directory of services to help improve mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Abuse / trauma
Nexus – 028 9032 6803 | www.nexusinstitute.org
Advice, support and counselling for people who have been sexually abused.
PSNI Domestic Violence Officer – 101
Victim Support NI – 028 9024 3133 | www.victimsupportni.co.uk
Emotional support for victims of crime.
24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline – 0808 802 1414 | Text support to 07797 805 839
Open to all women and men affected by domestic or sexual violence. | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rowan – Regional Sexual Assault Referral Centre – 24 hour Freephone Helpline 0800 389 4424 (free from landlines only, mobiles may cost) | www.therowan.net
Support and services for children, young people, women and men who have been sexually abused, assaulted or raped, whether this happened in the past or more recently.
Family Trauma Centre (BHSCT) – 028 9504 2828
WAVE Trauma Centre – 028 9077 9922 | www.wavetraumacentre.org.uk
Offers care and support to anyone bereaved or traumatised through violence, irrespective of religious, cultural or political beliefs.
Bridge of Hope – 028 9022 1022 028 9543 8707
A department of Ashton Community Trust, providing mental health and wellbeing services
More services to help improve mental health and emotional wellbeing:
- Urgent help and support
- GP referral-only services
- Suicide prevention / self-harm / self-help
- Mental health including eating distress and anxiety support
- Alcohol / drugs / gambling
- Abuse / Trauma
- Sexual health
- Sexual orientation and gender identity
- Student support
- Family and relationships
- Benefits / financial advice
- Other health-related support
- Housing / homelessness / supported living
- Cultural / ethnic
- Refugees / asylum seekers
- Older people
- Available here