What to Do If You're Stuck With an Abusive Person During the Coronavirus Pandemic
As the world struggles to stop the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), we’ve been talking about the people who are most in danger — senior citizens, people with disabilities and those who are immunosuppressed due to a chronic illness. But there is another group of people who are also at high-risk right now, yet rarely discussed — those in abusive relationships or toxic family situations who are now trapped at home with someone who is harming them. And for people in those situations who have a disability or health condition, the danger is magnified. I know, because I was once one of them.
From 2004 to 2011, I was in a relationship with a woman who became controlling and abusive. Using coercive control tactics, she distanced me from my family and friends, took advantage of me financially and bullied me until I was a terrified shell of my former self. You can read my story here. It happened so gradually, I didn’t see how bad it was until we moved to a different city and I became extremely socially isolated. Although I have a physical disability, I’ve always been a very active person, and spending most of my time at home for weeks on end was extremely stressful. I felt like my life had been stolen away from me.
My abusive partner destroyed so many things — my finances, my career, and most of all, my self-esteem. I found a new path forward, but it took years. Ever since then, being involuntarily stuck at home for more than a few days has been extremely triggering for me. It brings back disturbing memories and I begin to feel helpless and hopeless. When I realized I was going to have to stay home for months, first because of a broken wheelchair lift and now the coronavirus, one of my first thoughts was, “I’m so thankful I am not still with her.”
My next thought after that was, “What about the people who are still in a controlling relationship?” They are now isolated with their abuser, trapped indoors and perhaps struggling with limited resources such as food and medication. It is no surprise to me that many police departments and shelters are reporting that domestic violence incidents have increased. As Paul Holes, retired Contra Costa County, California investigator and co-host of “The Murder Squad” podcast explained, “This self-isolation people are having to do is going to endanger people who are in relationships that are abusive.” The podcast devoted most of its March 23 episode to discussing the risks to domestic violence victims during the COVID-19 pandemic.
People experiencing domestic violence, especially those who have a condition that puts them at higher risk of dying from the coronavirus, face an impossible choice right now. They must choose between staying with someone who is hurting them or potentially contracting a life-threatening illness if they leave and have no safe place to go.
If you are in this situation, first of all I want to tell you that I’m thinking of you, and many people out there understand and care about you. I’m sorry we can’t do more to help you in this moment, but you are not alone. Do whatever it takes to be as safe as you can right now, whether that means staying when you desperately wish you could leave or leaving even though you are at risk of infection.
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network has released some guidelines for people experiencing domestic violence who are currently trapped in close quarters with their abuser. Here is the list, along with my thoughts on how each recommendation can be adapted by people who are also living with a disability or health condition.
▪️ Make a list of supportive people to have regular check-ins with via phone or video chat.
If you can, try to find safer ways to connect with people your abuser has tried to cut out of your life. My abusive partner particularly despised one friend she saw as a threat to her control over me, and would yell and threaten to break my computer if we talked over voice or video. Thankfully, that friend and I were also on a virtual reality platform, and we were able to have conversations there instead. If your abuser forbids you from talking to certain friends or loved ones, you may be able to connect in an alternate way, such as a secret app or even by adding them to your phone under different names.
▪️ Take breaks outside, keeping social distancing in mind.
If you’re not able to leave your home without assistance, you could sit on your balcony, patio or even by an open window to get some sunshine and fresh air.
▪️ Consider what places in your home are easy to get in and out of during a conflict.
This can be tricky for people who have limited physical mobility, endurance, and/or speed. For us, having a physical escape route may not be possible, or it may need to be part of a larger, meticulously planned strategy to protect ourselves.
Instead of just focusing on a physical escape plan, you can put together a psychological escape plan, too. What can you do to distract yourself from the situation? Do you have hobbies or activities you can pursue that do not tend to trigger the abuser’s rage? If the abuser becomes enraged, what words or actions help to calm them down? It can be upsetting to think about planning to appease an abuser, but in a situation such as the coronavirus pandemic where you may not have other options, doing so may actually make the situation less miserable.
The key, in my experience, is to approach self-preservation intentionally, knowing whatever you say or do is a survival strategy and doesn’t reflect what you actually feel or believe. If you’re apologizing just so a person won’t scream at or hit you, but you know in your heart you did nothing wrong, you retain some of your power.
▪️ Create a code word to share with your support network that indicates you are in need of immediate help.
Again, if you have a disability or health condition, you may need a somewhat more complex rescue plan. You may need different code words to indicate whether you need medical care, whether you want to leave permanently or just need someone to talk to for a few hours. During the coronavirus crisis, you may want to distinguish between whether someone should call you or break social distancing protocol to come and get you.
▪️ Make and hide an “escape bag” with your important documents, medicine, keys and other items.
This can be difficult for people with a disability or health condition, as we may not have enough extra medical supplies to hide or be able to reach a hiding place. Instead, you may want to keep your escape bag in an obvious place, but conceal its real purpose. For example, you could carry the bag with you from room to room with the excuse that you need access to your medications in case of a sudden flare or reaction. During the coronavirus crisis, you may wish to hide additional items at the bottom, such as a respirator mask and gloves.
When I was in the process of getting out of the abusive relationship, I started keeping my wallet in my wheelchair backpack, to make it more difficult for her to steal my credit cards without me noticing. Now, I have a phone case that holds my cards and ID, so if I am in any kind of emergency situation I always have them with me. I also keep a few days’ worth of my most essential medications in my wheelchair backpack.
▪️ Be gentle with yourself; you’re doing the best you can.
Absolutely. “Stay with someone who abuses you” or “leave and maybe catch a deadly virus” is not a choice in any meaningful sense of the word. Do whatever feels least awful for you and stand by your decision.
Unfortunately, I can say from personal experience that judging yourself may not ever completely go away. Even nine years later I still look back at my life and think, “Why did I stay in such a horrible situation for so long? How could strong, determined me have ever become that person?” But coercive control is insidious — abusers who use it can break you in ways people who have not experienced it can never understand. So please do not blame yourself for your circumstances, especially during this crisis. All any of us can do right now is try to survive, and look forward to the day when we have the chance to be free again.
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Getty image by Ponomariova_Maria