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“I’m not going to lie to you, I feel like my ex could be out right now.”
Karrie Lynn Dymond isn’t sure if her ex-boyfriend is still in prison. She lives in Ontario’s Durham region, but for her safety Dymond can’t share exactly where she’s weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. Her ex-boyfriend’s whereabouts are unknown to her and his last sighting terrified the 45-year-old. He was driving with a loaded gun in the trunk of his car, minutes away from her doorstep, and later arrested on drug and theft charges. With quarantine keeping Canadians at home, Dymond says she’d rather find shelter elsewhere than stay where he could easily track her.
“My phone’s on 24/7. If it rings right now [with a call from Durham Regional police], I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she told HuffPost Canada, noting that she’s asked Victim Services to inform her if he was out as part of prison outbreak prevention early releases for non-violent offenders.
Pressure to isolate at home is creating agonizing dilemmas for domestic violence survivors like Dymond, as well as Canadians currently quarantined with abusive partners. They are overwhelmingly women abused by men, living in already unsafe households that are tipping towards intensifying danger for themselves, as well as any children present.
Domestic violence reports are surging worldwide due to the pandemic, causing the United Nations to ask governments to respond with urgency. Drawing on early reports from China and France, experts anticipated survivors would be at risk for more violence as an abuser can exert more power in these circumstances and conflicts may escalate.
“Isolation is the biggest tool abusers use to control their victims. And right now it’s being handed to them on a silver platter,” Samra Zafar, 37, a public speaker and author from Toronto, told HuffPost Canada, adding that increased financial stress or COVID-19 job loss can turn an abused Canadian into a target for aggression. “Whenever there were times of crisis or financial stress or any other kind of stress [during my past marriage], he would always intensify.”
Zafar survived intimate partner abuse for a decade. When the coronavirus’ Canadian impact began to escalate, she worried about worsening fates for vulnerable women and was proven right. Google searches on relationship dysfunction issues and toxic relationships have been steady in several provinces over the last few weeks. Some helplines and women’s shelters across Canada are dealing with more calls, while others have seen equally distressing dips — with partners constantly at home, it can be harder for Canadians to seek help.
Vancouver-based counsellor Maya Jakob has noticed that some clients are struggling to talk to her. One tried to use a Starbucks drive-thru visit as an excuse to get away from home. But even that brief reprieve for a counselling session in her car was cut short, Jakob told HuffPost Canada. “How is she supposed to explain her absence?”
Andrea Silverstone is the executive director of Sagesse Domestic Violence Prevention Society in Calgary. Her organization is one of many resources survivors can turn to, aided by government financial assistance. While they’re doing everything they can and official numbers on a domestic abuse surge in Canada are yet to come, Silverstone warns that domestic violence is “the canary in the coal mine” if measures aren’t taken on all levels.
“Those rates are going to go up faster than any of the other social issues that we’re going to see,” Silverstone told HuffPost Canada. “This is not just about a social service response to those who experienced domestic violence. Every Canadian has a role to play.”
Here’s what Canadians should keep in mind if they or someone they know is quarantined with an abuser:
The signs of abuse aren’t always obvious
The federal government’s website states that worsening mood, nervousness around the abuser or excusing their actions, and covering bruises are some indications that abuse is happening.
Dymond’s resilience led her to found the victim advocacy organization Keep Your Hands 2 Yourself, but she points out that her outlook on life was completely different when the abuse was ongoing. A friend noticed red flags that indicated Dymond’s plight: she seemed more withdrawn and had stopped wearing dresses she loved.
As many at home are dealing with COVID-19 anxiety, demeanour changes may mimic those symptoms. Dymond emphasizes the role of community who can check in on those they’re worried about. Having confidantes who are aware that things are wrong at home can provide emotional relief, as well as be their second-hand connection to resources they aren’t able to access on their own.
Zafar agrees that social connection in a time of physical distancing is more important than ever for Canadians who are experiencing abuse. That’s why she’s set up a few Zoom socials they can access, including a weekly awareness group and a connection circle with other survivors.
Survivors might downplay their trauma
Silverstone told HuffPost Canada that survivors are experts at coping with their circumstances, often developing skills and strategies that manage violence in their everyday life. That may look like holding down a job with hours different from their partner or going to social activities outside of their homes, both of which are examples where they can avoid time spent with an abuser in an acceptable way. But without social or work spaces to find comfort in, many are unable to access their coping mechanisms.
As such, some might develop a new strategy to cope: Downplaying how bad their situation is.
“If I think back to my marriage, my biggest fear is other women stuck in these situations feeling isolated, alone, or helpless,” Zafar said. “Psychologically, that’s a debilitating feeling. If you feel like no one cares and there are bigger things in the world to worry about, you can feel guilty.”
It doesn’t help that abusers may encourage this mentality, by calling their victims “drama queens,” guilting them for taking outdoor trips, or having any alone time, she said.
“You’re already conditioned to believe everything is your fault, ‘I’m the one who made him angry, what’s wrong with me?’” Zafar said as an example.
Common signs of emotional abuse during quarantine may include a partner claiming time away from loved ones is the answer to problems, keeping constant tabs on who one talks to online, and chipping away at their self-esteem. Signs of physical abuse may be harder to see without looking at in-person bruises or marks; in this case, a person being abused may flinch or look uneasy when a partner is around, cringe when touched by surprise, appear hypervigilant of their surroundings, and withdraw from loved ones. Signs of neglect or mistreatment may include being denied access to basic human needs or pandemic-related safety gear.
However, it’s important to keep in mind there’s no one way to look abused: Zafar points out that others have discredited her for being happy or smiling. “Would you believe me if I was sitting there crying with bruises on my face?”
Should someone you know be echoing their abuser’s sentiments, it’s important to remind them about their worth and what they know to be reality versus what their abuser says is real.
If one suspects someone they know is being abused, Jakob stresses how important it is to not let their abuser know you’re onto them, especially in these times.
“If the abusive partner thinks that other people know what’s going on, the other person could be put at more risk or blamed for the [wariness],” she said.
Instead she suggests making sure lines of communication are always open.
“How is the isolation? What are you going through? What do you need?” are safe initial questions to ask without prying, Jakob says.
If you feel the need to share resources, gauge your loved one’s situation. It might be safer to send a general mental health counselling guide that they can justify as pandemic-related, over something that might endanger them if their abuser discovers the link.
Not everyone can leave
Allies might be tempted to “rescue” a loved one from their quarantine situation. However, many survivors may stay with abusers because of kids, finances, or other obligations that have ensured dependency on their abuser — survivors like Zafar may have tried to leave multiple times already — as well as to protect themselves from getting killed.
Up to 35 per cent of women have experienced violence in their lives, but instances often go unreported; according to StatsCan data, one in every four violent crimes reported to police involve family violence and around 70 per cent of intimate partner violence cases in Canada don’t involve police.
For Canadians who were planning to leave before the pandemic, their exit plan may be on pause because the safety nets they were hoping to rely on fell through or their household is too volatile to make any sudden moves, Jakob notes.
“I’m trying to connect them to the hope that this will end [eventually] and all the work they had done to exit isn’t lost,” she said, adding that it depended on the situation; if the abuse escalates for her clients, she would recommend a safe shelter or transition house (although, she worries those places are dealing with limited capacity, already stretched thin before the pandemic).
Women from marginalized communities are more likely to face worse outcomes. Indigenous women are up to three times more likely to be abused by spouses than the general population. LGBTQ individuals may not be believed when they disclose. Newcomers may not have access to resources or know their rights. In certain communities, domestic violence may be excused to uphold familial honour or cultural stigma. (See our resources section below for further help.)
Watch: How Samra Zafar’s Fight For Education Became An Out From Her Abusive Marriage. Story continues below.
It took years of counselling before Zafar understood what was happening to her wasn’t OK and to unlearn the shameful messages she heard from family members that had normalized her husband’s mistreatment.
Consider a quarantine-specific safety plan
Many Canadian organizations encourage “safety planning” as a way for survivors to prioritize their safety in three stages: when leaving isn’t an option, when they’re trying to exit, and after they’ve left. This typically includes steps that soothe emotional distress and prioritize physical safety, which can look different depending on one’s situation.
Jakob recommends “informal wellness checks” as an essential part of safety planning during a quarantine. It’s up to social circles to frequently show both an abuser and an abused individual that eyes are still watching them. Regular calls or Zoom meetings under the grounds of catching up with an old friend can serve to see if someone’s situation has changed. However, these conversations should be carefully worded, as Jakob warns an abuser might be listening in at any time.
Asking open-ended questions after someone’s overall health and wellbeing can let someone take the lead in conversation.
General inquiries about how someone is dealing with the quarantine and the loss of access to work or school can allow them to share as much as they would like about their home life, as well as occasional offers that may help their situation: asking for help on an errand or offering for a pick-up of baked goods can give them temporary moments of normalcy.
It may potentially be beneficial to coordinate with other allies, who can regularly call, too. That way, everyone can keep tabs on the situation and compare notes.
Ending the call with promises to call again soon are important for all parties, as it reminds everyone that the person experiencing abuse is still cared for by others.
Building skills and celebrating progress is important
Supporters can also help in indirect ways. Zafar notes that many immigrant women in the situation she was once in might be able to devote quarantine time to building skills that can help them post-exit, such as financial literacy and pursuing free educational courses. Helping someone access these benign opportunities are unlikely to draw an abuser’s suspicion, while empowering them to arm themselves with knowledge that will make leaving easier.
On the flip side, she also acknowledges how hard it is to manage home life or dashed expectations for leaving because of the pandemic.
“Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not ready to walk out the door yet. Leaving isn’t linear,” she advised. “Staying away is the hardest part.”
When negative emotions run high, it may be helpful to practice mental wellness through exercises and meditation.
Try: an easy five-minute meditation for relaxation. Story continues after slideshow.
Aside from professional treatment like trauma-informed therapy, many individuals with PTSD find a measure of success with resources modelled after Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or emotional regulation should they be unable to access counselling remotely.
Covering tracks online
Code words, which convey needs or danger through unrelated terms, are being used in France and supporters of victims of domestic abuse like BBC anchor Victoria Derbyshire have been subtle with their support. However, Jakob notes that hiding secret messages in plain sight — such as inquiring about how cold or hot the home’s temperature is, when you’re really asking after an abuser’s temper because they’re listening in — should be done with caution, as an abuser might catch on and be angered by the deception.
Protecting one’s digital privacy is often recommended. If possible, it’s important to consider browsing for resources in incognito mode, as well as having conversations about the abuser through social media accounts they aren’t aware of.
Should monitoring be a big concern, as some tech-savvy abusers may install secret spyware, a hidden phone might be the best device to use and a secret log of suspicions might be worth giving to a confidante.
Think twice before calling police
While organizations like Dymond’s and Canadian authorities recommend calling 911 if someone is in danger, involving the police isn’t the safest option for all Canadians. The U.S. Domestic Violence Hotline states that if a survivor hasn’t given a supporter the OK beforehand, law enforcement may end up exacerbating the violence.
State interventions may have longer histories of distrust and violence in some populations, such as the continuing impact of colonial policing on Indigenous communities and the lack of clean water on reserves now reeling with pandemic conditions. It may be wiser to work with the individual experiencing abuse, their informal supporters, and any professional help they are in touch with to come up with a safety plan that addresses scenarios where law enforcement may be considered.
Even with all the safety-planning one does, it’s really up to one person to stop the violence: the abuser. Deb Singh is a Toronto-based counsellor and activist working with Toronto Rape Crisis Centres. She notes that prisons don’t stop violence against survivors and carceral punishment hasn’t lowered rates. Abusers who stop abusing others do.
“It’s on the perpetuator to stop their behaviour,” she said.
Alternatives to police interventions or seeking incarceration can include involving community watches, Singh suggests. If a neighbour notices someone is hanging around a local’s door every day, it might be wise to make that person know multiple people are watching them.
Allies should check in with the survivor on whether calling 911 or an emergency alternative is preferable for their circumstances, but shouldn’t hesitate to call law enforcement if someone is in immediate danger of getting killed.
Support continues after leaving, too
Whether someone has been forced out of their home by escalating violence or left a decade ago, both Zafar and Singh point out that the after-effects of trauma linger long after damage is inflicted. Kids who witness abuse may deal with vicarious trauma. Checking in with survivors and their families who are physically safe, but potentially dealing with emotional fallout or are worried about being re-contacted by an abuser, is important, too.
For Zafar, the pandemic’s uncertainty and social isolation has caused memories to resurface.
“A lot of these things, I associate to times from my marriage ... I can’t go out of the house, I can’t see my friends, and the anxiety bubbles up,” she said. You don’t ever move on from trauma. It’s always a part of you and you learn to manage it.”
Her advice to survivors who are re-triggered or reminded of rough times? Be kind to yourself.
“It’s human to feel this way. I take care of myself, whether it’s reading a book, meditating, calling a friend, or you know, sitting and having a good cry. It’s totally valid. Being strong doesn’t mean you don’t feel weak sometimes.”
Shelters in your area can be reached 24/7 at Shelter Safe.
- Ontario: The Assaulted Women’s Helpline (1-866-863-0511)
- British Columbia: VictimLink (1-800-563-0808)
- Quebec: SOS Violence Conjugale (1-800-363-9010)
- Alberta: Family Violence Info Line (310-1818) and Sagesse
- Nova Scotia: provincial crisis services (1-855-466-4994)
- Yukon: Kaushee’s Place (1-867-668-5733)
- Prince Edward Island: Island Help Line (1-800-218-2885)
- Manitoba: Stop the Violence (1-877-977-0007)
- Indigenous: Talk 4 Healing (1-855-554-4325), First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line (1-855-242-3310), Native Women’s Association of Canada
- Newcomers: Immigrant and Refugee Communities
- Muslim women: NISA Helpline (1-888-315-6472)
- Francophone: Fem’aide (1-877-336-2433)
- Youth: Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868), LGBT Youthline
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