How to recognise that someone is going through abuse

Talking about abuse, whether as a survivor or as a concerned loved one, is a very delicate issue. It is an emotional journey full of unpleasant memories and negative feelings. But it’s also a journey worth taking with someone you care about. I know this because I have survived a few events in my life involving different types of abuse at different stages in my life, the most recent one being a physically and emotionally abusive relationship I was in around nine years ago.

It is through my own experience and further research that I know how common abuse is. The Crime Survey for England and Wales for the year ending March 2018 showed that an estimated 2.0 million adults aged 16 to 59 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year (1.3 million women, 695,000 men). As high as these figures are, the same survey also showed that over four in five victims (83%) of partner abuse did not report the abuse to the police.  In Australia, a recent survey revealed that before the age of 15, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men had reported at least one violent incident from their intimate partner. And a 2018 survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the most dangerous nations for sexual violence found India at the top of the list and the US in 10th place, on a list of otherwise developing countries. The reasons for this are many and complex, perhaps a topic for another article. For now, I want to focus on helping you identify some common indicators of abuse.

Before proceeding, it’s important to understand that there are different types of warning signs that abuse is taking place or that someone is experiencing abuse. Some signs are physical while others are emotional or behavioural. However, we must exercise caution and always try to learn more about the person in question before making a diagnosis. Never jump into conclusions. Why? Because we may be wrong. For instance, there are medications and health conditions that can cause bruising, yet if we don’t know that our coworker suffers from hemophilia and that s/he is taking medication for it we may conclude that s/he is being physically abused.

Here are the most recognisable signs that someone is going through abuse of some sort:

A change in behaviour. When I am myself, my friends and colleagues will likely describe me as a lively, fun and cheerful person who loves to talk to everyone and make people laugh with silly jokes. But when I was in an abusive relationship with a man who was controlling, abusive and paranoid about my relationships with friends and colleagues I started to change the way I interacted with others so that he would trust me more -or so I hoped.

I stopped talking to male colleagues, I stopped making jokes and laughing (getting through the day without trouble seemed more important than having a happy day at work), I introduced every single person in my office to my then partner, not so much because I wanted them to meet and like each other but because I wanted him to know who was who, so that he knew which males and females I needed to interact with at work.

I soon became more withdrawn, less interactive with others. I no longer smiled or joked. I mentioned my partner’s name too often and was forced to call him during all my breaks so he would know what I was doing at all times. I was overly emotional, cried often and avoided talking about my personal life.

These are some changes I experienced related to my particular situation but other people might display different behaviour such as choosing to eat alone at school, avoiding physical contact with people or males/females only, avoiding eye contact, avoiding outings with family and friends, crying or becoming agitated when people raise their voice (angry boss, teacher or parents).

The changes in behaviour could be many but the point is that there should be noticeable changes between the way the person has always been and the way they are now.

A change in performance– It took me over a year to be able to get out of that abusive relationship unharmed and during that time my performance at work was affected. I was always a popular teacher amongst our students because of my outgoing and relatable personality, however, as my behaviour changed it also changed the way I interacted with my students. I was no longer happy to share my business card, to give my work email address in order to answer questions or help them with any learning needs outside the classroom. These were adult learners and now they posed a risk to my own well-being by being perceived as a problem in this abusive relationship. I cut out all contact with my students that wasn’t strictly part of their paid classes and began to look at my work as just what happens in the classroom. I still did a great job but the joy of learning about and from my students and of helping them achieve their learning goals was not there anymore. I could not afford to get that involved.

For other people, their performance may be affected in different ways. They may be taking more leave of absence than ever before, or they may be struggling to deliver quality work – careless reports, poorly written essays or low grades in exams.

A change in appearance. Being in an emotionally as well as physically abusive relationship changed my appearance in two distinct ways. First of all, it introduced me to feelings and physical reactions to stress that I never knew were possible. I began to suffer from panic attacks, I would struggle to breath whenever I predicted a situation or comment would trigger a negative response in my partner and this would affect my ability to breath normally.

I experienced a very visceral relationship between my thoughts and my feelings. My negative thoughts translated into what I can only describe as nerves in my stomach. My whole core would shiver from within and I was unable to eat at all for days. I lost a lot of weight in very little time as a result and this physical change was very clear to see.

But this relationship also changed the way I looked, as it became more and more clear that the way I dressed was not in line with the way my partner wanted me to dress. I had to ditch my smart- but casual colourful clothes in favour of more ‘elegant, office-like’ attire. I had to wear make-up (both for beauty and for hiding bruises) and I had to wear high heels, watches and perfume, not just flat shoes and cologne. Now, while some people may have thought that this change came to match my job, it actually didn’t and I was being forced to look in a way that did not reflect who I was.

However, abuse doesn’t change everyone physically or in the same way. Some people might take refuge in food as a means to find comfort during a difficult situation. Others might develop an eating disorder in their attempt to seek comfort while still look the same. Some people might suffer from insomnia and look very tired and sleepy during the day. Others might want to mask their unhappiness with thick make-up and fancy clothes.

In any case, the key to spotting an issue is whether there has been a drastic change in someone’s image (together with other changes) that might indicate that something is not right.

Avoidance to be physically close to others. This is also something I did until well after my abusive relationship was over. I had learnt that being close to people, especially men, a friendly greeting hug or a pat on a friend’s shoulder could be very easily misunderstood by my partner, therefore I avoided it like the plague. I became very scared and nervous around male friends or when introduced to new people so I soon mastered the art of the nodding head or a daring quick handshake (only when I knew I should show respect to the man in question) as the only ways to acknowledge men. This might sound normal to many of you, but for a southern European person it is, not only unusual to avoid a hug or kissing someone on both cheeks when greeting them, but also a bit painful. I looked weird in social situations and it was clear that I was avoiding physical contact.

For other people it may be less obvious, as the way people greet and behave around each other may change from country to country. Cultural and religious traditions might also make it harder to spot someone who is trying to avoid contact with others or with people of the opposite gender. Again, a sharp contrast between the way they have always interacted with others and the way they do it now is the best indicator that something may be wrong.

A tendency to lie or make up excuses. My number one priority was to hide my suffering from others – after all, wasn’t I a strong independent woman capable of making good choices for myself? I was ashamed to find myself in a tough situation of which I had little control and which could potentially affect my well-being negatively rather fast. So, I became proficient at making up excuses and minimising any of the obvious issues that were perceivable from the outside. When a colleague asked what the marks on my arms were I said ‘I bumped into a cupboard’. When my eye looked a bit blue (through the layers of make-up) I said ‘I have an infection that’s made my eye swell’. When I was invited to go out for dinner with friends and colleagues I always said ‘sorry but we already have plans for tonight’ even though we didn’t. Even when invited to an all-female birthday party I had to make up an excuse, since my partner believed it was a clear night out to look for men.

All I wanted was to avoid talking about what was really happening because I felt shame and fear that he may find out I had told someone about the abuse and that he would behave even more crazily than he usually did. It was always best not to test him.

This is common behaviour in abuse victims. Other lies and excuses such as ‘I fell in the shower‘ or ‘oh, I hadn’t noticed that bruise, I wonder how I got it’ or ‘sorry I can’t come, I’m busy’ can be signs that something is seriously wrong. But, as we said before, with bruising we have to be careful that we are not taking a health condition for abuse. Always find out if the person has a health condition before assuming they are being abused.

As we have seen, abuse is a very complex experience that affects us inside and out, mentally and physically. Have you spotted a few of these changes in someone you know and care about? Are you wondering what to do next? Now that we have explored some of the ways abuse survivors change in order to cope with their situation, let’s think about what you can do to show support.

The first thing to do is to acknowledge that abuse (in its many forms – physical, emotional, sexual, etc.) is, unfortunately, a common occurrence. You have to understand that it often takes survivors of abuse many years to come forward and speak about their ordeal, which means that for years they lived with fear, guilt, shame and many other side effects of abuse, such as depression and anxiety. Many people are reluctant to talk about it while it’s happening or right after it happened because of fear of being judged, or even fear of retaliation on the part of the perpetrator.

I didn’t tell anyone about it at the time. Actually, I have never told anyone since either. The only person who has known about this is my husband, who has known about it from the very start of our relationship as background to understanding why I behaved the way I did when we first met.

All women are exposed and subject to abuse in one way or another, at some point (and often many) in our lives. Children, men and other vulnerable people are no exception. Abuse can happen to anyone, at home, at school and at work; it can be carried out by people you know and trust or by a complete stranger.

The next thing to do is to approach the topic with sensitivity, from a place of love, care and understanding. Do not push the person for answers, rather voice your concerns regarding specific behaviours or changes you noticed.

When I was in this abusive relationship only one person ever offered their help. Probably many people around me noticed the changes but only one person was brave enough and cared enough to call me up and ask for a meeting. She was actually my line manager, so when she called me on the phone to say she’d like to speak to me I assumed it was work related and that she was going to give me a verbal warning to improve my performance. I remember being really nervous going into that meeting.

The first thing she did was to explain why she had called the meeting. She told me that she was worried because she had seen some changes; that I didn’t seem to be myself and that she was worried. She described pretty much all the signs I have described for you in the article, one by one. I was almost in tears but, as much as I wanted to confide in her, the fear of what might happen when my partner found out was stronger, so I thanked her for her concern and gave some excuses for the changes that wouldn’t make my partner seem like the evil man that he was. I hated myself for doing this but at the same time, I was really happy that she had shown me so much love and concern. I knew that when the time was right I could count on her to help me. I knew that I wasn’t invisible and that the abuse was real and unacceptable, not an alternative form of love, as my partner would have me believe.

Yes, it’s true, I lied and refused her help at that point, but her acknowledgement gave me a new strength and that day became a pivotal point in my battle to rid myself of this evil. It gave me the confidence to start crafting a serious plan to end the relationship with the least possible harm done to me. It marked the beginning of the end of this abuse. And, it wasn’t a quick thing, it took many months and a change of job and country, but that was my only way out, and I took it.

So, when you express your concern for other people’s well-being, let the person open up about it if they want, and listen with empathy and non-judgement. But if they don’t open up, let them go away knowing that you are there for them. Knowing that you know them enough to notice that they have changed and that you care for them enough to offer your support can make a huge difference in how the person deals with their situation and pain. It lets the person know that they’re not alone, that they matter and that, when they’re ready, they can count on you for support.

Sadly, there may be times when the abuse is obvious and the person’s life may be on the line. You may not even know the person, but if you have evidence of abuse (for instance, you may have heard and recorded a neighbour being physically or emotionally abused by their husband on a regular basis, or perhaps you have repeatedly seen evidence of a child being physically abused by a parent or carer) I strongly suggest you do not get personally involved but that you call the police or the social services and let the professionals deal with it.

Are you empowered to go out there and offer your support to a loved one you think might be undergoing abuse? Perhaps you have already lent a helping hand and made a difference to someone’s life. Why not share your experience here? I’d love to know which change you noticed first and how you went about offering your support.

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