The prisons we create for ourselves

I think there's still some way to go until all the relevant authorities and agencies understand the psychology of men who fall victim to abuse - how stubborn and proud some can be, and how reluctant therefore, they can be reaching out to or responding to social services.

The worst of times

A few weeks ago, I had cause to read a piece of investigative journalism from the New York Times. The focus of the article was the spike in domestic abuse in the United Kingdom and the constraints on public authorities and charities to deal with the increase in cases of suspected abuse.

It was alarming to read that an estimated 26 women and girls in the UK had been killed in lockdown. It’s thought that at least eight men died at the hands of abusers in the period from late March until early July.

The estimates probably underestimate the numbers who have died as a result of domestic abuse. The records don’t capture the numbers of transgender people who fell victim to abuse during this period. What those in the sector agree is that domestic abuse often got worse as households isolated. Simply put, lockdowns make vulnerable people more vulnerable.

The question now is how to avoid such terrible outcomes from repeating themselves this coming autumn, when local and possibly even national, lockdowns become a firmer possibility.

There’s a National Domestic Abuse Oversight committee, commendably set up by Theresa May in one of her more meaningful acts as Prime Minister. Let’s hope it’s strategising right now and learning lessons from abroad about the most effective approaches.

The UK charity, Refuge, explained that in June this year, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw a 77% increase in demand. Local authorities are under immense pressure, and charities face the twin demands of rising caseloads and a dramatic drop in income.

The complexity

I’ve had cause to involve social services and the police in an abuse case. While the agencies I engaged with were friendly enough, I was disappointed that the main official I dealt with seemed to lack experience. He didn’t seem to understand one fundamental, a feature I would imagine of most abuse cases – that individuals who are being abused, particularly older individuals, often deny abuse is taking place. When abuse victims deny there’s a problem, that doesn’t mean concerned family members are ‘barking up the wrong tree’ when they report their concerns.

These are complex and sensitive matters.

However, I felt like I was the one being questioned when I spoke to the council: whether I had the right motivations and whether I was spuriously reporting abuse. I can’t say much more than this – but this was all being done on behalf of a close loved one.

I also think there’s still some way to go until all the relevant authorities and agencies understand the psychology of men who fall victim to abuse – how stubborn and proud they can be, and how reluctant therefore, they can be reaching out to or responding to social services.

The complexity of abuse cases moreover concerns not what outside agencies think about the abuse but what the person being abused thinks about the situation. There’s the question of their own sense of agency in being able to do anything about the abuse and the excuses they might make about the situation they find themselves in. Forget Stockholm Syndrome, which is a lazy and simplistic caricature of what happens to some people experiencing abuse.

Worse, people who experience abuse can see their confidence can dip so low, they simply have no sense of their own decency or worth. Sadly, the accusations thrown at them tend to stick – people can easily fall into a routine of both hating and yet somehow agreeing with the insults and sly jokes: that they’re ‘useless’ and so forth.

Getting real

The other night I watched Almodóvar’s 1989 film, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, which was a piss poor take on abuse, even if it was meant to be a parody. It was about as valid a social commentary on abuse as Woody Allen’s Manhattan is a responsible guide to sexual relationships. Not very useful.

We need to get real about abuse; avoid simplifying and stereotyping who does what to whom; and be real that ill-mental health and untreated mental health conditions can drive abuse. In a sense, there are many victims, although of course, justice must prevail when abuse occurs – about that, there can be no doubt. Whatever the psychology of people who mete out abuse, and whatever social policy responses still need to be developed to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place, when it happens, it must be dealt with appropriately.

Covid-19 isn’t exactly a help – it creates conditions where abuse accelerates and intensifies. New stresses and strains (inexcusably) drive abuse.

I’ve heard it said that we’re dealing with such unprecedented and uncomfortable life circumstances, that it means where abuse occurs, it’s becoming more extreme in response to the extreme period we find ourselves trying to comprehend. Again – I’m not making excuses for abuse, far from it. I’m just being real about the context in which it occurs and gets worse. We know Coronavirus has devastating social, as well as health, consequences.

There’s much that needs to be done. But social services responding to concerned family members with scepticism isn’t exactly a great start.

The prisons we create for ourselves

While I’m on this topic, I wonder how many of us have compromised this past few months, perhaps putting up with uncomfortable new routines, just because of Coronavirus.

I wonder how many of us have become habituated to peculiar and unwelcome shifts in behaviour – shifts in outlook, perhaps, in those we live with, those we love, those we work with and those we used to think we could depend on.

I’m not now referring to abuse.

But rather, changes in attitude and behaviour that are discomforting in some way and which we can’t yet make head or tail of – which we’d rather came to an end.

Perhaps pre-existing problems have intensified, but it’s hard to step back and reflect on the degree to which loved ones’ or friends or relatives’ behaviour has changed – whether we’re the ones with a problem, and in fact, everyone else is acting ‘just fine’.

We might be reluctant to act, or to confront situations for fear we’ll make delicate situations much worse.

We’re all struggling, right? So why call out bad behaviour? Everything will improve when Covid-19 disappears.

Well, that’s questionable. Not just whether Covid-19 will ‘disappear’, but whether things getting problematic now will magically improve at some unknown point in the future.

Perhaps we’re worried about relatives. Perhaps they’re experiencing symptoms of memory loss, or anxiety, or agoraphobia. Perhaps we’re even worried about ourselves.

We can create prisons for ourselves, where we become observers on everything happening in our lives, but we retreat and fail to act.

Perhaps, though, we need to do just the opposite. Reach out, confront problematic situations, call professionals, seek help.

Things don’t magically get better. Things often get worse, when we let problems fester.

And I’m not saying these problems get so bad that abuse inevitably emerges as a consequence – no.

But I am saying we trick ourselves into think something will improve without taking the action to make it improve. We pretend to ourselves everything is fine, that since everyone has it hard, we mustn’t rock any boats.

I’m not so sure. Dealing with the fallout from the pandemic is hard enough – fewer freedoms, feeling hyper-vigilant, a loss of income and jobs and constant worries about risks to our physical health.

I guess what I’m saying is that if we can take care of our own mental health and avoid falling further into situations we don’t want to be trapped in, now is the time to act – before any future lockdowns.




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