When home isn’t a safe place

Content warning: domestic violence

Home is a place where we should feel safe; a place we can retreat with our loved ones, away from anything that could harm us.

When Amy* heard new COVID-19 restrictions were forthcoming, her heart sank. Home wasn’t a safe haven for her. More time at home meant more time alone with him – her boyfriend who physically and verbally abused her. Since the lockdown, her situation went from bad to much, much worse.

“It all started with him hiding my anxiety medication,” she said.

Amy, now in her mid-40s, was diagnosed in her 20s with depression and anxiety, though she also had symptoms in high school.

“I was bullied in school, and my doctor thinks that could be what caused it,” she said. “That, and never having anyone to talk to about how I was feeling.”

Amy’s parents didn’t recognize her mental health issues and told her to “just suck it up.”

“They would just criticize me and make it worse, and I didn’t tell my friends because I didn’t want them to make fun of me,” she shared.

Today, even with her prescribed medication, Amy struggles with her mental health. Because of her anxiety, she is not currently working. Her boyfriend is also not employed, so they are usually home together all day and night.

“Once in a while, he’ll go out, and it’s so nice to be home without him. I feel so relaxed,” she said. “A good day – and there are very few of those – is nobody yelling at me.”

Amy remembers good days, too, before the pandemic, when she regularly attended NorWest Co-op Community Health Centre’s knitting classes, one of the many programs offered by the United Way Winnipeg donor-supported agency partner.** It was a chance for her to leave the house and connect with a small group of women dealing with similar challenges.

“I loved going there,” she said. “They were so much fun, and when one of us was upset, we would all talk, and we’d make each other feel better.”

Amy also enjoyed volunteering and participating in the agency’s art therapy and cooking classes.

“The Make and Take program was my favourite,” she said.

In this program, participants are taught how to measure ingredients, prepare healthy meals on a budget, and then take the meals they made home to their families.

Sexual assault and domestic violence workers reported domestic violence during the spring lockdown was more frequent and more severe. Calls to helplines doubled.

But after a while, her boyfriend put a stop to her socializing at NorWest.

“I’d be in trouble for talking to people. He said he didn’t like the girls in my group, so now I have to stay here (at home) and suffer,” she said. “He won’t let me go anywhere by myself.”

Staff noticed they saw Amy less and less. When the pandemic hit, they contacted Amy to see how she was doing.

Amy was one of the many Winnipeggers in need of emergency food, so the agency dropped off food and hygiene hampers and checked in regularly by phone.

During this time, the violence in Amy’s home escalated.

“One time, he hit me in the head with a baseball bat and pushed me up against the door,” she said.

Amy started self-harming by cutting. She was plagued by suicidal thoughts.

A staff member connected Amy with support workers at A Woman’s Place, one of the Co-op’s resource centres, where women children impacted by family violence can go for counselling and support, safety planning, protection orders, legal consults, and representation.

“Everyone has been such a huge help,” Amy said. “It’s really nice that NorWest has volunteer opportunities, too, for the community to be a part of, and programs and other ways to get work experience for when you back to work.”

Amy said she couldn’t imagine her life without this support.

“Without NorWest, I don’t know what would have happened to me,” she said. “I’d probably be losing my mind and still self-harming. All the support I get from them makes me feel so much better. I’m so grateful.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with family violence, call 211 Manitoba or go to mb.211.ca

*The participant’s name and image have been changed for this story.

** NorWest Co-op Community Health is Manitoba’s only healthcare co-operative offering various community-based programs and services throughout their locations and resource centres.

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