Q: I escaped a marriage some time ago to a partner who was abusive toward me for years. I wasn’t allowed to make any decisions on my own, go anywhere without their permission or see my friends and family. I’m so thankful I got out safely and now live on my own. Except, now we’re in this quarantine and I’m surprised at how tough it is. It’s bringing up some of the feelings of my past—of being controlled, confined, isolated. I know I shouldn’t complain because I’m not sick and I’m safe, but ... it’s just really, really hard. Is this normal? – Anonymous
Yes, what you’re feeling is completely valid, normal and warranted, and I’m quite certain you’re not the only survivor to feel this way. The COVID-19 pandemic and the quarantine that’s come about as a result of the virus is a brand-new reality, and a scary one at that. All feelings right now are pretty much acceptable.
I see a lot of people expressing thoughts of guilt and shame over feeling fear and stress right now, even though they’re still healthy. It’s OK to not be sick and still think this is difficult. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel empathy toward those who have it tougher. We’re all dealing with some form of stress right now.
So, on that note, give yourself permission, Anon, to feel all the feelings. Quiet the inner critic that says you should be feeling some other thing right now. You can be both grateful you’re not sick and scared for the possibility of that changing, both relieved you got out of abuse and sad for those who haven’t. It’s OK to feel more than one thing at a time.
Regarding the quarantine, this can indeed be a triggering event for survivors who have once felt what it was like to be isolated without choice, or reason, by an abuser.
“A trigger is some form of stimuli that would precipitate a recollection from a person’s past that impacted one of their senses,” Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D., clinical and forensic psychologist, traumatic stress consultant and author of It’s OK Not To Be OK … Right Now: How to Live Through a Traumatic Experience told DomesticShelters.org back in 2016. Being told you’re not allowed to leave your house or go to work, even though it’s for a valid reason currently, may drudge up a memory of an abuser telling you the same thing. As a result, your body may react with similar feelings of fear, anger or panic.
“Not being able to connect with family and friends, not going to work and not being able to keep a routine one has some level of control over can feel very similar to living with an abuser,” says Rita Smith, international expert in violence against women and vice president of external relations with DomesticShelters.org.
“The good news is that if the abuser is no longer present, resources and support systems are operating and can help one manage the feelings that are resurfacing at this point.”
Ida Petkus is the executive director of the Domestic Violence Advocacy Center in Celebration, Florida. She says it’s important for survivors who have escaped abuse to remember they control this quarantine.
“Maintain your structure within this new space. Create a simple, everyday routine. Don't put pressure on yourself to accomplish great tasks such as online learning, cleaning out closets, etc., while under quarantine.” Instead, she advises finding healing outlets that can help you handle the isolation, such as grounding techniques, redirecting your thoughts onto positive things and practicing self-compassion.
“If you are in therapy, stay there; if you are not, get there.” She recommends online therapy, if affordable, until you’re able to leave your house. Check with your insurance provider—some do cover mental health services. (For more information on free or low-cost therapy options, see this Ask Amanda piece.)
Also keep in mind, even though you’re no longer with an abuser, Anon, you can still reach out to a trained domestic violence advocate near you who understands what you’re going through and can listen without judgment. They may be able to offer you some words of support or give you helpful advice to assist you in dealing with trigger.
You may also want to take a look at this online COVID-19 Resource and Information Guide from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It talks about handling anxieties that may arise during this time.
You can also try out the premium services on the Sanvello self-care app (think: guided meditations and other mental health resources)—the company is offering this for free during the pandemic.
For more self-care practices you can implement at home, read “5 At-Home Healing Techniques.”
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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