The call came at about 2:30 a.m. I put on my robe and pulled out my notebook before answering, knowing that I would need to take down the number of someone in crisis — in what may be the worst day of their life. I answered the call from the answering service, got the pertinent information and then asked the question I’ve asked a couple hundred times over the years, “Is that a safe number?”
About 10 years ago, when a close family friend found herself married to an abusive man and she asked me what she should do, I had no idea how to answer her or how to help her. I decided that day that if the situation were to happen again, I would know what to do.
The next day I contacted The Family Violence Project, based in my home state of Maine, and learned about the training necessary to work their volunteer helpline. I took the course, which was rigorous but not hard, and have been volunteering with FVP ever since.
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On Call for a National Crisis
I am on call three or four nights a month. Some nights there are no calls at all, others it can seem non-stop. In Maine alone, there were 34,053 calls to domestic violence helplines in 2018, according to the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. Forty percent of all assaults in Maine in 2017 were attributable to domestic violence cases, according to Maine's Department of Public Safety.
Nationally, domestic violence is a major concern. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 24% of women have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner and 9% have been raped by an intimate partner.
I was nervous when I took my first call. I wanted to make sure I handled it well and was a supportive voice at a difficult time. I was also worried about how a woman calling the helpline would feel about talking with a man. In the years since, I have been surprised to find that only one woman ever said she would prefer to not speak with a man, which is completely fine, and I had my staff back-up make the call.
In fact, many of the callers found it validating to speak with a man to confirm what they already know: Real men don’t abuse their partners. Real men don’t threaten, hit or coerce their partners by weaponizing children, money or possessions to terrorize or manipulate the people they say they love. Domestic violence is not just physical abuse but can consist of many actions that have a singular purpose of controlling another person’s behavior.
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Some of the most insidious forms of domestic violence are subtly targeted for an audience of one. The man who kept two bullets in his pocket and when he became upset would rattle them, so they clicked together in a sound that was unnoticed by most but was an unmistakable message to his victim. A true sniper’s bullet.
Another man would begin to clean his guns when he became frustrated, sending a clear message that he’d heard enough. These are the sounds and actions of domestic terrorism and they go unnoticed and unreported every day.
Individual Cases Need Individual Solutions
When I answer the call, I am constantly humbled by the strength, character and courage of the women with whom I speak, many of whom have been dealing with unspeakable acts of cruelty while a boy in men’s clothing uses every means possible to blame others for his inability to act like a grown man, when the real root of the problem looks at him in the mirror.
Yet, one of the most difficult things to talk through is that often the people around them — family and friends — blame the victim for the actions of an abuser, even accidentally.
“Well, if it was me…” is actually a form of “friendly fire” inflicted by the people who they are turning to for help. Those trying to help can inadvertently make the victim feel worse by cavalierly giving advice that doesn’t take into account how complicated life can be. Maybe there are children involved or the victim lives in a rural area and doesn't have a job or a car of her own. Abusers often isolate their victim and cut off access to the car in order to maintain control.
Before you make those comments, ask yourself one question: Where would you go if you didn’t have a place to live or work, and had to start all over again? Talk is cheap. Rent is not. Suddenly picking up everything and just moving isn't that easy.
In the case of the friend who confided in me 10 years ago, she decided to stay with her husband. I often think of her when I answer the helpline. Yet, there absolutely can be a path forward. By developing a “safety plan” that is specific to individual victims and their unique resources and circumstances, the victims of domestic violence can have a better tomorrow. I know it happens because I see the results all around me.
A solution and path to safety begins by picking up the phone. But there needs to be someone to answer the call and men need to be part of that. Only the abusers are responsible for the abuse, but we all have a responsibility to help pick up the pieces.
Gotta run. The phone is ringing.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of #YourVoice, an ongoing column published on this website by individual contributors in their own personal capacity and that involves the opinions, recollections and/or information provided by such contributors, and which does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this website.
This article first appeared on USA TODAY.
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