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This piece was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2023.
You’ve survived a waking nightmare by escaping an abusive partner. And now that you’ve begun your healing journey, you have a desire to help others who may be still living through a similar trauma.
Perhaps you want to raise awareness about the warning signs of domestic violence, or maybe you want to advocate for stricter laws or better programs to help survivors still struggling to escape abuse. Whatever your mission, your voice and story can be a powerful tool.
Below are six ideas for how survivors can share their voice, their experience and their journey to help others caught in the cycle.
First, Prepare for Possible Triggers
Rhiannon Whalen-Harris is the director of community programs and victim services at OneEighty, a crisis and trauma advocacy nonprofit out of Wooster, Ohio. When survivors of domestic violence decide to volunteer at OneEighty, they’re often surprised at what comes up, both good and bad.
“They often say, ‘This is really different than what I thought it was going to be.’ There are more things popping up for them than they thought.” And by “things,” Whalen-Harris is talking about triggers. Speaking with other survivors who are in the midst of abuse can sometimes bring survivors back to a mental and emotional place where they may feel like the abuse is happening to them all over again.
A trigger can be internal—meaning a thought, feeling, memory, emotion or bodily sensation—and external, like a situation, person, location, conversation or an observation that takes someone back to an abusive incident. A survivor can also be triggered by the anniversary of a significant date, a news report about domestic violence or seeing someone who reminds them of their attacker. Some triggers are more predictable while others can come as a surprise. As a result, a survivor can experience a range of emotions or physical reactions including panic, crying, irritability, fear, paranoia, nightmares or dissociation (a feeling of shutting down or withdrawing).
Even when a survivor feels like they’re in a good place emotionally, triggers can sneak up on them. This is normal and not a survivor’s fault. Still, as a means of protection, Whalen-Harris says their organization asks for a survivor to be a minimum of two-years out from seeking support for abuse before they volunteer with other survivors. After that, she says, they ask survivors to set appropriate boundaries.
“They can still be very involved in the work but need to make that separation from using their own story.”
This not only helps to protect the survivor, but also the victims being helped. Sometimes, hearing only stories of success can sometimes be difficult when a victim is still trapped with an abusive partner.
Six Ways to Speak Out
When a survivor is ready, there are many ways they can use their experience to help others.
- Volunteer to answer a help line. Almost every shelter has a 24/7 emergency help line survivors can reach out to for support, to plan an escape or to find shelter. Volunteers will likely need to take a domestic violence advocacy training that could range from a day to a week to complete. Then, volunteers pick a time slot to sit next to a phone at the shelter and answer it should a survivor call needing help. The callers can vary greatly in what kind of support they need, so as long as you’re patient, calm and good at talking to strangers, you’ll do great in this job. You can read about one volunteer’s experience here. Find a shelter near you here to inquire about volunteering.
- Give your time to a local shelter. Your unique set of skills combined with your experience as a survivor can make you a valuable asset to a shelter. Reach out to a nonprofit near you and ask how you might give back. Jobs may include outreach in the community, helping survivors get settled into shelter or meeting victims of sexual assault at the hospital to offer support after a forensic exam.
- Hold a donation drive. Shelters are typically always in dire need of items to both help them run a shelter (think cleaning supplies, food, bedding, furniture) as well as basic necessities to give to survivors who stay there (clothing, baby care items, self-care necessities, cell phones, gift cards). Think of what you most needed after escaping domestic violence and hold a drive for your local shelter. Or, involve your workplace to make it a team effort. Make sure to contact the shelter near you first to ensure they’re in need of what you’re collecting.
- Join a support group. You might think, “How does this help others?” A support group is a great place to share your personal experiences with other survivors who need to know they’re not alone. This is a way you can talk about your own journey to escape and healing whereas you may not be able to when volunteering.
- Explore public speaking. If it doesn’t scare you to be at a podium in front of a group of people, there may be opportunities for you to share your story in a public forum. Whether you plan to advocate in small group settings or large auditoriums, you’ll want to get comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. Consider joining a local Toastmasters club to learn public speaking skills.
- Write your own survivor story. Some survivors choose to go the book-writing route after they’ve escaped. There’s something healing about taking control of your narrative and releasing it into the world when you’re ready. First, start journaling. Jot down all of your thoughts, feelings and experiences that you can remember. You don’t need to write out your entire story. Just start writing whatever comes to mind. It will help you get in touch with your emotions and help you better see the framework for a possible memoir or novel. Read, “Write Your Book” for more information on starting down the publishing route.
One More Step to Take
Domestic violence is a complicated issue. Knowing your own story is the first step, but understanding how every abuser is different is the next. Having a well-rounded understanding of domestic violence tactics abusers can use will help you better understand what other survivors are going through.
Abusers can use all sorts of tricks and traps—from gaslighting to brainwashing, physical and nonphysical abuse, even using the legal system to retain power and control over a survivor after she leaves. In order to speak knowledgeably and in depth on the topic overall, signing up for a Domestic Violence 101 class with a local nonprofit agency can help you more adequately share pertinent information about this epidemic. Find a nonprofit near you at DomesticShelters.org.
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