It’s not uncommon for some survivors of domestic abuse to use alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription medications like painkillers and sedatives. In one of the more dramatic findings, a study observed that 42 percent of domestic violence survivors were using drugs or alcohol at the time they were assaulted.
Sometimes, substances are being forced upon a survivor by an abuser as a mechanism of control or a tool to create guilt, shame, powerlessness, depression, and sexual or relationship dysfunction. More commonly, says Susan Bernstein, licensed social worker and MA-based therapist who specializes in trauma, “[some] survivors use drugs or alcohol to dull or numb or block any sort of emotional upheaval that the abuse causes. It becomes their coping mechanism.”
She adds, “Unfortunately, using drugs or alcohol can impair your ability to clearly assess what is going on in your relationship. When you stop drinking or using drugs, you may recognize that you are covered in bruises or experiencing psychological abuse.”
Indeed, substance abuse can increase a survivor’s risk in a number of ways, such as:
- Preventing a survivor from accurately assessing the level of danger posed by the abuser. Or, a survivor may feel a sense of increased power and erroneously believe in their ability to defend themselves against physical assaults, or their power to change the batterer.
- Impairing judgment and thought processes so that a survivor may have difficulty safety planning adequately, or it may become more difficult to leave an abusive partner.
- Increasing reluctance to contact police in violent situations for fear of their own arrest or referral to the Department of Children and Family Services.
- Making healing that much more difficult as a survivor works to resolve two issues - domestic violence and substance abuse - that can require a multi-disciplinary approach to recovery, and sometimes different service providers. According to DomesticShelters.org data, 31% of domestic violence programs offer substance abuse counseling.
Abused and Substance Abusing, Now What?
So your partner is abusing you. You’re doing your best to manage and substance abuse happens to be part of your life. Quitting can be especially hard, or may not even be a realistic option. Sobriety may threaten your relationship: you may feel more anxious because you don’t know where to go, how to get help or where to get money. Or you may just find that the substances reduce threats or your anxiety.
“The hardest thing is to help these survivors release themselves of the shame,” Bernstein says. Many survivors feel shame from the domestic violence, and using drugs or alcohol can add a layer of shame. “They don’t want to be seen as addicts,” Bernstein says.
Importantly, she points out that domestic violence survivors are never to blame for their alcohol or drug use. But understanding how drugs and alcohol affect your relationship can be key to staying safe.
“People will say, ‘Oh, I did this to myself.’ I tell them, ‘No, you didn’t. But now that you have insight, you can keep your outlook clearer, keep yourself safer and keep danger lower by unveiling what’s happening,” Bernstein says.
For example, with the insight that can come with sobriety, domestic violence survivors who once used alcohol or drugs may be able to more clearly understand the level of abuse they are facing. They may be better able to develop and follow a plan for keeping themselves safe. They can gain the confidence to call the police without fear that they might be arrested or referred to child protection agencies.
Where Can You Get Help?
Shelters. “When dealing with domestic violence, social workers or advocates in most agencies will first let the person start talking, without judgment and in a safe space,” Bernstein says. Once you realize you’re safe and not being judged, you can start to address the substance abuse.
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Support groups. Bernstein points out that many women find support in Alcoholics Anonymous, since women who are struggling with sobriety are also often coming from violent or traumatic relationships.
Therapy. For some people therapy is the key, since it provides a safe, confidential place to talk. You can call your insurance company and ask for a referral to someone who specializes in substance abuse counseling. The National Association of Social Workers also offers a list of resources.
Self-defense courses. Some self-defense courses are aimed specifically at domestic violence survivors, empowering you both physically and mentally.
Whatever route you take, it’s important to get help. “You feel the pain and you feel the withdrawal from drugs and alcohol more if you don’t have that support,” Bernstein says.
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