Domestic Violence Awareness Month: A specialist talks about how to recognize violence and get help
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Alaska has some of the country’s highest rates of domestic violence. Nearly 20% of women in the region are clients at SAFE Bristol Bay annually. That's according to the organization, which is the regional advocacy center and shelter for domestic violence and sexual assault victims.
Christina Love, a senior specialist with the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, shared some ways to recognize and address domestic violence.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Christina Love: “Quyana, Gunalchéesh. My name is Christina Love. My pronouns are she and her. My family’s originally from Egegik village. My grandparents are the Kellys. I was raised in Chitina. And today I live on the Áak'w T’aaḵu Kwáan of the Tlingit Nation, also known as Lingít Aaní, also known as Juneau, Alaska. I work at the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault as a senior specialist on intersectionality and trauma.
Izzy Ross: Thank you so much for joining me. I'd like to provide people with some basic points for recognizing domestic violence and helping people who are in those situations and also preventing it.
Love: It's important that we understand the root cause of violence and then also what prevents that, but first we'll start with identifying it.
Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive control and manipulative behavior. That can be physical, but doesn't have to be physical for every relationship. The main part of it is power and control. It's rooted in power and control. And there's lots of different ways that people can enact this: Through emotional abuse, through physical abuse, through psychological abuse, through economic, through other relationships, like children. Any part of your life and the intimate details of who you are can be used to harm you. So that's why it's deeply unique to each individual and can be really difficult to identify.
Abuse can take different forms
Love: Some of the most common types of abuse that we hear about are emotional escalating into physical. For emotional abuse, that looks like putting people down, that looks like embarrassing them in public. That also looks like needing to know where they are all the time and not having trust in them.
What I've noticed is that some of those behaviors can be perceived as, “this is how people care.” But it's important to understand that jealousy and controlling is not necessarily a sign that somebody deeply cares about you. When it's more escalated, then it absolutely can be really dangerous.
We see a lot more technology abuse; somebody needing to have access to your phone, to your email, to your social media accounts, having the password to everything, being able to control all of those things.
Domestic violence can progress
Love: The thing about domestic violence is that it doesn't happen right away. I never hear about a relationship [where] right from the beginning, they were incredibly violent. Usually, there are these phases that these relationships go through, and the one that is most recognizable is the honeymoon phase.
So when you meet somebody and you have feelings for them, there's all of these chemicals that fill our body that makes us feel really good. And even that can be weaponized. Another term for that is called “love bombing.” So love bombing is where you are giving somebody a lot of attention, a lot of affection, maybe you're showering them in gifts. But it is this overwhelming way of somebody connecting with another person.
These are the red flags that we really like to teach people about what a healthy relationship looks like. And then also some things that can feel really good, but that we should really watch out for.
For most people who are perpetrating abuse, these become their own patterns in relationships. And like all violence, it's a learned behavior. So the really beautiful thing about that is that we can unlearn these. We can heal. We can heal from the violence that we have experienced. We can also heal from violence that we have participated in, that we have perpetuated.
Signs of emotional violence
Love: Some of the things I think I would tell people as far as emotional violence goes, is just to be acutely aware of how you feel in people's presence, does your partner make you feel free? Do you feel good? Do you feel lifted up? Do you feel supported? And to not ignore those.
When we try and communicate our needs, what we also see in domestic violence is a lot of gaslighting: “No, that's not what happened. That isn't my experience of it.” Or, “You made me do this. I wouldn't do this if it wasn't because of this or this or this.” It's important that we understand that violence is never our fault.
As those things start to escalate, a really important part of my job is helping people understand that alcohol and drug use does not cause domestic violence, that those core beliefs about our partners — that entitlement, that privilege — that comes from something else. Alcohol and drugs make those situations a lot worse. A lot of people think that it causes it because they are so closely connected. So everybody not being able to access resources leads to using substances to end their own suffering. But in the case of domestic violence, when we see those two things happening at the same time, we see increased lethality and increased injuries. So that's the connection there.
It's really important that we shift our perspective about why and how people come to this place when we stop asking questions about why they can't leave and start asking questions about why people who are abusing other people are doing that? Why are they harming them? And placing the blame where it belongs, because the longer the time goes on, and the more abuse that happens, it always escalates.
So it's important that everyone is able to identify what healthy relationships are. And [it's important] that we ensure that people who are in unhealthy relationships and can't leave have access to safety — to safety planning and to other relationships that can save their life. When somebody tells us that these are the things that they're experiencing, that we believe them and that all of us know what resources we can access.
Ross: There are a lot of different resources out there. Locally in Dillingham we have SAFE. There's also the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault which has a lot of information. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is also available for folks to call. What can people expect when they access these resources? What does that process look like?
Love: Let's say that you yourself are somebody who is experiencing this type of harm. First of all, I want you to know that there's nothing that you could have ever done to deserve this. Nothing. That it is not your fault at all, and whatever your life looks like, there is life on the other side of this. So however low you feel, however hopeless, or helpless, or powerless you feel, your sense of identity, all those things, they do come back. They come back.
It can be really difficult to imagine what it would look like to be free, especially if you’ve tried to leave many times. Or I think what's really difficult for people to understand is when you deeply love someone and your life is so interconnected with them, and they harm you, it's not something that our brain can even fathom.
For myself and for a lot of survivors, it actually becomes compartmentalized that you have this life with them, and then there's also this harm. Our brain cannot bring them together. Like it's a really deeply confusing thing, especially if there's mental abuse, anybody who has a mental health issue, or anybody who has survived trauma. Being physically harmed, being emotionally harmed is a type of trauma. And that leads to all kinds of really confusing ways that our brain and our bodies keep us alive. One of those is disassociating or being in denial. So if you if you are encountering somebody and it's very clear to you that they're in a place that they're not safe but they're not acknowledging it, just know that that's the type of protection.
Where to get help
Love: If you are somebody who's experiencing this, I want you to know that there are really incredible people who will work with you. And if you want to know what that help looks like, I want to walk you through that.
So you're going to get on the phone with somebody through this hotline, through your local SAFE with an advocate. And they're going to listen and it's completely confidential.
An advocate is a person who by law has very similar confidentiality as attorney client privileges. If I'm your advocate and you call me, I can't be subpoenaed. I can't tell anybody about anything that we've talked about. And this is really important for our rural communities where everybody knows everybody; we need to know that we're going to be safe. We need to be able to build trust. Because our lives literally depend on it.
So let's say you call me. I'm going to walk you through who I am and what my role is for you. I'm going to ask you if you're safe in the moment. And I'm going to get an idea of your situation. I want to know really the chances of lethality, so I'm going to ask you a lot of different questions.
I'm using “he” because we see a lot more violence against women, and that's a whole other conversation. We also see a lot more violence against Alaska Native people, and that's a whole other conversation. For this purpose, I'm going to be using those pronouns.
I'm going to ask questions like, “Has he ever bit you? Has he ever strangled you?” I'm going to be asking if he's ever harmed animals. All of those things lead to higher lethality, lead to a higher chance of being murdered. So I'm going to ask you those kinds of questions and I'm gonna get an idea of how safe you are, what resources you have in your house, if he has access to your phone, if he has access to your email, if he has access to other relationships.
And [I'll also ask] what you want to do. What are you wanting to do? Are you wanting to leave? We know that for people who are in these relationships, it takes about an average of nine times unless you have a disability, and that includes substance use and mental health, for people to try and leave.
That means that we say we are going to leave, and then they convince us to come back or they bring us back and it isn't safe enough to leave. Or we're still holding hope that they could make changes, that they are going to get help in one way or another, or they promised to do things differently. And that is a cycle that we see.
I might walk you through that cycle, I might go over the power and control wheel where I list off all the different ways that harm can be caused in a relationship. So I'll name financial abuse in all the different ways: Does he have control of the bank account, of the credit cards?
Emotional abuse, you know, we talked about that early on: Does he put you down? Does he embarrass you? Does he tell you that you're fat, that you're stupid, that you can't do this or that, is there a lot of yelling? Is there a lot of manipulation?
I'll go over coercion, I'll talk about substance use, I need to know if substance use is a part of this, because it helps me understand. Also, maybe if you need Narcan; I want you to be safe in so many different ways, not just in this relationship. But also if that's something that you're struggling with, we're going to talk about that.
I want you to know that there's no judgment here at all. My job is to keep you alive. My job is that you feel empowered, that you have somebody that you can talk to that you trust that is not ever going to tell anything about your situation.
Creating a plan
Love: Then we'll get to creating a plan. So if there is violence and you can't leave, then we want to know if there's firearms in the house. I'll talk to you about how to protect your head and your face, so curling up into a ball in the corner so that your limbs are protecting your head and your face in the event that you can't leave, in the event that things escalate.
How to protect your children and then also what the laws are. So if you can't get out but there are children there, then you face the likelihood of protective services coming in and removing the children.
I have access to information and I want to make sure that you are well aware of everything, and that you know what your resources are. And together we’ll make a plan that fits you where you're at. And it's through those options and those resources that people really feel empowered. This is something that anybody can do at any time. So I'm trained, there's lots of other advocates locally and nationally that are trained in this. This is something that all loved ones can do, that we really practice listening to people and not being judgmental and knowing that the first person that people tell is so important. That people stay in these relationships because of shame, because of isolation. And that's how we break it. We break shame by being the kind of people that people can trust.
SAFE Bristol Bay
SAFE’s listening line: 1-907-478-2316
SAFE offers confidential help through its Dillingham and village advocates.
SAFE is Bristol Bay's shelter and advocacy agency for domestic violence and sexual assault victims. It's based in Dillingham and also serves surrounding communities. The primary mission of SAFE is to provide immediate safety for victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault, including safe shelter and emergency transportation.
StrongHearts Native Helpline
StrongHearts Native Helpline is a 24/7 safe, confidential and anonymous domestic and sexual violence helpline for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, offering culturally-appropriate support and advocacy.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-SAFE (7233) and 1-800-787-3224.
The hotline provides essential tools and support to help survivors of domestic violence so they can live their lives free of abuse. Contacts to The Hotline can expect highly-trained, expert advocates to offer free, confidential, and compassionate support, crisis intervention information, education, and referral services in over 200 languages.
National Indigenous Women's Resource Center
The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Inc. (NIWRC) is a Native-led nonprofit organization dedicated to ending violence against Native women and children. The NIWRC provides national leadership in ending gender-based violence in tribal communities by lifting up the collective voices of grassroots advocates and offering culturally grounded resources, technical assistance and training, and policy development to strengthen tribal sovereignty.
Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
To be a collective voice for victims and survivors and to support those agencies and communities working to prevent and eliminate domestic and sexual violence.
The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s website Iknowmine.org has resources for sexual health.
Get in touch with the author at email@example.com or 907-842-2200.