By Robin Mullins Senger
The email I opened one beautiful spring day from someone I had not talked to in years read:
“Robin, how are you? I had a dream last night that you needed help… I wanted to inquire before I decide this is just too stupid… John.”
My response was a happy, everything is great, good to hear from you brush off.
Have you ever had a gut feeling something wasn’t right with someone? Maybe you couldn’t articulate it, but you just knew something was off?
Did you say something to that person, or did you rationalize it with “It’s none of my business” or “I’m probably reading too much into things.”
As a former domestic abuse victim, I would like to show you three powerful ways a simple inquiry like John’s may affect a victim of abuse.
The first way John’s inquiry affected me was with confirmation of my own instincts. What neither of us knew yet, was that my daughters and I were indeed in trouble.
At the time, I was a content full-time mom and felt happily married. However, underneath the veneer of a doting father and husband was a man who professionals would later identify as having a dangerous psychopathic personality.
My husband’s true nature was slowly and subtly emerging, resulting in my instincts trying to warn me.
John’s question caused me to pay more attention to red flags and rationalize them away less.
The second way John’s inquiry affected me was with comfort. I suddenly realized that I had gradually become isolated from family, friends and society at large.
Isolation is a hallmark of victimization. Knowing that someone out there suspected I was in trouble, and cared enough to ask about it, brought great comfort and emboldened me to further examine my life.
Over a year later, my children and I would miraculously survive being stranded in a foreign country because of my husband’s foolish impulsiveness. The crisis was a gift to wake me up to the reality before it was too late.
The third way John’s inquiry affected me was through a pre-established connection.
When I became desperate and ready for help, I knew he was there for me just because he dared to ask me one day, “Do you need help?”
Who else could I talk to? A pastor? No – I didn’t trust the church. Women’s shelter? No – my movements were monitored. Police? No – again, my movements were monitored. Besides, maybe I was overreacting and then I would be in a lot of trouble. Family? No – I was too ashamed.
My initial conversation over a year later with John started out superficial to test his commitment. What I found was someone who was non-judgmental, compassionate and an excellent listener.
John also wasn’t an expert on abuse, but I didn’t need an expert. I needed someone to validate me and encourage me to take steps to get proper help. I needed someone to bounce ideas off and just listen as I processed a dramatic turn of events.
With his encouragement, I cautiously opened up to more people until I was surrounded by an invaluable group who provided support and wise counsel as I made decisions that moved my children and I into a better life.
Each victim’s story is unique and unfolds differently.
Due to overwhelming fear, isolation and shame, victims rarely just come out and offer information. Help often has to be offered up first.
A good way to phrase a question is “I noticed ‘a and b’ and I’m concerned about you. Is there something I can do to help?”
“It seems like you are stressed out and unhappy. If you want to talk about it now or another time, I’ll keep it confidential.”
A victim may not open up when first approached, but they do remember you offered. Open the door, let them know you are receptive and be prepared that you may have to wait quite a while, as in my case. At the same time, be prepared to respond supportively if they do immediately start sharing.
Very little is lost if your offer to help is refused, but many victims only need one person to reach out and offer support, to begin moving toward making a positive change in their lives.