I am based in the North of England and this has been written from the perspective of having worked in UK based academia and social work. Terminology reflects this context.
I used to be an academic.
When I look back at my Facebook memories I have comments that show that I once enjoyed my job. I liked teaching. I liked conducting interviews and focus groups. And then I didn’t like it. I found myself unable to write, despite having always loved words.
It’s over a year since I’ve held an academic post. Time to sit back and reflect.
I was a social work academic and somehow had ended up with a job which specialised in adult social care and domestic abuse research. There is a story to tell about how I ended up in that specialism, which I might share at some point. But what became apparent is that I could no longer stick with it. I couldn’t write about abuse any more. I didn’t want to add publications to my CV. I didn’t want to sort through data and come up with arguments, findings, new terminology, and bulleted lists of recommendations that remain unactioned. There seemed no point to an endless discussion of what we all know and yet somehow need to keep evidencing. I was bored of making clever observations for them to be squirreled away in an inaccessible journal.
Burn out – a nice simple term for what I was experiencing.
But let’s think about that term “burn out”. What was burning and how does it get extinguished?
I recently held a workshop with practitioners of domestic abuse. It was an attempt to bring creativity back into their roles, which can often seem procedural and manualised. I wanted them to know that they are creative. That every time they talk with a victim-survivor of abuse, they are initiating a potential new beginning for someone who has been victimised. Every time they listen to someone tell their story they are offering a new way of it being heard and re-told.
Using story I wanted them to explore their own practice. I hoped that through that workshop that they got to talk about their practice with their colleagues in a different way - in a way that centred their own creativity and emotional well-being. All participants wrote a short story about their own practice prompted by a cue. The list of cues was generated by the group when asked to think about words associated with abuse. For those of us, who have supported families torn apart by a violent perpetrator, there is little surprise that the word ‘fear’ featured in that list. Nor that it was the most written about cue. Because the work is frightening. Practitioners work with frightened and frightening people. Practitioners were holding on to fear. They talked about fear of doing the wrong thing, of having to make the difficult knock on a door, of frightened children. Fear frazzles, singes and burns.
I was also holding onto a fear. A fear that I had valuable insight that would go nowhere. That I was listening to, attending to and reading people’s stories of abuse and I could make not a jot of difference.
But it wasn’t fear that was burning me up. It was anger. Red-hot, fiery, tumultuous, crazy anger. Anger is often inarticulate. Hence, I could no longer write.
One of the last pieces of academic work I was involved with was a project looking at Domestic Homicide Reviews. Domestic Homicide Reviews are the official story of a life robbed by the violence of someone the victim knew and often loved. The reviews gather information from a range of services, families and friends about the last few months of a person’s life. They should be testament that every life lost mattered. The quality of the writing, evidence gathered and analysis varies greatly. I spent days reading the reviews. Life after life.
Despite many reviews (especially earlier documents) stating that the deaths could not have been predicted or preventable, there were obvious learning points in nearly all cases. Some stories lingered longer than others, especially those with protracted cruelty, where cries for help had been down-played or ignored. The details mattered. The woman whose voice had been altered by numerous attempted stranglings. The mother-in-law who could not explain to her carers why she feared her son-in-law. The mother whose friends had to use a special knock so that she didn’t open the door to her son. The older woman who didn’t want to return home to her husband’s care after a stroke. The children who found their mother. And oh, the child who was in the car whilst his father was trying to find somewhere to dump his mother’s body.
Life after life.
All written about in numbered paragraphs with a bulleted list of recommendations.
As a young child my temper was often commented on. I admit it. I could be short-tempered. Injustice would produce a flash of fury. For those who like cliché’s I am a red-headed, middle child. Of course, I got angry. Whilst I would rather that the world didn’t make me angry, I also want to write in defence of anger. As Audre Lorde writes, “anger is loaded with information and energy”. It tells me when something isn’t right. For reassurance, I have learned to control my anger and am not impulsive or explosive. Just as I can be quick to annoyance, I am also quick to forgive, to listen and to calm down. My anger almost always starts with a perceived injustice and I work hard trying to fathom the source of my anger and to address that root cause. I can use anger as a source of fuel in my writing and teaching, because it can be an appropriate response to inappropriate, unfair actions and attitudes. Anger is integral to the way my emotional geography winds its way towards compassion.
But anger is also exhausting. Reading Domestic Homicides Reviews is exhausting. Knowing that there are easy wins for the (mainly, but not exclusively) women who are subjected to abuse to avoid fatalities is exhausting. Knowing that in between every gap in a bulleted list is a lack of resources is exhausting. Knowing that if resources were not so keenly hoarded by those in power, leaving those on the ground powerless to get a family to safety, is exhausting. Knowing that skills and desire to help is not enough, is exhausting. Knowing that risk is not properly understood, is exhausting. Knowing that women who ask for help, are ignored, is exhausting.
I didn’t want to suggest recommendations for practice, when it was becoming more and more evident that practice was happening in a overly-complicated, piece-meal, under-resourced way. Throwing money at a problem is rarely the solution. But not throwing any money towards services is definitely not working either. Starving practitioners of time and resources whilst making victim-survivors poorer with no access to housing isn’t working either.
What happened to me when reading Domestic Homicide Reviews is that my anger fizzled out and with that my energy went too.
My bulleted list:
• Good and readily available social housing
• A benefit system that is fit for purpose and affords dignity to all whether in work or not
• An end to No Recourse to Public Funds
• Family courts that understand domestic abuse
• Being able to offer the service that victim-survivors need when they need it and for as long as they need it
• Specialist, targeted services that acknowledge the experiences of minoritized identities
• Perpetrator programmes
• Staff who are properly supported, paid and trained (including therapeutic supervision)
Last night I watched the news. MPs had just voted for a system of social care support that is going to make it more expensive for poorer people. I felt anger flare. It has taken a while for me to be able to deal with anger rising again. And much though I would prefer not to have to feel that anger, I felt like me again. But to really return to me, what I would like to feel flare inside of me is hope and joy.
There is a golden rule in domestic care support. Because the violence is so endemic, someone you know and love will likely have experienced abuse. Therefore, always treat a victim-survivor as you would want your best friend to be treated.
Good domestic abuse support feels like a warm hug.
I want to add another golden rule. If you really care about the victims of domestic abuse, they cannot be fully supported and will struggle to reach their full potential in a world that willfully ignores the barriers to leaving. Barriers can be financial. Barriers can be about access to work, to training, to education, to services, to public transport, to health care, to justice. Barriers can be about a lack of understanding about risk. Barriers are about inequality.
If you really want to end domestic abuse, we need a fairer society, where there is help when needed.
Golden rule. If you really want to end domestic abuse – don’t vote Tory.
About the Creator
Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.
Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.