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From Survivor to Thriver & The Breathing Space App

Leaving an abusive relationship is hard – really hard. However, people looking in from the outside who haven’t experienced abuse don’t always get this. They say: “surely if it is unbearable, why don’t you just leave? Who in their right mind would stay in an unhealthy relationship? You must be weak or stupid.”

Without doubt this adds to the shame felt by victims and shame is the biggest reason for abuse being kept behind closed doors.

Even when we decide to leave, there are numerous barriers to overcome. These barriers could be emotional, we may be experiencing fear or confusion, we may be manipulated by the abuser into thinking things will be worse if we leave. The barriers could also be practical, for many they are financial, particularly if children are involved. The barriers can also be physical if the abuser is violent and stops us from leaving the house and threatens stalking and/or harm if we do.  

Living with a threat that never goes away puts us in a permanent state of survival mode otherwise known as “fight or flight”. Stress hormones constantly pump through our body and affect our mental and physical health. We are constantly on high alert, negotiating different kinds of danger and risk. The consequence of this is not having any energy left to create a new life or a newly healed body. Without us being aware, our bodies become addicted to these stress hormones so our energy and attention constantly focus on this threat. Even after escaping the abuse and trying to re-build a new life, many survivors live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other significant effects of trauma.

Since the country has been in Covid-19 lockdown with households in isolation and pressures on family incomes, there has been a massive spike in the number of domestic abuse cases. We must always remember that many are not reported, so there will be more than the numbers publicly known. Before the lockdown, it was reported that 1 in 4 women experience some form of domestic abuse in their life and 2 women in the UK are killed by their partner or former partner every week. Following significant media coverage of the statistics earlier this week, the number of calls to helplines shot up again by 120% which sadly means these statistics will have got worse. There is now pressure on the government to come up with an emergency package for organisations providing domestic abuse support services. The silver lining is that there is now more media attention and public awareness about domestic abuse as an important issue, but at what cost?

There are some incredible organisations out there including AVA who work tirelessly to campaign for an end to violence against women and children and support victims and survivors of abuse, as well as providing education in this area. As a Learning and Development professional and an active champion of organisations which support domestic abuse survivors I strongly believe that education plays a key part in addressing the issue long term and helping future generations learn about healthy relationships. Although there are exceptions, typically most relationships don’t start by being abusive! 

Last week, I was very excited to be involved in the testing of AVA’s new app Breathing Space which provides survivors of abuse with incredibly useful resources for both practical and emotional help – from understanding where you stand legally when leaving a relationship to positive coping strategies and self-care tips. There are also stories shared by other survivors to relate to so you know you are not alone, as well as updates on the latest research on trauma and neuroscience. Currently this app is in its early development stage and financed by crowdfunding. For more information about Breathing Space and to make a contribution towards development click here.

For me, it is exactly a year this month since I made the decision to leave my narcissistic, emotional abuser. I couldn’t have done it without the support from my family and friends. I would have found AVA’s “Breathing Space” app invaluable during this time and I’m looking forward to helping AVA test the next stage of its development prior to its release in the next few months. It will help to make a difference for other survivors.

Personally, I am now living the life I want and in lots of ways happier than I have ever been – I now even consider myself a Thriver rather than a Survivor! I still occasionally have flashbacks and replay some of the abuse I experienced over 13 years accompanied by the same confusing emotions I felt at the time and the consequent surge of stress hormones. My nervous system is also definitely getting better and I’m not so jumpy anymore. Meditation and yoga help enormously. Most importantly, I now have the space to put me and my health first and realise that healing happens one day at a time with support from my friends, family and organisations like AVA.

– Kristina Sparrow, Expert by Experience & User Tester for Breathing Space

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