The coronavirus lockdown is hard on everyone, but Hannah, a 31-year-old administrator who is living at home in the U.K. during the pandemic, has it worse than most. She’s cooped up with her mother, who she describes as abusive. “She is controlling, mainly, down to how I sit, how and when I eat and what room I’m allowed to be in,” she explains. “She also screams at me at all hours of the night, locks food away and takes more rent than I can afford.” Hannah’s mother bolts the front door so that she has to ask permission to leave, and keeps the bath plug and showerhead so that Hannah has to ask each time she wants to wash. Often, her mother arbitrarily declines. To add insult to injury, she’ll then tell Hannah she stinks.
Sadly, Hannah isn’t alone. All across the world, domestic violence organizations are warning that incidents of abuse are likely to rise during the coronavirus pandemic. According to Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and loveisrespect, those organizations are seeing “an increase in the number of survivors reaching out who are concerned with COVID-19 and how their abusive partner is leveraging it to further isolate, coerce or increase fear in the relationship.”
It’s easy to see why these risks are heightened now. With more than a quarter of the world’s population living under some form of lockdown, people are in close, continuous proximity to abusive partners and family members in high-stress situations. “Because we expect that people are spending more time at home, possibly not leaving the home for work each day, we know survivors are spending more time in closer proximity to their abusers,” Ray-Jones explains. “This is stressful for everyone, but especially for survivors.” She says that while she doesn’t necessarily expect to see healthy relationships becoming abusive, “our experience informs us that in homes where abuse is already occurring, and there is a negative financial impact or added stress, we typically see a higher frequency of incidents of abuse and increased severity of abuse.”
To deal with her unbearable mother, Hannah has developed some coping mechanisms. “I’m trying to use the grey rock method, which means I try not to react to her emotionally and keep all my responses simple,” she says. “White noise on Spotify through my headphones is helpful, too, and I also chat to friends via apps throughout the day.” She adds that she’s doing a lot of comfort eating, but that it’s “not a healthy coping mechanism.”
Domestic violence organizations can definitely help, but the problem is, some of their available resources may be stretched or unavailable during this time. “We’re hearing that many shelters in the areas with the largest number of COVID-19 cases aren’t taking new clients at this time,” Ray-Jones says. “We encourage survivors to reach out to The Hotline (1-800-799-7233), chat online through our website (www.thehotline.org) or text ‘loveis’ to 22522. The Hotline can help support victims and survivors and strategize ways they can stay safe in their unique situation, and we can determine which resources are available now.”
Ray-Jones acknowledges that it might be difficult for survivors to reach out while they’re in close quarters with their abusers. She says she’s “especially concerned that survivors will be unable to reach out for help due to their abusive partner monitoring the behaviors while they’re in isolation.” (It’s common for abusers to surveil the behavior of their victims, including by monitoring their cellphones.)
But for survivors who are able to reach out, now or at a later time, organizations can help them to develop what they call a “safety plan” — a strategy for increasing a survivor’s safety, and the safety of any affected children, in the event that future violence occurs or the survivor makes an attempt to leave the relationship or household.
What, though, should those safety plans involve? “They’re extremely personal, and we customize them with survivors,” says Kira-Lynn Ferderber, a violence prevention educator in Florida. “We don’t tell people what they must do; we work with them because we believe they’re experts on their own situation, so there’s no one-size-fits-all.”
There is, however, some generally available advice from domestic violence organizations about how to navigate co-quarantining with an abuser and/or develop safety plans. RAINN has recommended calling its hotline (800-656-HOPE), making a list of supportive people to have regular check-ins with via phone or video chat and taking breaks outside if local social-distancing protocols allow for this. The East Los Angeles Women’s Center suggests calling their hotline (800-585-6231) for crisis support and safety planning, keeping a journal to practice mindfulness and limiting COVID-19 news.
For people at an immediate risk of violence, some additional measures may be necessary. “Talk to others about what’s going on,” Ferderber says. “Even if you’re going to stay in the house, let friends or family know what’s happening.” She adds that people in this situation should keep their phones charged and at-hand. “Stay in safer areas of the house, or move to those areas when arguments occur,” she continues. “Those are rooms with multiple exits (i.e., not a bathroom with a lot of sharp edges), and those with fewer weapons (i.e., not a kitchen with a lot of knives).”
Hannah has considered moving out of her mother’s house, but even before the pandemic hit and lockdown made that an impossibility, it wasn’t something she realistically saw happening any time soon. “The barriers are mainly financial — I don’t have enough to get a deposit for a flat in my area,” she tells me. “Also, I worry that if something went wrong when I moved out, in terms of my health or finances, I wouldn’t have any support.” She also says that her mother “has been known to sabotage my attempts to move out while also telling me that I’ve overstayed my welcome here.”
As with Hannah’s case, it may not be feasible for survivors to leave abusive partners or households right now, but for anyone planning to do so in the future, Ferderber says she encourages survivors to “imagine what it might look like to leave, so that they’ll be ready if they need to. Do you have a car? Do you have keys to your car? Is your car blocked in? Do you have a neighbor whose house you can go to?”
Ferderber tells me that while she doesn’t want to discourage anyone from leaving, it’s important to acknowledge that it can be dangerous. “It’s a time of increased risk for fatality,” she continues. “That’s why it’s good to do it with a plan.”
Some safety plans can be very detailed and involved, but Ferderber’s own view is that it’s more important for survivors to ensure their immediate safety than to get bogged down in detail. “There’s a lot of safety planning that’s like, ‘Try to have an ID and emergency stuff set aside if you need to go,’” she says. “But honestly, the most important thing is getting safe and getting your kids safe.”
Whether or not leaving is on the agenda — and for people on lockdown with their abusers right now, it likely isn’t imminently feasible — there’s always the option to plan ahead and reach out to supportive friends, family and organizations. “You can absolutely call a hotline anonymously and talk to them about safety planning, without having to leave,” Ferderber stresses. “You can just talk about what it might look like.”