The Tipping Point: Power and Control During the Pandemic

I have worked in the Violence against Women Sector all of my career. Fresh out of university, i jumped into work in various shelters and helplines, both in my own city, as well as in India and Kazahkstan. It is something that i am very passionate about: My identity as a therapist is very connected to the part of me that is a VAW (violence against women) Counsellor, and has been for the past 22 years.

In my new role as a private practice therapist, I work predominantly with various types of trauma, especially with people who have experienced relational trauma as well as developmental trauma from their childhoods. While abuse from relationships is just one type of trauma, it is one that has lasting impact and yet we can still heal from it.

I share this history into my work past as it holds weight for what I know – abuse is still prevalent in our homes and is even more intense now because of the Covid19 pandemic. The pandemic is a ‘perfect storm’ that intensifies this type of trauma for both adults and children alike.

I also know that abuse isn’t just directed to women from men, and I appreciate the more inclusive language of ‘gender-based violence’ as it takes many forms, including intimate partner violence of people from all genders. And yet, it is without question mainly women that experience this type of abuse, by their male partners.

Why? Because of the need for Power and Control. That is also very steeped in male privilege, patriarchy, misogyny and gender-based violence. Men who use violence are also victims of our sexist society that views vulnerability as weakness, imperfection as a demerit, crying as a fault, and the old boys club status to aspire to.

During the pandemic, the pull for power and control is even more amplified because so many of us feel out of control, and that leads to internalized feelings like guilt, shame, fear or insecurity. Loss of work impacts our sense of status and contribution, it also makes us question or worth as we are taught to be productive at all costs. That internalized felt sense needs an output and for many of us, we were not taught how to expel anger, fear and sadness.

Then we lash out to get the feelings out and to feel in control again, even if that means we are not controlling others or displaying power OVER someone instead of power within.

I also know that people who use violence are not just the perpetrator but most likely have lived through their own story of abuse and trauma from their past or childhood. Some of the responsibility in this consequence of the pandemic lies not just on interpersonal relationships but at the systems that perpetuate them. Funding for shelters and helplines have been drastically cut, and people are isolated from each other and cannot access help.

No one deserves to be hurt no matter what.

One of the first tools I learned when i school to be a Feminist Therapist was the Power and Control Wheel, originally created in Wisconsin at the Duluth Centre. It helps create a visual image of the various ways that abuse is perpetuated. Since its original example, many others have been created to show reference to inclusivity and intersectionality. In all of them, they show how power and control are at the centre. They also depict the various forms of violence, especially ones that are more covert and therefore less likely to be noticed. This tool may be hard for some to read, and please note it’s used for educational reasons, to help others see what types of abuse exist. The impact on the person who is being abused is unique to each person and will be the focus of another article soon.

I’m not sure if the folx at the Centre have created a wheel for the pandemic: As no one today has ever lived through a global event like this, I wanted to share how abuse can be started or escalated during a pandemic. The wheel looks at interpersonal violence, so it’s important to note that there is a larger societal role that is steeps in how our community and global society continue to perpetuate Power and Control (stay tuned for another journal article soon on this).

In following the original model, we can assume most people have a general sense of Physical and Sexual Violence – for the most part they are easier to see or detect, and are a criminal offence. And yet there are other more covert or implicit types of violence as well. In keeping with the Wheel, I have broken them down here. This pandemic also alters the types of violence used, even physical and sexual examples. Please note that this list is not exhaustive, as there are unfortunately other examples as well. It is also a draft as more research and sharing of experiences is just being collected. Some of these examples are from the people i support first-hand.

Physical Abuse
Hitting, slapping, pulling hair, pushing; all mainly focused below the face as it is the only visual cue to others if the person is using video conferencing for work or social calls.

Sexual Violence
Forced sexual acts against consent; kissing and other forms of touch without consent or use of
health and safety precautions; being coerced or pressured for sexual acts because they are claiming to risk their health to come for a visit or are lonely and need to feel connected; not disclosing health concerns to sexual partner; having more than one sexual partner without disclosure; pressure to do sexually things virtually that makes person uncomfortable

Financial Abuse
Making the person take a leave from work and collect CERB or another social welfare program as it keeps them at home all the time; not allowing them access to funds – whether cannot go to bank machine due to pandemic or not sharing funds directly; Threaten to report person to take department or social welfare office to intimidate them; this is a form of financial abuse, threats, as well as privilege because it is used as a form of power if they are not using the same sources of income; not allow partner to share planning budget, paying bills, and otherwise knowing what the household income is; controlling what is bought for the home including groceries when only one partner leaves the home; quitting work themselves without consulting partner and relying on them for financial support

Threats
Using intimidation or threats to keep the person at home and not socializing, even via social media; threatening to tell authorities if person breaks ‘physical distancing’ rule; threaten to leave them or hurt themselves if partner leaves; intimidation to be violent with words or actions; breaks belongings or threatens to take things important to them; threats or hurts pet; partners may not live together and one uses power to pressure the other to visit even if they do not feel safe due to health and safety cautions.

Impact on Children
When abuse starts or escalates at home with children, they witness it even if they do no see it directly; can also increase incidents of child abuse due to stress at home and misdirected anger; using children in between former partners during exchange or access visits; telling ex-partner they cannot see children due to fear of getting virus; not allowing partner’s children from other person to visit or stay with them; involving children to be messenger of info

Emotional/Mental Abuse
Being at home with the person who uses violence is very stressful – there is no break and tensions can rise; conflict or stress can escalate and the perpetrator may be more diligent and hurtful in their language, put-downs on food preparation, demands on time, name-calling or derogatory and mean words. They may minimize their actions (called gaslighting); blame the person for the abuse or being stuck at home; claiming safety concerns to justify behaviour; minimizing the threat of the virus and using conspiracy theories to pressure partner to go out when they feel anxious to; not asking them how they are and providing support and only focusing on positive feelings

Isolation
During a pandemic when we are to stay in our homes is isolating enough; people who use violence can use this to not allow their partner to contact friends or family by phone or video; pressure them to not go out in the community; jealousy and control that leads to partner not wanting to go out; do all the social outings like groceries, etc which keeps the person stuck at home and not able to ask for help; ghosting their partner during Covid19

Using Privilege
Treats partner like a servant and makes all the decisions regarding the household alone; other forms of privilege include threatening to out the person if they are LGBTQI2S and want to leave partner, or having white privilege and is not a target in the community, or citizenship privilege and can access supports that someone who doesn’t have status can’t; able-bodied privilege where they do not understand the further impact on someone who needs physical support and their care workers cannot do home visits during pandemic.

There have been some great initiatives that have started during this pandemic to help support people who have experiencing this in their homes. If you are someone, or know someone who needs support or to learn about safety plans, please be mindful when doing searches online. Reach out for help, as you are not alone and deserve better.

A Tiger Named Covid

I’m a big fan of tigers, jaguars and panthers. I love how they live in a pack, are caring for the little ones, and are so tough. And yet they are used a lot as reference to the things our bodies fear the most. Have you heard the expression “your body is afraid of the tiger in the bushes?” We either flee them, play dead, or try to fight back. In today’s current global crisis, Covid has become that tiger. Our body prepares to keep us safe by bringing up times we were in harm’s way, similar to an alarm system. Our ancestors surely faced more dangerous tigers, and we still embody this primitive, reptilian reaction in our present life.

I’ve spent my career supporting others who are healing from trauma, both relational or developmental trauma as well as birth trauma. I’d like to think I know a few things about how to help others heal. In fact, I am so passionate about helping people heal from their past trauma and believe that they can. I have gone through my own experiences of trauma and pain. And yet, I have never gone through a pre-traumatic event with any of my clients or community.

None of us have.

This pandemic is the first collective trauma of this kind any of us in this lifetime has endured. Of course, some of us have endured other forms of trauma including relational abuse and war. Some of have faced institutional oppression, racism, and genocide. Some of us have ancestors who experienced violence and trauma and still are impacted by it – as well as us as our bodies have inherited that lived experience of trauma. In today’s pandemic, we may not be impacted by it in the same way, and yet we are all experiencing some level of pain from this global health crisis.

Our body and brain are experiencing some levels of stress. Some of us still have to leave their homes to work and that is anxiety-inducing. Some of us have family members who need to leave home to work and that is nerve-wracking. Others of us have to stay at home with someone who is abusive towards them, and they are in a constant state of activation. Others have lost income due to jobs that are no longer there, or have family who has been diagnosed with Covid19.

The current collective trauma is a re-traumatizing experience for those that experienced trauma in the past. Being stuck indoors reactivates the body’s reminder that it cannot leave and needs to flee in order to be safe. Some clients have shared with me that their former trauma is really resurfacing for them as their body recalls similar sensations as in the past trauma experience. Their bodies feel stuck, they can’t release their feelings, or feel like they are walking on eggshells in order to not cause a volcano explosion – their partners, theirs, or their children’s. A lot of us are just within or outside our Window of Tolerance of regulation.

We do not have to be trauma survivors to experience fear and trauma during this crisis. Double trauma is the new experience mixed with old ones, and peritrauma is the potential of becoming traumatized during this event. After all, trauma is defined as something too big, too much and too fast to bear. I know I am experiencing a lot right now that is too much and too fast to digest.

Trauma is an embodied felt sense after experiencing something hard we are not able to rebound from. Trauma lives in our body as well as mind so we need strategies that help both parts heal. This helps us move past a startle defense response that keeps trauma active in the body.
We are now past the initial “Honeymoon stage” of life temporarily in Quarantine and Distancing. Some of us have found some ways to imbed a new routine and others are feeling more activated by the ongoing pandemic and its impact on our everyday lives. We have the potential to bounce back after this experience, but the uncertainty of when it ends keeps us feeling stuck.

Our brain’s Central Nervous System is made up of 2 parts – the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Our sympathetic nervous system helps us prepare for things and keeps us protected. You many have heard of the term “Fight or Flight” as reference to our body’s way of reacting to feeling unsafe and needing to either flee the tiger or fight off the tiger. Two more ‘f Words’ are Freeze and Fawn, which are at the other end of our brain’s way of responding to threat to safety. Each are an innate instinctual response to threat, as our body’s alarm system is activated to respond in a pre-determined way. We can’t typically change how we respond but we can lessen the impact and severity.

An embodied sense of trauma is not so much about what happened to us as how it lingers in our body, so we don’t need to talk about the event itself. Rather, what we need is having empathic listening, resources, and rest. We have an innate capacity to move through trauma, it just needs to be supported. It helps to have someone bear witness to us so that we don’t hold inside the trauma in absence of a compassionate witness. In my previous post, I shared ways to build this community so you feel less alone in your experience.

Trauma processing work doesn’t erase the trauma but rather minimizes how it grabs us. A main goal of therapy is to uncouple trauma-based emotions from the sensation that is stored in your body. This will then help you integrate the impact in your body as a memory rather than a real-life reminder in the here and now.

You can definitely do things in the here and now to lessen the impact of peri-trauma in your body. While therapy is a key support, it is not alone in ways to help yourself.

Things to do for you now “Without tools trauma rules”

We build resilience as we build our capacity to take care of ourselves after trauma. It may help to notice what your response is. Do you have a sense of this already? If not, this article may help a lot as it may be beneficial to sit with your thoughts as you reflect on times in your life where you reacted to something that upset you. Try not to think of something too big as it may make you re-live it, but rather a time when you were surprised and how your body responded.

For instance, I am a Freezer. I freeze when I am scared. My body feels stuck in place and my feet feel like they are frozen in ice. And not like Elsa. Let me share this story to paint the picture a bit better: my son fell down the stairs once when he was not even 2 years old. As he inched closer to the stairs, I noticed my alarm system react. But I felt stuck in ice or quicksand and could not move to rescue him. I screamed and responded to him when he was already at the bottom of the stairs. He was fine, and only bit his lip. Now, whenever he or his sister is at the top of any staircase, I recall this sensation in my body.

My son is a Fighter – even the lightest tickle will turn my son into a green mini-Hulk. He cannot bear the sensation, even if by accident and he will hit with fists to protect himself. My daughter is a Fawn who seeks closeness to us when scared, and also is more quick to bounce back and people please after a conflict.

Once you get a sense of the reaction in your own body, it makes it easier to know the tools, resources and exercises that help you in the here and now moment of your SNS kicking in. Here are some tips to help you when your Alarm system (aka SNS) is on and you can’t access the parasympathetic part of social connection or rest. Accessing these resources may help you get back into regulation during this pandemic.

Flight
* Go outside – take a drive, even your balcony, and look for nature prompts to stay in here and now. Play the 5 Senses Game to stay present.
* Walk around home space or go for a walk outside safely. Do a mindful walk or ecstatic dance and move your arms. Let your arms take flight as your reaction may feel stuck in the core of your body. Moving your periphery is very stabilizing
* Orient in the space around you with your eyes – move your head side to side to help you see different perspectives. This bi-lateral work is great for your brain to regulate.
* Do a sun salutation yoga sequence to get you flowing
* Breathe work – try a Self-Compassion Break exercise

Fight
* Roar like a Lion – Have an outburst of anger and scream as tension in your body gets stuck in the throat so breathing helps it be let out.
* Move your breath down to your belly – short breaths are connected to running, and we associate running from tigers. If we can breathe deeply then we are not scared. It sends a message to your brain that you are safe.
* Have a cool shower to regulate the heat that is rising with anger
* Run in spot then bring breath back, jumping jacks, box in pillow to get the anger out in a safe way
* Give yourself a small smile too as it loosens the tension in the jaw and sends a message to your brain that you are okay
* Push your hands against a wall, with your feet planted firmly on the ground
* Do some yoga Warrior poses

Freeze
* Warm UP – the felt sense of numbness, disconnection, chronic pain, disconnected from emotions needs warm so use a warm bath or blanket. Get your shoulders to feel the weight and warmth of it.
* Do some breathe work with the word Vooo to release some of the stuck energy.
* Body exercises like alternate foot step, progressive muscle relaxation, or playing catch with a ball helps your brain also get stimulated and distracted. This movement also warms your body up.
* Guided visualizations of a warm soothing place
* Lie against a wall and put your legs up the wall – this helps your flow and energy change and your heart beats more rhythmically.
* Find a restorative yoga class to follow online

Fawn
* Connect with others – join groups online or classes, or reach out to others
* Listen to podcasts to hear another voice in your home to decrease feeling of loneliness
* Heart breath work including placing your hands over our heart and breathing out more slowly than in but saying ‘shhhhh’ outloud
* Visualization of a happy memory activates estrogen, a bonding hormone
* We orient to others to engage so turn your neck and eyes from side to side, to seek out someone in a photo, the radio, on TV
* Write a letter to a loved one or look at photo albums
* * Give yourself a hug or get a hug from someone, try the Butterfly Hug. This helps slow down the stress hormone cortisol and slow breathing into your chest. Hug a pillow and breath out – we need to get to belly breathing here too

Not knowing when the trauma or fear is going to leave is what re-triggers the body in the here and now. Our brain stays stuck in the activated part to keep our alarm system on, but it works too hard and doesn’t know when to shut off. Kind of like that fire alarm in your home that doesn’t stop when the battery runs out. With any of these reactions, think of a part of you that needs to know it can move – feet, arms, orientation of periphery and tend to it. You can massage your feet, dance, move, walk around. Send lovingkindness, compassion, and gratitude to your body for being there to protect you.

Think of learning these resources like a way to enact a Nervous System bubble. In our current situation, think of things that are activating you. Is it wearing a mask? Is it seeing others in masks? Is it going to the grocery store? Or is it being stuck at home and unsure of what the future holds? Once you have somatic resources like these listed above, you are better able to respond to the need and titrate the sensation.

In previous posts, i have shared the concept of Titration; it allows us the experience of looking back at the trauma in the body but in a way that is controlled and not overwhelming. As we start to look at this, our body can resist and get overwhelmed because it’s been so used to holding back or stopping feelings from coming up again. So, pause and think of a more gentle memory. Slow down the overwhelm or anxiousness that enters your body but intentionally connecting to what you sense.

I love to garden and April is meant for planting seeds of intention, so having this affirmation handy may be a way of taking care of your heart too: you are the medicine for your own trauma. Dig deep for only you can make those wildflowers bloom again (source unknown)

Having a natural curiosity to explore your options to heal trauma is a key ingredient to heal. It may feel scary to do this work in this moment and yet staying with your feelings and doing somatic mindfulness work in the here and now is what will help your body know you are safe right now. Of course you are scared and overwhelmed – that makes so much sense with what we are living through right now. Give yourself the practice of self-compassion – speak to yourself about yourself with a kind heart, give yourself grace and patience.

On the Day of Your Funeral

Please note this is a raw and heart felt poem I wrote as I held space for my client. It was also a way to process the grief I felt. I share it now as a reminder of the many layers of trauma.

I learned recently that a client of mine died unexpectedly. Her death was more peaceful and gentle than her life. Her final hours were not so peaceful. At the end, she died doing something she was familiar with, that had been a coping tool for too many years. She died because she was trying to quiet the sadness and demons that were living in her.

On this day of your funeral, i am crying quietly to myself. I’m so sad that i never got one more visit with your vibrant and curious mind. I loved our loud sessions, and your hope for better.

She died because she had internalized the abuse and shame that had been poking at her for too long.

On this day of your funeral, I’m so angry at the economic context that criminalizes drug use at the same time as not having more support for trauma survivors.

She died because she was sexually abused as a child and her childhood was taken from her.

On this day of your funeral, i am present thinking of all the sexual abuse survivors i have known, worked with, supported, and been a part of their healing journey.

She died because people feel uncomfortable with mental health and ‘those people.’

On this day of your funeral, i am holding space for you and all that you had to endure. To say that you lived a life of trauma and suffering is an understatement. You deserved a better life.

She died because she had fallen through the cracks like so many women, who live in poverty, with mental health diagnoses and addiction.

On this day of your funeral, i am so proud of your resilience – you had overcome so much and were working on a better life for yourself. I know that your final days were not the main part of you, but rather parts of you that were too wounded still.

She died because her body was carrying around so much baggage and pain from being sexually assaulted and physically abused for all those years.

On this day of your funeral, i am honoured that you shared your life with me and trusted me with parts of you that were so vulnerable, ugly, unspoken, and raw.

She died because the world doesn’t give a fuck about how trauma impacts us, but instead values success and independence and white picket fences.

On this day of your funeral, i’m so sad that you were alone when you died. That you felt alone and hopeless. There are so many people who loved you for who you are

She died in pain – her heart was broken and her body was exhausted.

On this day of your funeral, I am curious what you’re wearing as I know your style was a big part of your reclaiming of your body.

She died dying to reclaim her body and find pleasure again – her sexualized sense of self was still a work in progress.

On this day of your funeral, i’m sorry that i wasn’t there more to bear witness to the parts of you that struggled to come out.

She died because she wasn’t seen and we let her down.

On this day of your funeral, may your next adventure be the one of your dreams.

I Write This Post for December 6

This week marks the anniversary of the the Montreal Massacre. On December 6, 1989 14 women were killed because they were attending school to be engineers. A lone gunman felt threatened by their presence and his misogyny lead to his decision to kill them and himself.

I write this after reading about a few more women and trans folk in Toronto who have been killed this year, this month even, or have gone missing. While we have made great strides to create change and lessen violence against women, it is still something that we are faced with on a regular basis.

I write this as someone who has worked in this field for 20 years, as a shelter worker, helpline staff, and now as a therapist for women who have experienced violence.

I write this as someone who sees so many forms of violence and unhealthy relationships in my own personal life. My own relationship with my partner is solid and happy, but like so many of us i have experienced harassment, abuse and unhealthy relationships in my past. Friends of mine still do.

I write this because some of the women i support are working on leaving their abusive partners, people that they have small children with and know that they deserve better. It’s such a complicated and courageous step to make – putting our own needs on the list means sometimes that we have to make a hard decision.

I write this because while we hope to change and help others, we cannot do it unless that is wanted. We can love ourselves more and trust that we when we fall, we will do so standing up with others around us for support.

I write this because we deserve to be safe, and happy, and feel valued.

I write this because i don’t think someone can be a good dad or parent if they are using violence on someone else. I also know that it’s ok to be angry and show all our emotions, but it’s never ok to have others afraid of us when doing so.

I write this because i have small children, a boy and a girl and i don’t want either of them to think that any form of violence is okay.

I write this because i support people who were raped and sexually violated in their lives, and that trauma impacts their life now. It’s hard to think about giving birth without connecting it to the pain and suffering of something that was taken from us.

I write this because there are communities of us that are disproportionately targeted – women of colour, Indigenous women, women with dis/abilities, and trans people. This is not okay. If violence is about feeling like you have power over someone, the intersections that we are labeled with seem to have even further oppressions.

I write this because sometimes abuse starts or escalates when we are pregnant. When we are already more vulnerable, and needing more support, love and understanding. This form of abuse happens when someone else is feeling or low or unneeded, and in order to make up for these feelings, they target their partner to feel more in control.

I write this because i’m angry that someone would be jealous of something that i feel like a Goddess for – being privileged to grow another being inside me. That someone would be jealous of this connection and feel like it means they don’t get the same attention.

I write this because i want to not have to write this again.