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Keep your eyes – and mind – open to signs of domestic abuse

Abuse is often hidden behind an 'ordinary' relationship, says RCN Nurse of the Year Amanda Burston

A recent conversation I had with a friend helps demonstrate how abuse is happening all around us, yet we may not recognise it.

As a 65-year-old father, husband, son, brother, uncle and now grandfather, Stephen* had felt lucky that none of the women in his family had suffered any form of domestic abuse. He was proud of the women in his life, and saw them as strong personalities, leaders, with great morals and values.

Not long ago he asked me to have a coffee with him. We spoke about abuse – what it is, how it affects people, the complexities of an abusive relationship, and the difficulties of supporting victims.

He said his sister Elsie, who had moved to Canada with her husband 40 years earlier, appeared dutiful, respectful, and shared every aspect of her life with her husband, always by his side. But only recently Elsie, now aged 74, has told her family about her loneliness and feeling of remoteness, her life of sadness, and how her husband was such a controlling individual.

She revealed that she had never been allowed to make decisions for herself or follow any of her dreams and aspirations. She had never had a bank account or money of her own; she had never had a friend. Elsie is now making plans to return to the UK and live her remaining years with the family she has been separated from for so long.

As we continued to talk, Stephen had another story. He had been looking forward to his niece’s 30th birthday, and the chance to see all the family together again, and arrived at the restaurant ready to celebrate. The drinks were flowing; the conversations were giggly and light-hearted. The energy levels were high and everyone was enjoying the occasion.

Eventually Stephen managed to catch up with his niece to wish her a happy birthday. Even under the atmospheric lighting, and despite her best make-up efforts, he noticed the bruise on her cheek. She quickly explained, and dismissed any further questions. Stephen spoke to his sister out of concern, only to hear the bruises were frequent, the drinking out of control. This once bright, motivated professional woman was now an alcoholic, locked in a life from which there seemed no escape.

But Stephen hadn’t finished. Over Christmas, when the family reunited, his daughter had returned from university with her new boyfriend, introducing him for the first time. Although she appeared happy and settled, her once vibrant, occasionally outrageous, personality was subdued. The colourful, daring clothing had been replaced with darker, shapeless attire. The usually bright, smiling face now reflected a 'lost' look. The family overheard comments from the boyfriend – put-downs, criticisms, even threats. It was uncomfortable. It raised questions. And it brought excuses, as Stephen's daughter explained it away as ‘nerves’ and ‘family over-reaction’.

After reflection, my friend now recognises the controlling behaviour in this relationship, and is working to rebuild his daughter’s confidence and self-esteem. He is in contact with her every day, and the family are supporting her to rediscover the lively young woman temporarily lost.

This is just an ordinary family, but with so much hidden pain. Communication, conversation and honesty are the way forward with domestic abuse. Eyes and minds need to be open.

If abuse of any sort is suspected – emotional, financial, physical or psychological – be prepared to support that person on the long journey ahead.

*All names have been changed

About the author

Amanda BurstonAmanda Burston is major trauma co-ordinator in the emergency department at Royal Stoke University Hospital, and RCN Nurse of the Year 2015

Find out about the RCNi 2016 Nurse Awards here

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