What you can do: Pam Smieja, a public speaker and educator on domestic violence—and an abuse survivor herself—says that above all else, it's important to be a stable presence. A friend who is consistent, reliable, and gentle, even down to her tone of voice, is a profound source of comfort for someone dealing with an abuser's volatile moods.
If your friend is open with you about her situation, says Merry Arnold, PsyD, a Boston-area therapist who specializes in trauma including domestic abuse, "you can help her plan an escape by getting spare car keys, duplicate I.D., and a stash of cash that she can keep in her car or at your house—all things she'll need if he locks her out or she has to leave her house in a hurry." Call a 24-hour domestic abuse crisis hotline to educate yourself, then give her the number. A hotline can be more helpful than friends or family, says Smieja, because "many volunteers have been abused themselves and understand the fear and pain and chaos." Offer to let her call from your house, where she'll be safer—and give her privacy while she's on the phone. "She wouldn't want you sitting there listening," Smieja says. "It would be too shameful."
It's better to give your friend the number of a nearby domestic abuse shelter than a spare key to your house, which could jeopardize your own safety. "The address of the safe house is confidential," Smieja says. "A cop once slipped me the name and number of a shelter. I hid that sucker really well, and that's what I used when I left."
What you can say: "If you suspect abuse, don't ask an open-ended question like 'What's going on?'" Smieja says. "Because she'll lie. I always lied. Gently touch her arm, look her in the eye, and say, 'If you need me, I'm here for you.' That will open a door. Eye contact is very, very important. If she senses you're uncomfortable, she'll never go to you."
What to avoid: Don't ask why she doesn't just leave. "Living with an abuser is like being in a concentration camp," Smieja says. "There are consequences. My abuser copied my whole address book, waved it in front of me, and said, 'If you leave, somebody will pay.' I knew he was capable of ugly things." Arnold agrees. "The person can leave only when she's ready. Be patient."
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