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‘Maybe I’m Not Any Good’
Addiction can make it harder to leave an abusive relationship.

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Art by Freddy Bruce

Domestic violence and addiction often go hand in hand. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a 2002 Department of Justice report found that 1/3 of victims in domestic violence programs also had substance abuse problems and almost 2/3 of batterers also abused alcohol or drugs.

To better understand the connection between domestic violence and substance abuse, we interviewed Tracey Little, an MSW social worker and substance abuse counselor who has worked with survivors and batterers dealing with domestic violence and substance abuse. Little herself is a domestic violence survivor whose children were in foster care and who has been in recovery for 15 years.

Q: What is the connection between domestic violence and substance abuse?

A: In a lot of the communities we come from, both violence and substance abuse have become very normalized parts of life. I grew up in the South Bronx. I was not a fighter but I had to fight for people to leave me alone. The message I got was that violence works. For a lot of the adolescents I’ve worked with, there’s violence in their homes too. It’s very painful to grow up in an abusive home. There’s a lot of secrecy and shame and constantly walking on edge wondering when the next episode is going to happen. Alcohol and drugs help kids numb that pain and that dependence on drugs and alcohol can continue in abusive adult relationships as well.

Substance abuse doesn’t make a person an abusive partner, but it does make people more uninhibited. When people are using drugs, their actions are dictated by the more primitive parts of their brains, and more abusive actions may come out at that time.

Sometimes perpetrators of domestic violence also use drugs to justify their abuse, saying they only did what they did because of the drugs or alcohol. Sometimes they’ll use drugs or alcohol as a tactic to intimidate their partners. I’ve run groups where batterers have said they knew that once they put a bottle of alcohol on the table, their partner would start to become nervous. Many women blame the violence on their partner’s drug use as well, because psychologically it’s easier to blame the drugs than to acknowledge that someone you love is choosing to hurt you.

For survivors of domestic violence, one reason they use is to self-medicate. Often they feel isolated and lonely and are dealing with rejection from a loved one. Survivors may also use drugs or drink to deal with the physical pain and the anxiety of living with domestic violence.

Substance abuse and addiction also can keep someone in a domestic violence situation longer. Sometimes the batterer starts their partner using and helps her to continue to use as a way to control her. Other times, the threat of being exposed as an addict by an abusive partner keeps a survivor in the relationship longer. Addiction also can keep the survivor in the grip of the batterer financially. It’s all part of intimidation and control.

Finally, addiction contributes to survivors believing all the negative things the batterer says about them. A lot of people who suffer from addiction feel enormous guilt for being addicted. They’ll say, “Maybe I’m not any good. Look at what I’m doing.”

Q: What are the challenges facing survivors of domestic violence when they are using drugs or alcohol and come to the attention of the child welfare system?

A: One of the challenges for survivors is just being believed. Survivors aren’t always able to be specific and consistent in their accounts of the abuse. So much has happened, and survivors are so traumatized by the abuse, that their accounts can become jumbled. Plus, there’s a perception that addicts are manipulative. That can mean that child welfare workers don’t always believe survivors, especially if they are using drugs or alcohol.

As a result, child welfare workers may underestimate the need to plan for the safety of the survivor when arranging child visits. Visits may be done jointly. Other times the victim is supposed to pick up the child from the batterer, or vice versa. Survivors don’t always feel empowered to say, “This is not going to be any good.” They fear that they may not get to have visits at all. Or, sometimes survivors refuse to go to visits, and then they get accused of abandonment. Other times, stressful visits can be a trigger for the survivor to relapse on drugs.

It can also be more difficult for substance abusing survivors to go to domestic violence shelters. Domestic violence shelters don’t like to take women with substance abuse problems.

The good news is that now—in contrast to 10 years ago—most substance abuse programs also offer domestic violence counseling and groups for trauma. When I started working as a counselor in 2002, that wasn’t as common, but now almost all substance abuse programs also have programs for domestic violence.

Q: What can survivors do to be heard and believed?

A: Most practically, from the moment a survivor is ready to leave her partner, or from the moment her family is investigated by with the child welfare system, she must start to document incidents in a journal. That way, the survivor will have a chronological and consistent account of the dynamics of the abuse.

More generally, my main advice to all survivors is: “Don’t try to do it alone. Definitely don’t try to do it alone.” Often survivors of domestic violence who are dealing with addiction have a double load of shame. That can make it even harder for them to step up and seek help. But there are places that can educate you about the patterns of domestic violence and substance abuse, and can give you information about your rights and how best to protect your relationship with your children, even if you’re not ready to talk about the violence in your relationship. You can try a domestic violence advocacy organization or a child welfare parent advocacy organization. In New York City, you can reach out to organizations like Child Welfare Organizing Project, Voices of Women organizing project, and CONNECT.

There are also counselors you can talk to. A lot of times when you’re using drugs, you don’t process information as clearly as before, and this can make it harder for you to decide what steps to take. A counselor can help you see your situation more clearly.

Lastly, life would be easier for substance abusing survivors of domestic violence if domestic violence, substance abuse and child welfare systems all had better cross training. One reason I was effective for my clients when I worked in substance abuse and domestic violence programs was that I had worked in child welfare as well, so I knew what child welfare could and could not do. When I was working with a woman who had issues with visitation, I was able to say to the child welfare worker, “I know this situation and I’m concerned, so what can we do?” It took a load off the survivor to have a professional who could step up and address the situation.

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