My domestic abuse support group was cancelled two months ago. Let me make that clearer: the only support group for male survivors of domestic abuse for at least a hundred miles suddenly and unexpectedly abandoned us.
There was no warning, no fanfare, no real explanation. On the day of the group, mere hours before it started, those of us who were relying on it for our mental health and our recovery received a text message from the organisation to say that, ‘effective immediately’, the group was cancelled for the next six weeks as staff were needed to cover holidays elsewhere (i.e. the refuge and the women’s support groups). In the meantime, here’s a number to call if you’re in crisis. The end.
We asked why. We asked for an explanation. Nobody replied.
I attended the group every week for eighteen months. For eighteen months, I cried, raged, debated, learned, and started to heal. During that time, I went through suicidal crises, episodes of self-harm, binge-eating disorder, PTSD. The group always had my back. It was immensely reassuring to know that, once a week for two hours, I could sit with people who understood. Who shared my pain. Who told me that, no matter what, I’d get through this.
For the first six months after I fled my abuser, nobody would listen to me tell my story. I felt like a ghost, seeing the world from behind frosted glass. I reached out to my doctor, social worker, domestic abuse helplines, the police, mental health services, my MP – none of them gave a damn, not least because I am the male survivor of a female abuser, and everything is overwhelmingly geared towards female survivors of male abusers. I thought I was going crazy.
And then the group started. That first day when I attended – when I told my story and was heard – it was like waking up from a bad dream. I felt validated, human, real. People nodded, looked at me with concern, and said, ‘How awful. How hard that must have been. The behaviour you describe – that is categorical abuse. It is exactly what abusers do. You didn’t cause it. You didn’t deserve it. You’re no longer alone.’
Over time, I met more survivors, heard more stories like mine, listened as they poured out their hearts, facing the same struggles that I did. It helped me to understand what I had gone through. I watched some men recover quickly, and then relapse, others get worse for months on end. I saw men go back to their exes, only to be brutally and violently assaulted, then hide away in shame.
And I saw men heal. I saw the light coming back into their eyes, their shoulders lifting. Some of the men entered the group crushed, and left it standing tall. The effect was profound, miraculous even. It is amazing how powerful it is to be heard.
Some of the men were big, tattooed, bearded bikers with hearts of gold. Some were small, skinny, submissive types. Men in their sixties, boys in their twenties. Professionals and blue-collar workers, those with Masters Degrees and not even O-levels. Wealthy, poor, healthy, disabled. But no matter our background or how we were suffering, the group was a place for us, where we could grapple with the new reality we faced. A place where we were accepted and could feel safe.
We waited the six weeks for the group to restart. We struggled. We tried to support one another, but without the formal context of the group, it was hard. If you meet one or two others in a pub, it’s not easy to talk about the violence you’ve suffered, the mental health problems that have resulted, and the pain that you’re feeling, when you’re worried about the teenage girls at the next table overhearing. We counted down the days until the group resumed.
The day before it started back up, we’d still heard nothing. We chased them up several times, to no avail. We started to worry.
And then the day of the group – the very gosh-darned day – we got another text to say that the group would not currently be running. But it might start up again at some point. And that was it.
You can imagine how we felt, and the effect that it had. For many of us, that group was the one thing holding us together. Given that there are no courses for male survivors of domestic abuse – no Freedom Courses or Pattern-Changing like there are for women – it was all we had. And now it is gone.
I sent them a written complaint, saying that I could not understand how, after all the good they had done for eighteen months, they could suddenly drop the group and leave so many vulnerable men with no support. How they could not spare a single staff member for two hours a week in a venue that they already owned. I even offered to run the group myself for free.
They never even replied.
One of the men contacted the police and asked for help. Their only assistance was to send him a domestic abuse help sheet, which he passed on to me. It listed a number of helplines for women, and one for men. But it’s not helplines we need – it’s a support group. A place where we can be helped and heard and validated. It’s not hyperbole to say that it’s a life-saver.
The sheet said that there were three support groups in the county and provided the numbers. I rang all three. The first two were of the very organisation that had just cancelled our support group. The third said they ran groups for women, but had never run any for men, nor had they any plans to do so.
And that, dear readers, is where male survivors of abuse find ourselves in Twenty-First Century Britain. One space in a refuge for every forty spaces for a woman, and most of those don’t take children. No courses to help us now or in the future. One support group that is dropped without anyone caring one jot about the lives that it affects. Not even the decency to reply to my complaint or even consider my offer to run the group myself.
Some of the men I talk to are really struggling now. Some of them are circling the drain. The group was their lifeline, and now it has gone. For most of us, the loss of the support group will affect us for the worse. Given the deterioration I’ve witnessed over just the last two months, I dread to think what the next two months will bring.
It’s particularly galling that the women’s support groups (plural) and courses are still running, while our only source of solace or comfort in this world has been taken away from us. Yet still on TV, I see domestic abuse campaigns telling us how we need more support for female survivors of domestic abuse.
Do abused men not matter?