Guest post: From victim to survivor

By Sido Surkis

I am a survivor of domestic violence. In the 1970’s, when I left the violent relationship that I was involved in, support was limited, and yet, with the support of my community, I became a survivor. My passion is in supporting victims to become survivors. Victims become survivors when they learn to respect themselves, when they find themselves in community, trusting their companions, trusting themselves and when they learn skills that will allow them to support themselves and their families. 

Victims become survivors when they learn to develop and access their own Internal support structure. It is important that we recognize that while the punitive legal solutions afforded us by legislation have served their purpose, creating external support systems, they have also limited the manner in which we see victims. We see victims as helpless and without any responsibility in the toxic and violent relationship. For a victim to become a survivor, they must recognize their own responsibility to change and to create a life that best supports them. 

In Mexico, where I live, the law grants victims the right to safety and personal growth when they enter a shelter. In Mexico the shelter is a home for up to four months. In these four months the victim grows into a survivor, as she learns to live in community with others, trusting others rather than being isolated, as she attends private sessions with a psychologist, group sessions, classes to teach job skills, self-marketing, art therapy classes, and movement classes. 

She helps to cook for the community and clean shared spaces alongside other residents, building community and strong friendships. She attends legal procedures accompanied by her attorney, her spirituality is nurtured, and her children attend classes and receive psychological resources within the shelter as well. 

When she leaves, the shelter helps her to find housing, to find employment, and follows up with the survivor, assisting with any challenges, for a year or more. She learns to trust and access her own Internal support structure. Offering access to a support group as well, a support group where “longtimers” can offer guidance to newer graduates, a place to continue to feel supported in community with other survivors. This wrap-around, holistic method of supporting people who have been abused has resulted in lower reported incidences of a return to living with people who use violence, and better outcomes for children and for families. 

In the US we have honed our ability to provide external support for victims of domestic violence. Put into place by the legal system, the laws provide an external scaffolding and a modicum of safety to victims. When we created mandatory arrest laws, the intention was to relieve the victim of the sometimes dangerous necessity of filing charges against an already abusive partner. Internally, being labeled a “victim” means that a person has been acted upon against her will. 

The victim is passive and helpless. Allowing the victim to decide for herself whether she wants to file charges is the start of building her own internal resiliency. “Developing support systems and mobilizing resources were central to participants’ resilience and ultimately to their recovery from domestic violence. Accessing spiritual and informal support was particularly helpful for their healing and growth”, as cited in ‘Recovery: Resilience and Growth in the Aftermath of Domestic Violence’ by Kim M. Anderson, Lynette M. Renner, and Fran S. Danis, Only she knows what is best for her family. If she is not allowed to engage in this decision-making process, she is still falling victim to the partner and the system that has rendered her incapable of taking responsibility by removing much of her power of choice.

Living in community with other survivors, the graduate of a Mexican shelter is able to rely upon others and upon her own strength, sometimes for the first time in her life. Her internal support begins to grow, layers of self-assurance and self-reliance that are formed and tested again and again safely during her time in the holistic shelter. 

We know that many people return to violent relationships due to financial hardship. The graduate of a Mexican shelter has an evolved internal support structure, leaving with a job, job training, tools for personal growth and ongoing support for her family, and a sense of where she fits in in her world. She has less of a chance of returning to the person who caused her harm as she better understands herself. She has learned a new way to live. 

I suggest a change in the way we run our shelters. Creating a model similar to the Mexican model will be more expensive at start up – and will be less expensive as Victims become Survivors. In no longer depending solely upon the external supports that the law offers, in trusting herself and her cohort, and with the support of professionals who encourage her to listen to her own internal support system, she has the tools to move forward, to create her own life as a survivor.

Sido Surkis has worked in the field of Domestic Violence for more than 20 years. Formerly an advocate, bi-lingual outreach advocate, and co-director of the Survivors Justice Center in Eugene, Oregon, she is also the founder and organizer of the Bridges to Change annual conference. This event was created to bring together faith workers and people in the domestic/sexual violence field to foster communication and understanding between the two. Keynote speakers included Jackson Katz, Juan Carlos Areán, Nancy Nason-Clark, and Ron Clark, among many. She also manages a bi-lingual Facebook page for people looking for information about domestic violence, “Bridges to Change/Puentes a Un Cambio”.

Currently residing in Mexico, she teaches yoga to women in the domestic violence shelter and in other settings. Her focus is on encouraging resiliency, trusting intuition and an awareness and joy in the body and spirit.