Women Meeting Women in a Therapeutic Community Response to Violence Against Women

by Kate Hudis and NC Britton

‘Women venturing into the unknown, create paths for those who follow. Doing something first creates opportunities for others to do it also. It becomes less risky.  Wise women remember their grandmothers, yet also go their own way. It is the Tao of women to be explorers.’  – The Tao of Women by Metz Tobin.

Letterkenny Women’s Centre is a holistic place of healing for women where not only the services we offer, but the Centre itself, supports the healing process and truly honours the feminine. In January 2002 the Centre secured funding from the Regional Planning Committee on Violence Against Women to employ two counsellors to develop an outreach counselling service for women. Building on an established, professional, voluntary run and free counselling service provided at the Women’s Centre our role has been as pioneers bringing the ethos, approach and healing environment of the Women’s Centre service out to the community in rural areas throughout Co. Donegal.

We have seen this as a direct response to the report ‘Perspectives on the Provision of Counselling to Women in Ireland’ commissioned by the Women’s Health Council in conjunction with several health boards. The service is publicised as a generic service not placing any particular label on it or the clients. To find suitable venues we approached community development projects to arrange rooms available away from less anonymous health centres and local hospitals. The service takes referrals from Donegal Women’s Domestic Violence Service who have a refuge and provide crisis and practical support in the county. Counselling is also provided for Inishowen Women’s Outreach who work with women experiencing domestic violence. The service is also self-referral. Most of the work is long term psychotherapy.

In the HSE and in the NGO sector we often place services in boxes labelling women as victims or survivors of either rape/sexual abuse or domestic violence. Many women’s lives and experiences do not fit neatly into boxes and they do not identify with the given labels. For us the paradox is that by offering a general counselling service the entirety of our work is with women who have experienced violence.

We live in a rural county where there is significantly high unemployment or low paid work for women and a poor public transport system. Given these factors and the sprawling size of Donegal a high percentage of the population are isolated in small, localised areas made up of family groups often identified as Catholic or Protestant communities. The challenge for us has been to provide accessible counselling in a non-medicalised, safe and confidential space. To bring this about we have gone to communities and networked with community development projects. We recognised the need to highlight the issues of violence against women from an empowered place and to dispel myths about counselling/psychotherapy. To promote community ownership of the place for counselling within communities we deliver a course in introducing women to counselling and listening and a follow on course developing listening skills. Both within the Women’s Centre and by locating our service in grassroots community projects a wider support system evolves for women beyond the psychotherapy, through the other activities that are available.

In the fifteen years that Letterkenny Women’s Centre has been offering a counselling service we have become aware of the high level of violence against women in Donegal and this has been underlined in our work on outreach. This gender based violence remains largely hidden, takes many forms and occurs at all stages of the female life cycle. It includes domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape and sexual assault, abuse in dating relationships and prostitution. Being a border county women have experienced a level of violence directly relating to the conflict in Northern Ireland and there are now a number of women here who have experienced gender violence in conflict and post conflict situations in other countries.

What we have learned is that the religious, social and cultural values of the community hold attitudes and values that enable violence against women to take place. This community is made up of extended families that can bring pressure on the individual. In taking the concept which John Rowan describes of organisations driving people down a spiral into alienation, we can understand how communities can drive women down the spiral into silence and isolation, with messages being given that ‘this is the cross you have to carry’, ‘you’ve made your bed and you lie in it’, it’s for the good of the family’. Patriarchal values can also be present, either visible or hidden in organisations or among individuals providing social, legal, medical and therapeutic services that women use, creating the attitude that the woman has to try harder for things to improve and that by not fitting into their allotted place in society, they are to blame for the violence that is perpetrated on them.

Humanistic psychotherapy is holistic and our understanding is that this must encompass the social and political. John Rowan describes this as ‘listening with the fourth ear.’ When working with women who have experienced violence we believe it is essential to have a feminist understanding of gender violence. By this we mean that violence against women is an expression of patriarchy and women’s oppression as highlighted by the Task Force report of 1997 . In the psychotherapeutic space we respond to women from this analysis in many different ways. We do not own another woman’s story but there is a meeting which takes place woman to woman in the knowledge and understanding of the experience of violence. In this challenging space of I and Thou the therapeutic work is held by a compassionate heart.

Many of the women that we work with experience violence in intimate relationships. The perceived view of responding to domestic violence is one of providing practical support in crisis situations. This ignores the level of trauma experienced when women are controlled, isolated, abused, assaulted and raped regularly by the man they lie beside. Women tell of their lives being on a life/death edge. This may be at the hands of another person such as smothering, strangulation, beatings, but this also manifests itself in suicide attempts and ideation. Creating the opportunity for a woman to receive psychotherapy alongside practical supports enables her to be heard in her story.

We do not rank a woman according to the abuse. Whether it is physical, sexual, verbal, financial or emotional (including staged self harm and staged suicide attempts by their partner, unfaithfulness or desertion by their partner). Whether it is one or any combinations of these, each woman’s experience of gender violence is both individual and universal, personal and political. Each woman’s needs are different and her understanding of these needs are what we work with.

Over the years we have developed an understanding of the stages that are the weave of a woman’s journey of healing. Women may come to therapy at different stages. It has been exciting for us to discuss and find a resonance in identifying these stages. Unfortunately limited space means we can only describe these briefly here:

While in the relationship

Victim – The woman experiences fear, keeps the abuse hidden and tries hard to change for the perpetrator.

Survivor – The woman realises the abuse is not going to stop and begins to devise strategies for the protection of herself and her children. She is weighing up financial and safety issues such as ‘should I stay or should I go?’ and for some women they remain.

Escapea woman has left the relationship

She swings between relief, euphoria and grief, loss. The woman is beginning to grasp the reality of the abuse, experiencing anger towards herself, perceiving herself as a ‘doormat’ and holding regret of the ‘lost years’.

Over and Back – A woman moves in and out of the relationship or into other unhealthy, abusive relationships.

Rage – The woman is taken over by intense feelings of rage towards the perpetrator.

I’m ok now – The woman appears optimistic and an impression is created that therapy is coming towards closure.

Stumbling – The woman suddenly falls into an abyss of despair as she struggles with continued abuse from the man and pressure or abuse from children and extended family.

Questions of Trust – The woman is exploring issues of trust and questioning her own judgements and perceptions. She reaches a place of acknowledgement in herself of the need for boundaries.

Acceptance – The woman reaches a realisation that the man is responsible and accountable for the abuse. The felt sense is ‘I’m here, this is my life and I need to do something for myself.’

Unhooked – The woman separates herself out from the internalised abuser and the abuser’s script. She can actively build supports and friendships.

The centre of our work is Person Centred. While Roger’s Core Conditions can be seen as basic and simple we believe that if we truly trust them and be with the risk and challenge of fully taking then into ourselves as a way of being, the possibilities become deep and infinite. By this we mean that the conscious, unconscious, transpersonal, the waking and dreamtime, the concrete and the spiritual, will all process through the centrality of being in relationship. Sometimes this is subtle and sometimes immediate and here and now. Also we find the concept of sub-personalities a really helpful tool in working with the psyche in situations of trauma and abuse. Some of the common personalities that emerge in our work are victim, pleaser, martyr, critic, unloved inner child. In harnessing a witness part, the potential is created to open the woman to the more that she is. She can reach into archetypes such as the Wounded Healer, Warrior Woman and Wise Woman and ‘run with the wolves’.

 

Like the symbol of the Triskele there are three interlocking spirals moving through the work: the many difficulties a woman in this situation is inevitably experiencing in her current life; the telling of the story of her relationship abuse; source, which in itself can be a complexity of childhood abuse, womb abuse, ancestral abuse. In her healing process all three spirals need to be named and integrated for a woman to move her life out of the cloak of abuse.

In the first spiral the experience of relationship violence is one that can crowd a women’s life with many issues to cope with from day to day often creating exhaustion and a sense of struggle.  This may include physical illness (injuries or stress related ailments) or depression and severe anxiety (including panic attacks) as a direct result of the abuse.  Most women are lone parenting and leaving the abuser means living on benefit or a low income.  There is a jumble of solicitor’s appointments, court days, hospital or psychiatric appointments, seeking professional help for their children, applying for housing, dealing with schools.  There is a continuing or increased threat of abuse from their partner which is also played out in maintenance and custody/access arrangements.  Often the perpetrator manipulates the children and situations develop where teenage or adult children turn against their mother imitating their father’s behaviour.  She is the one on whom they direct their own anger and distress.  Where a woman is weighed down by daily coping our role in the session is one of containment and of holding the hope.

This containing and holding, focused on being in and expressing the Core Conditions, brings women into the second spiral of naming their story of abuse.  Women need to tell and re-tell this story, like a book that makes revelations at the end which make you want to go back and re-read the book in the light of the ending.  As each woman gains personal insight into the abuse and power structures of the relationship she retells her story with a different understanding.

Some of this insight lies within the third spiral where women reach back into teenage, childhood and womb experiences.  Our statistics show that many women in abusive adult relationships experienced abuse in childhood and that these, mainly rural childhoods, were generally poor and harsh.  They often carry with them memories of violence that took place at the hands of their own father towards their mother and similar knowledge or memory of their partner’s family, in a generational cycle of gender violence.  Entering the third spiral we explore the intra psychic relationships and the internalised abuse and oppression.

In each present moment a woman’s perception, physical and emotional experiencing and thought processes are interconnected with her relationship abuse experience and with past experiences of abuse she is carrying.  She discovers that it is not about wiping out those memories and moving on as friends and relations may suggest to her.  It is about a knowing and owning that those experiences are a part of her life and working towards integrating them in such a way that her relationship to them alters.  They no longer have power over her.  She is empowered to break the cycle of abuse continuing within her own life and to live beyond those experiences, discovering the more that she is.

This journey of personal transformation contributes to transformation of society, recognising that the personal is political.  This is reflected within the Women’s Centre where our work is nurtured by the caring support of the counselling team, staff and management of the Centre.  It is a place that holds so many women’s stories.  Our stories are both individual and universal to women’s experience.  Within the collective they become transformed into an empowered political movement for change, both supporting and supported by, the personal healing and transformation of each woman’s life.

Kate Hudis (IAHIP, IACP) andNC Britton (IAHIP, UKCP Cert. Holotropic Breathwork) are psychotherapists and group work facilitators working as counsellors for the Letterkenny Women’s Centre where they have developed a counselling outreach service in rural Donegal with a focus on woman who have experienced violence and also provide courses for women to raise awareness about counselling and to learn listening skills.

Letterkenny Women’s Centre provides the following services:

Trained listeners, professional counselling, women’s health and family planning, crisis pregnancy counselling (IFPA), peace building programme incl. accredited certificate course, creative courses for health and well being, library and information.

References:

Batt, V. and Nic Gabhainn, S. and Falvey, F. Women’s Studies Centre and Centre for Health Promotion Studies NUI Galway (2002) Perspectives on the Provision of Counselling for Women in Ireland – report commissioned by the Women’s Health Council and Women’s Health Advisory Committee of several health boards.

Buber, M. (1937) I and Thou  (1970 edition trans. Kaufmann, W.). Edinburgh:T&T Clark.

Grof, S. (1998) The Adventure of Self-Discovery. Albany:SUNY Press.

Lietaer, G. ‘Authenticity, Congruence and Transparency’ in Beyond Carl Rogers.

O’Connor, M. and Wilson, N. Women’s Aid Vision Action Change – Feminist principles and practice of working on violence against women.

Pinkola Estes, C. (1992) Women Who Run With the Wolves. London:Rider

Rowan, J. (1976) Ordinary Ecstasy (2nd Edition). London & N.York:Routledge.

Rowan, J. (1976) The Reality Game. London & N.York:Routledge.

Rowan, J. (1990) Sub-personalities–The People Inside Us. London & N.York:Routledge.