A Survivor’s Journey
Without adequate support, TBI can have far-reaching impact on a survivor’s life. Swipe or click through the story below to take a closer look at one woman’s experience from the initial abuse incident through to her stay and exit from a shelter. It becomes clear how a lack of awareness of her brain injury impacts her experience.
Katrina is a 36 year-old self-identified female who lives with her partner of 15 years, John. They have a 9 year-old daughter, Samantha.
Katrina is doing her best to balance domestic responsibilities, unstable employment and childcare costs. Her money is controlled by John and she has no benefits. Originally from Eastern Europe, Katrina has very little family support as most of them still live in abroad and she cannot afford to bring them to Canada.
Katrina experiences daily domestic abuse (physical and emotional) and harassment such as extreme texting.
John, Katrina’s partner
John is a 42 year-old male. He has been married twice, and has a child from a previous marriage. He is Canadian.
John works in construction but has unstable employment. He keeps all their financial assets in his name. He drinks 3-4 nights per week and has a short temper, is controlling and violent towards his Katrina.
Nicole, frontline worker
Nicole is a 40 year-old front-line worker at a women’s shelter. She is married and has a young child.
Nicole has been working in the shelter system for close to 20 years. She finds her job satisfying and is committed to her work, but is often overwhelmed by the workload and lack of resources which requires her to wear many hats. She has days of feeling jaded and is aware she can sometimes come off as abrupt and “transactional.”
It is hard for her to find time to learn new skills and integrate them into her daily practice, but it is a prority for her to make a difference in the lives of women she serves.
The dynamic at the shelter shifts a lot – sometimes the women are very supportive of one another, other times it is quite volatile and requires a lot of de-escalating incidents.
The Abuse Incident
Katrina is thrown across the room and John bangs her head against the wall 3 times. She tries to defend herself. She is dizzy, but not unconscious. She has a bump on the right side of her head.
Katrina’s daughter witnesses the abuse and calls 911. The police arrive and escort her and her daughter and John to the station.
Katrina is worried they will take her daughter away. She is feeling fear, and extreme emotional and physical pain.
“It’ll never happen again, I promise.”
“If you just hadn’t done that, you wouldn’t have set me off!”
Katrina recognizes that her life is in danger. John has also threatened to hurt their daughter.
Katrina has decided not to return to the relationship unless the abuse stops even though she has very little friend or family support. Katrina has become estranged from her close friends, and her family is overseas.
Katrina is feeling scared and unsafe, she has to get out before he returns home.
“He is threatening to kill me.”
“I’ve got to get out. I fear for my life & Samantha’s.”
Before Arrival at a Shelter
Katrina doesn’t have her own money or safe housing and needs to find a place for her and her daughter Samantha to sleep asap. The most dangerous time for her is the first 6-12 months after she decides to leave because he is trying to find her in a state of heightened anger and obsession.
Cops call the shelter from their phone and pass it to Katrina. She talks to an intake worker at Women’s Habitat.
Katrina is feeling scared, unsafe, alone.
“I need to find a bed and safe place for Samantha and I immediately!”
A restraining order is activated against John. He is held overnight at the station. He is scared, and desperate to take everything back.
Arrival at a Shelter
It’s Katrina’s first time at a shelter. The police escort her and Samantha there. Katrina wants to feel safe, respected and a sense of dignity.
Katrina turns off the location on her phone and attempts to change her phone number.
Katrina is feeling paranoid and afraid that he will find her. She isn’t thinking about her long-term plans yet, she is too exhausted. She hasn’t slept well for years.
“I feel judged.”
“I want professional care and information asap.”
John is released after 24 hours and tries to reach Katrina but she has blocked his number. He is calling all of her friends and family, tries her work number. He is angry, obsessed with finding her and knowing where she plans to take Samantha.
She tries her best to be empathetic and respectful to survivors and sensitive to their queues.
“I don’t want to overwhelm our clients with too many questions right away, so I do a lot of listening and observing.”
Week One at the Shelter
Upon arrival at the shelter, Katrina needs professionalism, knowledge and information from FLWs. She isn’t looking for a friend or therapy yet.
At this point, Katrina needs help navigating the system – what her options are, where to go next.
Katrina is completing the intake assessment with the shelter staff over the course of the week, as she feels ready. She is recovering physically, resting and sleeping a lot.
Katrina is feeling physical and emotional pain, and difficulty with trust. Her head injury is bothering her.
“I can breathe & sleep again.”
John’s restraining order is still in effect. The judge orders him to attend a program, but while there, he commiserates with other men in similar situations.
During the first week Katrina is at the shelter, Nicole must complete a series of forms and intake procedures with her.
1. Intake form One of the first touchpoints with survivors, where the top priority is their safety. It can take several days to complete depending on the state of the survivor.
2. Safety plan Created to ensure that the shelter has survivors’ emergency contacts and other details and/or documents
3. History of abuse form
4. Crisis Management
Staying at the Shelter
Sometimes Katrina has impulsive behavior as a side effect of her condition, which is incorrectly assumed to be her choice.
Katrina is learning what her options are after she leaves the shelter, how to navigate the system (e.g., housing benefits, child tax credits).
Katrina is getting really tired of the shelter. It’s inflexible, she can’t keep her normal schedule and routine. Her whole life has been disrupted. Going back home or finding a new place is starting to look appealing.
“How long will I be here? I feel safe, but it’s not my home. This place is chaotic & overwhelming.”
John has no contact with Katrina, but he is obsessed with finding her.
He is promising to change, is telling her family this, hoping they will tell Katrina.
“If I can’t have you, no one else can.”
Nicole doesn’t feel qualified to be diagnosing or screening. She calls it “dancing with the patient” – using her judgment to decide whether or not to educate her patients on their condition (where she suspects TBI) or suggest a screening.
Needs to maintain control, and shelter guidelines make it easier for her to do so (e.g., health and safety guidelines)
Exiting the Shelter
Katrina is ready to leave the shelter for more permanent housing.
Katrina is setting up her new life: packing, logistics of moving, setting up a bank account, counselling sessions, new school
for Samantha, job interviews, medical appointments, reconnecting with old friends.
Katrina is anxious about her new life outside the shelter, wants to make sure she is still safe, but looking forward to a new start.
He is trying to get custody (using finances and kids to control her) and uses her confusion and loss of memory against her to discredit her.
He is not physically with her but still has a hold on her life. He is insidious, like a virus.
Nicole tries to ensure that all the community and transition supports are available and ready for survivor.
When my girlfriend was beating me up and I went to the police, they asked me all kinds of questions about how it happened, when, where, why I stayed and lots more. It felt like they didn’t believe me that a girl could be doing this to me and the more they asked questions the more I couldn’t remember things. They said I must have been lying because my story wasn’t straight and my dates didn’t match. Then, they said if it had really been happening, I wouldn’t have gone back to her when she said she was sorry. I got really angry and said some things I shouldn’t have and then, they put me in jail and said I must be on drugs, too. When I saw the judge, he didn’t believe me either. He said I wasn’t a “reliable witness” and that my story was “not consistent enough to rely on”. It was a long time before I learned that there was a reason I couldn’t remember details in the right order, or that I got more confused and more anxious at each question asked, or that I lost my temper so badly. I didn’t know that having been beaten could hurt my brain too and that these things were because of that. It helps to understand what is happening to yourself like this, so you don’t think you are just crazy or something.
When I came to Canada with my husband, I couldn’t tell anyone that he was hurting me. I had no way to make money to take care of myself or my children and I didn’t know how we would be safe. My husband told me that if I told anyone they would take the children away and send me back to where we ran from. And it was my duty to stay with him and raise our children with both parents. When he would take me to the doctor, I got scared that I would make a mistake and say the wrong thing. When the doctor asked me questions, I got confused and my husband would say I had not learned English properly and he would have to speak to the doctor for me. I couldn’t tell them that I felt sad all the time and that it was really hard to get out of bed and take care of the children. I thought I was just tired and that everyone was like that. After I learned that I had choices and I didn’t have to stay with him, I was able to get help for myself and I found out that the sadness and tired feeling was part of having a brain injury from my husband hurting me. Now I am learning how to take good care of myself so that I can take care of my children and support my family.
For years, the doctors told me that my problems were all in my head… but they meant I was making it up. I couldn’t tell them I that my boyfriend was beating me up all the time and there were no bruises for them to see. They thought I was just trying to get drugs for pain when I told them my headaches happened every day and would not get better. They said I should get help for drug addiction and sent me away. No one asked me if I had hit my head or lost consciousness or anything like that. No one asked me if I was being abused. So I never said anything. Then, one day, I had to go to the hospital, because I was so badly hurt I couldn’t stay away, and then, I told them that my boyfriend had pushed me down the stairs. After that, they started to tell me about what was wrong with my head, but this time, it wasn’t about me, it was about having a brain injury from all the abuse. Since I learned about my injuries, I am better able to cope with things that used to really bother me and my headaches are getting better. I have learned how to manage my time better so that I can do more of the things I want to do and not have so many problems afterwards.
I always thought it was my fault that I couldn’t remember things the way I could before my husband hit me. It didn’t help that people told me it was because I was stupid, or because I didn’t care enough to remember, or because I must be doing drugs or drinking. I tried to tell them that it wasn’t any of those things but after a while, I just started to believe them. Now that I know that it isn’t my fault, that sometimes my brain just doesn’t remember things the way it is supposed to, I feel a lot better. And I can tell others, it isn’t me, it isn’t that I’m stupid or lazy, it’s because I have a brain injury. Now that I have learned new ways to remember things that are important like appointments or job training, I feel like I can get back to moving forward with my life.