Breaking the Silence Around Intimate Partner Violence

There’s a dam of silence holding back thousands of survivors’ stories, because we have a poor track record discussing these topics in public.

Content warning: this story contains discussions of intimate partner violence that may be disturbing to some readers. A list of NL-based resources for survivors can be found at the end of this article.

As a survivor of intimate partner violence (IPV), I had no idea what would happen when I decided to publicly share a sliver of my story.

I’d been living in a hotel room for two weeks at that point, and gradually arriving at the decision to go public. Although I had an immediate, practical need for help that pushed me to send out my Twitter thread when I did, there was a bigger underlying motive that drove me to that moment: knowing with absolute and complete certainty how entirely common my experience was. Based on the response my story received, both publicly and privately, IPV is something we desperately need to keep collectively talking about here in Newfoundland and Labrador.

We need to find ways to do so, so much better. We need change.

Non-physical intimate partner violence: still damaging, still dangerous

There were all kinds of reasons not to talk about it, all kinds of things that could’ve held me back. When IPV takes place in its non-physical forms, survivors can often feel they don’t “deserve” to use the term.

Talking about IPV is hard. Full stop. Yet talking about IPV that doesn’t include physical abuse carries its own specific set of barriers and stigma. This is not to compare different forms of abuse nor to make claims about any experiences with IPV being harder or worse than others. Physical abuse often leads to visible, verifiable damage in addition to the psychological and emotional trauma that remains invisible. Without bruises or broken bones, survivors of non-physical IPV are primarily left with invisible trauma and scars—along with an incredible weight of shame, confusion, and worry that nobody will believe us when we call our abuse by its name. That our motives will be called into question. That our stories will be dismissed or excused away.

However, the World Health Organization defines IPV as “behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.” The Government of Canada recognizes “verbal, sexual, emotional and financial abuse” as forms of IPV other than physical violence, and the CDC in the United States also specifically includes “psychological harm” in their definition of intimate partner violence.

The official sources all agree that IPV is not limited to physically violent acts. Unfortunately, even having knowledge of these facts doesn’t erase the stigma or the valid fears that can prevent survivors from talking about it—whether publicly or privately. You probably know a survivor (likely more than one), but you may not actually know it.

I’m nowhere near the first person to talk online about IPV, or about non-physical forms of IPV in particular. In 2016, AfroDominicana writer, speaker, artist, and award-winning sociocultural critic Zahira Kelly-Cabrera brought attention to non-physical abuse with her own tweets on the topic. With the hashtags #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou and #QuizaNoTePegue, Kelly-Cabrera inspired (and continues to inspire) tens of thousands of others around the world to share their own experiences. Even though, at the time, I didn’t know the history and origin of the hashtag, I used it in my own initial thread because I wanted to drive home the message that abuse is abuse. I wanted people to understand that non-physical abuse is still dangerous. In fact, as Daisy Dumas wrote for Australia’s SBS, “a series of controlling behaviours… almost always precedes violent abuse—and… homicide is often the first sign of physical violence in a relationship.”

I had several different goals in mind when I sent my tweets out into the world, but ultimately there was one goal that was most important: I wanted to contribute, in any small way I could, to helping other survivors get out. I wanted anyone who was going through non-physical IPV to know they’re not alone. And that it’s still abuse. That it’s still intimate partner violence, even if it’s “not physical.” That it’s still entirely not okay.

A response beyond what I ever imagined

I knew there would be a response. I knew the 17 tweets I put out into the world on March 27 would not be ignored. But I could’ve never predicted the level of response that followed after I hit “Tweet all” on my original thread. The notifications didn’t stop for days. Hundreds of people replied or reached out to me, both publicly and privately. Over the course of the next month, my tweets earned over 1.4 million impressions in total.

It’s difficult to know how to fully and properly describe my experience being on the receiving end of the response. While it’s true when I say that I shared “my” story, I knew all along it was more than just my story. I was sharing every survivor’s story. Countless people saw their own experiences reflected in mine.

It’s one thing to know statistics, to understand on a cognitive level how widespread the problem of intimate partner violence is. But it’s a very different thing to hear story after story shared with you, to be scrolling through your messages and see all the people who’ve DMed you to say in their own words: #MeToo.

I came to realize that, while I’m not lucky or privileged to be an IPV survivor, I am a lucky and privileged survivor in many ways. I recognized that I had a chance to use my voice and to share my story, in a way that might shine some much-needed light on a topic that is still so taboo. Not every survivor has that chance, or wants that chance. It’s completely valid to choose to never speak publicly about experiences of abuse or IPV. There are also plenty of reasons why someone can’t speak publicly, regardless whether they’d choose to or not. Speaking out can mean risking safety, livelihood, reputation, relationships, court case outcomes, and more.

Hearing from other survivors who thanked me for speaking up, and hearing from other people whose eyes were being newly opened by my tweets, I knew I had to keep going. I started using the hashtag #YouveGotHelp as a way to collect my tweets on the topic and make it easier for anyone to find what I was putting out there. I don’t have anywhere near the clout of someone like Kelly-Cabrera but I encouraged others to use the hashtag, too. So it was absolutely humbling when several other survivors did decide to use it to share their own stories, stories of IPV that took place right here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Others used the hashtag to show their support for survivors or to encourage anyone in an abusive situation to ask for help to get themselves out.

How an army of civilian supporters did what the system couldn’t

“Help” was another part of the response to my tweets. When I checked into a hotel on March 12, I had my backpack and a single suitcase. I’d been trying to pack up my belongings—I had them sequestered into a single room at my old apartment and had already picked up a bundle of moving boxes—when the intensity of my situation became simply too much to bear.

Only a couple weeks earlier, a friend had stayed on the phone with me as I waited for police to arrive and had been horrified to overhear the verbal assault I was experiencing in that moment. When an RNC officer did arrive, over an hour later, I was essentially told there was nothing that could be done if physical assault wasn’t involved. Even charges like uttering threats are “rarely” pressed in these situations, as they often only have “he said/she said” evidence and cannot proceed on that basis.

For two weeks, I agonized over what to do about the belongings I had left behind. I called the RNC the day after I checked into my hotel room and was told that a police escort could only be provided for “essentials,” like medication. Being from out of province, none of my family could be physically present to help me retrieve my things. I knew I would not—could not—go back to that apartment by myself. And though I’ve only lived in St. John’s for six years, I knew there were genuinely dozens of people I could ask to help me who would do so in a heartbeat. I did know that.

Yet I still didn’t know how to approach the gargantuan task of deciding who to turn to—who to place that burden on. I didn’t know how to start picking people, explaining my situation, asking if there was anything they could do. We never know what other people have going on, at any given moment. I didn’t want to put anyone on the spot or to have to individually ask for help over and over again. I knew for certain that help was out there, but I didn’t know the best way to go about getting it.

Eventually I asked a close friend to come with me to pack up my belongings and get them out. But we soon realized that the two of us doing so, on our own, was not advisable. That was clear from the flood of threatening and insulting language triggered by my attempt to communicate when I’d be coming to the apartment to retrieve my things. The next morning I debated whether it was worth risking another demoralizing experience with the RNC, but decided I should indeed call and report what was happening. 

After building up to it all morning, my call went to voicemail. I started to cry. I felt like I had reached some sort of limit. And that’s when I started putting together my initial thread of tweets. It took hours to compose, taking painstaking care to try to ensure I wasn’t exaggerating or misrepresenting or “being dramatic” in how I communicated about the IPV I’d experienced. (A month after I posted my thread, Mona Eltahawy published an excellent essay explaining how women are silenced by accusations of being “attention-seeking” and that demanding attention anyway “means rendering patriarchy’s power moot.”)

While I didn’t directly ask for help to solve the problem of my stranded belongings, I instantly began to receive more offers of help than I could even handle. Some came from friends, or people I knew. Some came from total strangers. One person responded within the first minutes of my tweets going out, and offered to not only help but to coordinate my support—an offer I am deeply grateful to have received. Others provided help I needed in other ways, beyond getting my things out, and I honestly can’t express what it has all meant to me.

Within 24 hours from the time I shared my story, the problem that had been hanging over my head for two weeks was solved. A crew of friends and strangers alike assembled to help me retrieve everything I had left behind when I fled my own apartment. What the police and other resources couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide, an army of supporters stepped up and got it done. And I will truly never be able to thank them enough for it.

Breaking the dam of silence—and where to go from here

It’s taken almost two months to feel ready to write this, and none of my story has been easy to share. But over these last two months I’ve been constantly reminded of my reasons for deciding to publicly talk about IPV in the first place.

Last month marked one year since a man who’d been abusing his partner for years killed 22 people in Portapique, in my home province of Nova Scotia. Earlier this month, Newfoundland and Labradorians across the province collectively cried tears of relief when news broke that former RNC Constable Carl Douglas Snelgrove had finally been found guilty of sexual assault—yet that relief was tainted by knowledge of what Jane Doe was forced to endure en route to this outcome.

But the stories that make the news are not the full picture. There are people in this province experiencing intimate partner violence every single day, in silence. There are survivors in this province, going about their life while silently trying to recover from trauma. It’s the stories that are going unheard that are the most common. It’s the day-to-day realities of your neighbour, your co-worker, your friend, your relative that you know nothing about that are also causing immense damage. There is a dam of silence that is holding back thousands of survivors’ stories, because as a society we have a poor track record with discussing these topics in public. From blaming the survivor to excusing the abuser to wanting to sweep uncomfortable subjects under the rug, the public dialogue around IPV sends a clear message to survivors: if you speak up, it’s at your own risk.

I don’t pretend to know the answers. I can’t even claim to fully understand my own experiences, let alone to know exactly what needs to happen to make things better. By their very definition, gaslighting and psychological manipulation mess with your head. Trauma messes with your head. And I could quote the statistics to try and emphasize how deep a problem we have on our hands, but the truth is: we don’t fully know the extent. That dam of silence is strong, and so much intimate partner violence happens without being reported or recorded or relayed to anyone. When there are no screenshots of messages, it’s not only hard to share with others what’s happening—it’s hard to even feel certain, yourself, about what’s happening to you.

So I don’t know where we go from here, together, to build something better. But I know we need more people to start understanding. We cannot avoid conversations because they’re difficult. We cannot avoid a problem because it makes us uncomfortable. And, while it may not be unique to this province, intimate partner violence is a problem in Newfoundland and Labrador—one that is not being adequately addressed by our various systems.

We have to keep talking about it, and we have to keep working on better solutions. Whatever it takes. Because no matter what form abuse takes, nobody deserves to be subjected to it. Nobody.

Resource List:

Newfoundland and Labrador Domestic Violence Help Line:
(Call or text)

RNC Intimate Partner Violence Unit (Available Monday-Friday)
(709) 729-8093

Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre:
24-hour Support and Information Line:

St. John’s Women’s Centre
(Supports include free counselling):
(709) 753-0220

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