When Home is Not a Shelter

School vacations were the worst. My single mother, barely keeping us off welfare, had to stay home from work to care for me. She hated her file clerk job, but it paid for our cramped one-bedroom apartment, kept food in the fridge, and a bottle of cheap Scotch in the cupboard. Most importantly, it kept her away from me.

Without work to busy her mind, provide scant income and a modicum of self-respect, the angst that made my mother drink in the first place mushroomed. She drank more. But instead of numbing her pain, alcohol made her raw and reactive, a live wire stripped of its rubber casing. She grew surly and mean, and it took little more than a wayward glance to incite her. Her explosions were loud, cruel, and occasionally physical. Survival meant staying out of her way, which was impossible when we were stuck at home together.

I shudder to think what would have happened had we been subject to months of quarantine.

Sheltering at home is critical to halting the spread of coronavirus but it can elicit danger of another kind by trapping women and children with abusive family members. Under ordinary circumstances, domestic violence climbs when families spend more time together, research shows. During these extraordinarily stressful times, with workplaces shut and schools closed, women and children are at heightened risk, having lost what little space they could once take from their batterers. Since the lockdown began, emergency calls to domestic violence hotlines in the United States and around the world have spiked. At the same time, The New York Times recently reported that domestic violence emergency calls are down in New York City, suggesting that victims lack the privacy they need to call for help. The Times also noted that social distancing guidelines have stopped police and social workers from conducting home visits, which are important both for gathering domestic violence complaints and providing support.

Like coronavirus, domestic violence can go undetected, even among colleagues and neighbors.

Years ago, I worked with a brilliant, creative, mid-level manager, who was always hard-working and handsomely dressed. One day, I noticed how loosely her designer clothes hung on her bony frame. I began observing her more closely and saw that her hands trembled. The first time I smelled booze on her breath I chalked up to a martini lunch; the second time was in the morning. That’s when I spotted the bruises on her matchstick arms, the fading yellow blotch beneath her eye, and a gap in her mouth where a tooth belonged.

In an attempt to help, I wrote down the toll-free number for a domestic violence hotline and delivered it to her in the restroom where I knew she went to smoke. My gesture seemed to embarrass her, and she insisted in a quivering voice that she was fine. Then, with a shaky hand, she accepted the tightly folded piece of paper with the number on it.

My abuse-filled childhood home life was a secret too. No one who met my mother would ever have suspected her dependence on alcohol and the rages it fueled. When she was sober, there were no outward signs that she and liquor had a toxic relationship. Her face wasn’t permanently flushed. Her eyes didn’t have the yellow cast that suggests liver damage. Not drinking didn’t give her the shakes. But in her body, liquor was poison. Any amount was too much.

Having to dress professionally for her office job and report there early every weekday morning kept her drinking in check, but it didn’t stop it. The first thing Mom did when she came home, often before taking off her coat, was to pour a Scotch; on weekends, when she had nowhere to go, she often started drinking at noon. Because I never knew when she’d be drunk, I avoided bringing home friends, unless she was at work. It was the only time I felt safe.

For much of my young life I held my breath, praying for nights and weekends to end, when my mother would temporarily transform from a sorrowful, sloppy, stretch-pants wearing boozer into a well-outfitted woman in makeup and pearls, whose job was the only refuge I knew.

The coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy. Yet, it is also an opportunity: to strengthen our resiliency as individuals and communities, as well as our ability to care for others by recognizing that home is not always the shelter it’s meant to be.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse and needing support, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799–7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224. If you cannot speak safely, then log into thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522. Computer use can be monitored and is impossible to completely clear. If you are afraid your internet usage might be monitored, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Users of web browser Microsoft Edge will be redirected to Google when clicking the “X” or “Escape” button.

Andrea Kott, MPH, a freelance public health writer, is the author of the forthcoming memoir, “Salt on a Robin’s Tail: An Unlikely Jewish Journey Through Childhood, Forgiveness and Hope,” due in May from Blydyn Square Books.

Public health writer/editor and author of the memoir, “Salt on a Robin’s Tail: An Unlikely Jewish Journey Through Childhood, Forgiveness, and Hope.”

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