5 Life Lessons I Took Away From Growing Up in Domestic Violence Shelters“When so much is going on, the inner you is always right there.”
I was six months old when I arrived at a domestic violence shelter for the first time. My mum, without shoes, ran with me and my sister to a pay phone to call the police after my dad hit her and threatened to kill her in a drunken fury. The fight was familiar.
When she got out of the house that night, her only concern was getting away from him. It was survival. The police arrived, but they were reluctant to get involved. Like many places around the world, in the U.K., where I’m from, domestic violence was often considered “a family matter,” according to my mother. And it might not be much better today, with police making just 31.3 arrests per 100 domestic abuse-related crimes and averaging 23.8 days to charge someone in a domestic abuse-related case (the highest in four years) per the Office for National Statistics 2022 report.
That night wasn’t the first time this had happened. But because of my dad’s increasing threats, my mum refused to return to the house (she says she’s still scared to think of what could’ve happened if she hadn’t left). While my dad had his moments of genuine warmth, his unpredictability scared her, especially with young lives to protect. So the police took us to what would become the first of a series of domestic violence shelters we visited on and off until I was 11 years old.
Like many facing intimate partner violence (26% of women worldwide, per a 2018 report by the World Health Organization), systematic structures encouraged us to continue suffering in secret. We lived in a small town where everyone knew each other. We went to church on Sunday. Separating kids from their dad and “telling people what happened behind closed doors” was an incredibly tough decision for my mother. Still, she was able to seek help, to protect herself and us—something many enduring domestic violence struggle to do. [Editor’s note: If that’s you, and you live in the U.S., consider calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) for anonymous, confidential help available 24/7, or visit thehotline.org.]
Over the course of 10 years, as we navigated life amongst other families in shelters, I learned some of the most important life lessons that I still use today. In my late thirties, they’re part of what has fortified me through life changes and challenges. If I had a choice, I might not have picked those experiences, but I’ve come to see some of those early adversities as helpful lessons—and maybe you will too.
1. You can offer yourself more support than you realize.
In the time leading up to my divorce in my twenties, I was heartbroken. My marriage was completely different than that of my parents, but as we withdrew from each other I experienced the same overwhelming tide of change that I had when we moved into the shelters.
As my adult reality shifted—separating everything I owned, finding a place to live, worrying if I could sign a lease/get through a rainy Sunday/make life decisions by myself—I needed to find a sense of solace. So that’s when I turned to the coping skill that’s always served me: turning inward.
As a kid, I figured out that there isn’t always a steady force to rely on. And when you need it, the most dependable source of support can be yourself. I realized that I could make myself feel better, even in small moments. When I saw my mum cry or left my dad after our sporadic visits, I could just breathe and tell myself, “I’ve got me.” Sometimes I’d look in the mirror and think, Yes, I am a person too. I am a person who can help me. I’m the person who never leaves my side.
Today it reminds me of the Derek Wolcott poem Love After Love, “Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart,” Wolcott writes. We so readily give all of our love and sense of security away. We can feel desperate to receive love from others. But there in the mirror lies the most consistent source of love of all.
Whenever I feel scared, this truth comforts me. When so much is going on, the inner you is always right there. Look at your own eyes in the mirror.
2. Envy can be a roadmap.
Growing up, the fact that money gives you options became obvious to me the hard way. We relied on the generosity of others for furniture, clothes, toys, and rides. I can’t tell you how many adult conversations I eavesdropped on in shelter kitchens that had (a lack of) money at their core. I was inspired by the women surrounding me in the shelters, applying for government housing and figuring out their next moves on their own. They were survivors. I also understood that their lives would be easier if they had more money.
We were all at the mercy of waitlist housing and the availability of kind adults (“shelter friends”) to help us move. I noticed that my friends at school didn’t have these troubles. And I envied their homes whenever I’d visit, especially during their birthday parties. Unlike me, they were allowed to have friends over. Their home belonged to them! And they had their own bedrooms and store-bought clothes.
I wanted to help the women I lived with, and I wanted to make my mum happy by alleviating her burdens. Leaving an unhealthy household should have made us feel free. Yet, with financial anxiety, I realized that we were still limited.
This envy ignited serious financial ambition within me. I loved school as a kid, which I was certain would be my salvation one day. I could be a smart kid and then a successful adult, right? I idolized the women in movies who lived in cities and big buildings like Sue in Crocodile Dundee. She was a powerful journalist in Manhattan. She had an important job and nice clothes. And a car! She had her own car.
At 25, I moved to New York, establishing a thriving career in tech. I managed to fulfill a long-standing dream: supporting my mum financially. Today, as a life coach, the ability to provide security for myself and to give to others brings me immense joy.
3. Starting over is a win—not a failure.
When I uncovered a non-negotiable in my previous marriage, I knew in my heart it was over. I’d oscillate between berating my ex and berating myself for not knowing better. I felt desperate and found a therapist who said it was no surprise that I had ended up with similar chaos in my life as an adult that felt familiar to me as a kid. The fighting! The control issues! The exhausting highs and lows!
My therapist reminded me of an important lesson that I was lucky enough to learn as a kid and again in my early twenties: When something doesn’t work, it’s not a failure. Failing is remaining stuck when you don’t have to.
He gave me faith that I’d do well on my own—I could start over just as my mum, my sister, and I had done decades ago. Finally, I felt an odd, quiet sense of peace knowing I could make a change.
Immediately after my separation, the things I valued in a relationship changed. I sought out mature, calm, responsible qualities in partners, with honesty and integrity at the top of my must-have list. With my own evolving maturity, I found my anchor not long after. Now, 13 years into a marriage with a wonderful, supportive partner, I'm reminded of the power we have to create different endings.
4. Books can change your perspective (and maybe your life).
During the first 11 years of my life, one of the most reliable sources of emotional relief was the local library. My mum and I loved Aesop's Fables and books of inspirational quotes (the 1990s version of motivational social media posts).
We also received books donated from churches and found discounted books at thrift stores. One day we bought an old copy of Apples of Gold by Jo Petty, and it became my most prized possession. I would underline my favorite quotes and draw hearts around them: “The night is not forever” and “The past cannot be changed; the future is still in your power.” They spoke to me because they just felt true. I internalized them. The night is temporary, just like awful fights are. The past is over, and we always have some say in what happens today (even something small like going for a nice walk if the sun is out).
I joke that reading Apples of Gold gave me my unofficial start as a life coach. When new kids who arrived at the shelter were having a hard time, the mums would say, “Bring Susie! Susie will help!” And I’d show them the games all of the kids got to share. I’d emphasize that in this “big house” there’s always someone to play with. It was just like having extra brothers and sisters. Without those books that shifted my perspective, I don't know that I would have been able to help them find glimmers in the life we were living.
I’m forever grateful to the kind families that we lived amongst and the social workers who would visit us, especially those who were demonstrably caring. But I found the most strength in reading. You don’t need anybody else for it. A book is the most reliable presence on earth. Their moods don’t change, they’re never busy, and sometimes they know what you need before you do.
Even now, when I feel low, I flip open a self-help book at random (largely Byron Katie, Abraham Hicks, or the late Wayne Dyer) and read a few (now grossly highlighted!) pages. Ten minutes of focused reading is more powerful than you might think. And that’s probably why I went on to write my own self-help books.
5. Asking for help is always worth it.
When a teacher noticed I was withdrawn and sitting alone one day, she invited me to sit with her. It was so pleasant, being with a calm adult who asked me non-invasive questions and listened to my answers. I asked her two or three times after that if I could join her again, and she always lovingly obliged. We’d just sit together, talking about nothing in particular. It was one of the first times I ever communicated my needs. And I learned quickly that when you seek out support people often do care and want to help. So it’s always worth asking.
I’ve continued seeking support as an adult, working with different therapists, coaches, and of course, leaning on non-judgemental friends (the only kind I have, honestly). I consider the ability to find that assistance such a huge strength. Why suffer if we don’t have to? There’s no medal for toughing it out or solving a problem on your own. In my opinion, the quicker you prioritize care, the quicker the recovery.
There’s never been an easier time to seek help with online support groups, websites, and hotlines. Every time we have the courage to reach out to someone, whoever they are, it is a testament to our shared humanity. In doing so I also believe we help release the shame for others. It becomes its own beautiful cycle.
In my business and relationships, I try to pay that forward. A couple of years ago, a friend in London told me her husband was physically abusive but that she hoped it was “going to get better.” I could tell in her voice that she was ashamed to tell me.
I was flooded with emotion. I was enraged at her husband for hurting her, I was upset with my friend for not leaving, and I was pissed at the world for enabling pain like this to exist. At a loss for how to help, I called my mum. She said, “Tell her to report him to the police and go to a shelter immediately. Domestic violence is a crime. People will help!” Her words, juxtaposed with my friend’s evident shame, made me cry. But if my past taught me anything, it’s that there is hope and help if you’re willing to look for it.
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