Rosa stared blankly at the immigration paperwork spread across the motel nightstand. The government wanted names, dates, status numbers and attachments. She thought to herself that, in theory, this portion of the immigration process should be easier than leaving her home country of Vietnam.
But this part of the process would require scanning and searching for documents. It would require phone calls, emails and security checks. To Rosa, it felt like the hardest thing she would ever have to do – even harder than leaving her abusive husband and learning that her immigrant status was void. He had never filed the paperwork he said he had.
The swell of green and blue bruises that marked her neck and arms for three years had faded, and Rosa now attended regular group therapy to tackle the emotional wounds her marriage had left behind. But Rosa, who learned she was pregnant shortly after leaving her husband, was suffering the impacts of another, invisible injury. She, like 200,000 other Canadian women every year, had received at least one brain injury inflicted by her partner.
During her marriage, Rosa’s husband hit her on the face, head or neck almost every week. And when things got really bad, he would strangle her, wrapping his hands around her neck so she couldn’t breathe. She remembers how she would see stars, bright cosmic geometric shapes of blue and pink. As her trachea compressed beneath his hands, Rosa’s brain cells were gasping for oxygen just like she was. Those terrifying moments were fleeting, but the damage to Rosa’s brain would last much longer.
Rosa is one of an estimated 2,200 Greater Victoria women suffering brain injuries caused by intimate partner violence (IPV BI). Partner-inflicted brain injuries impact up to 90% of women who are in violent relationships. But astoundingly, the vast majority go entirely undiagnosed.
Despite the research and media attention garnered for brain injuries in professional male athletes and military members, IPV BI is still on the edges of social consciousness. But a staggering collection of data from the B.C.-based SOAR project reveals that for every one NHL player who sustains a head injury or concussion, roughly 5,500 Canadian women receive a brain injury at the hands of their intimate partner.
In the medical and justice systems, this invisible outcome might be buried or overshadowed by physical injuries and mental or emotional trauma, but it is no less prevalent nor damaging. The memory loss, disorientation, cognitive challenges and emotional dysregulation caused by brain damage can lead to unemployment, homelessness, addiction, criminality, suicide and the removal of children from a mother’s home.
However, brain injuries can be overcome. Compassionate, considerate and individualized approaches to healing can help survivors reclaim joy, independence and hope.
But first, service providers need to start acknowledging this invisible injury so women can receive the support they need.
The Cridge Centre for the Family is uniquely positioned to address IPV BI and support survivors. With expertise within The Cridge Brain Injury Program and years of support and care in The Cridge Transition House for Women, The Cridge Centre is creating a new program designed specifically to address the IPV BI crisis with a five-tiered approach that includes direct services, research, training, advocacy and prevention.
When Rosa finally came to The Cridge Centre, she was at a loss. Life had become a confusing, frustrating upwards battle and in a matter of months, she would be the sole provider for her newborn daughter.
But with an understanding of intimate partner violence, brain injury and trauma, The Cridge Centre’s IPV BI program folded Rosa into its care, creating an individualized plan that included one-on-one support services and medical care, rehabilitation referrals, individualized counselling and group therapy. With help, Rosa could tackle immigration paperwork and housing forms. She could build new tools for scheduling and tracking her finances. After six months with The Cridge Centre, she even began to think about furthering her education to build a fulfilling career and a more stable income.
Rosa’s world, which had felt messy, overwhelming and out of control, became manageable and hopeful. With the proper support, there was room to heal, grow, and build a life for herself and her new daughter.
However, without proper recognition of her brain injury and services that acknowledged the full range of its impacts, Rosa may never have found a path forward. As determined and resilient as she was, Rosa needed focused, specialized support to overcome the impacts of her violent marriage.
Rosa’s story isn’t unique, and unfortunately, tens of thousands of women across Canada still don’t even know they have brain injuries. They suffer silently, often blaming themselves for the incapacitating effects of the long-term injuries their partners inflicted. The Cridge Centre for the Family is at the beginning of a concentrated battle to acknowledge and overcome this devastating, widespread public health crisis. Learn more about The Cridge Centre for the Family’s IPV BI program here.