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Abusive relationships: How to cope when you have a disability

When I was first diagnosed with MS, I became very disabled very fast. I became completely dependent on my husband, which frustrated him. I allowed him to take his anger out on me because I felt so helpless and guilty. He would go into fits about how his life was ruined and became very depressed. He started taking medication, which made it better for a while, but then one day he went off the meds and told me that if he had to take a pill to live with me, then what was the point?

I would internalize all of his comments and think, ‘Look what I’ve done to him.’

I was lucky to have a social worker take notice of the situation. She helped me realize that this was not my fault, that my disability was not in my control and that if my husband couldn’t deal with it, that was on him, not me. She helped me find a better support base. You need to reach out to somebody — a friend, a family member or someone at the MS Society — just for that confirmation that it isn’t your fault. That’s the most important thing. 

– Anonymous

A diagnosis of MS can have a major impact on the entire family. Roles and responsibilities are sometimes forced to change, and feelings of resentment, guilt and anger can often arise in both the person living with MS and their partner or spouse. A sudden loss of independence, financial or otherwise, places people living with MS in a vulnerable position if a caregiver becomes verbally, emotionally or physically abusive.

If you are a person who lives with MS and think you may be in an abusive relationship, here are some of the ways you can identify the abuse, reach out for help and ultimately leave the situation if and when you are ready.

Identifying abuse

Physical violence often comes to mind when we think of abuse. While this kind of abuse does happen in families living with MS, just as it does in other families, it’s also important to recognize less obvious forms of abuse that can also occur.

If you are experiencing physical abuse or do not feel safe and need to leave quickly, identify a window of opportunity when the abuser will be away, contact someone you trust to help you and get yourself to a safe place. If necessary, contact the police.

Abuse can be verbal, and it’s characterized by cruel, demeaning language that is aimed at another person. Abuse can take the form of neglect, which is when a person is deprived of essential care, including adequate food and drink, clean, dry bedding or opportunities to engage with the outside world. Abuse may also be in the form of bullying by handling a person aggressively while assisting with dressing, bathing, toileting or a transfer.

Abusive behaviour is the misuse of power and control in a relationship. Period. Some people might use certain external factors like stress or frustration to excuse or explain it, but there’s no explanation you can give that says, ‘It’s okay for me to abuse.’

– Lisa Manuel, Family Services Toronto

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Reaching out for help

In many cases, people in abusive situations feel threatened, trapped and scared to ask for help, for fear their abuser will find out. For people living with MS, caregiver abandonment, whether they are abusive or not, can be quite daunting due to a heavy reliance on them for daily function.

If you’re feeling a need to reach out, it’s important to first identify the people you interact with on a regular basis.

You don’t have to know exactly what you’re going to say in order to reach out for help. Identify a moment when you will be alone with a person you trust and let them know what is happening that is making you feel uncomfortable, unsafe or abused. Let them know you need assistance extracting yourself from the situation.

Create a personal safety plan: connect with a nearby friend or neighbour and develop a signal to indicate that you need help (ex. knock on the wall, flash the porch light, specific word in a text, etc.). Keep a cellphone or wireless home phone on your person at all times when you are at home. Keep important documents (like a birth certificate or passport) and some money or a credit card in the car or with a friend in case you need to leave quickly.

You’re not alone. If you think you might be in an abusive relationship, call us at 1-800-268-7582 for support, information and helpful resources.

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