How Zombies Could Save Your Life

Sometime last year I received a flurry of Facebook posts flagging me as a top pick for my friends’ “Zombie Apocalyspe” Teams.  It seems my reputation for resourcefulness and roach-like adaptability was upping my social capital should our city ever succumb to famished and marauding hoards of the walking dead.Image of a zombie with only its deadened fingers and eyes visible, as it peers over the top of a book.

I actually took a Facebook Quiz and learned that I rated a high chance of surviving a Zombie outbreak and that I would likely be called upon to reestablish human civilization in the aftermath.

Some months later I stumbled upon a short news report that the Center for Disease Control had published a guide for “Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness”.  I loved the twist…if you are prepared to survive Zombie Apocalypse, you’ll fare well during an Avian Flu pandemic, or an earthquake, or a 100 year flood…you get the idea.

Then, “The Walking Dead” hit AMC and I managed to watch a few episodes, though I spent most of my time with my eyes closed. The more I thought about Zombies, and Zombie apocalypses and Zombie Preparedness, the more I noticed what a team project surviving is.  To make it, even the most ‘rugged individual’ needs help.  Folks figure out quick that they must have each others’ backs, bring all their talents to the table and commit to the incredibly arduous, all-consuming, nerve-wracking task of surviving. And the more I thought of surviving, the more I thought about domestic violence.

The thing is, while Zombie pop culture can be hella fun, it turns out that the culture of violence in our day to day lives is a complete buzz-kill.

It’s fun to talk about Zombies and it’s fun to think about who would be on my Zombie team (we’d need a McGyver-type and a Dr Quinn Medicine Woman and someone funny to break the tension…) and to plan our thrilling escapes and feats of daring do.  But, while most of my friends are inclined to believe I would kick-ass during a Zombie invasion, and many have a hunch that “Get to Connie’s house” would be their first impulse when the Zombie’s start down their street, we all know that none of that careful speculation (or sassy use of terms like “kick-ass”) matters.  Because Zombies  aren’t real.  There will never be a Zombie Apocalypse.

0% of the population has been attacked by a Zombie.

But, 30% of the population has been attacked by a lover.

Violence in folks own homes at the hands of people they love is real.  And, even though it’s a lot harder to talk about than Zombies, surviving it requires real friends showing up with real, fierce, useful skills. Because friends help friends survive.

I have spent a lot of time in the last decade talking with anti-violence workers and policy makers and queer people about the fact that friends & family are the first people survivors turn to for help.  More than police (10%), or medical doctors (11%), or therapists (14%), or victim advocates (1%), survivors first disclose an assault to a friend or family member (64%).   Survivors rated victim advocates as the most helpful, law enforcement as shockingly unhelpful and friends and family somewhere in the middle.  Which is just about where friends and family rate themselves.

We have a general sense of what we’d do if we were up against the Zombies: we’d pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.  But, we can rest assured that we will never be put to that test.  On the other hand, we will all know folks at some point who are surviving abusive partners, or who are hurting their family members.  Still, most of us report that while we want to help a friend survive domestic violence, we just aren’t sure what to do.

But, there is so much we can do.  We can pick up the phone and call our friend and say, “I saw some marks on your arm, and if you ever want to talk about it, I am ready to listen.”  We can go to our son’s house and say, “I see you are struggling with your divorce.  I know it can be sad and scary and feel out of control.  I love you and care about you.  And, I’m taking the guns out of your house and storing them back at mine.  We can talk anytime you want, and I’ll have your guns waiting for you when things settle down.”  We can bone up on our listening skills and practice being supportive without “blaming the victim”.  We can check our assumptions and get humble.  We can share some of the struggles we are facing in our own life and ask for help.  We can prepare.

The natural impulse of survivors—to reach out to friends and family—can be more helpful.  And when it is, how many survivors could find real options sooner?  How many people who perpetuate violence could make the choice to change their behavior?  How much isolation, fear, pain and suffering could be averted?

That’s what this campaign is all about.

Donate to the National Friends & Family Domestic Violence Action Campaign and help us educate friends and family to better respond and reduce harm. 


Mapping Our (Collective!) Wellness

By Nathaniel Shara

One of the primary questions behind the FAR Out! project is always:  “What structures can we proactively put in place to meaningfully support ourselves and each other when hard things come up in our lives?” What we know is that– whether we’re talking about a flood or a breakup–  more often than not, we don’t make plans for dealing with the hard stuff until it’s happening.

Inspired by a “Mad Maps” workshop put on by The Icarus Project in 2010, I developed this FAR Out- Wellness Mapping tool for participants in the FAR Out project (and all of us) to do just that.

You are Not Alone Round StickerThe worksheet starts with some space to reflect on what happens for us, personally, when we’re having a hard time. Do I stop sleeping or start sleeping all the time? Eat more than usual, less than usual? Stop taking medications or exercising? Spend hours and hours on the internet without pleasure? Etcetera. There are loads of examples to choose from, as well as plenty of blank spaces to add your own.

Once you’ve spelled out this intimate portrait of what hard times look like, the rest of the worksheet focuses on laying out what helps, what doesn’t help, and what other people in your life might be able to do to be supportive. There’s also a section to spell out what is NOT supportive… which many folks have said was their favorite– and the most useful– part of the process.

After you’ve filled in the worksheet, ask yourself: “What would it be like if my trusted friends and family members had a copy of this sheet of paper? What if I had a copy of their Wellness Maps too?”

While the idea of sharing our answers can feel very vulnerable, I think there also can be something powerful about the idea of meeting each other in the depth of that vulnerability… instead of perpetually feeling like our friends and family only care about us because they don’t know all the things that are on that sheet.

For a lot of folks, this self-reflection alone is a valuable process. And for many of the folks who have shared pieces of this map with their loved ones, it has been a way to open up some new possibilities of receiving meaningful care and support. I’ve also found it to be a powerful group activity among people who are committed to working together or being in relationship to one another over time. Please don’t feel pressured to reveal every last thing on your map, but do ask yourself if there are even a few things on there that you might be willing to share.

Authenticity can build trust. And proactive requests and agreements can often get us further than crisis-based reactivity can. As well intentioned as our friends and family may be, it’s not reasonable to expect that they’ll always be able to read our minds about what kind of support will feel meaningful and relevant to us. Hopefully this activity can be one useful tool among many as we continue to develop a toolbox for building self-determination and interdependence within our communities.

Art by Jacks McNamara.

Reaching Out- A Place to Start

If you’re anything like me, the word “community” can feel like an exceptionally mixed bag. On the one hand, it speaks to a cozy and familiar fantasy of mine: sitting on a big couch in my living room, surrounded by a dozen of my closest friends, eating delicious things and chatting about politics for hours. Preferably in front of a fireplace. On the other hand, there’s the reality that my two-room apartment can really only (comfortably) accommodate two or three visitors at a time, that I’m far more comfortable with a series of one-on-one hangouts than I am hosting a big gathering of people, and that the idea of friends representing the many, varied parts of my life all gathered together is pretty hard to even wrap my head around.

For many folks I talk with, this is one of the most challenging aspects of FAR Outplanning. People get really excited about the idea of having these intentional conversations about how we can support one another better, but it can be really hard to figure out who you actually want to pull together.

To help break down this barrier, I’ve encouraged folks to think about multiple groupings of friends if that makes it easier to think about. Each of us has multiple interests and may have friends or communities associated with each of these– for me, that includes my my two best friends (who aren’t super close to each other though they get along fine), my co-workers, my organizing friends, my running buddies, etc. In thinking about how I would structure a FAR Out project within my own communities, it’s helpful for me to imagine each mini-network of relationships and to think about what kind of process would work best for each, instead of trying to find some (mythical?) catch-all that will work for everyone.

The skills and agreements that I want to be practicing vary a lot across these groupings too. My expectations of my co-workers are quite different than my expectations of my best buds, and my hopes inside each of these categories of relationships are somewhat different too.

In thinking about having these conversations with the various people in your life, some questions that may be helpful to ask yourself include:

  •  Who do you want to be having these conversations with? (It can help to start by listing everyone who comes to mind—you’ll have plenty of opportunity to edit the list later on!)
  • Are there differences in the kind of process or conversations you imagine having with various people on this list? (You can use different shapes or colors on your list to indicate which people might go together, if that’s helpful).
  • Do you have concerns associated with any of the people on this list? For example, a friend who you know has a hard time keeping secrets, or maintaining confidentiality. For some survivors of abuse, it may feel complicated or unsafe to include friends who are also close to an abusive partner or ex-partner. Note: these concerns don’t mean that these friends can’t or shouldn’t be involved; it’s just helpful to keep these concerns in mind as you’re thinking about who you want involved, and in what capacity.
  • Are there factors that might make it difficult for some people on your list to participate with others? This could be because of interpersonal relationship dynamics (Cam and Sofia don’t get along with each other, for example) or it could be because someone lives in another part of the country/world or has a work schedule that conflicts with other folks’ availability. Again, these don’t mean they can’t participate, you just may need to be creative in coming up with workarounds.

A quick heads up: This process, by itself, can elicit lot of emotion. For some of us, this brainstorm may bring up feelings of sadness, shame, anger and/or confusion about not having the community or friendships that we long for. For many survivors of intimate violence, it can stir up anger, grief or still other feelings to recognize how disconnected we may have become from friends and family due to the isolation that was part of our experience of abuse.

If you notice any of these feelings coming up, know that there is nothing wrong with you for feeling these things. In the coming weeks, we’ll be posting several worksheets to help you brainstorm ideas for taking care of yourself when difficult feelings come up.

It may also be helpful to remind yourself:  Why am I organizing this process? What am I hoping to create for myself and my community? Bringing these goals to mind may help you re-connect to the longer-term vision that motivates you to begin this exploration.

{Owl image painted by Melanie Mikecz}
{Talking Bird by Matte Stephens}

A History of F.A.R. Out…

Consider for a moment what our community would look like if we valued our friendships as much as we did our dating and romantic relationships. We would never ditch our friends when we started to date someone new. We wouldn’t be so quick to brush them off as “just friends.” We wouldn’t take our friendships for granted, assuming that they will always be there, no matter how much or little time and attention we put into maintaining them. We know that dating relationships are, often, fleeting… but our friendships can be our most precious and stable relationships. What would it look like for us to start treating them with as much intention and value as they merit?

Imagine if we had a commitment with our friends to share with each other anything and everything that was going on with our partners. Not that you would talk about everything, but that you could. And that agreement was not only clearly articulated amongst your friends, but also with all current and future partners. Having this shared value of opennes and honesty could have several potential benefits. It would act as a deterrent for us to be consistently behaving poorly in our relationships. It would also flag potential problem areas if you noticed there were aspects of your relaiotnship that you were reluctant to share with your friends for fear that it might cast your partner (or you) in a bad light.

How are these issues relevant to domestic violence? In 1999, the National Institute of Justice funded a qualitative research project that brought together the NW Network, Seattle & King County Department of Public Health, and the UW School of Public Health. The NW Network’s involvement in this collaborative project was led by Danica Bornstein, one of our community advocates. Through focus groups and one-on-one interviews with LBT survivors, we gathered a lot of information about their experiences, needs and gaps in services.

Time and again, survivors reported that isolation was a cornerstone tactic in their experiences of abuse. This isolation took many forms, but the end result was always the same– severed ties between the survivor and her support network. Without that access to support, perspective and feedback, the abuser has total, unimpeded power to dominate their partner.

For a survivor who’s considering leaving her relationship, the thought of rebuilding those lost connections and relationships can feel completely overwhelming and insurmountable. That’s where the NW Network’s project came in. Survivors in the research study repeatedly stated that they wanted concrete ways to increase the queer community’s capacity to support survivors. This feedback informed the design of a new community building project, a discussion series called Friends Are Reaching OUT (F.A.R. Out!). The goal of this project was to build capacity within our community to resist isolation and sustain meaningful connections. We hoped to create a community culture that values open and honest communication, and reinforces the importance of friendships in resisting domestic violence.

F.A.R. OUT worked with queer-identified survivors and their closest friends and family. We met with each support network, on average two to three times. We created a space where people could discuss agreements and strategies that they had (or might adopt) to solidify their values of staying connected to each other. Group members had conversations about:

  • How does support happen within our group?
  • How has domestic violence impacted relationships with my friends?
  • How can we hold ourselves, and each other, accountable in our relationships?
  • What would it take to build friendships that are more resilient than and outlast abusive relationships?
  • What would it mean to share openly about my intimate relationships with my friends and family?

Topics varied from group to group depending on what they wanted to get out of their conversation, and whether there was someone who was surviving an abusive relationship at that time.

While the F.A.R. OUT program no longer exists, the information and skills we gathered from survivors and their networks continue to inform our work and is the very impetus for the National Friends & Family Domestic Violence Action Campaign.