How volunteering can help you recover from a traumatic experience

I was stuck in an abusive and violent relationship for 5 years. It wasn’t until we had children I realised that it wasn’t right and that I couldn’t let it continue. But it still took me 1.5 years to find the courage to report my abusive partner to the police.

The weeks after he was arrested and taken away were probably the worst time in my life so far. Everything fell apart, but I still had to function for the sake of my children. I did, however, receive a lot of support from different organisations, and gradually I started to piece my life back together again.

One thing that I decided quite early was that I wanted to use my experience to help others, and that way turn something bad into something good. I did not want to end up bitter and resentful. I started researching organisations that work with victims of abuse and somehow found Chayn, a volunteer-run organisation that uses technology to empower women.

Signing up, and having that nerve wracking video chat with the founder, Hera Hussain, was the best thing I ever did.

Research has found that people who do volunteer work are generally happier and that the happiness increases with the amount of time spent volunteering.1 It is also a great way to combat isolation and make new friends.

Five ways I have found volunteering to be helpful in my recovery process:

  1. It has given me something else to focus on besides my own problems.

If you have too much time to think about your own problems it can very easily become a downwards spiral, and your problems will only seem worse. Focusing on helping others solve their problems take the focus away from yourself, and being useful to others makes you feel better about yourself.

Yes, you need to deal with your problems to be able to move forwards, but dwelling too much on the past only breeds depression and resentment in my experience.

2. I have been able to use my experience to help others.

This has been important for me because it has enabled me to turn a horrible experience into something good. I have been able to help others who experience, or have experienced abuse because I understand what they are going through. This, in turn, has made me see my past relationship as merely a part of my history, and it has helped me become the stronger, more confident person I am today.

As a single mum who has been at home with children for a few years, it has helped me immensely to be able to feel useful by contributing to something bigger than myself.

3. Volunteering has challenged me and helped me face my fears.

Having to talk to strangers can be a scary thing when you are finding it hard to trust people, but volunteering made me realise that it is possible to trust again. It has also challenged me to do the things I don’t feel confident doing, like writing blog posts and helping with research for different projects. Having to work closely with people whom to me always seem confident and much more skilled than I am was quite frightening at first. But as time went by I started to realise that they are not superhumans and they doubt themselves and feel self-conscious too.

My input and efforts have always been valued, which for someone who was used to being told that she was the problem and was always wrong has been an amazing confidence boost.

4. It has provided me with a supportive environment that has helped me improve my skills.

In Chayn the skills you have are not that important, what really matters is a desire to make a change. It’s a group of people with a variety of skills, and everyone is encouraged to improve upon their skills and learn new skills with support from the group. It’s a wonderfully supportive community, and there is always someone you can ask if you need help with something.

Trying to learn new skills has given me something meaningful to focus on in the evenings when the children are asleep. That’s when I would often feel incredibly lonely, and start thinking of the past, wishing I had done things differently and feel sorry for myself. But now I have a support system to turn to whenever I’m feeling low.

5. Being seen as someone with useful experience rather than a victim.

When you have been a victim of domestic abuse the people around you tend to feel sorry for you, or perhaps they don’t quite know what to say and the feeling of being a victim is strengthened. It is not particularly useful in a recovery process when you want to move forward. As a volunteer, I have found that instead of being victimised I have been seen as someone with valuable experience to draw upon, and someone who can easily relate to what the people we are trying to help are going through.

As you can probably tell by now I truly enjoy volunteering and recommend it wholeheartedly, especially for people like myself who have a troubled past.

It doesn’t matter so much what you do as long as it’s something that is meaningful to you. You never know, it might ignite passion you did not know you had, take you places you have never been before, and you will most certainly meet lots of interesting people with shared interests. It might even help you advance your career.

There are lots of different ways you can volunteer. In Chayn the focus is on technology and most of the work can be done over the internet and people all over the world can join in. But you can also volunteer more locally, and there are many different roles available. Some require certain skills, others are more physically demanding. You will often be required to go through some sort of interview process, but don’t let that scare you.

A word of warning, though, you may end up wishing you had more free time because there is so much you want to achieve, and so much fun to be had.


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