Two Nova Scotia registered nurses who run a human rights advocacy group are speaking out about domestic "torture" cases with the help of a woman victim who first sparked the issue for them more than 20 years ago. 

"We tried to find people to help her and no one really wanted to. About three sessions into her work, we realized she was a torture survivor because her story went way beyond abuse, so we stayed with her and we helped her heal," said Linda MacDonald. 

MacDonald and fellow registered nurse Jeanne Sarson are the founders of Persons Against NST (Non-State Torture).

They say their first foray into looking at domestic torture began in 1993 when Sarson took a call from a woman in her late 20s who goes by the name Sara. 

"That night, I said, 'I know I can't live with this anymore.' I had it all planned out for suicide, and I said I'll call this number in the pamphlet and if nobody answers, I know it's right," Sara told CBC News. 

Sara, who is now 50 years old and uses a pseudonym to protect her identity, alleges she was starved, drugged, confined, beaten and raped by her own parents from the time she was a young child.  

'I'm working as hard as I can to rise above these damn people to be the best person I can be ....' - Sara

"I remember so often being rented out and I remember the statement, 'Bring her back when you're done.' And I remember feeling like a thing," Sara says.

"But also the whole time is so confusing, because you don't understand. I was so young and ... you think it's normal."

Sara says the violence went on for years, even while she was working and living in her own apartment.

She never went to police because she says she was afraid her family would hurt her more.

"They would torture you over, and over and over again. They wouldn't just tell you — they'd do it. And they could come up with torture you can't even think of," said Sara.

Sarson and MacDonald say the violence suffered by Sara amounts to torture. They say being unable to find "torture-informed support" for Sara led them to start Persons Against NST. 

Over the years, Sarson and MacDonald say they've helped more than 3,000 victims of NST around the globe, including about a dozen or so cases in Nova Scotia.  

MacDonald says counselling can continue for two to three years. In some cases, they work with victims for over a decade. 

Canada does not recognize "torture" under the law, unlike Michigan, California, France and Queensland, Australia, which do.

Finding help

Sarson recalls Sara's call to a Truro help line late at night in 1993. 

"I picked it up and the voice on the other end was a woman who I did not know. I had no way to contact her," Sarson says. 

Sara talked that night, and called again. Some days, she called dozens of times. Her story spilled out over the next decade. Sarson and MacDonald, helped Sara on the phone and in person. 

Though she never went to police, Sara eventually was able to break away from her family and the abuse she alleges took place for much of her young life. She said the violence troubles her to this day and memories often leave her exhausted. 

"I have so much grief, and so much loss and so much just taken from me," she says. 

"I'm working as hard as I can to rise above these damn people to be the best person I can be, and hopefully, if I can't bring an end to it, I can slow it down big time."

'I'm lucky to be alive'

Because she was too afraid of the potential repercussions of reporting the alleged abuse, Sara's parents were never investigated by police. 

The RCMP don't track "torture" against children, so can't say how many people suffer Sara's fate. 

Sara says she owes her life to Sarson and MacDonald.

"I want to live on most days. I still have trouble, but most days I want to live. It's challenging and difficult, but I know I'm lucky to be alive. And I'm only alive because Jeanne answered the phone."

'There are brutal people all over the world. It isn't just in the past. It's present day.' - Linda MacDonald

Sarson and MacDonald say their goal is to have NST recognized as a "specific and distinct human rights violation."

"I just had to start believing that's another reality of violence that I'd never really known about, and I just went back to my knowledge about the Holocaust and knowing how brutal people can be," said MacDonald. 

"There are brutal people all over the world. It isn't just in the past, it's present day. So I just had to reframe my worldview of what human beings are capable of."

She says torture goes far beyond assault.

"Torture is daily. You're tortured so much, with so many techniques — verbally, physically, sexually, methodically and it becomes part of your skin. After a while it ... well it hurts, but you think it doesn't hurt."

Sarson and MacDonald say they won't give up until police and politicians recognize that more resources are needed to help victims of torture.