'It's like being a ghost:' Former Manitoban shares life in hiding from abusive ex-partner

A former Manitoban had to uproot her life and change her identity when she was put into witness protection to hide from her former abusive partner. Now she's sharing her story — and her poetry — to let people know she still exists.

Woman put into witness protection uses poetry to heal from domestic violence

Scarlet says living in witness protection means watching the world go by, from your window. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Hiding now is nothing like what Scarlet experienced playing hide-and-seek as a kid.

"I'm not hiding from a friend or a playmate or somebody who wants to tickle me or call me silly names," Scarlet said. 

"I'm hiding from somebody who wants to end my life."

Scarlet, whose identity CBC is protecting, lived in Manitoba years ago before she went into witness protection to hide from her former abusive partner.

Now she writes poetry about her experience with domestic violence, the justice system and the loneliness of living in hiding.

What it feels like to be a ghost

Scarlet was relocated elsewhere in North America, received a new name and started a new life, away from family and friends.

"I was lifted out of my home. I don't get to see and hug and smell my [family]," Scarlet said.

"It's almost like I can't breathe when I think how far away I am from them, how I can't participate in everyday things."

Being in hiding means Scarlet can't take photos and post them online, or disclose certain pieces of information with people in her new life. 

Left to swell with rainbow skin / My voice unable to engage / The disguise removed, / I SEE him now.- Lines from Scarlet's poem "Rainbow Skin"

"I have to be very secretive, which means I can never have an honest relationship ever again," she said.

"It's like being a ghost in real life…I can see everybody, but they're not allowed to see me." 

When Scarlet first went into hiding, she completely changed her appearance in order to disguise her identity. She changed her hairstyle, glasses, clothes and even her nail polish colours. She wore hats, scarves, gloves and zipped up jackets.

Scarlet describes her life in witness protection in this dramatic re-enactment:

'A life with meaning and purpose'

3 years ago
Duration 3:40
Scarlet narrates a dramatization of her experience living in witness protection.

Every outing was a major event. She constantly looked over her shoulder. 

"I had to do like a three-take on myself in a mirror before I'd even open that door to go outside," she recalled. 

Once she was outside, she would walk around her car to make sure her ex hadn't broken into it, and to be sure he wasn't waiting in her back seat. 

When she drove, she constantly stared into her rear-view mirror. She always hurried to her next destination.

Scarlet says that life in hiding can make one a shut-in. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"There were so many triggers out there that I basically lived as a shut-in for probably about the first I'd say 15, 16 months of my new life," she said.

"I still think about all those things."

Scarlet said she lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. 

Failed system 

Scarlet feels like the justice system failed her.

The accused faced a number of charges, but as a result of a plea bargain, the assault charge was stayed. 

Scarlet was put into witness protection. 

"My mission in life is to abolish backdoor deals from the justice system," said Scarlet.

"His prints in red, yellow, green and black / Still Not enough / It makes him laugh / Case closed."- Lines from Scarlet's poem "911"

Elizabete Halprin has worked with other abused women who, like Scarlet, felt the justice system didn't support them.

Halprin is the community development coordinator in social work with NorWest Co-op Community Health in Winnipeg. 

"I feel it's really unfortunate in Scarlet's situation," she said.

Halprin works within family violence programming, which provides services for women who are leaving, want to leave or have left an abusive relationship.

"There has to be more education within different fields of work — such as the justice system, such as police force — all those other key points that women come in contact with around domestic violence and the effects of it," Halprin said.

"Although things have come a long way over the years, there still is quite a bit that needs to be done."

Writing poetry is Scarlet's anonymous outlet of expression. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Healing with poetry

Scarlet uses poetry as an outlet to share her story and help her heal.

She wrote her first poem in 2014 after realizing she still loved her ex. 

"How horrible is that? To love somebody that wants to kill you?" she said. "You can't just shut off your feelings. So I needed to do something."

"Grasping for a new tomorrow / Waking up to the same day / These my nightmares, / of just one day.- Lines from Scarlet's poem "Just A Day"

Scarlet's mentor suggested she write poetry. She hasn't stopped writing since. 

"He's taken much too much from me already. So I have to empower myself and I have to empower others, to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Scarlet said.

"Although that tunnel is very long, very dark, very dreary."

The poems also help give her a voice.

"Although I can't put my name to them, I can at least let the world know that underneath this victim of horrid assault, injustice and rape, there can still be a soft, kind soul."Scarlet is in the process of having her poetry published. It's another step, she hopes, to powerfully — though anonymously — take charge of her life.


Danelle Cloutier

Associate Producer/Technician

Danelle Cloutier is an associate producer and audio technician in current affairs at CBC Manitoba. She has a background in audio engineering and journalism.