I didn’t realise I was in an abusive relationship. Having experienced domestic abuse as a very young child, I thought abuse was only physical. As a young adult, I vowed it would never happen to me again, but it did.
I had a good job, my own house, my own car. I was very independent. So when I met my now-ex-husband, someone I knew from the past, the signs that I now know as red flags – like his short temper, or getting angry and then being extremely apologetic– didn’t faze me. He moved in as a friend, living in my spare room but this didn’t last long. We were married within 10 months and our first child was born at the end of that year.
He coerced me into taking redundancy, playing on the irrational feelings that were developing about my job and co-workers, and it wasn’t long into another job that I became pregnant. He slowly began to take control of everything – making me add him onto the deeds of my house and mortgage, and pressuring me to sell my car to buy a new ‘family’ car, which then was in his name. I felt I had no choice but to say yes.
His behaviour became more erratic, heightening while I was pregnant, when I felt most vulnerable. He started kicking walls and taking things out on himself or things around him in front of me. Never directly at me at the time but I became scared of him, which is what he wanted. He was very good at twisting everything, gas lighting, chipping away at me. I started to get confused. I was quickly losing my self-esteem, my independence, my identity. He took control.
After our first child was born, he told the midwife that he thought I had post-natal depression. I accepted what he was saying, and so did she. Things then began to escalate. If he didn’t get what he wanted, he would shout. Sometimes I would shout back but soon learnt that this made the situation even worse. We got marriage guidance counselling and moved house on more than one occasion. Each time nothing changed. He would come and go as he pleased, get drunk and become very loud and abusive, smashing things around me. Throwing dinner plates at the wall, and kicking doors off their hinges. Much of this was in front of our child.
When I did what he wanted, things were ‘good.’ We had nice holidays, wore nice clothes, did all the nice things he wanted. To the outside world, things looked good, but on the inside, they were anything but. I always felt like I was walking on eggshells – his moods would swing so much that I didn’t know who I was going to see next. It affected my relationships with friends and family. Some people saw me as the problem. I gradually became isolated.
During my second pregnancy, he would shout at the top of his voice, and wouldn’t do anything to help at home. Whenever I raised how I felt he shut me down, told me it was my fault. After the birth, he began behaving strangely around our baby; I was scared to leave them alone. If I didn’t keep our baby quiet in the night he would shout, scream, slam doors. I was exhausted.
We got more couples counselling but this time it was different. The counsellor understood what was happening and set up individual appointments. This was the turning point for me. I began to identify what was happening.
The day we split, I realised that things needed to change. I took the children and left. Homeless, I went to the Citizens Advice Bureau and explained my situation as I was at a loss as to what to do. They gave me a leaflet about domestic abuse and one on The Freedom Programme. It was during this 12-week course that my true turning point occurred. A friend of his persuaded him to leave the house, so the children and I could move back in. However, for months, he used a wide range of tactics to try to move back in but the facilitators of the programme I was on, pointed out what was happening. I started to see things for what they really were.
I wouldn’t take him back, so he changed his tactics. He did what he could to get me out of the house. He stopped paying the mortgage, and left jobs to reduce or stop payments. I felt I had no choice but to move out, as I couldn’t pay the expensive mortgage we had. He lied, saying he would agree to sell the house but he didn’t, moving back in. I had poor legal advice at the time so I felt the only option was to leave with the children and move to rented accommodation.It was at this time that he used the system to stop paying child maintenance all together, which left us in a vulnerable position all over again. It was then I realised that the system – meant to protect and support survivors – allows perpetrators to continue their abuse, so I started to do everything for myself. I worked hard in my job and progressed up the ladder, I bought a new home with the support of shared ownership and we settled into our new lives. I realised that I needed to work on myself to heal so this would never happen to me again. I did the recovery course with my local domestic abuse charity, where I began my self-care journey. I started running, yoga, and listening to guided meditations to help me sleep at night. Gradually, I became independent again.
The children still have regular contact with him and he has consistently tried to use them and the child maintenance system to sabotage my parenting. I have taken him to court about the children more than once but he filed a non-molestation order against me, sharing a statement packed with lies about my character, which had a huge impact on my self-esteem. This broke me down and I never trusted the courts or the police again, because of the vulnerable position they put us in. They seemed to have no clue that their decisions were continuing his torture.
Over time I learnt not to rise to his attempts to undermine me, setting strong boundaries by paying a great deal of money that I didn’t have to get court orders, and actually try not to budget with any money that comes via the CMS because it can change at the drop of a hat. I was lucky enough that my finances allowed me to do this – but many more women could not. The system is completely flawed and I’ve lost too much because of it. I put the children first so they don’t get put in the middle and they are starting to see things for themselves. They are much happier in themselves but I know first-hand it’ll change their lives forever.
It was only years later that I felt able to speak to my GP as I was so worried that I would lose my children due to my poor mental health. Unfortunately, both children have since been diagnosed with special needs and myself with Complex PTSD. Having to hold everything together with limited support from others, including from my employer, for so long caused trauma and I couldn’t keep up with my job. I had to make more adjustments and it has taken many years to rebuild our lives.
Ruled by domestic abuse since my childhood, I always felt my life wasn’t my own and that others control everything I do. After a great deal of work on myself, including the support from another wonderful counsellor and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, I now see things differently. I realise thatmy own shame and confusion caused by the abuse, kept me from speaking out for so long because I was so concerned about what others thought of me. The system was stacked against me and, I felt lost and embarrassed about the state of my own mental health. On some level, I thought I was the one at fault.
I have recognised now that my focus needs to be on my continued healing and using my experiences as a campaigner to drive change for other survivors. I’m in control of my own life and it is a blessing as I’m now re-training to be a counsellor so I can support others on their journey out of the invisible prison that is domestic abuse. I follow a manageable self-care plan that consists of a short run 3 times a week and a compact yoga practice every day. This helps with managing my bubbling anxiety and stops it from erupting. I listen to my needs, my body and check in with my own mental health regularly. I’ve found the strength and determination to get my life back, finding people and tools that lift me up rather than tear me down. I’m now with a supportive partner and we encourage each other every day to be our best selves and to strive to fulfil our goals and dreams. I can achieve the things I have always dreamed of achieving.
[Image description: Dark writing on a pale green background reads: ‘His behaviour became more erratic, heightening while I was pregnant, when I felt most vulnerable’. There is an outline of a pregnant woman’s body, with a light pink heart in her bump.]