What should love look like?

I was just 16 when I met him. I think because I was young, I didn’t really know what love should look like. Not love even – just what people should treat you like, in a friendship. To be honest the signs were all there if I look back on it. But I just wasn’t taught it and didn’t understand it at the time. Because, you always think ‘oh yeah, that would never happen to me…’

I didn’t realise how quickly it would escalate into being trapped. It’s just not really spoken about. And then when you’re in it, you’re embarrassed. You want to think it’s not really happening and you minimise it – make it less in your head – just to keep coping. Because if you think about the reality of it, you make it even worse.

It completely knocked my confidence. I had no self-esteem, I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t understand myself. I thought I was worthless and struggled to believe in myself. I didn’t really have friends because they’d all been cut off. After all of that, I had to rebuild myself. It’s even harder when you’re not yet a woman – you’re a teenager – so you’re already trying to find yourself, you don’t have much life experience and for me as well I’d been in care and I’m brown so I struggled with my identity anyway. All of that added to it…

I didn’t get any support. I mean, I had loads of agencies involved – the police, social services, stuff like that…but when you’re in that situation you feel like you’re being judged. Especially if you’re young – they just think that you’re stupid – that it’s your fault for picking that type of guy, and because they can’t understand why you keep going back… So it’s really difficult, because you don’t really want to work with those services. And another thing – you can’t always see the abuse when you’re in it. I’d never have turned around and said I was in a violent or controlling relationship and so I never asked for help that way either.

I think what could’ve helped me is maybe going to a women’s group where they do confidence-building sessions, and you learn how people should treat you, what you should tolerate, and how to set boundaries. But I didn’t even know about charities like Women’s Aid, or my local domestic abuse service. A big part of it is self-love. You’ve got to re-learn your sense of self-worth and your purpose. I felt like I didn’t have a purpose.

We need more positive work – focused on knowing your worth, building good mental health and self-esteem – especially for younger girls and teenagers who are just finding their way in the world. Now I go into schools and I work with the girls, looking at signs of abuse and red flags. I show them the power and control wheel and we talk about believing in themselves and having confidence. I think it’s so important, especially at that age because when you’re young, people don’t take you seriously. I think I would’ve benefited so much from being able to talk to someone in the same situation, someone that looked like me, and came from a similar background – someone I could relate to, not just police officers and social workers. That’s what I want to offer to these girls. 

After I left him, it was like 13 years of my life had been taken away – and it took me years and years and to rebuild myself. I’d been stripped of everything. I didn’t know what I liked…I didn’t even know my own favourite colour. I didn’t know that we can all be amazing and we’re all good at something. Maybe it was easier because I had my son. Maybe when you don’t have a kid it could be even harder, because at least for me, he showed me love. He made me change, because I thought if I don’t change for him, he might end up like his dad, or like me in care. He’s innocent – I need to give him the best start.

Once I started finding myself again, I started volunteering, making new friends, I went to uni and now I’ve got a job. Things are finally falling into place. I’m not in a relationship now – I haven’t been since I left him. My friends tell me I need to meet someone, but I’m happy because I know now that when I do meet someone, it’ll be right. I used to think I couldn’t live without this guy…but now I don’t have to answer to him, my money is mine to spend, and I don’t have to rely on anyone but me. I’ve got my freedom.

[Image description: An illustration of a fist raised into the air with a purple background.]

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