Learning to thrive. A story of survival

O.K. Here is my story …I’ve procrastinated publishing this long enough. I believe that life is a series of lessons and experiences, the purpose of which is to teach us and progress us spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. This cannot be done without a time set aside for reflection and honest appraisal of what has gone before. I truly believe we attract certain people, experiences and events to ourselves so that we can learn and grow in wisdom, compassion and understanding. For me, real change began when I finally stopped to look back, with curiosity, compassion and non-judgement at why I had allowed certain experiences to happen to me. 

As it happens, I am a survivor of domestic violence.

This happened over 10 years ago and while I have dealt with the trauma and grief a long time ago I have never had the courage to write about it. However, recent events in my life have caused me to reflect on my relationships and past as a whole. I have also recently remarried and while my new husband is not perfect I consider myself blessed and grateful to have found someone so beautiful, supportive and loving to share the rest of my life with. 

Another reason I am sharing this today is that I see the tragedy of violence in my work as a counsellor every day. I see the perpetrators as victims too in a way but women clearly bear the burden of violence in a way that men simply do not. If you are experiencing violence or are simply in an unhealthy relationship at best I hope my story helps you in some way. (See end of post for links to support services in Australia.)

O.K. Here goes. I firstly must point out that often there is an assumption that women who end up in domestic violent situations have a history of bad relationships. It was certainly not true in my case. My father was not an expressive man, emotionally distant yes, but not prone to violence. My first husband was kind and thoughtful. My childhood was largely, thankfully, uneventful. 

I fell in love with my ex pretty much straight away. He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen but he also had a very sweet innocence about him which was very endearing and so at odds with the monster he would sometimes become. See, that is the paradox and tragedy of violent relationships. The person you fell in love with is still there somewhere…and it is hard to reconcile that the monster and the man are housed within the same person. 

Within six months we had moved in together. During those early days, there were signs of his potential for violence. We had a few blow-ups, usually over minor things and one time he did get very angry with me simply because I got a parking fine. He followed me around the house, yelling nonsensical abuse at me. I remember nervously laughing at first saying, “Why are you getting so worked up. It’s not like you have to pay the fine!” That just made him angrier. To this day I still don’t know what it was about it that made him so angry. I went to the bathroom in a misguided attempt at removing myself from his anger and to create some space between us, hoping to give him a chance to calm down. When the door was thrust open, narrowly missing slamming into my head, the shock on my face must have finally reached him because he was immediately contrite and he apologised as he helped me up. I had fallen to the floor as I jumped out of the way.

I was shaken at the time but we talked at length about it and he ‘explained’ to me that he just felt that it was ‘unfair’ that I got the fine when we had been working so hard to get ahead. A funny way of expressing sympathy it seemed to me at the time, but I expressed emphatically how inappropriate his behaviour had been and he, of course, apologised profusely and promised that it would never happen again.

Of course it did, but by then we were married. And by the time the realization dawned on me that I had become involved with someone who had serious anger management issues, someone who was unable to control their temper, someone who would lash out at me for seemingly the most trivial things, someone who could go from sweet and loving to uncontrollably violent, seemingly from one moment to the next, I must admit I felt well and truly trapped. Trapped by my own stupidity more than anything else. In a way I did blame myself for the situation I found myself in. It wasn’t that I blamed myself for his behaviour. It was not that I felt that it was something I was doing. I always knew it wasn’t. I knew it was his inability to control his anger that was affecting me and our relationship. That much I understood. But I blamed myself for getting involved in the first place. For not knowing better, for not being able to read the signs or walking away earlier (like life had prepared me for this somehow when I had never experienced anything like it before). I thought this was my bed, my mess and I had to deal with it.

The one aspect of victim blaming that needs to be addressed is blaming yourself for someone else’s reprehensible behaviour. To those who may be going through similar feelings I have one thing to say: It’s not your fault…

Pride, I admit, was a big factor in keeping my worsening situation to myself. People had always thought of me as a smart, independent woman. I had always thought of myself as such. I could scarcely believe that I had ended up in such a shameful, ridiculous situation. This. This is what I left my first husband for? A man who loved me and would do anything for me?? I used to constantly berate myself about it. I began to hate the person I had become.  

I must clarify, I didn’t leave my first husband for this man but I had left my first husband because I wasn’t happy in that marriage, it was less to do with him than it was with me and where I was at.  I wanted to find myself I suppose …that I found myself instead in an intolerable, horrific situation was a source of constant astonishment, pain and finally shame to me. My first husband was a gentle and loving man who did not act in such a violent, seemingly “out of control” manner. I had never met any man like my abuser before. It took me a while to adapt to this new reality. 

The shock of violence is numbing and creates a form of inertia which takes time to recover from.

One trait of some violent men who seem to lack “control” of their emotions is that most of them only seem to lose control at home alone with you, behind closed doors. That is why when the truth finally comes out, people are usually shocked because to most people, “He seemed like such a nice man.” At work or in public, they would never erupt in a fit of rage at their boss or colleagues. They might be an angel around your family and friends which makes it all the more difficult to reconcile how and why this Dr Hyde only shows his Mr Jekyll side to you. For some reason you want to protect the facade of a ‘happy family’, for as long as you can hoping often beyond reason or evidence showing otherwise that it might somehow become true. Because, the truth, the real truth is so horrific. For a while you believe the fairy-tale, deep down in your heart you are hoping will come true. You cling to the hope that the last time, will be, the last time. That “I’m sorry” will really mean, “Never again” and that when things are going well you start to hope and believe that yes, maybe things are finally different. That, it is going to be o.k. …until it happens again.

It wasn’t until I was sitting beside my then husband in the counsellor’s office with a black eye in the latter stages of healing, (when it looks worse than ever) that I understood that it would never be “O.K.” ever again. Having her explain the cycle of violence made everything crystal clear to me. I finally understood that it have never been about me. It had never been in my control to curb his temper or his behaviour. It had never really mattered how nice I tried to be, how much I tippy-toed around him, how much I listened, how supportive I was, how much I tried to make him happy. He would always find a reason to explode in anger over something. And if the incidents between us had been fewer and farther between, so as to make me believe, falsely, that he was getting ‘better’, it was because I had learnt to minimize the triggers. I am by nature a very calm and easy going person. Yet I became really good at becoming smaller, quieter, softer. A more faded, greyer version of myself. If truth be told, the person I was before this relationship was quietly disappearing.

That realisation both terrified and mobilised me.

F52974C8-C66A-44BA-B93F-7B1534790140

I remember the moment I made the heart breaking decision to walk out of that marriage like it was yesterday. That was when I knew that there was no hope left, when I knew that I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t ‘over reacting’ or ‘making a big deal out of nothing’ but that he was. I would get out somehow. And, I would somehow find a way to colour myself back in.

That moment was now many years ago. But it has taken me this long to find the courage to write about it, and to say – I am a survivor of domestic violence. I survived, luckily, but so many, too  many women do not. Every time I read a story about how another woman has been murdered by a partner or ex-partner, (one a week is the current statistic) I am still affected by a sense of relief (how easily I could have ended up another statistic) and by a deep, deep sadness at the lives that are destroyed by this particularly insidious brand of violence. Like former Australian of the Year and fellow domestic violence survivor, Rosie Batty, I too was lucky enough to have means to support myself so I was able to walk away, (albeit leaving behind a whole house full of possessions in the process) Actually, my exit from that relationship was more like a meticulously planned military operation. But I somehow found the strength to do it and I am so grateful that I did.

For many women, especially when children are involved I know that things can be much more complicated. However, there is help available if you are able to at first break free from the psychological bind that domestic violence creates. 

My story had a happy ending, but many don’t. We need more money for victims of domestic violence services, not less. More shelters, not less. More awareness and more support for both victims and perpetrators as they are victims too. However it is women, invariably, that tend to pay the ultimate price and that needs to change.

Www.whiteribbon.org.au
Domestic violence line (24 hours) 1800 65 64 63
List of domestic violence services and contacts are available here:
https://www.facs.nsw.gov.au/domestic-violence/services-and-support/contacts/a-z



Advertisements

How to spot a potential abuser

This post first appeared in The Truth Joy Beauty Manifesto. I have updated it and made some corrections here. 

In response to Rosie Batty’s recent article, These are the “red flags” that signal an abusive relationship –  I’d like to point out that sometimes there are warning signs that point to a potentially abusive mindset or predisposition, before a relationship develops. If as women, we can get better at spotting some of these behaviours in potential partners then it could very well save a lot of women a lot of pain and trouble, not to mention lives. So while the “red flags” mentioned in the Mamamia article are worth noting, they are aimed at spotting the signs displayed by the women involved in an abusive relationship.

Wouldn’t be better if we could avoid getting involved with abuse altogether?

At the end of the day, these behaviours escalate not because as partners we are at fault in some way, the problem behaviour lies squarely with the abuser, however perhaps because we are far too giving and understanding in the first instance, and because being understanding and tolerant does not change an abuser’s behaviour for the better, quite the contrary as evidence shows, it sometimes seems to make things worse.

The reality is most abusers don’t start off that way on the first date. If that were the case, most of us would run a mile! No, they are very often charming, attentive, affectionate at first. However, there are warning signs, red flags if you will, that signal if not abusive tendencies but certainly cause for concern which are evident very early on. If the man you are interested in displays any of the following traits or behaviours, it could be time to press the snooze button on the relationship before momentum takes over.

For what it’s worth, here is my list of potential ‘red flags’ to watch out for when sizing up any potential new partner:

  1. Low tolerance for stress or stressful situations. They get easily and visibly stressed at things which you or most people for that matter would just brush off as a part of life. Annoying, yet nothing to get overly bothered about. If you find yourself having to talk them down just because they missed the early train or raging at other drivers ‘cutting them off’  who are clearly not, that’s early warning no. 1
  2. Quick to anger or unreasonable anger. If small things trigger big responses, especially angry responses, then take a mental note and be on high alert with this person, even if at first their rage is not directed at you.
  3. Quick to criticize. You’ve only been seeing this person for a short time and already they are making personal, sideways comments such as, “That dress is a bit short isn’t it?” or “Do you have to jump to attention every time your mother calls?” If they start criticizing your friends or family whom they barely know, don’t be fooled. They have an agenda and that agenda is to control and contain. This sort of person is really very insecure and the only way they can feel bigger is to make you feel small.
  4. Unable to take criticism. You may be surprised, (or not) to find that this same person who is so critical and acts so superior to you and your friends in so many ways, may act like the biggest baby at the slightest criticism. Leaving you feeling guilty and eager to make it up to them. Even if your critique is justified, i.e. they show up 2 hours late for a date or they “forget” to call you when they said they would and you are understandably put out, they will somehow find a way to make you feel like your mild reproach was the most cutting blow they have ever been dealt. Once again, don’t be fooled, be wary.
  5. Jealous and possessive. Once again, don’t be flattered or fooled by this game playing master manipulator. If he is jealous for no good reason, then don’t think it’s because he ‘loves you so much’ or that he is ‘so into you’. He doesn’t want any man to be involved too closely with your relationship because the one thing these abusive men are underneath all their bravado and aggression is cowardly. If he ‘disapproves’ of you being friends with exes or any long term male friend then take that as a serious warning. He doesn’t want the competition. Not in a romantic sense, but in terms of influence.
  6. Excessive futurizing. Even though you’ve only been dating a few weeks this man has already declared his ‘undying love’ for you. He has cultivated an ‘us against them’ vibe and you are feeling the pull of a whirlwind romance and almost delirious with excitement and passion. He has told you how beautiful, special and wonderful you are and how “different” you are from anyone else he has ever met. He may already be acting like you have been dating for years. Calling every day, planning your weekend on the Monday or talking about going on holidays at Christmas and it’s only February. DANGER. Tread very carefully and don’t let your vagina do the thinking for you. Real relationships take time to develop, and it takes more than a few weeks or months even to truly know a person.
  7. Childish and sullen when things don’t go his way. Once again, you barely know this guy, really, so you had a life before he came along, of course. He plans something for the weekend, but you already had a plan and so have to let him down. No matter how gently you put it, or how much you explain the situation, he leaves you feeling guilty and like you have somehow done something terribly wrong. He sulks and accuses you of not being sincere or serious about him or his intentions and basically throws a tantrum.
  8. Generally aggressive. Here’s one that may seem obvious to those of us that have experienced abuse in relationships, but no so obvious to those who haven’t. A lot of abusive men are aggressive in other ways, so why are we surprised when their aggression turns on us? Aggression is a form of survival and it is a basic human instinct, especially in men, but it has no place in romantic relationships. Aggressive behaviour, or any behaviour which leaves you feeling threatened or unsafe is definitely a red flag. It’s unfortunately only a matter of time before you become a victim of his aggressive, controlling ways. This may have been a useful characteristic in prehistoric days but it has no place in modern society.

These are just some of the red flags, which may not necessarily mean that you are in the arms of an abuser, but at the very least they indicate a lack of emotional intelligence and maturity which would make a relationship with this person an uphill battle.

Tread carefully, by all means keep your heart open, but don’t close your eyes as well.

 

D.I.V.O.R.C.E (November, 2012)

Got my divorce papers the other day, actually, I was served them. Like in the movies, they had to be handed to me personally and I had to sign to say I accepted them.

Which I was happy to do, happy to put an end to a phase of my life that was now firmly in the past. All but the official final piece of paper that said, divorced. All ties cut.

While I know this is a good thing, and God knows even though I am sometimes unsatisfied with the way my life has turned out, anything is better than the hell my marriage had become. The feeling is still bittersweet. But, to be honest, I am proud of the way I did what had to be done to get myself out of a sticky situation…although, perhaps there were other ways I could have handled things. I could have called on the help of family and friends, could have gotten the police and relevant authorities involved but I didn’t want to burden my family and I also didn’t want to have my personal dirty laundry, my failure in a sense, aired and examined for all the world to see. I just. Wanted. Out.

They say living in an abusive relationship is psychologically akin to living in a hostage situation. Today, I marvel at the military precision employed in what I could have named, Operation Freedom at the time. It took six months of planning, but basically one day I was there, the next I was gone and all he had was a letter of explanation and a list of demands for my possible return.

It may seem harsh to some, but when you live with a person who is violent and unpredictable, honest communication is a luxury you just cannot afford. I would have loved to be able to say, Hey I am thinking of leaving you because of your behaviour which is killing the love I had for you and if you don’t do something about it soon, I will leave. Sorry about that. How do you say that to someone who has exploded in violent anger over the smallest issue, punched holes in walls because he lost an online poker game, lashed out in frustrated anger at you just for saying, What about trying it this way? (While he was attempting to repair a bike, you make the stupidly, unthinkable mistake of trying to help.)

You get to a point where you just don’t say anything. You just smile and try and stay out of their way as much as possible. Anything to keep the peace… all the while inside there is an indignant, unholy pit of anger and self loathing, despair and fury growing and growing. It gets to the point where you are afraid of what you will do. We all have our limits…

In the end I did what I had to do and I am truly happier for it today. Lessons learned, hard though they were, have made me a stronger person and have fuelled within me a desire to get to the bottom of things and to maybe help other women who somehow find themselves in a similar situation. Who like me, are not victims, but survivors. Battle weary, yes, but alive and free.

Divorce. People say it’s a pity, but in some situations, divorce is a Godsend.

 

If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please contact the domestic violence line: http://www.domesticviolence.nsw.gov.au/