Friday, 15 June 2012

Behind Closed Doors: Living in an Abusive Relationship

Behind closed doors, there’s an epidemic. 1 in 4 women will be affected by it. UK police receive one call about it every minute, an estimated 1,300 calls a day or over 570,000 a year, though less than 40% of cases are reported. No other crime has a rate of repeat victimisation so high(1). I am talking, of course, of domestic violence.

Domestic violence can happen to anyone.

Imagine for one moment that it’s you that it’s happening to. You dealing with the carnage.

Until you look back, you don’t even identify it as domestic violence: that’s something that happens to other people, right? You don’t use words like ‘abuser’ or ‘beaten’ or ‘raped’. That sounds so serious! You use minimizing language, always. And you’re so confused: tired and scared and confused. Hell, the confusion! He’s so attentive to start with, so thoughtful to start with, you don’t even notice things, or at least nothing to put a finger on until it’s got Bad, by which time it’s too late. Then it gets Worse, and the language ends: you have no point of reference; you stop speaking.

It begins with the odd comment about what you’re wearing. A few snidey remarks about your friends. Then: jealousy. Full on. He says you’re flirting with other men and though God knows that’s the last thing on your mind, you feel confused. You don’t meet your friends to save the arguments so there’s no one about to question his behavior, to get an opinion from, to back you up. You think - maybe I am flirty though I don’t mean to be.

I’ll try harder.

There’s been a gradual chip, chip, chipping at your self esteem. You were always a little unsure of yourself and now that’s become a yawning chasm of lost-ness. He tells you he loves you but he criticizes you, he gets angry, he gets so angry these days but he says it’s your fault and maybe it is. The things he seemed to like about you to start with, your rebelliousness, your intelligence, now seem to annoy him. You drink more to help with the feelings. Sometimes when he’s shouting it doesn’t feel like you’re really there at all.

Then it gets physical.

This is when people will tell you you should have left. People are full of helpful advice like that after the fact. I’m sorry, did I say advice? I meant judgment. He tells you it’s your fault and these people, the people you used to think would help you, hospital staff, they say the same thing. Look at her going back to him! He told you people couldn’t be trusted and you know what, he’s right. At your lowest point people have exempted him and blamed you.

You feel like scum.

You feel like you’re going crazy, and you know the drink’s a problem, the drugs are a problem. Together with the self harm they were things that helped you to feel in control even if only a little, to make it a little less painful, the self inflicted damage a means to ease the suffering in your head. He tells you you’re fucking lucky to have him, and you believe him. You look crazy but he doesn’t, you sport the bruises from the last beating and end up hiding at home, ashamed to be seen, afraid to be judged. He goes where he likes when he likes, he sees other women, and he’ll tell you all about that and how much better they are than you when he gets home.

You’re afraid you’ll be sectioned.

He used to be so sorry and upset when he hit you, but it wears off. His anger fades quicker than the bruises but can be triggered in an instant. You feel yourself splitting, mind and body separating out during the beatings, during the violence.

You are so, so lonely. And scared. Everything that’s close to you is broken and destroyed, and at some point you realize you’ve lost even yourself.  You see it in the eyes, in your eyes: an emptiness that speaks of exhaustion and pain and fear and hurt almost above and beyond human endurance. You’re here in body but it’s less clear how present you really are in any meaningful sense.

Things are happening that you didn’t know went on. Sex-wise he’s opened your eyes to a whole load of stuff. Did I say it gets confusing? It gets a little confused. He’ll be nice then he’ll be nasty, taunting you for being frigid, for not doing what ‘real women’ do. He shows you magazines and dvds to teach you how it’s done, and you’re scared to say no. You used to say no, but the rows and the violence mean you don’t say too much these days, and it doesn’t stop him anyway. Anything you say can tick him off and make his fist itch. 

It’s painful and degrading but it'll get worse.

He breaks your boundaries one by one. He wants anal sex. He wants to use toys. He wants to take pictures. There are certain points where lines are crossed and power shifts to him. You both know it though it’s unspoken. After the pictures he has it in his power to humiliate you publicly.

Now he brings in other people.

These ‘friends’ of his, his dealer plus entourage, he wants you to ‘look after’ them, and you’ve learned what that means. Outsiders will say if it was that bad you would have left, but it’s not that simple. Just because you’re still here doesn’t mean you want to be. If you could walk away, you would, but the last time you tried that, you got caught and by the time he’d finished with you, you weren’t walking anywhere anytime soon. He tells you he’ll finish the job off if it ever happens again. He doesn’t let you leave the house. He has the money and the car keys. You have a serious addiction and you’re in trauma. You have PTSD and it makes you easy to manipulate. Sometimes you can’t move, sometimes you can’t speak, sometimes it’s like he’s shouting at you but there’s actually no one there.

Choices? Clear thinking? I might have said it before but it gets confused.

Memories are fractured and best forgotten. You can’t take tomorrow for granted. The mind is resilient, the body resilient, until it isn’t. Fainting. Chest pains, wrist pains, leg pains, abdo pains, heavy bleeding, sickness, gashes, bruises, eyes so swollen you can’t see for a while, will never see as well out of after. The vision returns, but it’s not the same. Head injuries. The drugs and drink help the forgetting, the head injuries help the forgetting. You don’t half bleed a lot from your head. You take care of the body as best you can, you lie awake some nights scared to sleep in case you don’t wake up, looking at the belt draped on the end of the bed, a dark reminder.

If he lets you eat, you eat. If you keep these men happy, maybe he won’t hit you. Maybe not tonight anyway. You hurt all the time, from the beatings, from the fucking. Words like ‘pimping’ won’t come into your vocabulary until much later, and even then they’re hard to say – too real, too painful. Instead you think in colours and numbers, in rhymes and letters. Anything not to let the reality in. You need safety, everybody needs safety, but no place is safe. You tell yourself: I’m not really here, it’s not really me, it’s just a body but I’m not that, I’m someplace else.

You develop different headspaces.

Time passes and then, miracle of miracles, you manage to escape.

A happy ending? Not quite, not yet. If you were looking for a movie ending, riding off into the sunset, you'd be disappointed.

This is just the beginning. You try to fit in, to act ‘normal’ but you don’t know how. Your recent experiences have geared you to survival rather than living, have left you with massive trauma that confuses everything, the past seems more real than the present at times with the PTSD, stuff triggers it all the time and you feel disorientated and lost. The loneliness continues, even in company. You begin piecing stuff together, trying to figure: what the fuck happened here? You’re scared to talk about it, afraid of more judgment, knowing from past experience that people will take it more as a reflection of you and your character than a reflection of him.

The pain and the realization of what went before, what you couldn’t let yourself know, it catches you up. Denial kept you alive and it’s fucking hard to give it up, especially now you’re off the drink and drugs. You get nightmares and flashbacks, wake up soaked in sweat, you throw up, you cry sometimes but more often you don’t. You have scars, you don’t trust, your body upsets you, constant reminder that it is of where you've been, of what they did. You start to see how it could have been, how it should have been, and the stark, painful contrast of how it actually was.

Feelings and images burned into your body and mind, replaying.

You’ve seen stuff you didn’t want to see, that no one should ever have to see, experienced stuff that makes vocabulary seem redundant, and you realize that scary as it is to talk about it, you’re gonna have to find someone, try and do it somehow, because it’s too much on your own. You can’t do it on your own anymore. Images you’ve tried to bury and forget forcing their way out. They make you sick, the words make you sick and the prospect of trusting someone with stuff so close to you that sometimes it feels as if it is you makes you sick. But what are the options?

That was me. That was how it was, how it is, for me. It was me but it could have been you. It’s an epidemic. 1 in 4 women will be affected by domestic violence. The stories vary but the themes are the same. Being raped, being pimped, pornography can happen to anyone. Don’t see this issue as something that doesn’t concern you because it does. My ignorance was bliss until suddenly it wasn’t. We’re all in this together. The abuser needs to be made visible. Blame shouldn’t fall on an already traumatised victim. Women shouldn’t be living in fear of being abused, whether that be inside or outside the home. Every time we blame a victim of domestic violence, we exonerate her abuser. Every time we shine the light of judgment on her, we let him continue to live in the shadows.

On average, two women a week are killed by a violent partner or ex-partner (2). People are dying and it needs to stop. And people are surviving and dealing with judgment and willful misunderstanding on a daily basis. That needs to change too.

It was me but it could have been you.

(1) See for statistics
(2)  (Povey, (ed.), 2005; Home Office, 1999; Department of Health, 2005.)
Also thanks to Rebecca Mott for ending my writing block!