December 5th, 2009. I am standing in the freezing wind on the doorstep of a women’s refuge in Plymouth.
Three weeks till Christmas, and there I am, no suitcases, no belongings, just the clothes I am standing in. I ring the bell and the door is opened by Estelle, the woman I had spoken to on the phone earlier. She takes me through to the office and sits me down. I feel as if I am not there, there is a sort of transcendental feeling to all this. It is as if I am not in my body, I am listening to someone else answer her questions. How many times had he been violent? What were my current injuries?Did I have a police crime number for the latest incident? These are the questions I think she asked me, though I cannot be sure; I think I was in shock. Not so much shock of the latest incident, but shock that I was there. A new recruit so to speak; the latest guest at the home for battered women (this is how my current boyfriend describes it when he speaks of it; not very PC I know, but then he isn’t the PC type).
How had it come to this? I had such hopes when I moved to Plymouth, such dreams. We had the odd tiff even then, but it’s funny how the mind forgets the bad sometimes in order to paint a more romantic picture.I think I wanted him so badly, I didn’t want to see the signs that all was not well.
We never do, do we? Maybe broken relationships don’t all end as badly as mine, but there is usually that stage of denial, the part where your friends try to warn you off. But you don’t want to know, you would rather shoot the messenger. Maybe heartache is a rite of passage for all of us. Some seem to learn from it better than others though. Sitting in the kitchen later, listening to the stories of the other women, I wondered if I even had a right to be there.
He hadn’t really done a lot to me by comparison.The odd push, a few rough holds that had left bruises covering the entire top half of my arm. But he was a big man, didn’t know his own strength. Ok there had been two occasions he had punched me in the face. But mostly it was just pushing and shoving. These women had endured so much more. Daily beatings, being locked in their homes.
He had only put me in hospital once. I think that was the time he threw a side table at me and it caught the top of my head. It wasn’t that bad, just needed gluing. It just looked a lot worse than it was; of course head wounds are real bleeders, aren’t they.I only remember flashes of what happened that time, another drunken row about the wife.
It was when I woke up in the night to use the loo, and caught sight of myself in the mirror. That’s when I thought “enough”. Have you ever seen that film from the seventies called “Carrie”? It’s a classic, all about a girl with telekinetic powers. To cut to the chase, there is this one scene where she is drenched in a bucket of pigs blood, she is standing there, covered from head to toe in the stuff, three or four rivulets of it running down her face. That’s what I looked like in the mirror. Carrie.So that’s when I dialled 999.
Enough. And yet …. It hadn’t been enough, had it. I had gone back that time.
And the time after. I wish I could remember the first time he was violent towards me. There were so many occasions, looking back it probably started at least two years before I moved into the refuge.
I cannot remember many specifics; of course I remember all the morning afters, waking with bruises, black eyes, and the occasional cracked rib. But the drink obscured the memory of the actual violence. I had almost become as big a drunk as he had. Mind you, he had had years of experience. It’s in my genes” he would say.
The son of an Irish father, his uncle dead from a ruptured ulcer. “The blood was sprayed all up the walls, the carpets. It just went on him one day” he told me. A family of drunks. His father was violent too. I remember him crying one day. Look at what I had reduced him too, he cried. A violent man, just like his dad.
My fault for provoking him. I think I believed him too. If I hadn’t gotten drunk, picked a fight. If only I could leave the whole “wife” situation alone. There must be something wrong with me for him not to let her know.He said it was for the children’s sake, he didn’t want them to know they were from a broken home. Most of the time he wasn’t even apologetic.
Look what I had made happen. All my fault. Something inside me was at war. I could not reconcile the Dr Jekyll I had first met with the Mr Hyde he became during those drunken, angry moments. I wanted to blame the alcohol for the things that happened, not the man. I had felt so happy when I “bagged” him. There I was, council estate nobody, no qualifications (although a good job, nonetheless), living with a man with a career; a man with a degree.
Nobody in my family had graduated university, only one person in my family had been, and they hadn’t finished their course. I felt incredibly lucky to have him. I may have risen to a respectable job through hard work, yet in my mind I was just an uneducated, unattractive woman. I didn’t feel like that when I met him. His comments were subtle at first, the odd mention that I’d put on weight, a few digs about my wardrobe choices. Slowly he eroded the confidence I used to have. I was one of three sisters.
Jane had been the brains of the family, she was the one who went to university.Music had been her passion and her forte. Even from an early age she had shown talent. She played at county level, was taken on tours overseas to represent her country.
Even Dubai one year. How I envied her. Then there was the middle sister, Lisa.
Not the sharpest pencil in the block, you might say. But looks – she was stunning. Add to her looks the sudden appearance of a rather huge pair of breasts at the age of 14 and she was in high demand. She didn’t mind the nickname that appeared at the same time as her bosom: Jugs. I felt like a thorn between two roses; Jane with her brains, and Lisa with her beauty.I felt as if God had given me a half measure of each quality, but that the sum of my attributes never compared favourably with the singular outpourings each other sister was blessed with. I don’t remember much of my childhood, marred as it was by bullying, illness, divorce and poverty. There were happy times, of course.
I remember winning a school competition to write a song – we got to perform it at the Colston Hall, and I even spoke to the Lady Mayoress. That was a happy time. But mostly the negatives stick out. Strange how for a long time, I only chose to remember the good bits in my relationship, so I could keep it going.Yet, from my childhood, I choose to remember the bad times. Maybe this is so I can blame my behaviour later in life on all the crap I had to deal with as a child.
Nan never seemed to have taken to me; I don’t know why. Maybe she did say positive things, but I think it is the negatives that a child will always remember. Legs like chicken thighs – that’s what she said I had. And the one that always comes to mind, even thirty years on – “of course, Lisa is the pretty one”. Did I imagine that, or was it really said? Sometimes I think I remember it wrongly; nobody would say such hurtful things to a child, would they?But I think she must have said something like that, for it to stick in my mind for so long, have such an effect on my self-esteem. It was no surprise that I wanted to be loved; I craved affection, in whatever form that came. Reaching fifteen, I finally started to get the attention I deserved.
A late bloomer, I hadn’t hit puberty till I was fourteen. I remember the mortification of my mother taking me to the doctors and telling him I hadn’t started my periods yet. God, the embarrassment at fourteen of some creepy male GP in his fifties discussing your lack of menstrual cycle.Well, not long after that, the joy of “the monthlies” finally arrived, and with it, a fast growing set of boobs. Even more impressive than those of my sister, Lisa, “The Jugs”. I had attention then. I hadn’t learnt that men flatter you in order to try and get you into bed. By the time I sussed that one out, I have to say I wasn’t bothered.
I got a bit of a reputation when I left school. I didn’t bother with sixth form; I wanted to be free from the shackles of education. I got myself a YTS job in a shoe shop. Youth Training Scheme, that’s what it stood for. I think it should have stood for Young Terrified Slaves.I worked my guts out from nine till six, running up and down stairs to stock rooms, hauling round large boxes of shoe deliveries, cleaning and polishing displays. ?26. 50 was the princely sum I was paid for my efforts.
I have to say though, all that work had a wonderful effect on my figure. Not that I was fat before, though I thought I was. Maybe I was a size 14, nothing major, just a bit of puppy fat. But hard labour soon whittled me down to a size eight; I might not have had the classic beauty face, but with my well-endowed bust and pinched in waist, I had a figure men loved.And I was loved a lot in the few years before I got married. I think that I used the men as much as they used me; I had male attention for the first time in my life. Sex equated to love in my book, and for once I was loved more than I had ever dreamed I could be.
Some people stay in controlling relationships, with men who don’t like them seeing their friends, check their phones, that sort of thing. They criticise your choice of outfit, go clothes shopping with you so they can enforce their view of what they think you should wear. Yet they swear they would never put up with a man hitting them.I used to think that was the easy bit myself. Sometimes I wished for the punch, or the push. Get it out the way. Get rid of all that anger you are showing me, all the bile that is spewing out in those hateful, hateful words.
A fat lip stings, but being told you are fat stings harder. And don’t you realise, that’s how it starts. The vetting of your friends. The character assassination of everyone around you, including your family. But you love him so much, won’t hear a bad word about him. There’s a niggling doubt that those criticisms might be right, but you are so blind, so much “in love” that you can’t see it.The self-imposed isolation has made sure you have nowhere to turn by the time things are really bad. Your friends would be there, of course they would, but you can already hear the I told you so’s, and you just can’t face it.
I was at the refuge for six months, then I managed to get my own flat. It’s not much, a little one bed place near to uni, so it’s nice and handy for me. The best thing is its all mine. I don’t have to worry about someone coming home after work and kicking off about the state of the place, there is no fear of someone running a white glove over the dado rail to show where I have missed the dust.I learnt a lot from my time in the refuge.
Whilst I was there, we had workshops on recognising abusive behaviour. Many people mind think it would be easy to spot, but it’s often the things that you probably find quite sweet at first that might alert you. You might think his wish to be with you all the time a sign of how much he loves you, rather than a way to isolate you from your friends.
His constant texts are a measure of affection, not a way of checking on your whereabouts. It’s those little things that escalate, till one day, you realise how wrong it all is.That day is usually too late.
At least I know now what to look out for. And here I am, two years down the line, standing on that same refuge doorstep. I am about to be interviewed for a voluntary post as a residents mentor. The requisite year since having moved out is long over (time for personal growth and to show we have not fallen back into the same patterns of abusive relationships) and I am now deemed fit to offer my services to women who are in the position I used to be. I can be a shining role model of what you can achieve if you learn from the past.Look, here she is; the girl who used to be a victim of domestic violence. Got her own flat. Got into university.
Look how confident she is; how wise. The future looks great for her; maybe it can for us too. And like that time two years before, when I met the other residents in the refuge, I feel a fake. Because the girl inside still isn’t totally healed. Still has feelings for the man who beat her. Still loves him, in a way.
Outwardly, I had moved on. I was getting on with my life, making new friendships, mending old ones that my relationship had broken.But inwardly, had that much changed? I like to think that I learnt something from all that mess and destruction. I certainly look for the signs now, signs that someone might turn into a violent person. This has lead me to analyse too much. Every comment, every look that seems in some way wrong, I store in my mind.
Later I will process it, try and evaluate it, look for its context, maybe its secret meaning. Because each and every man is a possible abuser, aren’t they? Is it a bad thing that I am more cautious? No, I don’t think so. I think perhaps I have finally grown up.I can’t say that I will never fall for an abusive man again.
After all, if on your first date, you were punched in the face, you would probably have a clear indication it was a bit of a no-no. But it doesn’t work like that, does it. Most men, most people, start out in a relationship with the aim to impress. We all do it. More effort with the make-up for the ladies; more care to appearance and hygiene for the men. It’s only very slowly that we start to open up, show the real us.
The one thing that I have learnt now though is that it was not my fault.I didn’t deserve what happened to me; no man has a right to hit a woman, to push her, or mentally abuse her. That’s why now in a relationship I take it slow. I’ve been with my new partner for a while now.
But you won’t find me giving up my flat anytime soon. There will be no moving in together, no rush wedding in an attempt to secure love forever. But I’m happy with that. I don’t need a ring on my finger for security anymore.
For the time being, I am happy just being me. I can control my relationships for the first time in my life, rather than my relationships controlling me.