Early days and early signs
I was 22 when I met my ex. I had just got back from travelling around Europe as a backpacker and had gone back to Uni, so was feeling really happy about life. He was at a party down the road from our house. I was living with two of my best female friends and the house down the road was a house of boys, so it was one of those natural things that we would want to have some fun.
It is funny looking back that my first instinct when I met him was that I actually didn’t like him. I thought he was very arrogant. I noticed at the time that he was smoking a joint, which isn’t something that I thought was cool or anything. So I didn’t leave with a very high opinion of him. But when I met him a few weeks later at a local pub, we hit it off.
It was very intense to begin with. In the beginning I saw a different side to him. He was very charming, lots of fun and I think there was part of me that liked that bad boy quality to him. There was a bit of a risk about him, but I didn’t realise how much of that was actually going to consume his life.
After the early weeks when things were fantastic, he started going back to his normal routine of selling drugs and all of that. I had developed quite strong feelings for him, so it made it easier to dismiss stuff that I normally would have gone “no, that’s just not right”. Because I had seen his other aspects to him that I really did like, I thought maybe I can get him to stop doing these things.
When I realised things weren’t right
It was probably about a month or two into the relationship when I realised that things weren’t right between us. One night we were having a minor disagreement about something fairly inconsequential, and he ended up chasing me down the road with a knife. I went back to the house and my housemates could see how upset I was. They were telling me I shouldn’t stay with him. But he was so apologetic – he said he didn’t know what had come over him and that it would never happen again.
Even though at that time I saw that as the first incident, I look back now and I realise that it actually wasn’t. He had already started to do other things that I know that I was uncomfortable about. He was starting the process of isolating me. When we would be out with my friends he would deliberately put me down, or make me the butt of jokes. I could see my friends looking uncomfortable but they didn’t bring it up at the time. I didn’t feel comfortable about it either and I would sometimes say something but he acted like he was joking.
Creating a big divide
Bit by bit he put me into a situation where I was so isolated that I felt I couldn’t talk to my family. He was constantly belittling my relationship with them. He had so alienated my female friends that I had been living for years that they actually moved out. He would be saying things to them about me behind my back, and then on the other hand, he’d be coming to me and saying stuff about them. He was creating this big divide. And at the time I was feeling so down that I was spending a lot of time in my room which wasn’t the normal thing for me, because I am a very outgoing person normally. My friends weren’t used to seeing this side of me. I guess one thing that disappoints me in hindsight is that they didn’t knock on my door and say “hey, let’s have a chat”. They must have noticed such a difference in my behaviour at the time. I guess for them it was probably quite hard to broach the issue, and also I don’t know exactly what he was saying to them about me. I don’t blame them, I guess they needed to remove themselves from the situation.
Living in a war zone
After my housemates left, he then moved two of his brothers in. That’s when things got really bad for me.
They idolised him. He could have me down on the floor and be kicking me and they would walk past and wouldn’t even say anything. They so took over everything. My house turned into this completely male dominated environment and bit by bit I felt I was being edged out of there. I felt like I was living in a war zone. Each day for me was just about surviving. I got really, really depressed at the time, to the point of trying to kill myself a few times during that period.
He was bringing drugs into the house to sell and when I challenged him on this I was told I was a crazy bitch, and that got me into all sorts of trouble. I was working in a pub at the time and I remember turning up the next day with some really horrible black bruises on my arm and I couldn’t cover it with my t-shirt. I remember making up some stupid excuse to my boss. It was very embarrassing for me at the time.
I think having that job at the pub was one of the few things that kept me going. I was at university when I met him but had to discontinue because of how intense the whole experience was. It made me feel so depressed and I just couldn’t focus on any of the study I needed to do. I just didn’t have the emotional energy to get out of bed, go to classes, even though I really had wanted to complete the course. That was something that I felt was a tremendous loss for me at the time, and I felt like a failure.
I did try to leave him on a number of occasions but it was very difficult because of the emotional abuse. I would say “I can’t live here, I do not want to live with your brothers, I can’t handle this anymore” and he would be like “fine, go”. I would start packing up boxes then he would be there and he’d have his hands around my throat and up against the wall. He’d say “if you try and leave I’m going to kill you and bury you in the backyard and I’ll find your friends and family and kill them as well”. So it was the threats and everything. One time he broke my finger because he didn’t want the TV channel changed.
But even though the physical stuff was bad, it was actually the emotional abuse that he subjected me to for three and a half years that is still the hardest part to get over. You still hear some of the things in your head. Having someone calling you a slut, whore, prostitute, fat, ugly…all these things on a daily basis, you end up thinking ‘if this is what this person says to me every single day …maybe that’s what they see, maybe part of it is true’.
He didn’t want me to go out with my friends because he thought I was just going to cheat on him. So I stopped going out, I didn’t want to deal with him being jealous if I was catching up with my mates. Then he started saying “what’s going on with you, you used to be so much fun, you never go out anymore” and I was like “gee, I wonder why that is?”
And it affects other aspects of your relationship too. If someone is calling you horrible names and has just done something physically violent to you, and then they turn around and want to be intimate with you, it doesn’t work. You can’t just flick a switch and want to be intimate with someone who has just said all these horrible things. But that became part of the abuse. It was like “what good are you, you don’t even want to have sex with me”. So it all compounds these feelings of feeling really worthless.
He had been brought up with brothers and his father was very dominant, and his mother was quite a submissive person. He was the eldest brother and he was used to getting his way. I guess he didn’t like having his actions questioned. For myself, I have always grown up with strong women around me, so I have never felt scared to speak my mind. I had never experienced any abusive behavior. So it came out of left field and I didn’t know how to deal with it. When I was growing up I used to read Dolly magazines and stuff, and when I’d see an article about someone who had endured family violence, I’d think: “why do these people stay in these relationships, surely you would just get out and leave them?” So I had absolutely no concept of what I could do.
When you have developed very strong feelings for someone, it is not as easy as just saying “I’m going to walk away from this”. You have seen some really good aspects of him and then on the other hand there are these really negative things, but you are hoping that the negative things will stop. There were things that he had gone through in his life that were pretty awful, and I guess I felt sorry for him about that and wanted to help him out. But at the same time I wasn’t happy with the way he was treating me.
When I’d say I was leaving and we had a bit of time apart, he would start beseeching me. He’d come around to where I was, saying “no, everything has changed, I’m going to get help, I’m going to go to anger management”. At the time I said to him “you’ve got things you need to deal with but you need to want to deal with them for yourself, don’t do it for me. If you are not going to do it for you, there is no point”. He would be like “okay, okay, I agree, I’ll go and do this”. And so I thought “okay, if he is going to take this proactive step to deal with his issues, then I can take a chance on him again”. But then he didn’t actually go ahead and do it.
My family did at times assist me to leave him. But I suppose they got a bit frustrated because I was returning to him. But I wasn’t able to tell them the extent of things that he was actually doing to me. So they probably thought things were a lot less severe than they were. It is only since that I have been able to tell them the extent of what he was doing. They have been really great in helping the process of healing.
The final straw
By the end I just got really sick of the broken promises. In fact in the end it wasn’t anything to do with physical violence that gave me the strength to finally leave him, it was to do with his attitudes. My brother was very ill in hospital with a potentially fatal injury. I had asked my boyfriend to come to the hospital with me, to support me. He said “no I don’t want to do that – it’s not my idea of a fun thing to do with you” and I said “it’s not about having fun, it’s about me needing your support”. But he just thought that was so irrelevant to him.
I was so sick of it. I didn’t get angry with him or anything. I just said “do you want to be with me?” and he said “well, no”. For me, that was the point that I could walk away forever. I did not want to stay with someone who is going to treat my family and me with such disrespect that when there’s a crisis situation for me, he could be so selfish and uncaring. Up to that time I had already made about seven attempts to leave him.
He’d made so many promises to me over a range of different things, like that he’d try to get a job, he’d get out of his illegal activities, he’d change his attitudes towards me – it was all talk and no action. I just thought I do not want to waste another second of my life on someone who has put me through so much.
I thought it was the final break because it was quite an amicable split at the time. But two weeks after, he started stalking and harassing me. He would send me messages like “your lights are off, where are you” so I knew he was watching me. I’ve had thousands of hang up calls from him. I thought, “this is a part of him trying to control my life and I am not going to change my address and my number because of him”.
That continued for four years, to the point of him actually threatening to kill me. He just doesn’t know how to give up. I went down to my local police station to report him. I’d had enough. I just said “look, my ex-boyfriend who I was in an abusive relationship with, who’s been stalking and harassing me for a number of years now, has just threatened to kill me”. The police officer did give me information about how to go and get an Intervention Order, but he never recorded the fact that I’d just advised him that my ex had threatened to kill me, which wasn’t very good.
Recovering and Moving on
After I left, I tried to look after myself. I looked at things on a very simple level, like “what are things that make me feel good?” like having a nice bath with candles and aromatherapy, or a massage. I got a dog, and that was great. It stopped me from being in a state where I stayed in bed all day because having a dog forces you to get up and go out, it forces you to interact with other people. I started to build some nice connections with other dog owners. I think that was the start of recovering my life, having the physical activity, doing nice things that I enjoyed and that I’d put to the side while I had been with him.
Over time, what helped was thinking of things I could do to improve my sense of self worth. Studying, volunteering, those things helped. I also decided that I wanted to help other people that were going through similar situations. It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s giving yourself a new focus that helps.
I don’t want to hold onto the bitterness and anger because it just eats you up. I would rather focus on how could I use that energy towards something positive. I found that has been one of the biggest healing things for me is to get my voice back. When you are going through a violent relationship you feel so silent. It took me a while, but now I’m not going to accept that any abusive behaviour or language. If I see someone acting that way towards someone else I will speak out about it.
The first time that someone treats me with disrespect and dishonesty, if they can’t come up with a valid reason as to why, then that’s it. I know people can be disrespectful at times and not know that they are – but if it is a pattern of behavior, then that’s it. As far as I’m concerned you just get one chance. I’m not going to waste another second of my life on someone who treats me like crap.
The good thing about this whole experience is that it has made me, in a sense, a stronger person. It has taught me that if I can survive that then I can survive anything. It took a long time to get my sense of self back. I think I am actually a better person now than I was prior to going into that relationship because I had to question so much about myself. Now I am very determined to assist people who have been in a similar situation.
If this has happened to you, understand that you’re not alone in this and there are actually services out there to help you. Speak to someone. There’s the Women’s Domestic Violence Service, or you could try telling your local GP, the police – you just need to talk to someone who you are comfortable telling. Talk to a family violence service because they are trained in dealing with this. If you don’t know how to get onto a service like that, ask a doctor or another service for a referral to one.
Trust your gut instincts. Anything that makes you uncomfortable, anything that doesn’t sit right with you or you feel uneasy with – take notice. If someone is putting you down and making fun of you in front of people you care about, or starts trying to control who you are seeing, or contacts you constantly to check up on where you are, question why they are doing that. If someone is deliberately trying to stop you seeing people, ask why are they doing that – what is the motive behind it? You might think at the time it is just because he cares about you, but it is the start of the process about trying to control your life.
At the first point when you’re feeling uncomfortable, challenge it then and there rather than allowing it to escalate. Don’t think that that it is something that’s going to change, it is more likely to get worse. If these things start to become a pattern, walk away and don’t return.
Remember it is not about you it’s about them, the way they are controlling you. When I started to realise that ‘no, it is his crap, it is not my crap and I don’t have to listen to this anymore’, that was when the light started to shine for me again. You can definitely build yourself back up after the abuse.
If you contact the police, make sure they document what you tell them. When I reported stalking to the police, the officer didn’t record the fact that I’d reported that my ex had threatened to kill me. It’s important that services keep good records, because there can be implications down the track if there isn’t written evidence of times you’ve reported things to them.
If you do go to court, I guess what I would say to people is that that if you’re uncomfortable with anything happening at the time, just say “I’m not proceeding with this”, and just stand your ground. Let people know if you don’t understand what the court processes are. Get advice. The courts are such a confusing system and every level of court has its own processes. So make sure you ask if you don’t understand anything.
How you can help a friend
If you suspect your friend or family member is going through this, don’t feel scared about broaching the issue. It’s not about knowing the right things to say, it’s just about listening. Maybe go into that conversation prepared with information about a support service. That way that they know you’re there for them, but also if you don’t know what to say, then at least you’ve got a number to pass on to them.
When someone feels like everyone is minimising or ignoring the abuse because they are uncomfortable about it, it makes the person feel like they can’t talk about it at all. It reinforces what the abuser is doing – because the abuser will be telling that person “oh, you’re worthless, no-one wants to have anything to do with you, look your family don’t even care what is happening to you”.
The main thing is not to be judgemental. My best friend was great. She just listened, she wasn’t imposing any value judgements, or telling me what to do, she just listened to what I had to say. When…I’d say, “I’ve left” or “Now I’m going back”, she was still there and was someone to talk to. That was really valuable for me. Since then, she’s told me that it was really hard for her during that time to not say what she was thinking – but I said to her that I’d really valued the fact that she wasn’t judgmental about it at all. She was there as someone I could rely on as being a cheerful person that I could just talk to, like a beacon of light in the darkness.
It could also help to ring a domestic violence service and to get some advice as a friend. For example, you could ask about how to broach the topic in a non-confronting manner. It’s hard to be a support person and to see someone you care about going through a horrible time. It’s hard when someone is turning to you and wanting a shoulder to cry on while you’re feeling so many emotions yourself. So it’s important that support people take care of themselves as well, and that is where domestic violence services are helpful in giving some great advice.