Escaping the maze

In recent days I have chosen to write about my experiences when leaving an abusive marriage of sixteen years; which was part of a relationship that spanned nearly nineteen years.

Current events have stirred angst around the topic of domestic violence and questions abound. There is challenge in the air about existing attitudes, existing systems in place which are failing us and existing obstacles stemming very much from ignorance of the very nature of domestic abuse. That has pushed women like me to pop up from our ‘safe place’ and speak. I am still here to be heard. Hannah Clarke and others we have lost are not.

Choosing to be visible is an unsettling position. Anonymity and blending in are somewhat pivotal when you leave abuse. I am a silent voter, I do not give out my address, sometimes I do not even give out my real name. It becomes a reflex of self preservation. I have no locations visible on my social media and never post images that signpost my home suburb. Before my ex spouse was incarcerated, I never posted I had been at a social event until I had left it and was away from the location. Every house move is done quietly. I note my vulnerability when I work in a visible, publicised way in public places. Tragically, I am almost at an advantage because my ex husband has a criminal conviction. At least I have a carrying card that illustrates his lack of character. Without that, I have strong suspicions my requests for consideration surrounding the above steps would be met with a lot less acceptance.

The challenge at this time is to fathom what can be done in realistic terms to help women who are being abused. I would like to offer here that NSW Police were helpful when I went to them for assistance, but there was only so much they could do. I had tangible proof of my circumstances. I was recognised as at risk, but that provided no power for them to remove me and my pets or take any definitive action. I believe if they could have, the officers I dealt with would have. But I had to do that for myself. The old offering to Dial 000 if the worst was happening was part of the plan. In most cases you may never get to make that call, or only after terrible tragedy has struck.

‘Why wouldn’t you just leave?’. The eternal question.

That is what holds us where we are. Hope it will change. Hope this is the last time we will be mistreated. Hope this time he will understand what he’s done and loves us enough to stop. Hope that those windows when it hasn’t been so bad and you have felt loved will become the permanent view.

Fear that our tormentor is right and we are fatally flawed. Fear his emphatic claims he acts as he does because of our appearance/personality/failings are valid excuses. Fear of change. Fear of not being believed. Fear of the consequences of speaking. Fear that leaving will be the thing that will take it all from misery to complete tragedy.

Understandably people close to those being abused become frustrated when they hear the victim defend their partner. How can someone who is in a bad circumstance be holding his hand, smiling and praising his achievements. How can they say, ‘It’s fine, no I’m fine’, when signs are there that they are not. How are they talking about future plans with someone who is breaking their mind , their spirit and determinedly reducing them to an obedient shadow.

Some women leave after a number of weeks, some after a number of decades, some never leave. It is worth putting forward strongly that a woman who tells you she is being mistreated is rolling a very significant dice. The average number of times a woman decides or attempts to leave before succeeding is seven. People watched my circumstances for years but I held them at bay for a myriad of reasons. The ones I have listed above and more. I would reach breaking point and then be lulled back by a promise, a kind gesture, a threat, massive self doubt. I concealed a lot even when consulting with professionals, because I feared the consequences of revealing complete truth. Complete truth would mean no turning back and I was not ready.

As we search for solutions I would like to offer this to anyone who has a female friend, loved one or colleague they either suspect or know is experiencing DV. If the woman you care about speaks with you or is willing to, it does not mean there’s a green light that she’ll be automatically packing her bags and going.

That conversation may be her embryonic attempt at finding support or a point of view that supports that what she is living through is not right. She will very possibly be torn by feelings of ‘betraying’ her partner. Whatever heinous actions he has undertaken the wirings of human attachment are extremely complex. Offer her a confidential ear and do not push her to offer more than she is able to. However angry you may be with the perpetrator, please do not criticise the fact she is still there or take matters into your own hands and challenge him yourself. My own tale contains chapters of people (well meaning and otherwise) approaching my ex husband about public displays of belittlement and puzzling aggression. I paid the price of those observations being made once we were behind closed doors.

In conversation with friends since my marriage ended I have asked them if they knew. Many have said they often felt uncomfortable seeing us as a couple. Something was ‘off’. I would sometimes show a flash of distress and then it would disappear. I walked on ‘egg shells’ and seemed wooden. I deflected awkward questions. Several have said they looked surreptitiously for bruises but none were visible so they dismissed it as their imagination. I mustn’t have really minded being spoken to as they had occasionally witnessed. Or heard when it was supposed to be out of ear shot.

Many people simply saw a successful, white collar, middle class couple who had the surface trappings of happiness.

After a public separation in 2010 when things couldn’t be as hidden the playing field changed for a time. Yet after reconciliation the theatre of concealment simply became more complex.

It stayed that way until I was ready to go.

From one who has been there I hold the view we need short term and long term plans of change. My articles concentrate on DV in a heterosexual partnership with the man as the aggressor. I am not nearly so limited as to suggest that is the only playing field of abuse within relationships in our society. Coming from the place of my own experiences and reading ….. it is obvious that we need to alter the building blocks of our young men and boys in future generations. We need to understand what is driving these behaviours of coercive control, anger and violence. Like all else, there is depressing complexity but those resources must be found for us to make any major inroads.

Jess Hill’s excellent book “See What You Made Me Do” 2019 is an outstanding starting point for anyone trying to grasp the concepts of DV. I find myself hoping it is a land mark publication as we look further into what is going on in our society. For anyone knowing someone who is in an abuse situation or has extricated themselves from one, I would strongly suggest you read it. To anyone who has lived DV I make the suggestion you read it with the disclaimer it holds a lot that will comfort you and a lot that may trigger you.

In the short term I would like to see a system that no longer can only offer theoretical protections to women and their children (and pets). A system that does not need to wait until a woman is desperately dialing 000 or never gets to make that call. A system that recognises that when a woman walks into a police station or seeks professional help it is a step of enormity. Those few seconds when she takes that breath to say she is afraid and wants to leave are the seconds when she lays it all on the line. She is looking for something even bigger than the predator who dominates her life to take her to safety. We have nothing even close to that in place, and whilst we wait for the generational change that may come with a lack of denial of what the reality of DV is, that should be an utter priority.

NSW Police were there as much as they could be three years ago for me. I was and am grateful for vital advice I was given. Hannah Clarke’s family have expressed gratitude to the police who were assisting their daughter. But I was on my own and relying on my wits to get myself and my three beloved dogs away. Hannah was on her own as she put her three babies in the car that fateful morning. Authorities simply do not have the powers or resources to prevent disaster.

If something isn’t right with a friend, be there for when they may be ready to take that first step. Ask if they are okay. If you are rebuffed remember there may be circumstances on foot of which you have no comprehension. A simple “…… I am here if you need anything” ….. may mean more than you know. The isolation of DV is one of its most terrible components.

To those people who were there when I was ready. I thank you from the bottom of my heart and you know who you are. I wish for every woman out there who is still within the maze of domestic abuse to have soldiers exactly like you. xx