Experiencing Domestic Abuse: Paula's Story

 

For most, the issue of abuse can be difficult to conceptualise. For a few, however, it is a reality that has the potential to significantly influence the way in which someone views their own worth. The acknowledgement of these truths can be hard, but this acknowledgment can encourage communication between the individual and wider society, providing an outlet for those tackling feelings of isolation.  

It was a Sunday and I was 14. I had sat my younger siblings down in the kitchen and quietly began to warn them to stay out of a particular family member’s way as best they could. I told them that the person had been going through a tough time and that we had to make allowances. That person overheard and challenged me over what I was saying. In that moment, after months of having to tiptoe around them, countless weeks of pretending that my family wasn’t falling apart in front of me, I lost my temper and, failing to heed my own advice, snapped back at them. That person then became unrecognisable.

The saying ‘it was all a blur’ is clichéd but accurate. I can recall fragmented pieces of what happened, but in no clear sequence. I remember having my arms twisted behind my back; my head being repeatedly hit against a pillar; being pulled down the stairs by my hair. I remember seeing my siblings frozen in shock, wailing for the person to stop, whilst a different family member ran out of the house, banging on the neighbour’s door, trying to get help.

I spent the next week or so reeling. How do you go about processing that a person who is meant to be your rock and your protector, a person who only wants the best for you, physically laid hands on you intending to cause you pain? In a moment of anger, that brute force that was normally channelled towards opening jars for you was directed towards you. The individual who had always been my buffer had become the opposition. As time went by, I thought about it less and less. I got over it. I moved on. Whilst I was still wary of the family member, the main thing was that they never touched me again and, at that point, that was good enough for me.

Years went by and when I reached 17, I developed a separate physical health issue which started to affect my moods and my ability to concentrate in school, and I was instructed to see the school counsellor. During our first appointment, as I was telling her about my struggle with the condition, suddenly everything about that incident with the family member started pouring out. Sat in that room, I crumbled. I became a blubbing mess. In the 3 years since the incident, I’d been subconsciously repressing the truth of the event – that I had experienced an episode of domestic violence.

These realisations were accompanied with a period of blame and self-loathing; seeing the counsellor cracked open a chest of overwhelming hatefulness that I had stored at the back of my mind, and once open, I struggled to close it. This emotional strain I put myself under was far worse than the physical pain. I blamed myself for being so weak. I blamed the rest of my family for giving me a reason to stay; I felt that it was my duty to ensure that nothing like that ever happened to them. And, unsurprisingly, I blamed that one particular person for all of the above, as well as every other negative thing that had happened in my life since that Sunday.

I thoroughly despised them. But I still loved them because they are family. I couldn’t just switch off those feelings, try as I might, and for that I was disgusted with myself. I wanted to loathe that person unrepentantly for how they had affected my confidence and the way I saw myself, for how they had treated my entire family in the months leading up to that incident, for everything. But I couldn’t. They still made me laugh. Their rare compliments still made me feel like I was soaring. Their sadness still troubled me. If anything, I craved their attention and affection more because of the manner in which they had so painfully rejected me. This is why I understand to some extent why women find it so difficult to leave abusive partners. Their potential for cruelty is clear but, at the same time, you can’t forget the warm side they have. They have the ability to make you feel like you are the single most important person walking the earth, but that means they can also bring you crashing down.

I have forgiven this person. Not for them, but for me. I will never understand the circumstances that led to what happened, and even if I did understand, it would not change the past. Holding onto the hatred was emotionally crippling – justified but debilitating. We had a chat about it a couple of years ago, the first time we actually discussed it, and whilst they sincerely apologised, I don’t think they will ever be able to fully grasp how much it impacted me long-term. I matured pretty quickly after what happened. I learnt that those you look up to are human and therefore flawed, and that sometimes the people closest to you can cause you an immeasurable amount of pain.

For a long time, my confusion with what happened lay in the fact that it only occurred once. How could I even compare myself to women who have been trapped in abusive relationships for years? It felt false and melodramatic to say that I had experienced domestic violence. My situation could have been far worse, but my trust was shattered and the event stayed with me for years. Like with most forms of abuse, if it doesn’t occur over a sustained period of time it can seems insignificant and not worth making a fuss over. But there doesn’t need to be any kind of awful shock factor to your experience; that doesn’t detract from the way another person abused your relationship and made you feel. Sometimes it’s difficult to classify a circumstance as abuse; issues of sexual or domestic violence tend to connote extreme images however, though one’s situation may not necessarily fall in line with these, your experiences are still valid. Confiding in someone helped me more than I can express. Letting someone know about my situation made me feel less like I was carrying this burdensome secret around on my own. It was the first step I took in moving forward. However, opening up only holds value if you’re being heard.

Women and men are subjugated by a culture of shame and silence, a culture which we appropriate and facilitate everyday through things like victim-blaming and ‘slut’-shaming; in these instances, responsibility shifts from the perpetrator to the sufferer. We send out opposing messages. ‘Speak out about your unfair treatment, but you probably shouldn’t report that co-worker for sexual harassment, you don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker.’ ‘No means no, but you could have dressed less provocatively.’ It’s unsurprising that it’s easier to stay quiet. The sheer panic I felt when I first even considered sharing a personal account about a stigmatized and ‘taboo’ subject shouldn’t be something anyone has to endure.

This needs to be spoken about more, creating a safer space for those who have endured mistreatment. Whilst these people cannot be made to come forward before they are ready, we can make sure that we are more receptive and sensitive to them when they do. It’s not a matter of victims of abuse becoming more open. They are not the problem. The problem is with a culture that shuts them up before they have had the chance to speak. When Shia LaBeouf came forward about his rape, Piers Morgan’s response was that his account was an insult to ‘real’ rape. While this particular case is admittedly unclear from the outside, the response does not send out a positive message to male victims of rape and sexual assault, who already are an occasionally forgotten and marginalised group. The language and everyday discourse we use is incredibly important because with one word, we can either open ourselves up to listen to someone’s experiences or send them scarpering to the back of the closet that they had just been preparing to leave. We may never know which of our friends are fighting personal demons but we can at least re-think the phrases we commonly use, the attitudes we often express.

You don’t need to know the right words to say or the exact role to step into. Just allowing someone the floor can be enough. Just knowing that someone is listening is invaluable. I cannot for one second parade around as if I got through this on my own. I relied on the strength of family members, close friends and staff at school who let me vent to them, put up with my attention-seeking shenanigans, held me whenever I needed comfort. I owe them everything and I have never forgotten that. Thank you.

Can I say with absolute certainty that I am over what happened? Probably not, no.  Like any distressing event, it isn’t just the event itself that has the impact, but the attached emotions that you have to make sense of. It has left its mark on me. I know that what happened has influenced the role I’ll play within any family of my own. There have also been days in the past when I wondered if I have really moved past it or whether I’ve just blocked it out again.

I can’t speak for the millions who have had violence and abuse inflicted upon them. Everyone’s circumstances are different so it’s crucial to recognise that the process of self-acceptance is down to the individual. There’s no quick fix to an issue like this and it has certainly taken me a number of years to reach a place where I can objectively look back on my experiences and share them. This is just a re-telling of how I have dealt with something that had begun to shape my identity and consequently, the way I now view this culture.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself throughout this whole process and while I wish with every fibre of my being that it hadn’t happened, I’ve discovered that I possess more resilience and worth than I could have ever known. Anyone who has ever experienced mistreatment deserves the chance to reach a similar conclusion.

 

If you would like support or advice with regards to domestic violence and other forms of abuse, you can find links to support pages below:

http://www.nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.uk/

http://www.mankind.org.uk/

http://www.womensaid.org.uk/

 http://thisisabuse.direct.gov.uk/need-help

http://www.refuge.org.uk/what-we-do/our-services/helpline/

 

Please remember that you are never alone.