When I was 17, I met a much older man in a disco and fell head over heels for his charms, his age, and what I thought was his sophistication and maturity. Before long, I found myself in a grim domestic situation where I lived with violence, verbal abuse and disrespect. I stayed with him for three years, and covered up what was happening to me out of shame and fear and, finally, with the help of a male work colleague who refused to take no for an answer, I found the courage to leave.
Before I left, I did a pretty good job of hiding what was happening to me. I didn’t want my parents to know, I’d lost most of my friends, and the odd work colleague who probably knew, turned a blind eye out of embarrassment or not wanting to get involved – except for one. With his help I made it out, but that wasn’t the end of it; I endured months of being followed, driven off the road, and constantly looking over my shoulder. At the end of my tether, I finally decided to ask my father for help after keeping things from him for so long. My Dad’s phone call worked and I set about starting my life again, albeit a bit world weary at the tender age of 20.
When I think about it, I guess I was lucky in a way. Not lucky, of course, to endure the years of violence and the images that have stayed in my mind, but really lucky that I got away alive; and lucky not to have shared children with an aggressive man, and in that way linking me with him for life.
These days my life is very good. I have a loving and supportive partner and family, and I’ve realised a dream of having a novel published. But the slide show that plays in my head now and again, tells a story of a different girl in another time and place, and she’s hard to recognise: click-click, her face is pushed into a pillow and she can’t escape; click-click, she is locked in the house and not allowed to leave; click-click, she is driven off the road by his yellow Ford and his evil eyes are looking sideways at her from the next lane; click-click, the cigarette is burning holes in her best dress; click-click, she is chased through the scrub and her heart is beating so fast that it feels like it’s going to explode; click-click, a strong hand grips her hair and smashes her head against a car window, and all she can do is wish that she hadn’t fallen for that man in that disco when she was only seventeen.
The one question that people ask me over again is ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ Anyone who has been in a violent relationship will tell you that it’s just as much a psychological trap as a physical one. I was surrounded by people I could have asked for help, but I was frozen to the spot. Inside I knew I had to escape, but I couldn’t work out how. My life had been threatened on so many occasions that I believed this man would kill me if I left, or told anyone. The people at work who knew I was living in a bad situation obviously felt awkward about talking to me about it. If you stop and think about, what would you do in a similar situation? You probably think you’d help the woman out, but generally the opposite is true in our culture, and there’s a ‘hands-off’ approach to other peoples’ relationships. We don’t want to interfere; it’s their personal business; what if we’re wrong and we upset the apple cart?
The White Ribbon Foundation, a male-led campaign to stop violence against women, offers this motto: not violent, not silent – don’t turn your head, and don’t excuse violence. Someone asked me the other day, what would have made a difference to me in my situation? The difference was that one male colleague didn’t remain silent. He pointed out the bruise on my face, he named it and shamed it, and he offered to help me. The bottom line is that if you’re living with domestic violence, you need help to get out – you can’t just leave – it’s impossible.
So, my workmate helped me to get out, and my father made the final call. Oddly enough, my Dad only had to make that one phone call, threatening to ring the police, and I never heard from this man again. This was such an eye-opener to me – this nasty piece of work, who I was so afraid of, was happy to bash up and degrade women, but he was a gutless wonder when confronted by a man. As they say, the best disinfectant is sunlight and, finally, the light was shining in.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can ring the Domestic Violence Line for help on 1800 656 463 (TTY 1800 671 442). The Domestic Violence Line is a statewide free-call number and is available 24 hours, seven days a week.
Deb Kandelaars is the author of Memoirs of a Suburban Girl (Wakefield Press 2011), a novel based on her experiences as a young girl living with violence. To find out more about White Ribbon visit here and to learn more about Deb’s story visit here.