Content warning: This post contains themes of domestic violence some readers may find triggering.
‘Do you have kids? Two? Wow. That must be hard. Is it hard? I’m thinking about having a baby, but I suffer severe anxiety. PTSD. I can’t even drive a car, a vehicle, because I’m worried someone will hit me’, she says, and makes a startled motion with her arms, to demonstrate what it would be like to be hit by someone.
It isn’t until much later that I realise she meant she was scared of someone hitting her car, not her body. I had assumed she had been hurt by someone, that someone had hurt her body. Maybe they had, and now everything seemed dangerous, even driving to the shops.
‘I’m swimming to try and help the anxiety, and doing yoga, meditation, all sorts of stuff. I really want to go back to my industry, hospitality, but it’s cheffing, you know? It’s full on. The PTSD, man, I can’t do anything.’
‘I’ve had PTSD. I get it’, I say quietly, much quieter than my usual speaking voice, which is not quiet.
I’ve never said it aloud before. After I say it, I think, ‘had it? If you’d had it, would you be marinating in the hydro pool now, staring glassily out to sea, trying to sweat out all the mucky memories?’
She doesn’t really hear me say it, anyway, the words are tumbling out of her so fast, all the things she needs to say, over and over, to try and find a way of living with whatever nasty show reel is on a loop in her head.
‘Did you know that Australia has more pedophiles than anywhere else? They say it’s caused by loneliness. And that kids are friendly and open, so they’re drawn to them. I know one, a pedophile: he says it’s a sickness. I think so, do you? I’d be so worried about all the things that could happen to my kid if I had one! Do you worry a lot?’
‘Well, yeah’ I say. She keeps talking, and I listen, but not fully. I want to look interested, I don’t want to be someone who smiles politely and thinks ‘how do I get away from this mad girl,’ but it’s hard to sustain a conversation with someone who is so floridly unhinged and verbose, almost exuberant in her own madness.
‘Don’t have a baby until you get on top of your PTSD’ I say. ‘I have to go in the cold pool now, I’m too hot. Keep swimming. It clears your head’. I wade out, smiling, and she smiles broadly and waves me off.
I jump into the packed medium lane. There is no slow lane today, which means the mid-life learners and the strong swimmers who don’t want to battle it out in the fast lane, full of aggressively free-styling men, must try and find a way to swim together.
I’m a good swimmer, but today I just want to watch my hands parting the water as I breast stroke, without being tailgated or held up by tentative learners. I want to part the water over and over until that thing happens, when you’re swimming, where all of a sudden your mind is clean. The things that you brought into the pool are suddenly tolerable, sometimes even forgotten; that fight , this frustration, the guilt about bloody everything; whatever The Thing is that day.
Today, The Thing is that I finished watching Big Little Lies two nights ago, and now the last decade of my life is crashing all over me, just like the waves crash into the enormous black rocks on the show. Enough people know what happened to me; it’s not really a secret anymore. Not a Big Little Lie.
But nobody I’ve told the story to has a similar story to relate back to me, nobody ever says ‘that happened to me, too’. Nobody I’ve ever talked to, nothing I’ve ever seen on tv or in the movies, nothing I’ve ever read, has made me think ‘yes, that’s exactly how it feels’. Not until I watched that show. Not until I saw Hollywood A-listers pretending to be abused women, and doing it so well that I, childishly, wished they were real people, not characters, so I could be friends with them.
I say no one has ever understood what happened to me, but there was one time, years ago. There was one time when someone understood. A girl I knew casually but liked a lot. We were at a BBQ. I’d just left my baby’s father; she was one and a half years old.
‘How are you?’ said the girl. I told her I was OK. I said ‘I just split up with Cecilia’s father.’ She asked if I was OK. I said I was, that mostly I just felt relieved. ‘It was..’ I looked for the words but there were none. ‘It was bad’. She looked at me closely with her watery blue eyes, and then she said ‘I know what happened to you.’ I was stunned; how could she know? Only three people knew, people she didn’t know. It was still my Big Little Lie. ‘You…know what happened to me?’ I said. ‘Yes’. ‘That it was...?’ ‘Yes. It happened to me too’.
That was the first and last time I felt like anyone understood. I will never forget it; it was what I’d spent nearly three years waiting for. I felt branded by it- I didn’t understand how no one else could see it. And now, finally, someone had seen it - someone I barely knew.
I still wonder sometimes, if anyone ever sees it. I wonder if the other school parents can tell that I’m not being altogether honest when we’re talking about our kids problems, if there’s anything in my face that gives away my internal monologue, or rather my internal scream:
‘So your kid has some anxiety issues, too, but your kid wasn’t born into fear and sadness and screams, your kid isn’t scared of all men except her father, even though the reason she’s scared is BECAUSE OF HER FATHER, your kid doesn’t have a mother who once made her shower when she came home from her fathers because she smelled like him, a mother who sometimes recoils from her daughter’s touch, because she looks like the man who hurt her, the man who bared his teeth to her and told her about the people who didn’t like her, who tracked her menstrual cycle when they broke up and set up a fake online dating profile to approach her with, who used to make up stories about how ‘she’d been seen out at night arm in arm with a man’ to try and catch her out, the man who broke all the little bones in her shoulder and snapped her collarbone; and the surgeon said - so gently! - ‘these are car accident injuries, you know’, and she left - she left, when that happened, because she would never stay! - but she was three months pregnant, and she left, she did, she even found a nice flat for her and the baby, but then the baby was sick, and it had to be taken out of her, and then her mind finally shattered like her bones had, and she went back - he didn’t even really want her to come back because then he’d have to live with what he did - but she went back, she had to have another baby, it was the only thing that would heal her - and by the time she realised that grief and shock had made her insane, she was pregnant again, with this kind-faced girl with the mermaid hair we are talking about now - but yes, yoga for kids is a good idea, maybe that will help her, let me know how William goes with it, OK?'
LISTEN: On a special episode of The Binge, Mia Freedman, Laura Brodnik and Jackie Lunn talk all things Big Little Lies (post continues after audio...)
It’s starting to be something that happened a long time ago. That makes it better. I still have to see him, so it’s never really better. I don’t even let myself think about how much it’s not better, not until I see those women in Big Little Lies, making the same excuses as I did, convincing themselves that he must be a good man, he has to be, he’s my child’s father!
Fantasising about killing their abuser like I did, like I sometimes still do in my dreams. I saw those women loving their children but looking for signs of sickness in their minds, like I do - living all the things that I once did, that I still do, that nobody sees.
I was in my late twenties when it happened and now I am in my late thirties. I think about how stupid I was. How he told me he’d had anger issues, that ‘he’d tried to kill’ someone, but it didn’t even register. Violence existed so far out of my realm of experience that a dangerous man was able to walk into my life, announce he was dangerous, and raise no alarm bells.
I stay sad and vague for three days after we finish watching the show. My new partner, the father of my younger daughter, has never really seemed very interested in what happened to me before we met, but now he listens each morning as I choke out more details, sometimes haltingly, sometimes in a desperate rush, just like the girl in the pool - ‘please understand how awful this was, please’. He comes home after work tonight and kisses me. ‘I’ve been thinking about you today’, he says. ‘And I want you to know I love your body. It’s amazing. It made two amazing kids, it’s beautiful and sexy and I love it, and I love you’
It is his way of saying ‘f*ck him for what he did to you’, I think, and it makes me cry. He understands, now.
All anyone wants is to be understood.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please seek help or contact 1800 RESPECT. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.