It was his eyes that scared me the most. They were black, cold and dead. The look of a killer’s. The sound of my voice terrified me too. It was mine, but it wasn’t me. A rasping hiss squeezed out with what little breath was left. “Please, Ben, Please!” I was begging for my life.
‘Die you c***, die!’ Ben* said, as he strangled me tighter. Then came the white tunnel of light I knew was sucking me to my death. Ben’s psychotic face was the last I’d ever see. The man I loved, murdering me. I was 7 ½ months pregnant.
I was 18 when I first met Ben at a party. He was drop dead gorgeous and a successful actor, so I already had a bit of a school-girl crush on him. When he looked at me with his baby blue eyes, my stomach did a flip. We talked for hours. There were pretty actresses and models there, but to him I was the only person in the room. He was charismatic and charming.
‘He’s the One’, I thought.
Within weeks Ben was declaring his undying love for me. He promised marriage, babies and a long, happy life together. It sucked me in. I thought I’d found what I’d been looking for. Someone to love me, care for me and grow old with me. I trusted him. I let go and allowed myself to be vulnerable with him. Then I met Mr Hyde.
It was a flash of anger that shocked me. Ben then acted as if nothing had happened. It was brief enough for me to think: ‘did I imagine that?’ And to minimise it. Especially when he was remorseful and bought me flowers.
It was an emotional bait and switch. The romantic, wonderful Ben hooked me in. Then bam, there was a sudden switch to his moody, darker side. No sooner did I get a glimpse of that, he flipped, and it was the loving, gorgeous Ben again.
From then on it became a cycle of seeing one, then the other. The nice Ben, then the nasty. But I never knew which Ben I would get on any given hour or day. It threw me off balance. I walked on eggshells.
I tried everything to keep the peace. If what I wore was ‘too slutty’ I’d change my style, if my friends were a ‘bad influence’ I’d see less of them. Anything to make him happy and get that high back. The one I felt when the loving Ben returned and adored me.
At first, I didn’t even realise I was in an abusive relationship. If I questioned Ben about his behaviour he’d gaslight me, saying I imagined it. He’d shift the goal posts. When you’re belittled and blamed for everything over time, you start to believe it. He crushed my self-esteem. Instead of holding Ben accountable, I tried harder to please and prove I was worthy of him.
An unhealthy addiction to him kicked in. I was chasing the heady high I got from that charismatic, loving side. If I’d admitted this relationship was no good for me, I would have lost the very thing I needed to feel good again.
Watch: The signs of an abuser, told through his victim’s phone. Post continues…
Although I appeared confident on the outside, I had innate low self-esteem. In my mind, all Ben needed was someone like me to rescue and take care of him. That made me feel wanted and special. But no matter how hard I tried, nothing worked. There was always another reason to be blamed for Ben’s anger.
One day Ben shoved me against the wall. He then cried and told me he loved me. ‘I needed you more than ever now to change’. Instead of walking away, I forgave him. I crossed a Rubicon that day. More physical abuse would follow.
The highs and lows of abuse, followed by remorse and love, became a vicious cycle. After each dreadful low, I was desperate for a ‘fix’, to get that high of Charismatic Ben, again. I started to feel worthless, almost deserving of his anger.
When I fell pregnant, Ben was elated. I thought: ‘this is what he needs to make him happy’. So, I agreed to marry him. Four months later he tried to kill me.
It seems incredible to admit, but I let him back into my life shortly before our baby was born.
He promised things would be different now and I yearned for my baby to grow up with his father. Things soon escalated again.
It took enormous strength and courage to finally walk away. It took a lot for me to accept that the risk of death far outweighed the promise of that illusive high and fantasy life with Ben I had in my head.
I left for good when my baby was one, with only what I could fit into my car. It was spurred by a moment of clarity. I couldn’t change Ben, but I could change me. I had to give my son a better start to life.
The withdrawal from Ben was agony. I was numbed for so long then a rush of emotions poured out at once. Shame, anger, loneliness, guilt. But I knew I had to go cold-turkey. Purge this addiction I had to Ben.
I feared I’d go back to him. The drug-like pull was so strong. Just one hug from him would make the pain go away. Even if I knew it would never last.
Or I risked replacing Ben with a different drug, in the form of another abusive man.
I had to look hard at myself and ask: 'Why did I stay, when others would have run a mile?'
Not to victim-blame. It wasn’t my fault. But abusers are adept at spotting and manipulating vulnerability. I had to stop trying to fix him and focus on healing myself.
I had to face my inner shame and find the roots of my low self-esteem. With zero self-worth we attract those who treat us as worthless. Little by little I began to love myself. I found the power inside me to change my life.
I’m now happily remarried, to a man who’s my best friend. I have two beautiful, grown up sons who treat women with respect. I’ve had a successful career in television; as an actress, then Foreign Correspondent and now a Documentary Executive Producer.
I’ve spent years telling the extraordinary stories of other people. Now it’s time to tell my own.
I get why people ask: 'Why do women stay?' It does sound crazy unless you’ve been through it.
But once you’re sucked in, manipulated and coercively controlled. When an unhealthy addiction kicks in and your self-esteem is crushed you’re that frog in boiling water. By the time you realise you’re being abused, you’ve no strength left to get out. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome. You’re bonded by trauma to your abuser.
I am proof though, that you can break that cycle. Not pass it down to the next generation.
And that there is life after abuse. And it can be beautiful.
Vivian McGrath is a television Executive Producer who makes documentaries for US/UK and Australian television networks. She’s also a Survivor of domestic violence. Her book – Unbeatable: How I Left a Violent Man – will be published later this year. Check out her Blog and videos at: www.beingunbeatable.com where you can also try her FREE QUIZ to find out if your relationship is good enough for you.
*This name has been changed for privacy reasons.