TRIGGER WARNING: This article deals with an account of domestic violence and may be triggering for survivors of abuse.
“Why didn’t you leave?” is the question invariably asked when I tell someone I was in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. It’s also the question I continue to ask myself every day. Help was just a phone call away – at least when he hadn’t thrown my phone down the toilet or snapped it in half in a clenched-jaw rage.
I met Neal out one night when I was 23 – the last time I remember being full of confidence, energy and love. I was in my final year of university where I was doing well and having a ball. I had just been offered an internship at The 7.30 Report, and couldn’t wait work alongside some of Australia’s best journalists. My life felt full of possibility, but this sense of excitement would soon wane until I felt nothing but a dull disregard for my own wellbeing.
I believed that around the corner lay an exciting career, intrepid travel and lots of laughter with my loving family and friends. Instead, I found myself in a small apartment experiencing the violence and behaviour I thought was only tolerated by those who didn’t know better: the uneducated, the disenfranchised and economically dependent women of postcodes much further west, or in countries far down the list of UN Developed Nations. How wrong I was.
He was a walking cliché, tall, dark and handsome with a disarming smile – an enigmatic graphic designer starting a new life across the other side of the world. He had arrived in Australia four months earlier from England. He appeared passionate and confident, and was incredibly handsome. I had no idea the real reason he left was because he was running away from a broken relationship of nearly five years. One he had broken with his violence, his threats and his oppressive and foul temper.
There was always a steeliness, a kind of nervous energy that coursed through Neal. He would became oddly enraged at a driver who hadn’t noticed the light had gone green, or if I kept him waiting for more than a minute. He had an insatiable appetite for sex, speed and attention. He was obsessed with old cars, and looking good. This was all very exciting four weeks or even four months in, but eventually it took its toll. He had moments of true devotion, and I had glimpses what could have been– but it was quickly outweighed by his fractious anger and inexplicable frustration with life. I don’t know if there was something painful lurking in his past, but I doubt a bad childhood could justify the way he treated me. He was the first man I fell in love with, and the last I would be able to give myself to with such blissful naivety and trust.
The first time he it happened, I was in a state of shock. I was at his place, a house he shared with my friends I’d introduced him to. Neal and his housemates were throwing a fundraising party for a charity run they were doing as a team. What a great guy. We’d been together for about 18 months. He’d been drinking, and late in the evening, we began to argue over something stupid. I remember walking into his bedroom, embarrassed our friends would hear the argument. He followed me, calling me names and belittling me. Suddenly, his anger bubbled over. Maybe I answered back to one of his insults. It didn’t take much. Next thing I knew I was locked in his ensuite, with his hand around my throat and a rapidly rising lump on my forehead from where he’d head-butted me. While he throttled me, he managed to continue the verbal torrent of abuse. Almost breathless, I told him he’d kill me if he didn’t let go. His response: “I don’t care.” I remember I closed my eyes and prayed for it to stop. Finally he let go of my throat, but blocked the door. I said if he didn’t let me out I’d call my mother – so he grabbed my phone and threw it down the toilet. The next thing I knew I was cowering in the shower cubicle, all 6 ft 4” of him looming over me. He grabbed my hair, and hit my head repeatedly against the tiles.