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.
Finally, it stopped. The storm had suddenly passed. He put his head in his hand, and started sobbing uncontrollably. He told me he was a monster, but if I left him, he’d kill himself. All the while, my friends continued to sip their wines and laugh outside – oblivious to the events occurring a couple of rooms away. I was too ashamed to scream for help. I think he knew I wouldn’t. I didn’t even leave – I partly believed his threat. That night in bed, he held me tightly, letting out small sobs of despair. I stared motionlessly at the ceiling with a lump on my forehead and love in my heart I no longer understood. His actions that night robbed me of some fundamental parts of my being: my light, my joy and my self-belief.
About six months, and a brief separation later – I moved in with him. Again that word: why? I never even entertained the possibility of meeting a violent man, let alone enduring this violence and moving in with him, trying to build a life with him. At this point, it was a one off. I stayed – although I knew I should have walked out that night. He told me he was sorry, that it was a terrible, terrible mistake driven by alcohol and myriad of problems from his past to his workload. He said it was his fault and he would get counselling and cognitive therapy. Of course, he promised it would “never, ever happen again”. The months following this he told me that I was the love of his life, and talked of our future, of children and the great things we could achieve together.
Even though the bruises soon faded, that night stayed with me like a festering wound that would never properly heal. It’s so hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it– but I cared deeply for this person, and he knew how to manipulate my goodwill and trust. I wanted to believe he would, he could change- even if that was more to reassure myself of my own ability to judge a decent, kind person who made a one-off, alcohol-fuelled (albeit horrendous) mistake from an inherently cruel and violent one. Turns out, I couldn’t. I was young, I was in love and it would take an expert to adequately explain how my confidence could be slowly eroded, how my clarity and rationality became so swamped by insecurity and doubt that I stayed with a man who could hit me, drag me down the hallway, stomp on my stomach and perforate my ear drum. Then turn around and tell me he loved me the next day. I use to get high distinctions at uni – now my greatest skill was covering up my real life from the people who cared about me.
Don’t ask me why I stayed. I ask it of myself every day. I also ask why how could I love someone capable of that? How could I have ignored the good judgement and advice of my parents: the life-long caretakers of my wellbeing? How could I have ignored my gut instinct that told me he would never change? Well he didn’t, and after I moved in, the violence started again. This time, he didn’t promise he would change. We both knew that was a lie. Some mornings before work I would look in at myself in the mirror, applying foundation to a darkening bruise on my chin. I didn’t recognise this person. I just went through the motions. It was far easier to feel numb than think too much about what was happening. I never told a soul what was going on – I was too confused and too ashamed. Like a noxious weed, my self-doubt spread quickly, strangling my ability to see him, and the relationship for what it really was.
Neal drove a vintage BMW, it was his passion and obsession. A tiny scratch on it would devastate him, yet he could bruise his girlfriend and not bat an eyelid. When things getting were really bad, he said he wanted to take me for a coffee, to talk about us. I thought that sounded OK, so I got in his car. We drove through Centennial Park, where his ‘talk’ soon became another torrent of abuse about how pathetic I was, how naïve I was, how everything wrong with us was my fault. I remember looking out of the window, and saw people picnicking, walking dogs, and laughing in the sun. That world seemed alien to me. I looked back at him, hands gripping the steering wheel, spittle escaping his mouth along with another put-down. I knew if I stayed, I would never feel truly happy again. He parked the car, the torrent continued. Suddenly, he grabbed my phone and snapped it in half – and something in me snapped too. I was only a husk of a woman – but somewhere I found the strength to get up, slam that door, and walk across Centennial Park, and call my dad to ask if he could help me move out. I finally realised I’d nothing left to lose by leaving him except myself.
It’s been a year since I left that apartment, and around 6 months since all communication stopped. I don’t love him anymore, but I still think about him every day. I have finally told my family and some friends. I have reported the violence to the police and they are about to charge him. This was a very hard decision to make, and I went against the frequently proffered advice: ‘it’s too hard, just move on’ or ‘the court process will destroy you – do you know how low the conviction rate is for these crimes?’ Even a friend who is a detective told me it was easier to just ‘move on’.
I found it deeply upsetting that so many people seemed satisfied to let him do this to me without consequence. Someone can attack a person in Kings Cross and it makes the 6pm bulletins and the perpetrator ends up in jail, but if a man continuously beats his girlfriend behind closes doors – there’s not a lot of outrage. Based on my experience, the stigma around domestic violence still exists and it’s a tragedy for the victims. It makes you feel like you were partly to blame. According to Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police Ken Lay, a woman is murdered by her partner or ex-partner in Australia every week. As a nation full of mothers, sisters, friends and colleagues – it’s not a problem we can afford to keep sweeping under the rug.
I understand why a lot of women don’t report it – so far it’s been exhausting and traumatic. For about 6 months after I left him I didn’t have the strength to go down that path. But I remember spotting an article about the murder of Jazmin-Jean Abschitz – a young woman who’d been beaten to death by her boyfriend in a Pyrmont apartment. Her brother found her battered body on the kitchen floor three days later. The boyfriend had a history of domestic violence – but no one had reported him. It gave me goosebumps.
Not long after this, I found out Neal had been violent to his partner back in England for most of their four and a half year relationship. Then there was me. Then I heard through the grapevine he was already seeing someone else. Neal always told me I was the only one he hurt – that I provoked it with my insane jealously, or complete stupidity, or whatever it was on the day. I decided that I needed to do what I could to make sure I never read about one of his future partners in the paper. I picked up the phone and called the police.
I am far from ready to let another man close to me, but I am starting to let myself trust the good in people again. I have seen a counsellor a couple of times, but still find it a little confronting and upsetting, but I am trying to persevere. I’ve met some wonderful people since leaving him, have reconnected with old friends and made new ones. I’m slowly beginning to rediscover my worth. The simple act of writing this down is another step in letting go of my shame. I’m still in the process of realising it was not because I stayed, but because he did it.
I use to want to get back to being the ‘old me’, before I met him. I now know that will never happen, but I am ready to find the ‘new me’. I worry I am a sucker for bad men, but I am determined not to let a person like him define me. Fundamentally, I am a kind person: I do not want to see others suffer or be in pain. It gives me hope that I don’t see the world like him. I will never understand why he put me through that, but if a man ever hits you – there’s a very strong chance he’ll do it again – and again, and again. It’s not you, it’s him – and some people don’t always deserve a second chance. I don’t think these men are beyond help, but chances are you might be before he gets it.
The author of this post is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous.
If this post brings up any issues for you, please contact 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or go to their website. They are the national sexual assault and domestic family violence counselling service.