As I sit at the Centrelink office for over two hours now, waiting my turn to sort out my welfare payments (again), I am having a moment. It’s not my usual panic attack. It actually feels more like I am watching a movie. I am watching this sad looking 41-year-old mother-of-four. She is scared because she doesn’t know how she will meet this month’s bills.
Her house is again being threatened with foreclosure.
She has even had a debt collector at her front door. But she has a university degree. She used to be a financial advisor for high net worth clients. She lived not extravagantly, but comfortably for the last 20 years. How did she get in this position? What went so horribly wrong? I actually think that, if it was a movie, it would be an important one for all women to watch.
In the months after my ex left me, I slowly came to realise that the emotional pain was not my only problem. Our bank accounts were very quickly draining and, with a little research, I discovered that there was not and had not been any money going in there for quite some time either.
I remember ringing my ex in a panic. What was going on?!?!? He told me to quit being so dramatic. Did I always have to make such a big deal over nothing? Obviously the deposits just weren't showing and the bank statements were wrong. He assured me that he would always take care of the kids and I and he was actually quite insulted and upset that I would insinuate otherwise. And I believed him. I even apologised for having doubted him. Of course I did. This was my husband, my partner of 20 years. Why would he lie about any of it...?
One year later, I listened to him state that that he would not ever be paying Child or Spousal support, that the house must be sold and all the money I had spent on the children and myself for basic necessities would have to be paid back to him. He told me that I had better get a job, as soon as possible, or the kids and I would be out on the streets.
I couldn't believe it. I made up excuses for him, certain that obviously this was just a glitch in his thought process. His work was extremely stressful. He had just been made partner at one of the big four accounting firms, of course he was under a ridiculous amount of stress. He was depressed. He was having a mid-life crisis... I had millions of reasons in my head.
It was easier to make up these excuses than to accept the reality that this was the man that I had chosen to give my life, and my financial well-being, to. It hurt less to justify his actions rather than acknowledge the truth.
When I look back, yet another year on, properly, without hopeful eyes, I see the signs were definitely there right from the beginning. Subtle, to the point of my thinking that it was actually quite sweet that someone would care so much about me and what I spent, but looking back at it all twenty years later, umm... no. Not sweet.
In the first few months of our dating, my ex did up a spreadsheet, showing me how much money I was wasting on lattes. (They were $1.50 each at the time and yes, I have clearly had my coffee addiction for awhile now). Even though it was my own money, he said the "stupidity" of buying coffees made him disappointed in me. When I wanted to buy gum, he'd tell me no because I should "just brush my teeth more". Even the clothing I bought was scrutinised, with rules like, 'if I already own a white shirt, I do not need another one'.
As time went on, I learned that it was no longer hints or tips that he was giving me. There were consequences for both my actions and my suggestions. I bought a vacuum with my birthday money to replace the broken one, and he didn't speak to me for over a month. Our roof was leaking, causing severe mould to grow under our upstairs carpet. One of our two toilets didn't work, causing a smell (don't think I need to describe this bit) that forced us to keep the bathroom door shut. For years this was the case, but I had learned that even the suggestion of hiring someone to do anything would unleash responses I prefer not to get into right now.
Some of the experiences I went through still have lasting effects on me. To this day I still get panic attacks when I buy groceries, as my ex would cut my visa off without warning when "I'd spent enough". In fact, I was that super annoying person with 75 items at the self-checkout because it was far less embarrassing to walk away, pretending to have forgotten my passcode, than to have to confess to the cashier that I simply couldn't pay.
I used to try to joke with my friends about his thriftiness, trying to convince myself that it was okay. But after awhile my friends stopped laughing and started to point out what I was trying to ignore: his BMW convertible, his motorbike, his fancy clothes and trips away. They would tell me how they would never put up with that behaviour, that it simply wasn't right. But I'd tell them over and over, "You don't understand. You don't know him like I do."
I actually defended him for ages, even after he left. I finally stopped about a year ago when he had all of our utilities cut off. The children and I had no power, water or natural gas for three days. That was 'my moment'. The fact that the bank rang me later that month to warn me that they were going to foreclose the house, as court ordered payments hadn't been followed (not even once) was definitely an extra confirming moment.
Rosie Batty tells Mia Freedman abuse takes many forms.
So. Why on earth did it take until that moment for my eyes to finally see it all clearly? Trust me, I have done so much research on this and have a beautiful psychologist that helps me figure it out. But, long story short (I say after nearly 1,000 words...), it can happen to anyone. It is gradual. It is essentially a slow brainwashing process that makes us doubt ourselves whenever we question it. It is justified to us in a way that makes us think that it is being done for our own good or simply because it is not our decision, as we are not smart enough to understand. Plus, we are told that it's not actually our money anyway.
I was simply a stay-at-home mum who wasn't bringing any money home. The kids and I were spending money that was not ours to spend and we were lucky that it was shared with us for as long as he chose to do so. And I bought into that explanation too.
Now, you may be wondering. Why am I sharing this extremely personal (and long) story? Well, because today two more women who work at the welfare office told me just how many women they see like me. Women who gave up their careers and own aspirations for their husbands. Women who are now in the same struggling financial situation. I, myself, have met and spoken to so many women who have gone through almost the exact same thing too. I am not a rarity. It is becoming a more and more common scenario, which makes me somehow feel so much worse.
But we all seem to be starting to ask the same thing. If it is so common, why aren't we talking about it? It's nothing to be ashamed of.
So I'll start the dialogue. I'm talking about it.