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'I was in denial about my abusive relationship. Then I watched Netflix's Maid.'

This post discusses abusive relationships and may be triggering for some readers. 

In therapy, I believe it’s commonly referred to as a breakthrough. 

I’ve just finished watching the limited series Maid on Netflix about young mother Alex, (played by Margaret Qualley) and her struggle to flee an abusive partner - and it’s made me realise that my previous relationship was emotionally and financially abusive. 

I mean, it wasn’t like I was completely in denial, but for a long time I refused to lump myself into the same category as women who are often portrayed on screen as domestic violence victims. I’m university educated, I have a great job and I don’t come from a broken home. I was raised in what many would consider middle-class privilege. But my relationship was exactly like the one portrayed on screen; some of the dialogue was almost verbatim. 

Watch Women And Violence: The Hidden Numbers. We lose one woman every week in Australia to domestic violence, but that's just the tip of a very grim iceberg. Post continues after video. 


Video via Mamamia.

We split up several years ago, and although I felt broken at the time, the overwhelming feeling was relief. 

I was so sure that I had survived the squall that was my ex; I didn’t really search myself for collateral damage. I was just so glad to be out, to be free, to be autonomous again that I didn’t stop to check for broken bones, for internal damage. I didn’t really look inward. 

It wasn’t until months later when I was going for a run that I spotted someone who looked like him and I immediately began to panic. He had the same hair, the same eyes, the same gait. For a split second I thought it was him and I felt my heart rate quicken, my palms got sweaty. It was only when I managed to make it safely past this familiar-looking stranger that I realised I’d been holding my breath, and my hands were balled into fists. 

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My body had been bracing for combat. I was a spring, loaded and ready to defend myself, except this time I didn’t need to. It was a learned response, Pavlovian. As soon as I was far enough past this person, I burst into high-pitched, frenetic laughter. Hysterical laughter. I was bent over, laughing at the absurdity of the situation, as hot tears prickled in my eyes. I was laughing at how I could be so petrified of someone who was just going for a run. I was laughing in the same uncontrollable way you laugh when someone pins you down and tickles you. It was autonomic - an emotional release, and in that moment I was angry that my body had betrayed me in that way because what I really felt was a mix of terror and relief. And that topsy-turvy emotional cocktail, is what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is. 

PTSD is a physical response to trauma-related cues, like for example, the way your ex looks. A fight-or-flight response often learned from a pattern of abusive and controlling behaviour. At the time I put it down to stress, tiredness and the fact I was at the pointy end of preparation for a bodybuilding competition, so maybe I just needed some bloody carbs, you know? 

In hindsight, this response is not at all surprising because that’s what victims of abuse tend to do - we blame ourselves first. 

I carried on with my life. I went to therapy. I think the really important thing to say here is I went to therapy not because I thought I necessarily needed it, but because I wanted some external validation that I wasn’t insane. A small part of me feared I was actually crazy. Almost five years of being with this person and my whole identity had been completely eroded. I have always been such a confident person, but when I came out of that relationship I was just a person-shaped shell. An empty vessel. 

When Alex, the main character in Maid, returns to her partner, there’s a scene where she disappears down the back of the couch and is lying at the bottom of a black hole. Trapped. Isolated. I felt that. I knew that.

The whittling away of me was so gradual I didn't see it at first, like when you look at a Magic Eye picture and it just appears to be a fun pattern; if you flash it at other people, they won’t see it either. It takes time for it to emerge, to become visible. This is the part I think Maid illustrates so well - perpetrators are not all monsters. Sure Alex’s partner Sean (played by Nick Robinson) has a drinking problem, but he is still a nice guy a lot of the time. That’s the Sean he shows to friends and family. He even helps Alex when her mother Paula (played by Qualley’s real-life mother Andie MacDowall) is having a manic episode. He’s supportive of Alex, he’s a great dad to their daughter Maggy. Alex’s family all find him charming, her friends pressure her to go easy on him because he’s just having a rough time. 

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This is super important: Perpetrators of domestic violence can be kind. They’re often charming. They’re apologetic. They’re magnetic. They make you doubt your version of events. They make other people doubt your version too. That’s how gaslighting works.

Alex and Sean in Maid. Image: Netflix. 

Three months into my four-and-a-half year relationship, we had a fight that ended in my partner telling me he could throw me down the stairs if he wanted to. I left that night but I went back and he denied he ever said that. I must’ve heard it wrong, I reasoned. The cycle continued. I stayed another four years. 

There’s a pivotal scene in Maid when Alex is at the women’s shelter and she’s talking to a fellow domestic violence survivor. Danielle has red marks around her neck from where her partner had tried to strangle her. Alex immediately downplays her own situation, saying, “at least he never hit me”. 

Danielle says to her, “Before they bite, they bark. Before they hit you, they hit near you. Next time it was going to be your face and you know that. What he did to you was so fucked up and you better start getting mad as shit about it.” 

When I watched that scene, I burst into tears. Stephanie Land, who wrote the book Maid is based on, felt a similar catharsis, posting a picture of that scene on Instagram, along with the caption, “I was gaslit, told I was trying to ruin a reputation and overreacting. Emotional abuse is violence. It is control. It rips a person’s self worth to shreds so they are easier to control. And nobody sees the evidence. Nobody believes you. We all need a friend like Danielle.” 

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Danielle in Maid. Image: Netflix. 

We are doing domestic violence survivors a massive disservice by portraying abusive partners as rage-filled cookie-cutter monsters. Don’t get me wrong, some absolutely are, but a lot are not. A lot of them are kind, compassionate and giving. That’s what makes abuse like this so hard to spot. 

That’s what makes it so easy to ignore, or pass off as just a ‘difficult’ relationship, or a rough patch. 

I went through a five-year rough patch. Like the Magic Eye, it’s easy to dismiss what’s right in front of you if it’s not immediately clear. Emotional abuse is insidious, it creeps in slowly like an early morning fog, until all of a sudden you can’t see, you can’t get your bearings and you’re completely isolated. 

At the beginning of my relationship, I would never have an issue buying lunch at work; at the end I was scrambling for change and the bottom of my bag so the transaction couldn’t be seen. 

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At the beginning of my relationship, I would hang out with who I wanted, when I wanted. By the end I was asking bar staff for a phone so I could send my partner regular updates on my whereabouts, because my battery had died and I was worried about the consequences if I didn’t. 

At the beginning of my relationship, I told myself I must’ve misheard him when he said he could throw me down the stairs; by the end I was locking myself in the spare room, terrified at this new level of anger I was seeing and realising I didn’t know what he was capable of. 

I remember calling my mum that night because I thought at least with her on the phone I’d have a witness. That was the night I decided to leave, because I told myself even though he didn’t hit me, I was scared of him. 

Even though he didn’t hit me, I was afraid that one day he would. Even though he didn’t hit me, I didn’t feel safe around him. I was constantly bracing for combat. 

When I finally left, the first thing I was asked was, “Did he hit you?” and I would see the relief flood their faces when I told them, no, he never hit me. "It could’ve been worse", they’d say. To hear those words when you’ve just escaped a situation like that is gut-wrenching in one sense and terrifying in another, because it plays into the narrative abuse victims are often sold - that we’re overreacting, that we’re being too sensitive, that we’re taking it the wrong way (I don’t know how many ways you can take threats of physical violence, but what do I know?). 

Margaret Qualley shows this dilemma so beautifully in her portrayal of Alex, in the way she refuses help even when it’s literally handed to her. Emotional abuse leaves you isolated and unwilling to trust other people. Your brain is so traumatised that simple tasks seem monumental, so you stay, because you tell yourself it’s not so bad. You stay because you’re exhausted, your trust of others is so eroded. You stay because at least he doesn’t hit you. One of the women in the shelter tells Alex, “Our circuits are completely fried by what we’ve been through. When I first got here, it took me weeks to remember my favourite colour.” 

Alex in Maid. Image: Netflix. 

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That’s the result of being in a fight-or-flight response for months on end. Your nerves are frayed, your decision making pathways are shot. You become more reliant on the perpetrator. The cycle continues. 

In the last episode Alex, tells the same shop assistant her favourite colour is sky blue - it’s a transformative moment for her character and a signal that she’s found a way back to herself - she’s finally free. 

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I sobbed when I watched this scene, thanks to a mixture of recognition and relief. I sobbed for Alex, I sobbed for Stephanie Land and I sobbed for myself. This show was able to give me something I was not able to give myself while I was in an abusive relationship, or in the years since I was brave enough to leave it.

Validation that I was a victim, that it wasn’t all in my head. Proof the Magic Eye is finally turning into a picture that everyone can see.

Erin Rhone is a freelance journo, radio newsreader and bodybuilding enthusiast (yes, with the tan) based in Brisbane. You can keep up to date with her on Instagram or Twitter.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

Feature Image: Netflix.