I’ve written at length before about my mental health, my childhood experiences of abuse, and my grooming and assault as a teenager – but there’s still a large, looming shadow of a story in my past that I’m yet to talk about. However – by not talking about it, I am keeping it locked away inside myself, where it eats away at me, causing me nightmares, flashbacks, and ongoing symptoms of PTSD. It has caused hyper-vigilance paranoia, and fear that I’m finding it hard to shake, even 15 years on.
That story is the story of a three year long abusive relationship.
I was 17 when I met Steve, he seemed to be fiercely intelligent, fascinating and a rebel – at 6.5”, a biker, with waist long dreadlocks and a fiery temper, he was dangerously appealing to an inexperienced teenager. I had a boyfriend who was more around my age, but Steve was 10 years older and I was bored. In retrospect, I can also see that I was pre-programmed to be attracted to bad guys because of my abusive, misogynistic father. I was a prime target.
We were just friends for about a year, spending time at summer festivals with a group of other people. During this time I remember he had a 15 year old girlfriend (much younger than him – he was around 27) and on her 16th birthday he slept with her, and was very boastful about it. That turns my stomach now, but as I was a similar age at the time, I didn’t think much of it.
The following summer, we spent a night having a sleepover with lots of friends in a big Tipi at the festival. It was cold, he crawled under my duvet and started touching me up. It was exciting and enthralling to have this older, interesting person pay me attention – so I started to fall for it. As time went on we texted and wrote (this was before Whatsapp and Facebook!) and I popped down to see him. I made it clear, though, that nothing was going to happen, that I was in a relationship, that until I was single I would NOT have sex with him. I reiterated that once I arrived, and again later as we had some kisses and cuddles. Things led on a bit and before long we were naked. He climbed on top of me. I said a firm NO. He pushed inside me; my whole body recoiled and I shrunk into myself. I said NO again. He stopped and started to apologise, to berate himself…I instantly felt awful for making him feel bad and although I didn’t want to, pulled him back into me and gave him a hug to assure him it was okay.
It wasn’t okay. It was FAR from okay. But my screwed up brain was telling me that as a woman, I had to please a man, had to be compliant and agreeable, so I went along with it.
After that I lost myself. I ended up moving away from my safe, secure, loving boyfriend of 2 years, away from my lovely flat, my job, my friends, and travelling from Scotland to Yorkshire with all my possessions in a backpack, to move in with him. I remember my friends begging me not to go; my boyfriend in tears on the other side of the window as the train pulled out of Aberdeen station…I was in tears too. I was bound firmly on a course of self-destruction borne out of the familiarity of abuse.
The day after I moved in, I put the butter back in the wrong place in the cupboard. He destroyed every piece of crockery in the kitchen; throwing it systematically against the wall and shouting and screaming. I remember sweeping it up, crouched on the floor amidst the broken shards, recalling a time when my father had done EXACTLY the same thing.
As the years went by, things became worse. He controlled my finances, where I went, what I wore, who my friends were, whether I smoked or drank, my contraception, my healthcare, every single thing. If I wore something he didn’t like, he’d call me fat. If I wanted to go somewhere to see friends, he’d say I couldn’t because I had to work to pay him back the money I owed him. I wasn’t allowed to use the dentist because he didn’t believe in modern medicine; I lost two teeth in the coming years. He played hot and cold constantly, I never knew if I was coming or going, he would destroy my belongings or rant and rage, then be sweetness and light. He was sexually coercive as well – I was constantly guilt-tripped into performing when I didn’t want to, and emotionally blackmailed into things I wasn’t comfortable with. He constantly watched porn.
He was careful never to perform ACTUAL acts of violence upon me.
He threw a computer at me, self-harmed in front of me and told me ‘LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO!’ He told me if I ever left him he’d kill me and then himself. He systematically stabbed knives, screwdrivers, pliers into the wall above my head if I sniffed in a way he didn’t like. He ripped our tent to shreds with a Stanley knife when camping, and made me sew it back up. He broke my Walkman, one of my few comforts, stamping on it in pure anger. He ruled me into a state of panic and fear, and I hated it. I hated him, but was trapped.
Then one Christmas, we went to visit my parents.
He and my father met, and I realised how exactly alike they were. They had a stand up row about cheese. They both stormed off in different directions, and as I passed my mother as we went after them to calm them both down, she trilled at me, fake-merrily ‘the things we do for them, eh?!’
No. Not me. YOU may do these things, but I will NOT be you. I will NOT end up with a monster after 40 years.
THAT was the start of my survival.
The following spring, we moved away from Yorkshire to a new-age traveller site to live in a caravan. Coping with him in a small space was pretty unbearable, but there were lots of other people who lived on the site, good people, and I was able to socialise more. One day a friend said to me ‘What the f*** are you doing? You know he’s a psycho and you deserve better, yeah?’ He didn’t know it but such simple words sunk in and I clung to them. It wasn’t just me that could see the madness, maybe, just maybe, it WASN’T MY FAULT.
A while later I went out for a walk in the woods for hours, on my own. I ignored his texts. I stayed out, sitting on a common above the woodland, gradually strengthening my resolve. I would NOT live like this. I jumped on a bus and went to a festival, alone.
I was starting to break free.
I spoke with a friend who agreed to coax him away for a visit so I could make good an escape. I genuinely feared his threat of murder/suicide, so I planned carefully. He left to see his friend, I bought a second caravan. I moved all of my belongings. The guys on site towed my caravan to as far away as possible, and promised to look out for me.
Then I picked up the phone, and told him it was over, I was done, I’d left him.
My wonderful friend somehow managed to persuade him to stay there for a couple more days during which time he calmed down. He came back contrite and begging for forgiveness, for a chance to ‘woo’ me back, I was immoveable. He was indignant that I wouldn’t just roll over and give in. He tried for some time, until I finally moved away the following summer and never went back. I have heard over the years that he’s looked for me, that he refers to me as his ‘wife’.
I had an out of the blue phone call one day from his new girlfriend. At this point he was around 30 and she was 17, and pregnant. She wanted to know what he’d been like when I was with him, whether he had been the same, whether I thought he could change. He’d pushed her over while pregnant. He’d set fire to the caravan. He’d convinced her she was insane, convinced a doctor to put her under his care and supervision, wouldn’t let her even go to the toilet unaccompanied.
She told me that when she’d moved in with him, the whole caravan was lined with my photos, letters and drawings.
I assured her that he was getting worse, and that if she wanted my advice, it was to run for the hills and never look back.
Thank goodness, she listened.
Having had plenty of therapy over the years, especially in the last two, I can see the situation more clearly now. I can see that I was a young, vulnerable target for an abuser. It was not my fault, I was not stupid, I was not weak. Reading back over my diaries from that time, I can see how my confidence and self-esteem was chipped down bit by bit until there was none left and I doubted my sanity.
I’ve found it immensely hard to trust anyone since, understandably. I still do. I have nightmares often, flashbacks to that time, which wake me up in the middle of the night in a panicky sweat. I know that he’s a pathetic bully who chooses young girls because grown women can see through his shit. I KNOW that. However, my inner damaged teenager does NOT know that. I’m telling her regularly, but she’s too scared to believe me, too scared of the monster. It took a lot of programming to get to that stage of built-in fear – both in childhood and my teenage years – so I’m trying to be kind and accept it will take just as long to undo all the damage done.
What is the moral of this story?
Well – I don’t know, really. Maybe it is that if you know, deep in your heart, that the way you are being treated sucks – listen to that voice. Make plans. Get out. Call Women’s Aid. Call the police. Call a friend. You are NOT going crazy, you deserve SO much better. There is hope, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s not all bad – my experiences of domestic violence both as a child and an adult have led me to ALWAYS call it out when I see it. This has led to at least two mums and their children leaving violent relationships and putting themselves in safety. I will carry on doing this as much as I can, forever. It was largely people pointing out the truth to me, that gave me the strength to leave. So don’t be afraid to step in if you see something that concerns you – ask the question. Challenge the behaviour.
Oh and please – teach your sons and daughters about consent. About respect. About how utterly vital it is to treat people the way they’d like to be treated.