We shouldn’t suffer in silence
You left me with no choice
As therapy for myself, a couple of week after leaving my wife, I thought I’d put all the diary entries, text messages and emails I’d written asking for help over the years into a single document. I thought it might take me a day or two.
It took weeks.
There were literally hundreds of them, dating back the whole ten years we’d been together. They documented hundreds of separate incidents of abuse towards me, and abuse and neglect of the children. 200 pages and 90,000 words – longer than many novels. I’d forgotten many of them. On every page were grounds for divorce written a dozen times over.
I was able to see patterns in the data, things I hadn’t realised when I was going through it. Every three months or so, my wife became utterly awful, to the point that I was ready to leave. Things would then improve for around three weeks, and shortly after I’d changed my mind and decided to stay, another awful incident would occur. It was almost regular as clockwork, and I’d never realised it was going on – I was too focused on surviving the here and now to see the bigger picture. And the big picture was pretty damned ugly.
I read some of it to my support worker Vicki. She listened grim-faced.
‘Have you thought of showing this to the police?’ she asked.
‘I want to keep it amicable between us,’ I said.
She laughed. ‘What about any of this seems amicable to you?’
She had a point. I’d only seen my children twice in a month. My mother-in-law had been texting my parents implying that my wife had custody and I only had ‘visitation rights’ which were subject to her control. On the third day that I was scheduled to see my children, my wife’s family – because while the messages came from my wife’s email and phone, they definitely weren’t written by her anymore – cancelled it.
I started an online course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy arranged through my doctor, and when I told the therapist my story, and about the document, she told me I should consider showing it to the police. ‘It sounds like an open-and-shut case of Controlling and Coercive Behaviour to me,’ she said.
At the next session, she said she’d spoken to her supervisor, and they both thought that I should report my wife to the police, because what she’d done to me was incredibly serious and I had more than enough evidence to convict her.
I hadn’t written the document as a means of gathering evidence, and I knew I wasn’t yet in any fit state to survive the rigors of a criminal investigation, but it was nice to know I had something in my pocket that might shift things in my favour.
When I asked to see the children for more than four hours a week, my wife texted, ‘We agreed with the social worker to allow you to see the children two hours twice a week. Two times two equals four…therefore you can have them for four hours one day a week…we are all trying to work at this together…everyone has to be considered and flexible not so rigid…so far you have had everything your way…I’m just trying to be nice and think of the children…previously we are trying to deal with this in a non aggressive manner…it would be nice if you could too and not be so self-centred.’
I was the primary carer for five years, doing every bedtime and every single night feed. I weaned them off their dummies, weaned them onto solid food, potty-trained them, taught them to walk, held them through colic, through sickness, went days without sleep sometimes, and they thought me ‘self-centred’ because I wanted to see them more than four hours a week? It was ridiculous.
Throughout the relationship, my wife had threatened that if ever I left, she would take away my children using her parents. I could see it happening right in front of my eyes.
For years, I’d watched the same scenario play out through her extended family. Whenever her half-sisters’ relationships had ended, the man had been cut out entirely – no access rights, no divorce settlements. Every man who dared break up with a member of that family was crucified, even when the woman had committed adultery. Every one of these men had been labelled ‘abusive’ – that one word justifying everything my wife’s family did to them. Every one of them had eventually given up the fight and walked away, broken.
And now it was happening to me.
I contacted Sandi, my children’s social worker, and told her that I was unable to ring to speak to my wife directly for fear that she would hang up on me and then accuse me of being ‘abusive’ as they were trying to discredit me as a witness; that I did not believe my wife had the capacity or the insight to exercise her parental responsibility and make decisions on behalf of the children, especially as the messages had included the word ‘we’ instead of ‘I’; and that there had been a consistent pattern throughout my children’s lives of the maternal grandmother acting as though she owned them. I told her I was very concerned about who was currently calling the shots regarding my children, as it clearly wasn’t their mother, and asked what she was going to do about it.
Nothing, as it turned out. Absolutely nothing.
She rang me when I was with my support worker Vicki. We had it on speaker phone. ‘My wife’s family have stolen my children,’ I said. ‘They’re trying to intimidate me into walking away, like they’ve done with every other man in their lives. Manipulating and controlling my access to my children is just a continuation of the abuse, and I will never be free of it.
‘They haven’t stolen your children if your wife is with them because she has parental responsibility.’
‘My wife might be with them, but she isn’t exercising any parental responsibility,’ I said. ‘So who is making decisions about my children? Have you even spoken to her?’
‘Every time I try, her mother answers the phone.’
‘So you haven’t spoken to her?’
‘Her mother says that your wife is making the decisions.’
‘Well of course she’s going to say that! Have you even spoken to my wife? Have you spoken to her once in the past month?’
‘Every time I try, she hands the phone to her mum so she can talk for her.’
‘And what does that tell you?’ Vicki almost shouted. ‘I’ve been working with this family for ten years, and I can tell you that there is only one parent capable of looking after those children, and it’s Richard. He was the primary carer for five years. We’ve told you about the mother’s neglect and we’ve told you about her abuse, and you’ve done nothing about it.’
‘I’m not enjoying being involved with this case, you know,’ Sandi snapped.
I felt like screaming, ‘Well how the hell do you think I’m feeling!?!’
Vicki said, ‘Look, Sandi. I’ve gone on this journey with Richard, and let me tell you, it’s been eye-opening. It’s been shocking. How he’s been treated is disgusting, and all because he’s a man. I’ve been talking to people on the phone, trying to get help for him, and three times I’ve had to stop people and tell them he’s not the abuser, he’s the victim of the abuse. Three times. What are you going to do?’
‘Let me make something clear,’ said Sandi. ‘I’m the children’s social worker; I’m not Richard’s social worker. Richard’s social worker has referred him to the Domestic Abuse Pathway.’
‘But what will you do?’
‘I will try to talk to his wife,’ said Sandi. ‘If she’ll talk to me.’
‘If? You’re the children’s social worker!’
There was nothing she could or would do to help me.
So I rang my social worker and told her that I was still being abused, that my wife was limiting my contact with my children and I was struggling to cope.
‘Richard, let me stop you there,’ she interrupted. ‘Your domestic arrangements are nothing to do with me. I’ve given you the number of a helpline, so ring it. Goodbye.’
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Just wait. I rang that number. It was a woman’s helpline and they wouldn’t talk to me because I’m a man. The children’s social worker said you’ve referred me to the Domestic Abuse Pathway. What is that?’
‘It’s that number I gave you.’
‘The Domestic Abuse Pathway of Social Services is to give me the number of a women’s helpline who won’t talk to me because I’m a man?’
‘But isn’t there something the council does? Something to help people like me?’
‘My statutory obligation is to give you that phone number.’
‘You’re telling me that, as a vulnerable adult, there’s no official organisation that does anything to protect people like me from abuse?’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘there’s the police. But none of what happened to you is bad enough to involve the police.’
‘Really? Cutting off my beard with kitchen scissors wasn’t bad enough?’
‘She cut off your beard?’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘So now you’re interested. Because it’s physical abuse. Is there still nothing you can do to help me?’
‘I’ve given you that number,’ she said. ‘That’s all I can do.’
After I ended the call, I finally found a domestic abuse helpline that would actually talk to me and eventually got through. I told the man on the phone that I’d been abused, that I was traumatised, that my wife was a sociopath, that she was holding my children hostage, and that her parents were telling me when I could and could not see my own children and controlling all the communication between us despite the fact I had 50:50 Parental Responsibility.
‘Maybe they’re protecting your wife from you,’ he said.
It could’ve floored me. ‘What?’
‘Maybe her family are protecting her from you. You can’t just go around calling people sociopaths, you know.’
‘That’s quite an allegation to make.’
‘There are seven criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder. She fits all of them. My support workers think she was misdiagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder because she misrepresented herself, hid what she really was.’
‘It sounds to me like her family are trying to keep her safe from you.’
‘I’m not the abuser!’
‘Well, calling someone a sociopath is pretty bad.’
I found myself having to defend myself against him – the man on a helpline for victims of domestic abuse was trying to convince me that I was the abuser!
I said that I was thinking of going to the police as nobody else would help me.
‘You can’t go to the police,’ he said. ‘It’s not an emergency.’
‘The police are only there for emergencies and this isn’t an emergency.’
I frowned in disbelief. ‘No, the police are there to investigate crimes.’
‘But she hasn’t committed any crimes.’
‘She hasn’t committed any crimes.’
‘She cut off my beard with kitchen scissors!’
‘Well, that’s not really a crime.’
‘Yes, it is. It’s common assault.’
‘Well,’ he said. ‘If you want to do something about it, you could maybe do a private prosecution in civil court. Hire a solicitor and pay for it yourself. But you can’t involve the police because it’s nothing to do with them.’
‘How is domestic abuse nothing to do with the police?’ I wanted to reach through the phone and throttle him. ‘You’re wrong. It’s the police’s job to investigate breaches of the law and present evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘The police are only there for emergencies.’
Then he said he was only allowed to talk to me for thirty minutes, and because it was nearing his limit, could he ask me about my race, gender and sexual orientation?
I hung up on him. I felt like I was screaming, but nobody could hear me. At least, nobody was listening. My blood pressure was 154/97 with a pulse of 97. I felt like ending it.
So I picked up the phone and rang the police.
How can I be so afraid?
As a victim of abuse, you have a blind spot towards what’s really going on. What’s obvious to anybody else on the outside isn’t so clear when you’re inside an abusive relationship. Your abuser has so many holds on you – on your thoughts and your emotions, on how you see the world and your place in it – that you can’t get a handle on what’s actually happening. You live from moment to moment, crisis to crisis, thinking that if you can just get through this moment, then it’ll be better.
It’s like you’re in a dark forest, blinded by smoke. You see a tree on fire, so you tackle it, and you have a moment’s relief when the fire goes out. But then you see another tree on fire, so you go to tackle that one. Again, you rest, overjoyed that you’ve extinguished that fire. And then you see another one, and so on. You go from tree to tree putting them out, expending all your energy fighting these fires and thinking that if you put out enough of them, eventually you’ll be able to simply enjoy the forest.
It never happens. What you can’t see, because you’re right in the middle of it, is that the whole freaking forest is on fire. You lost this fight before you even started. If you were able to stop a moment, pause, reflect on it, you might realise the truth of the situation – and that’s why abusers don’t allow you any time to think. They need you to be confused; they need you in the smoke.
It wasn’t until I left my wife that I realised just how ugly our relationship had been, and how much I was afraid of her.
In my parents’ house, I found a new definition of fear. Before my wife I were living together, on five separate occasions at four separate addresses, she turned up at my place and refused to leave, and on three of these occasions subjected me to physical violence. Despite my parents’ reassurances that I was safe, I was terrified she’d turn up, and that fear only intensified when I discovered from a mutual friend that same evening that my wife knew where I’d gone because my nosy neighbours had texted her.
The next few days were hell. My startle reaction was so intense, I jumped to my feet at every sudden noise, every car driving past, every dog barking. I couldn’t turn my back to a door or a window, so I sat up against the solid wall, constantly scanning for danger. At night, I tossed and turned in bed, frequently getting up to check the doors were still locked and there were sufficient barricades between me and potential danger should I fall asleep.
I was exhausted, but my body wasn’t shutting down. The doctor prescribed me sleeping pills and doubled my anti-depressants, which caused my dreams to twist into nightmares from which I couldn’t wake. My hair fell out in clumps and I was covered in boils, my constant hypervigilance taking a massive toll on my body. I was pumped with so much adrenalin, I could only pace and pace, my heart pounding, panic setting in. I developed a nervous tic in my eyes that I’d last suffered from at school when I was being bullied.
When my parents left me alone for an hour, they came back to find me curled in a ball in the corner having a panic attack. I was smart enough to know I needed help, so I rang the doctor to ask for counselling. I was obsessing over the indignities I’d suffered, was broken and traumatised and afraid. I had no idea it would take almost two years to get treatment, and only after I was belatedly diagnosed with PTSD from what I’d been through.
I was terribly concerned for my children’s welfare, and dreaded the lies they might be told about me. My only consolation was that, if the children were being looked after by their grandmother for the time being, at least they weren’t being neglected or abused. My support worker Vicki confirmed what my cousin had told me on the phone – because my wife had Borderline Personality Disorder, Social Services were terrified of being sued, so they were treating my wife with kid gloves. They didn’t care about any of her past behaviour, any of the neglect or abuse reported by me and by Vicki, as though our opinions and evidence didn’t matter at all; they would only note her behaviour moving forward, and make a case from that.
But if my wife was good at anything, it was altering her behaviour for a short period of time – especially if people were watching. She’d done it so many times with me, giving me just enough reasons to stay whenever I wanted to leave, before reverting to type as soon as the threat was over.
‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law,’ said Vicki. ‘She’s got the children and the house, and her parents are getting her a nanny. It’s easier for Social Services to leave the children with her, and get her all the help she needs to keep them, than intervene on your behalf.’
‘But that’s not right, and it’s definitely not fair.’
‘No, it isn’t. Your wife is loving it right now, because she’s finally got her mum’s attention, but it won’t last – her mum will abandon her like she’s done so many times before. Then she’ll drop the ball, and when she does, Social Services will have enough evidence to act.’
‘So they’re rolling the dice on my children’s safety and hoping that when she messes up, it’s not so bad that it causes permanent damage?’
‘Well, that’s pretty shit. I thought it would be obvious which of us was the responsible parent.’
‘It is. But she’s got the house, and you’re living in your parents’ spare bedroom. You need to use this time to recover, build your strength back up, and find somewhere to live, so that you’re ready for your children when she drops the ball. You have to play the long game. They’ll be coming back to you.’
Her confidence reassured me. Unfortunately, she was quite wrong.
I asked her why, in all the times my wife had begged me to come back, she hadn’t once said sorry.
‘Because she doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong,’ she said.
And there lies the truth of the matter.
Even though I was the one ending it, I felt awful. I was heartbroken. I was terrified about how she might be feeling, or how she might react. I pictured her sobbing in front of my children; I pictured her distraught. Never did I picture her anything other than upset.
But then a mutual friend texted to say that my wife was furious I had left. Not sad; not remorseful; furious. She’d apparently never been so angry before.
It threw me through a loop. What the hell kind of reaction was that?
She wasn’t sad I’d left: she was angry she’d lost her favourite toy. I was a possession to her, and nothing more. And if she couldn’t have me, she’d make sure nobody could. It was about to get so much worse.
I’m begging for help
Day 42 of the Lockdown
Alone in the house without my children, waiting to be kicked out, I descended into darkness as all the memories of my wife’s abuse rose up to overwhelm me. While I was in this state, I got a text from my wife asking how I was.
‘Fine,’ I replied.
‘How’s your other self?’ she asked, and my blood ran cold.
‘What other self?’
‘The other self of you.’
She was fishing. I knew it immediately. Their only defence was to discredit me, and they were trying to get me to say something like, ‘Oh, he’s fine too,’ which they could then use to claim I had two sides to my character too – that I was the abuser.
‘I don’t understand the question,’ I replied. ‘I don’t have an “other” self. I’m just me.’
She was silent for an hour, and then texted, ‘Have you spoken to anyone today?’
‘What does he say?’
‘Supportive of what you do?’
I stared down at the phone. Supportive of what you do? What was she implying?
My body temperature dropped; I felt chilled to my core. I remembered the email her mother had sent six weeks before, the accusation that I was able to conceal my ‘true temperament’ in front of people, and that I provoked my wife into reacting in public, presumably to gain some kind of leverage over her. They were trying to set me up as the abuser, as some kind of monster engaging in a Machiavellian scheme to steal the house and steal the children.
I felt so vulnerable. I was exhausted; I hadn’t slept properly for five years; and I hadn’t had any mental space for twice that. Terror surrounded me, helplessness and loss. I thought my mind was crumbling. Every sound, I thought it was my father-in-law coming to kill me. I repeatedly checked my barricades.
I paced from room to room, anxious, on edge, listening, muscles tight, ready to spring into action. Three full days without my children – the longest we’d ever been apart.
I don’t remember if I slept – I don’t remember much of that time, in the dark, waiting. I don’t know how I survived it. Sometimes, I wonder if I did.
Day 43 of the Lockdown
On Monday, my fourth day without the children, my support worker Vicki came to see me. She was appalled by the deterioration in my mental health – I was a nervous wreck. We had to call the council, she said, to find me housing.
I rang someone on the homelessness team and told her I had just come out of an abusive relationship with my wife and I needed somewhere to live that could accommodate children.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘It’ll be a long wait.’
‘But I need to get out now,’ I said. ‘It’s my wife’s house that she owns with her dad.’
‘Have they told you to leave?’
‘Not yet,’ I said, getting distressed. ‘But they can kick me out whenever they want.’
‘Well, if you leave before they tell you to, you’ll be voluntarily making yourself homeless and go to the back of the queue. So ring back when they kick you out and we’ll see if we can do anything for you.’
I couldn’t cope. Vicki took the phone off me and said, ‘Excuse me, this is his support worker. I just want to clarify – he’s not the abuser, he’s the victim of abuse.’
‘Oh,’ said the woman on the phone – she’d simply assumed that because I was a man, I must have been the abuser. ‘Well, in that case, we’ll put him on the list. But I’m afraid it could be a few weeks.’
‘He can’t stay here, because he’s vulnerable to further abuse.’
‘Well, I’m sorry, but we have nowhere for him. He’ll just have to stay where he is.’
I wandered over to the sofa in a daze and listened as the council worker told Vicki that I had to remain in the house for at least the next month, with all the threat of abuse that might entail. I remember looking at the pictures on the wall – wedding photos, a family shot, all of us together, and smiling, and I felt I was dying.
After the phone call, Vicki asked me what I wanted to do.
‘I don’t have a choice, do I?’ I said. ‘I have to stay here until whatever happens.’
‘But are you going to be strong enough?’ she asked. ‘When she comes back and she cuddles up to you and she says she’s sorry and it won’t happen again if you’d only take her back, are you going to be strong enough to say no? Or is she going to reel you back in?’
I looked at the family photo again and I just shattered.
Crying, shivering, choking, screaming. I totally lost control. Somehow my trousers got covered in snot and tears, and despite the social distancing, Vicki came and sat beside me and stroked my back. Ten minutes or more, I was inconsolable.
‘Richard,’ she said when I’d finally regained some semblance of rationality. ‘I have never seen anyone break down like that before. In the past, I’ve raised safeguardings to protect the children – I’m going to have to raise a safeguarding to protect you. This isn’t a safe place for you anymore. She’s destroying you.’
‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ I sobbed.
‘Here, as in alive?’
‘No, here in this house.’
‘Then let’s get you out.’
‘I’ve got nowhere to go.’
‘Well, we can either contact your parents, or you can be sectioned for your safety.’
‘Then it’ll have to be my parents.’
She rang my parents. Lockdown be damned, I needed to be removed for my own safety and welfare. They readily agreed and said they’d come to collect me.
I packed a few belongings into a bag. I didn’t have much. My clothes were crammed into an eighth of a wardrobe, stuffed right to one side where they were difficult to access and covered in mildew from the damp. Other than my laptop and a couple of books, I didn’t have much presence in that house.
My eyes fell on my wedding ring, sitting on the bedside table.
‘I’ve failed my marriage,’ I muttered.
‘Say that again. Who failed your marriage?’
‘What should I do with my wedding ring?’
‘Do you want to take it with you?’
I shook my head.
‘Then leave it.’
‘I don’t want her to find it when she comes home,’ I said. ‘I don’t want her to see it and feel bad.’
Vicki stared at me. ‘She’s taken away your children, she’s left you with no other choice than to leave, and you’re worried about what she’s feeling?’
I left it where it was.
When my parents arrived I was led to the car like a man going to his own execution. I could almost feel the neighbours twitching the curtains. I later found out that several of them texted my wife to fill her in on where I had gone.
It didn’t give me any joy to leave that house. It didn’t feel good at all.
But I was out, and I was free.
Or so I thought.
Why won’t anyone help me?
Day 41 of the Lockdown
The evening that my wife stormed out to her mother’s with a suitcase of children’s clothes – the day I realised they had smuggled my children out from under my very nose – I went for a walk for my hour’s permitted exercise. I bumped into a former support worker that I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. She called across the road to ask me how I was.
‘My marriage ended on Thursday,’ I said.
‘You finally figured out that she was abusing you?’ she replied.
‘Yes,’ I said, surprised.
She nodded sagely. ‘About time. I was thinking about you the other day. I thought, “Poor Richard, locked in that house with her – she must be putting him through hell.”’
‘She was. And now her parents have got my children. I don’t think they’re coming back.’
‘I know how much you love your kids. My heart breaks for you. I’d give you a hug if we were allowed. Look after yourself.’
I told her that I would, but sitting alone in that house, the scene of so many abuses, it was easy to grow paranoid. Two days without my children – it was the longest I’d been away from them in years.
I knew I was on borrowed time. If my wife owned the house outright, I would have a right to remain until the divorce, but because she co-owned it with her father, they could kick me out whenever they chose. It was just another layer of control they’d used to keep me trapped, threatening me with homeless if ever I stepped out of line. And we were in lockdown – I had nowhere to go.
Worse, I worried about what her father might do to me. It was clear to anyone with eyes that he wasn’t long for this world. A heavy drinker with a casual disregard for safety, who often left his shotgun lying around, fully loaded, I wouldn’t have put it past him to take me out – he probably wouldn’t even be around for the trial. Since I had all the evidence of her abuse and her unfitness as a mother, the neatest thing for them would be if I was removed, and I worried they’d take that chance.
I barricaded the doors.
My wife was bombarding me with text messages, photographs of happy times, promises that I knew were empty. When she told me that I had to remember that she was good for me, I asked her why she’d threatened to abort my son to control me; why she’d used my children to emotionally blackmail me; why she’d hit me so many times?
‘That wasn’t me,’ she replied. ‘That was Hyde.’
‘And you can’t control when you change from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde, can you? Or can you?’
‘I can control it.’
The night stretched into the following day. Time seemed to blur. Now that I was apart from my wife, all these incidents I’d forgotten about popped into my head, hundreds and hundreds of them, the full gamut of physical, mental, emotional, financial and sexual abuse I’d been subjected to for ten years. It was like waking into a nightmare. I’d forgotten so much.
When you’re being abused, when you’re going through it, you live very much in the present moment, just trying to get through it, and hoping that tomorrow will be better. Now, for the first time in ten years, I had space to think, and to remember, and a lifetime of hurt and pain caught up with me. No wonder she’d never let me have a moment to myself – if she had, I’d have realised what she was doing.
And now that I realised it, I realised it fully. I was bullied for twenty years in education, ten years at work, and ten years in my marriage – and I was only forty. All my life I’d been a victim. I’d done everything right, followed every rule, sacrificing my health and energy to meet the needs of everyone around me, and it hadn’t been enough. I’d lost my children. I’d lost my marriage. I was about to lose my home. I had nothing left.
Day 42 of the Lockdown
I rang my cousin, a Family Law solicitor, to get some advice. I told her about the abuse I’d received from my wife, the violence, the threats to take away my children if ever I left. I told her about the personality disorder; the numerous safeguardings raised with Children’s Services; the multiple witnesses to her neglect. I told her that I’d raised the children practically singlehanded; that every night of their lives, I was the one who put them to bed; that every time they woke up crying, or thirsty, or simply weren’t tired, I was the one who saw to them; that every time they had to go to the doctor, I was the one who took them; and that the stability, the emotional support, it had all been me.
Her response broke me, if there was even anything left to break.
She said that my odds of getting custody in court were only 50:50.
‘But she’s clearly unstable,’ I said.
‘It doesn’t matter. So long as your wife has support around her and isn’t the sole carer, the judge could deem that adequate “protective measures” are in place to safeguard the children.’
‘But she has Borderline Personality Disorder. Surely that puts me in good stead?’
‘Actually, that could count against you,’ she said. ‘Social Services will have to tread very carefully around her in case they get sued for discrimination.’
‘I don’t believe this. I’ve got ten years of emails asking for help with her behaviour, and I’ve got five years of documented incidents of her neglect and abuse of the children, and dozens of witnesses.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ she said again. ‘Look, what you’ve got to understand is that in a Criminal Court, you have to prove things “beyond a reasonable doubt”, but in Family Court, it’s “on the balance of probabilities”. Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to go in with all your evidence of her instability and abuse towards the children; her solicitors will counterclaim that you’re also unstable and abusive towards the children, and there won’t be the burden of proof. That’s just the way it’s done. Then they’ll say you currently have nowhere to live, while your wife co-owns the children’s home and her parents can provide a nanny to help her look after them. The judge will then have to decide if it’s in the children’s best interests to be taken away from their home and their mother, to be given to a man who has nowhere to live and can’t afford a nanny.’
I felt like I’d just been kicked in the crotch. ‘So what do I do?’
‘Cooperate with Social Services. Find somewhere to live. Then you can fight for your children. But I have to warn you, as I warn all my clients, you’ve got a long, hard journey ahead of you. Most people fall into depression before they reach the end of it, so you have to look after your mental health, because you are about to descend into hell.’
‘You don’t think we can resolve this amicably?’
‘Oh Richard,’ she said, amused by my naivety. ‘This is going to get very ugly very quickly.’
It broke me
Our support worker reiterated to Children’s Services that my wife wasn’t capable of looking after the children on her own due to multiple acts of negligence and abuse. I spoke to the social worker Sandi on the phone and told her all of my wife’s history – leaving the children unattended in the bathtub, sending them off with strangers, cutting the ends of their fingers when trimming their nails, letting them run into the sea fully-clothed in October so they had to be rescued by a fisherman, threatening to take them away from me if I ever left her, pushing my daughter over on a coast path, trying to cover up the injuries caused by my mother-in-law’s dog and father-in-law’s assault, emotionally abusing them, ignoring them when they were ill or crying, abandoning all night-time responsibilities, using them in a sick power game against me – everything I thought made her an obviously unsuitable mother.
But when I asked Sandi to find me somewhere else to live – somewhere with the children – she told me that wasn’t her department, it could take weeks, and had I considered the impact of taking the children away from their home and their mother?
‘Yeah, but I can’t exactly leave them here with her, can I? I’m the primary carer. She’s never properly put them to bed. She’s never got up in the night to see to them – she sleeps right through. 9pm to 8am, I’ve been a single parent the past five years. I look after them when they’re ill, when I’m ill. It was seven months before she changed a nappy. It was a year before I could leave her alone with them for an hour. She leaves the room if they cry and won’t come back until they’ve stopped. I can’t leave my children in this situation.’
I was desperately scrambling to think up a workable solution. If we couldn’t continue under the same roof, one of us had to leave. If I left, I would want to take the children with me, for which I’d need her permission, and if she didn’t give it, it would end up in court and get ugly and there’d be no way back. If she left, on the other hand, moved in with one of her parents, and got the help she needed, she could continue to visit the house every day, under certain conditions, and we’d review the situation in a few months. This would allow us both to see the children every day, provide them with stability and continuity, give her a chance to get proper treatment, and leave the door open for a reconciliation somewhere down the line.
Even after all she did to me – the violence, the manipulation, the theft, the blackmail – I wanted to give her that chance. I was desperate to give her that chance. But it had to have safeguards built in to protect me and my children from her behaviour.
When I put these two options to her over the phone, she asked me to grant the third option – I give her another chance, we all stay together as before, and she promised not to do it again. Which wasn’t really an option.
Later that evening, I saw a post on Facebook that read, ‘Mummies can’t just walk away from their children like daddies can – let’s hear it for all the mummies.’
I spent the evening in an empty house, my wife and children at my mother-in-law’s, and a nagging suspicion in the back of my mind.
Day 41 of the Lockdown
When my wife returned the following morning to continue our discussion, without supervision this time, I started by telling her that I wanted to meet the real her.
‘Remove the mask,’ I said. ‘Remove the artifice. Be honest with me about what you really think and what you really feel, because I’m not sure I’ve ever known you. Tell me the truth, not what you think I want to hear.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said.
‘Sure, you don’t,’ I said. ‘Right. Yesterday we spoke about the past. Today we need to speak about the future.’
‘I promise I’ll do anything to make it work.’
‘Okay, then,’ I said. ‘Get rid of the dog.’
The dog had been a major bone of contention between us. All the pets, really. My wife was obsessed with buying animals for a short thrill, after which she neglected to look after them and left me to do everything. And I’m not talking a few animals – we had fish, chickens, guinea pigs, a hamster, a cat and a dog. She treated the pets as possessions, not living, feeling creatures.
A few months before the lockdown, I wanted to take our 22-year-old cat to the vet because I could count every rib from the other side of the room, he was struggling even to stand, and he was clearly in pain.
‘No,’ said my wife. ‘He’s my cat, and I want him to die of natural causes.’
‘He’s our cat, he’s in pain and he’s dying,’ I said. ‘I’ve made an appointment with the vet.’
‘Well, I won’t let you use my car. It’s my car that my dad bought for me and I don’t want you using it anymore.’
‘Okay. I’ll take my car. But you’re blocking me in. Can you move it?’
‘Where are your keys?’
‘Come on, where are they?’
‘I don’t know. You’ll have to find them.’
‘Are you going to help me?’
When I left, she told me that if I didn’t bring the cat back with me, I shouldn’t ever bother coming home.
‘We have to do what’s in his best interests,’ I said. ‘If the vet says he’s in pain and the kindest thing is to put him to sleep, do you really want to make him suffer until the end?’
‘If you don’t bring him back, don’t bother coming home.’
So that day, when my wife said she’d do anything to make our marriage work, I knew exactly what I wanted as a first step.
‘Get rid of the dog,’ I said.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love him, but with two young children, we couldn’t devote the time and energy to give him the attention and exercise that he needed, and I thought it would be kinder to him to give him to a family that would look after him properly. I was the only one who fed him, walked him, played with him and picked up his mess. In any case, my wife had also promised to rehome him if we tried for a second baby, a promise she reneged upon as soon as she became pregnant.
‘How about I promise to walk him every day that I’m not busy doing something else?’
‘You’re busy every day. You said you’d do anything. Get rid of the dog.’
She thought about it a moment, and then said, ‘Okay, last offer, I’ll get rid of the fish.’
‘The fish?’ I said. ‘The one solitary fish that’s only still alive because I feed it?’
‘Yeah, I’ll get rid of the fish.’
I just shook my head, appalled.
‘It’s taken you thirty seconds to go from “I’ll do anything” to “I’ll get rid of the fish.” Thirty seconds. I guess that shows how much you’re prepared to work on this. Have you thought any more about the two options I gave you?’
‘They’re no good for me,’ she said. ‘My parents would never let you live here without me. They don’t think it’s fair that I move out, because you should be the one taking the blame for ending this.’
‘It’s not about blame. Think about what’s in the children’s best interests – the least disruption; two parents who they see every day; remaining in their own home. And you getting the help you need.’
‘Over my dead body. We’ll never let you steal the house.’
‘I’m not trying to steal the house,’ I said. ‘I’m trying to do what’s best for everyone.’
‘Well I’m not moving out.’
‘Then I will be leaving,’ I said. ‘And I’ll need your permission to take the children with me.’
‘Well you can’t have it,’ she said. ‘I’ll never give you permission. You’ll never take my children from me – my parents will never let you.’
She stormed upstairs, packed a suitcase full of clothes for her and the children, and left to go back to her mother’s.
That’s when I realised I’d been played.
My mother-in-law hadn’t taken the children to give my wife and me time to talk – she’d taken them to keep them.
Who the hell are you?
I’d like to say that telling others you’re being abused, and somehow finding the strength to leave, is the end of the fight. I’d like to say that the moment you stand up and declare you’re not going to be a victim anymore, things get easier.
But this isn’t a fairy tale.
If I thought living with my wife was hell, I was about to discover there was a whole other hell beneath it.
The person who leaves an abusive partner is always at a disadvantage. By the time you leave, you’ve already spent years sacrificing your health, your energy, your self-respect and your coping strategies, simply to survive. Whatever reserves of strength remained, you exhausted in order to say to your abuser, ‘This is wrong. I don’t deserve this and my children don’t deserve this. It’s over.’
And then, when you’re at your lowest ebb physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, when you’re all used up and you have nothing left to give – that’s the time when you have to fight the hardest.
The odds are stacked against you from the start.
Day 39 of the Lockdown
When I told my wife it was over, she stormed out in a rage. An hour later when she returned, she was calmer. I asked our support worker Vicki to stay with her while I took the dog for a walk around the block, because I needed to get out.
I rang my parents and tried to tell them what had happened, but I couldn’t get the words out – all I could manage was a high-pitched whine. Holding things back for so many years, my emotions came out in such a rush, I thought I might die.
I fell to the pavement, sobbing uncontrollably. I was wailing, choking, hyperventilating. The dog sat next to me, howling at my distress. We made a pretty sight.
Cars drove by. Pedestrians stopped and stared, and then hurried on. It wasn’t my finest hour.
It was grief. Everything I loved, everything I’d worked for – a wife, a home, a family – it was all over. Everything hurt. Even though I chose it for myself, even though I’d made the decision to end it, I was devastated. I wanted to take it back. I wanted to climb back to the top of the cliff.
Most of all, I just wanted to hug my wife.
Even at the time, I knew it was ironic. She was the one who’d brought me to this place, on my knees in the street, sobbing.
I don’t know how long I spent like that, down on the pavement, letting out what felt like a lifetime of grief and hurt. Maybe fifteen minutes. Maybe more. I was broken.
When I eventually dragged myself up and went home, I put the children to bed and my wife went out to see her parents, to plan what they’d do next. When she came back, long after dark, she said her mother had offered to take the children for the weekend to give us the chance to talk. I agreed – it was important that we talked, and it was important the children were kept as far away as possible.
‘Can you sleep in our bed tonight?’ my wife asked.
I’d spent the last few nights on the sofa. I was exhausted, emotionally-drained.
‘It doesn’t change things,’ I said. But I slept next to her. In the night, we held onto one another, both of us crying.
It was the last night of comfort for a long, long time.
Day 40 of the Lockdown
In the morning, my mother-in-law arrived to take the children. She seemed meek, respectful. She looked like a defeated dog.
When I kissed my children goodbye, I had no idea it was the last time I’d see them for weeks.
I waited until a support worker arrived, so there’d be a neutral party in case things got out of hand, and then I started talking to my wife – the conversation I’d been trying to have with her for weeks. Years actually. She couldn’t run from it anymore.
I told her that we couldn’t continue under the same roof; that she’d been abusing me and the children; and that I wasn’t prepared to remain in a place where I was vulnerable to her aggression and her behaviour anymore.
Her reaction was weird. Really weird. She kept screwing up her face as if trying to make herself cry, but nothing came out. She’d frown, open her mouth, hunch her whole body down as if straining to pass a kidney stone, and then give up.
And her words seemed to have no connection to what I was saying, and no connection to anything underneath. She was simply saying the same tired lines she’d said for years – ‘I’ll never do it again,’ ‘give me another chance,’ ‘I promise I’ll change,’ ‘I’ll do whatever it takes’ – but there was no emotion behind it, as though even she didn’t believe what she was saying.
At one point, she asked me why I wasn’t crying. ‘You should have seen me last night,’ I said. ‘I was down on all fours sobbing in the street. That’s how much I’m hurting. You’ve destroyed me.’
Her only reaction was to look out the window and say, ‘Ooh, a helicopter.’
I glanced at my support worker to see if I’d misheard, but her face reflected the same discomfort I felt. There was something wrong here – who the hell was sitting in the room with us? Because it didn’t seem like anybody I’d met before.
My wife did eventually manage to squeeze some tears out, when she was telling me why she behaved the way she did, all the excuses, why it wasn’t really her fault. ‘I just want to be like the other mums. I so want to be like the other mums.’
It was a good performance, very moving. At least, it would have been moving if I hadn’t already heard it the day before, almost word for word, from her mother on the phone.
I don’t know if, the night before, my wife’s parents deliberately prepped her, telling her exactly what to say, or if her mum said something like, ‘We understand why you do it. You do it because of x, y and z,’ and my wife simply repeated it. In either case, they weren’t her words.
‘That doesn’t make it okay,’ I said. ‘You’ve been abusing me for years. You used the children as weapons to hurt me. Do you even understand what you’ve done wrong?’
‘Yes,’ she said, looking off to one side and nodding to each point as she said it. ‘I’ve been abusing you for years; I used the children as weapons to hurt you.’
‘No, don’t parrot my words back to me. Tell me specifically, what have you done wrong?’
She stared at me blankly.
‘You don’t know, do you?’ I said. ‘You have no idea what you’ve done wrong.’
‘Fuck this,’ she said, jumping up. ‘We’ve got all weekend to talk about this, I don’t know why you want to do it all at once.’
And she stormed off to her mother’s.
Into the shocked silence, my support worker said, ‘That was really weird.’
‘You felt it too?’
‘She wasn’t listening to anything you were saying. She was just repeating things, like she’s been programmed what to say, without understanding what any of it means. It was like talking to a robot that doesn’t understand humans.’
I nodded. ‘I don’t know who the hell that person was.’
‘It was really odd,’ said my support worker. ‘Really quite scary, actually.’
It was as though the person I’d married had been an artificial construct of my wife’s personality – the mask she wore to hide who she truly was – and we’d just experienced a glimpse underneath. She wasn’t a Jekyll and Hyde character – she was Hyde. Jekyll was nothing more than her public face.
It was like staring into an infinite black hole.
It wasn’t just scary.
It was freaking terrifying.
Will anyone listen to me?
Day 39 of the Lockdown
There were five of us at the meeting – seven if you count the children: my daughter, aged 4, and my son, 2 – but I’d made them a den in the playroom and set them up with a movie so they’d be out of the way of what needed to happen.
As it was during the first Covid lockdown, we were social distancing. Next to me on the sofa sat my wife; in the far corner was my alcoholic father-in-law who owned the house in which we lived; on another sofa was a support worker named Vicki; and in the armchair the social worker from Children’s Services.
She asked what had been going on and I took a breath, wondering if I’d be able to get the words out.
You don’t wake up one day to find you’re being abused. It’s a slow process, an incremental escalation punctuated by a thousand compromises, excuses and second chances, until you’ve redrawn the line of acceptable behaviour so many times, you no longer remember where it was meant to be. Violence, manipulation, domination and control become so normalised that having a pint of water thrown over you, or being shouted and sworn at, or being belittled in front of your children, or being extorted out of money, or being told your children will be taken away from you, barely even register as something out of the ordinary.
You see, abusers don’t just hurt you – they dominate you. They take away your dignity and your self-respect and make you dependent. They learn what buttons to press to make you do what they want, and if you try to resist, they break you. In order to speak out, you have to overcome guilt, shame, denial. You feel disloyal; you blame yourself; you make excuses; you doubt yourself; you pretend it isn’t that bad; you never stop hoping things will get better; and just when they’ve got you at breaking point, and you’re ready to walk out, they start being nice and make you feel that you’re going out of your mind.
And when you’re a six-foot-five, sixteen-stone man, and your wife is a 5-foot, 5-inch, petite woman, you worry that people won’t believe you, because you can hardly believe it yourself.
Part of the reason you can’t accept that the person you love is abusing you is because ‘abuse’ is such an ugly word. My wife couldn’t be ‘an abuser’ because abusers are ugly people, and I wouldn’t love an abuser; thus, if she wasn’t ‘an abuser’, then the abuse wasn’t really abuse, was it?
That’s just one of the weapons an abuser uses to keep you off-balance, and they have plenty of others in their arsenal – money, emotions, housing, family, children, sex. After they’ve put you through hell and you’re on the verge of realising the kind of relationship you’re in, they remind you of the good times, promise to change, ask for another chance to prove how much you mean to them. When you think they’ve changed for the better, and you let down your guard, that’s when they pull the world out from under your feet.
Worst of all, you never stop believing their promises.
Like an addict, I think you have to hit rock bottom before you can see things clearly. You need to have a breakdown in order to have a breakthrough. It was only when I hit rock bottom that I realised I was being abused – that I’d been abused all along – and that I wasn’t a bad person, I didn’t deserve it, and my children didn’t deserve it either. I’d spent years protecting my wife from the consequences of her behaviour, when I should have been protecting myself. I’d allowed her to destroy me so she didn’t destroy herself, and I couldn’t do it anymore.
So, with my abuser sitting next to me on the sofa and her father, my landlord, in the corner, I started to talk.
I told them everything – that she was abusing me physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, and for the past few days even sexually. I told them about the anger, the manipulation, the emotional blackmail and the violence, using my children to control me, threatening them to make me do as I was told, saying she’d take them away from me because the mother always gets custody and her parents could afford better lawyers than me, threatening me with homelessness if I disobeyed her, the behavioural explosions, the hatred, the constantly walking on eggshells and trying to manage it so it didn’t impact my children. I said it was no wonder my mental health was suffering, as she was abusing me and abusing the children and I wanted out.
My wife chose not to say anything, so her father piped up. He said, ‘As you can see, Richard is very good with his words, and very good at telling stories, but we can’t know if any of these things ever actually happened.’
He said that in fact, I was the abusive one and I needed my medication looking at. He then suggested that the most important thing was to keep me in the house looking after my wife and children, as I’d been doing the last five years – an odd thing to propose right after describing me as an abuser.
The social worker sent me out of the room so she could talk to my wife on her own, as though I was the threat. I waited fifteen agonising minutes. Then I was called back in and my wife was sent out – but not my father-in-law, her co-conspirator, who got to hear every word. The social worker said that she’d asked my wife if she wanted to work on the relationship, and she’d said yes, so she put the same question to me – did I want to stay?
With my father-in-law in the corner and all eyes on me, my stomach knotted. I felt nauseous. How easy it would be to simply roll over and take it. How easy to stay, put up with the abuse, not face the disruption of breaking up my family or the difficulties of single parenthood.
‘No,’ I said. ‘We can’t continue under the same roof – I’ll end up dead.’
Things went very quickly from there.
They called my wife back in and told her that I had decided not to continue in the relationship.
My wife jumped up and stormed upstairs in a rage. My father-in-law stormed out of the house without a word. Then my wife came down, got in her car and sped off out of the cul-de-sac, the tyres of her car screeching down the road.
The social worker suggested mediation going forward and then left.
I have never felt so vulnerable in my life.
I turned to my support worker and said, ‘What the hell do I do now? I just told them my wife is abusing me and the children; I ended the relationship in the meeting; she stormed out in a rage; so did her dad; I’m in their house; I can’t believe I’ve just been left here with two young children. What if she comes back and she’s violent? What do I do?’
‘Ring 999,’ said my support worker.
‘What if her dad comes back and kicks me out of the house? We’re in lockdown – there’s nowhere for me to go. And I can’t leave the children here with her.’
My support worker shrugged. ‘It’s a shitty situation,’ she said. ‘If you were a woman, they’d have had you and the children out of here a week ago. Because you’re a man, they have no idea what to do.’
So much for equality in twenty-first century Britain.
Don’t. Ever. Do. It.
Two weeks ago, in the midst of a major depressive episode, I decided to stop taking my antidepressant. I’d been on the same one for 17 years, with others added and removed every so often for the past 24. If Escitalopram worked, I reasoned in the depths of my despair, why was I still suffering? What was the point of enduring 24 years of side-effects, and a solid 17 of tiredness, numbness and reduced libido, if they didn’t make me feel any better?
So, I took my last pill and prepared to fight it out with my doctor.
But when I spoke to him three days later, I was surprised to find he was wholly supportive. Sure, come off them, he said: they clearly aren’t helping. It’s a low dose, he said, so it’s up to me whether I simply stop or taper off. I said I hadn’t taken one for three days, and he said that was fine. A little dizziness and light-headedness, but that was to be expected. He said I should see how I got on.
I was a little confused, considering I was pretty sure I’d been on the maximum dose of my antidepressant since 2004, but I let that slide. The doc had said I could quit: now I’d made the decision, there was no going back.
As background to what you’re about to read, different antidepressants have different half-lives, meaning the amount of time it takes for half of it to leave your body. Something like Fluoxetine (Prozac) has a half-life of 4-6 days, so 25 days after taking your last pill, there’ll still be a trace amount of it in your system. This tides over your withdrawal, keeping it nice and slow and giving your body time to adjust.
Not so with Escitalopram (or Citalopram, for that matter). The half-life of Escitalopram is 27-32 hours, meaning it has gone from your system in just over six days. Such an abrupt change overwhelms your body, and I really wasn’t prepared for it.
By Day 4, the dizziness had reached the point that my head felt like it was detached from my body. For someone who barely ever cries, everything was making me burst into tears – in the supermarket, in the car, in my domestic abuse support group. I cried in bed; in the bath; in the street. I cried when I saw my reflection. I cried when I did the washing up. It was like I had a backlog of 17 years of tears that all needed to come out.
I felt rough, sure – a bit trembly, nauseous, an upset stomach, but nothing I couldn’t handle. True, I couldn’t sleep – I was averaging around two hours a night – and I had couldn’t face the thought of food, but I was coping.
Day 6, the coping started to slip away from me. The light-headedness turned into vertigo; the nausea into unending queasiness; the trembling into shivering. I was jittery, emotional, restless and afraid. My stomach felt like I’d been stabbed. I tossed and turned on my bed. I curled up on my bathroom floor. Night and day, light and darkness, merged into a single blur. Withdrawal, I decided, was a bitch.
By Day 8, I was pretty sure I was dying. It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. I couldn’t settle, couldn’t rest; I was writhing about in agony on the floor, dripping with sweat, moaning, frantic. The only thought in my head was, ‘Take a pill, ease your suffering,’ but I didn’t want to. Now I’m off them, I’m off them.
Also, I figured that since I’d been off them for eight days, I was probably nearing the end of the withdrawal sickness. Surely the worst was now behind me?
By Day 9, my body was a wreck. For seventeen years, my pupils had been like dinnerplates – now they were pin-pricks, and the world seemed dark. My hearing was all messed up – the engines of cars seemed really quiet, so quiet that I could hear the sound of the tyres rolling on the tarmac, and conversations behind closed windows. I felt dissociated from myself, and cut off from the world around me.
I spent Day 10 curled up on floors and sofas, writhing in agony. Through gritted teeth, I looked up my medical records, and my helpful GP had written in my notes that he had advised me to taper off the antidepressants as I was on the maximum dose. I thought, what a Goddamned liar! He clearly realised after he saw me that he’d made a mistake, and was covering his arse in the notes.
‘Take a pill,’ I thought. ‘Taper off. Take the edge off.’
‘No,’ I thought. ‘I can get through this.’
I paced from room to room, gnashing my teeth, slapping the walls. I drank water like it was going out of fashion. I forced myself to eat, even though I didn’t want to. I chewed indigestion pills, drank cough syrup, took diarrhoea pills – anything to make me feel better. This too shall pass, I thought. Just get through today, and tomorrow it will get easier.
It didn’t. By Day 11, I wasn’t sure how much longer I could go on. I was exhausted, had barely slept for over a week, felt like vomiting all the time, couldn’t move without my head feeling like it was going to fall off. I know why people detox in rehab – doing this shit by yourself, alone, is awful. It’s like someone was punching me in the stomach all day long. I crawled from the bathroom to the bedroom to the lounge, dragging my bucket with me, trying to find any position or activity that might bring me a modicum of peace. I even thought of going back to my violent, abusive and controlling ex. At least somebody would be with me.
On Day 12, I rang the surgery and spoke to a different doctor, who said that it was absolutely crazy to go cold turkey on high-dose, short half-life antidepressants like Escitalopram, especially after 17 years, and there is no way I should be doing it without tapering off for at least three weeks.
So today, for the first time in almost a fortnight, I took the pill that I’ve been on continuously since 2004. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t really have a choice. I was so tired, everything was fuzzy, and still I couldn’t sleep. I was so queasy that I couldn’t eat anything. I was so uncomfortable, I couldn’t even rest. I simply could not go on as I was.
But I’ve got to say, I’m no longer feeling anywhere near as bad I was. Still feeling like I might vomit at any time, but my head now feels attached to my body – so much so that I’m able to write this. This experience has been truly awful – an awful 12 days coming on the back of an awful two weeks. But I’ve certainly learned a few things.
- When your doctor tells you that you’re on a low dose of antidepressants and you’re pretty sure you’re on the maximum dose, tell him that. Don’t defer to his ‘expert’ judgement, because he might be wrong.
- When your doctor says you can just stop your antidepressants or you can taper off, if it’s Escitalopram or Citalopram, always taper off. Never go cold turkey.
- If you come off them and get major withdrawal symptoms, take one. I was stubborn and didn’t want to take one after I’d come off them, but damn it, I wish I’d taken one a week ago. I made myself suffer unnecessarily.
- If you’re still thinking of stopping, despite all of these warnings, be prepared for the withdrawal. Make sure you clear your schedule, get plenty of bland, easy food in the house, stock up on medications, and for the love of God, don’t do it in the middle of an unprecedented heatwave when you’re also on antibiotics for a chest infection.
I’m aware that this all sounds over the top – it’s not like I was suffering opiate withdrawal – but anyone who has never experienced withdrawal can never appreciate what it’s like. They can offer you sympathy and cooing noises, but until you’ve been in the midst of it, with the sweating and the shivering and the exhaustion and the pain, they don’t know what it’s like.
Antidepressant withdrawal is not something to be belittled, ignored or trifled with. Stopping Escitalopram or Citalopram without tapering is evil. It’s the worst I’ve ever felt in my life, and I’ve been through some pretty horrendous shit in my time.
So all in all, if you take nothing else from my experience, please take this: if you ever think about going cold turkey off antidepressants, don’t. You’ll spare yourself weeks of agony, and you’ll probably end up having to taper off anyway!
We need a ceremony for finding closure
As a species, human beings depend upon rituals to make sense of the world. Back in the early days, it was sacrifices and rain dances, circumcisions and group chanting. More recently, it was debutant balls and wearing long trousers, bar mitzvahs and confirmation ceremonies. Today, it’s weddings and funerals, birthdays and Christmas, eggs at Easter, cards on Valentine’s, all designed to make us feel as though we belong; that we’re connected to one another; and that we are marking the significant milestones in our lives.
Those who think they don’t engage in rituals are fooling themselves. We’ve all encountered graduation ceremonies; hazing rituals; house warming parties; family dinners; will readings; game nights; leaving parties; awards ceremonies; and countless others. Humans clearly have a deep psychological need for reassurance that we are part of a larger whole – that we are connected to our culture, our society, our family, and the rest of humankind, past, present and future – and rituals provide that sense of connection.
Nowhere is this more true than in relationships. We bring flowers to a first date; we eat at tables illuminated by candlelight; we gift love tokens and send love letters. As the relationship progresses, we might exchange symbolic rings, and make vows of our commitment to one another in front of our families, our friends and our god.
On anniversaries and Valentine’s Day, we reaffirm our love for one another with gifts, romance, personalised expressions of our mutual regard. At Christmas, we kiss under the mistletoe; at New Year, we kiss on the stroke of midnight and ring in the new year, together.
Should we decide to have children, we have baby showers, gender reveal parties, christenings, which lead to more birthday celebrations, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.
When worse comes to worst, we have a funeral, a wake, a service of remembrance. We scatter ashes at a cherished location, place flowers on a grave or throw a wreath onto the ocean.
All of these rituals link us to our common humanity and reassure us about the world and our place in it.
So why are there no rituals for ending a relationship?
Moving on from the grief, the hurt and the shattered dreams, is vital for our future well-being – particularly if, like me, you’re a survivor of abuse. Yet how can we process these thoughts and feelings, contextualise them and put them behind us, without the rituals that provide guidance over virtually every aspect of our lives, and are available for every other prominent milestone of our relationships?
In the absence of these rituals, finding closure is a haphazard affair fraught with missteps and no guarantee that you’ll ever reach acceptance of your loss.
My own experience was being abused for ten years by my wife, to the point that I could no longer cope and had to be removed from the house and taken to a place of safety. In the space of a single weekend, I lost my marriage, my home, my children and my health. I didn’t get to say goodbye; I didn’t get to slowly transition from one chapter of my life to the next; I was simply torn away from everything I knew. It was brutal, and more than a year later, I still haven’t come to terms with it.
How can I externalise the horror of this situation? How can I find a way to make sense of what happened to me? How can I put it behind me, find closure, and move on?
I searched in vain for a ritual to ease my suffering and provide a comforting sense of reassurance following this loss. There’s a lot of advice online, much of it rather hokey – giving your grief to the moon, for example, or speaking to your goddess, consulting the Tarot cards or communing with the forest. I’m sure that casting spells and burning sage might be helpful for some, but not so much for me.
More practically, some people burn mementos of the ex-partner – photographs, love letters, trinkets – in an attempt to destroy their attachments to the former relationship. Many get tattoos to symbolise new freedom, converting emotional pain into physical pain, and making internal scars visible. Others reinvent themselves with a new haircut and new wardrobe.
One ritual is to take a cord representing your attachment to your ex and cut it, symbolically separating you. Another is deleting their text messages, blocking them on social media and emptying your photo bin – a modern way of letting go. One day, on a high cliff overlooking the sea, I took the keys to my former home – the home where all my dreams had been shattered – and flung them out into the void. That cutting of attachment, that acknowledgement that it was over and there was no going back, felt good.
But while these rituals might feel good in the moment, they’re different from the others in one important respect: instead of creating connections, they are focused on severing them. Rather than a public ceremony that stresses our sense of belonging and allows us to share our joy and our grief with others, breakup rituals are personal, solitary, depressingly isolating, making us look inwards instead of outwards, and feel our separation from others instead of our commonality.
The closest I’ve found online to a ritual that stresses connection is a ‘closing ceremony’ where partners share the ritual of breaking up. They get together and talk about what they loved about each other, how they’re feeling now, their hopes for the future, and how grateful they are for the time they had together and what it taught them.
This seems great, but requires two very mature and emotionally open individuals to work. I can’t imagine there are many painful breakups where former partners can be so open and vulnerable with one another, nor am I sure how that would work with people like my abusive, aggressive, manipulative, controlling, violent ex. Talking to her about what she did to me and how I was feeling would devolve into her blaming me for our breakup; telling me I deserved the way she treated me; denying that she threatened my children to control me; pretending she can’t remember cutting off my beard with kitchen scissors; and probably having a drink thrown in my face. Such a ritual would be more harmful than healing, and closure would be ever further away.
I don’t know what the solution is, or what a socialised breakup ritual would look like. Maybe some sort of gathering where you tell your friends and family the story of what happened to you, then they reaffirm what you mean to them and how they share your loss, and then you can do some of the other rituals in front of your social group – the burning, the cord cutting, the deletion from social media. That way, you’re creating connections even as you’re severing others.
Like I said, I don’t know what the solution is, or what form a breakup ritual might take, but I know that as individuals and as a society, we desperately need one. More than that: I need one.
Otherwise, I worry that I’ll never get over it.
Will it ever stop following me?
Leaving an abusive relationship is never easy. It’s even worse when you still love the person.
When you’ve shared time, shared vows, shared a home, shared children, shared dreams for the future, making the decision to walk away because you know the relationship isn’t healthy and they will eventually kill you, is heartbreaking.
When you have children, you can’t implement ‘no contact’ against the narcissist. They remain in your life with every handover, every parenting issue that needs to be discussed, every parents evening and sports day. The very person you’re trying to get away from sinks their claws back into you with every contact that you have.
They know their smile can still light up your heart, so they smile at you a lot. They remind you of the good times. They make you feel like they’re the only one who understands you; the only one who can make it all better again. They’re an oasis in the desert; the only thing that makes sense in a topsy-turvy world.
And then they pull the rug from under your feet. They turn on a dime, and suddenly they’re nasty again, they’re manipulating you again, they’re thrashing about in a rage because you’re not doing as you’re told. They remind you of the bad times, and you feel like a fool for getting sucked back in; a mug for being able to love someone who treats you so badly.
A week of cold shoulders and ghosting, and then they’re nice again. Smiles; laughter; compliments, as though the nastiness didn’t even happen. You think, did I exaggerate things? Was it really not that bad? Are they gaslighting me? I can’t even tell anymore.
And that’s the problem with running away from your abusive ex. You think you’re putting distance between you; you think you’re imposing boundaries; but they still have access to your heart and they still have control over your reactions. When they’re happy, you’re happy; when they’re angry, you’re scared; when they’re aggressive, you’re defensive. You are still locked into pattern where they are the most important person in your life.
Running away isn’t the healthiest or happiest of strategies. You spend your life looking over your shoulder, glancing behind you at what once was, the person you used to be and the relationship you used to have. Running away means that you’re being chased: it makes you a refugee in your own life, a slave to your suffering, and always at risk of being pulled back in.
There is another way. It’s not turning round to confront the person pursuing you, because that isn’t going to work: it’s running towards something even as you’re running away from something else.
Set your own goals. Dream new dreams. Learn a new skill. Join a new club. Make a new friend. Start a new career. Find something to run towards so you can focus on what’s in front of you, and not what’s behind. If the best revenge is living your best life, then go and live your best life. You can’t look to the future when you’re still trapped in the past.
But a word of warning: be sure that what you’re running towards is worth it. I understand when people say that the best way to get over someone is to get under someone; that a new relationship is the best way to put an old relationship in the past. I get it: it feels so good. The excitement over the new person, the butterflies, the first date, first kiss, the handholding, the sex – it’s a heady mix that helps you feel in control of your life and forget the person you’re running from.
But make sure you’re not bringing the problems of the past relationship into the new one. Make sure the new relationship is something you’re running towards, and it isn’t just a means of running away from the old. Take things slow, be cautious, don’t commit yourself too deep, and most importantly, don’t ignore the red flags and warning signs that you overlooked in your previous relationship, simply because running towards something seems so much better than running away.
Otherwise, you might just exchange one abusive relationship for another.