Sometimes, the light at the end of the tunnel is the headlight of an oncoming train.
Asking for help isn’t easy. It’s hard to admit that you’re being abused, hard to admit that you’re struggling with your mental health and you can’t cope anymore. When you’re having suicidal thoughts, when you’re fighting the urge to burn yourself and cut yourself, you’re terrified that if you admit it, people will think you’re crazy; they’ll think you’re dangerous; they won’t let you see your children.
When you’re a man, it’s particularly bad.
In our society, men have to be strong, independent, self-contained and in control. There is such a stigma against not meeting these norms that asking for help is considered a sign of weakness, of defeat. You have to overcome years of social programming, guilt and shame simply to say, ‘I am vulnerable. I need some help. I can’t do this on my own.’
But when you do ask for help, the humiliating, sobering, heartbreaking reality is that nobody in a position to help you gives a shit. At all.
A year ago, at great personal risk and through pangs of guilt at my betrayal of my marriage vows, I told my social worker that my children and I were being abused by my wife. She gave me the number of a women’s domestic abuse helpline, who wouldn’t talk to me because I’m a man. When I went back to my social worker, she said she’d fulfilled her statutory duty towards me, and that my domestic arrangements were nothing to do with her.
When I went to Children’s Services, they offered to send me on a course to help me ‘better cooperate’ with my wife. I had no idea how I was meant to cooperate with somebody who had been dominating my every waking moment and gaslighting me for ten years; who hit me and threw drinks over me; who threatened the children to control me; who said that if I didn’t like it, I knew where the door was, but she’d get custody because the courts always side with the mother; who was actively lying to my children to turn them against me; and who, when I shaved my head in protest and grew my beard long, cut it off with a pair of kitchen scissors.
Children’s Services later admitted that if I was a woman, they’d have had me and the children out and in a shelter, but because I was a man, they had no idea what to do.
When I told my doctor what was going on, he told me to do whatever she wanted and maybe she’d treat me better, then sent me home to her with the instruction that I should use the strength I no longer had to appease my abuser so she abused me less.
I guess I was expecting something more. To have Social Services give me a women’s domestic abuse helpline number, Children’s Services offer me a course to better cooperate with my abuser, and my GP tell me, essentially, ‘best not to piss her off, mate’ – don’t men deserve better than that? Didn’t I deserve better?
Four days after walking out of the doctor’s office, I had a breakdown, lost my marriage, my children, my home and my health, was put on tranquilisers and became a danger to myself.
When I reported her to the police for Controlling and Coercive Behaviour, they didn’t care at all, even though I had dozens of witnesses, 200-pages of emails, diary posts and text messages recording what she had done to me for ten years, and several confessions where she apologised for hitting me, apologised for threatening to abort my children to control me, and claimed that when she’d done it, she had been ‘Mr Hyde’, the evil side of her nature.
Then, when they dropped the case, the police decided to tell her I’d reported her, but that there wasn’t enough evidence to do anything about it, thereby letting her know she got away with it.
When I tried to go to Family Court for help, it took so long for my Legal Aid to come through and for the case to be heard, and my children had already spent so long living with just their mother (and a nanny to safeguard them from her behaviour), that it was deemed too disruptive to take them from the home they grew up in and place them with me, the responsible parent. I became a weekend dad, but that was more than she’d been giving me since I’d left.
I settled down to heal.
And then, two months ago, I realised I was heading for another breakdown. I was uncontrollably binge-eating several nights a week, getting up at midnight to eat a pizza, four chocolate bars and half a tub of ice-cream in under an hour; I was staying up until two or three every morning; I was having scalding hot baths; I was exercising to the point of exhaustion; I was having urges to burn myself again; I was sobbing for hours at a time; I couldn’t concentrate on anything; I was overwhelmed by anything and everything. Because of the amount of meds I was on, I was chasing a feeling – since I couldn’t feel good about anything, I made myself feel bad, because at least I was feeling something.
I’ve had several nervous breakdowns in my life, and I know the signs, so instead of waiting until I was standing on a ledge, I decided to ask for help: I was going downhill and I needed somebody to save me.
I went to a different doctor, who told me there was nothing she could do for me, but I should really go to Slimming World and try to lose some weight (because clearly, the term uncontrollably binge-eating isn’t in her vocabulary). I spoke to another doctor about how I was feeling, who promised to refer me to the Community Mental Health Team. The following day, the CMHT rejected me, because my problems weren’t yet severe enough, but my doctor didn’t bother to tell me.
For five weeks, I clung on. ‘If I can just survive until I see the psychiatrists,’ I thought, ‘then it’ll be okay.’
In the meantime, my wife resumed harassing me by text and email, cyberstalking me, finding out from the children what was going on in my life and using it to intimidate me (“I hear you’ve been seeing friends”/”Looks like you had a nice bike ride yesterday”/”Who’s the girl that lives above you?”), telling them lies about me, breaking the court order and trying to emotionally blackmail me into changing it by telling my children more lies about me. Six emails and ten text messages in eight days. It got inside my head, and I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I was panicking, breaking. I couldn’t think straight. I was nosediving fast. I couldn’t cope anymore.
Then Revenue and Customs told me I had to repay them £500 because they had overpaid my wife £1000, and I was liable for half because we’re still married (how can you ‘repay’ money that you never had?). I lost it. I just wanted to kill myself. I couldn’t take any more. I was overwhelmed. I was desperate for relief.
Finally, my doctor rang me to say the CMHT wouldn’t see me, and he was going to switch around my medications.
When I said I was desperate to see the CMHT, he asked, ‘Well, what do you want them to do for you?’
‘Help me,’ I said.
‘All they would do is what I’m doing: change your medications.’
‘But that’s just treating the symptoms; it’s not dealing with the cause, which is that I’ve been abused, and traumatised and broken and I just don’t know how I’m going to keep going.’
He said the only treatment I would be offered was through the county’s counselling organisation, so I should refer myself to them.
Switching meds has been a nightmare. I can’t sleep; I’m plagued by suicidal thoughts; I’m crying all the time, and I just want to hurt myself every minute of every day. I keep thinking of buying a cigarette lighter, but I know that if I do, I’ll burn my upper arms (out of sight), so I’m avoiding shops at the moment. My ex is still harassing me, manipulating me, destroying my mental health, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I have no faith in the police or the courts to protect me.
When I rang the county’s counselling organisation, they said, ‘What do you want from us? We’re not a crisis management service. We offer short-term interventions of six sessions, but you’re far too severe for that, so we’re not going to offer you counselling. You should go back to your doctor for help.’
‘I went to my doctor for help. He’s the one that told me to go to you.’
‘Well, you need to go back to him.’
It’s farcical. The lack of help and support I’m getting is triggering my trauma from last year at being ignored by my doctor, social worker, Children’s Services and the police when I asked for help.
This week, my new social worker (who is a gem) tried to put together a MARM meeting about me – a Multi-Agency Risk Management programme – so that all parties with a duty of care towards me can get together and work out a way of helping me, because she can see that I’m now at significant risk of harm from my ex’s harassment and the effect it’s been having on my mental health.
It didn’t go ahead because my doctor declined to attend.
But he did suggest that if I wanted help, I should refer myself to the county’s counselling service.
I asked for help in a timely manner, and now two months have passed, and I am much worse that I was too months ago, but still not enough to meet their criteria for assistance. What the hell is the point of having doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, counsellors, psychotherapists, if they refuse to speak to you when you ask them for help?
I’m just waiting for the next crisis, the next text message, the next abusive email, and I’m terrified that my strength and my sanity are leaving me, and the next one will be the one that breaks me.
Maybe then, somebody will give a shit.