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.