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.