At the end of December, I received a letter from my psychiatrist that spelled out, in black and white, that I have been formally diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the abuse I suffered during my marriage. It was the first time after leaving her – the first time in nineteen months – that somebody actually acknowledged what she did to me and how it affected me.
Trouble is, I’d known it already for the better part of a year-and-a-half. It wasn’t like I was hiding how I felt. In the days after I left her, my doctor put me on sleeping pills and astronomical doses of antidepressants because I was so afraid and agitated that I was climbing the walls. I startled at the slightest noise, leapt to my feet if a dog barked, a car drove past, the postman came up the driveway. I checked the doors and windows were locked a thousand times a day. I planned escape routes in case she turned up because a ‘helpful’ neighbour had informed her where I’d gone when I fled the home for my own safety.
I spent weeks curled up in a little ball, my chest tight with fear, my heart pounding, tormented by flashbacks, soaked in sweat, unable to sleep. On those occasions I did manage to drift off, I was plagued by nightmares. My hair fell out in clumps. I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than trying to keep myself safe, jumping at shadows, hypervigilant to the slightest threat.
I hadn’t realised how much I feared her, not until I left. The twelve years I endured her Controlling and Coercive Behaviour, I had pushed it down, ignored it, focused on keeping her stable and trying to manage her explosions. Once I was away from her – the first time I’d ever been more than a few hours apart from her – that’s when the terror rose up and swallowed me whole.
Every childcare handover, every meeting with Children’s Services, every communication with the police, with my doctor, with my solicitors; every time I received a message from her (several hundred a month); every night when I dreamt of her; I was retraumatised. Having to repeat my story again and again, my chest ached, my throat closed up and I struggled to breathe.
But nobody seemed to care.
I begged my doctor for help. I begged to see a psychiatrist, but I was rejected by the mental health team because, apparently, I wasn’t bad enough. I developed an eating disorder and put on several stones, but apparently it was the wrong type to be treated. I started self-harming, but my injuries were apparently too ‘superficial’ for intervention. I contacted my doctor more than twenty times in a year, but I didn’t see him once – I was simply told to keep taking my medication because I wasn’t ill enough to be seen.
I told him about the nightmares, about the fear, the anxiety, the pain, the self-hatred. I once spoke to him on the phone for twenty minutes about all the memories that kept haunting me, the incidents I couldn’t get out of my head; that I tossed about in bed all night in the dark, unable to sleep, my thoughts spiralling round and round. In my medical records, it simply read: ‘Trouble sleeping; prescribed Amitriptyline.’ Nothing about the trauma I had suffered, or the downward spiral I found myself on.
It wasn’t until I took myself off my antidepressants and had a major mental health crisis that I was finally allowed to see a psychiatrist.
He was rather blasé about everything I told him – ‘You’re thinking of killing yourself? Everyone is. You feel empty and lost? Yeah, that’s normal. You’re having nightmares? Of course, it goes with the territory’ – but he did suggest I might have PTSD and then sent me on my way. That was six months ago.
The people I told about the PTSD doubted it – counsellors, friends, social workers. The impression of PTSD is that it’s something suffered by soldiers, police officers, people who have witnessed death and serious injury. Nobody seemed to credit that years and years of physical, emotional, psychological, financial and sexual abuse could damage a person – especially not if that person is a man and his abuser is a woman. They acted as though PTSD was the latest trend that all the cool kids say they have to make themselves feel special, as though I was being a drama queen for even suggesting it.
I even had people telling me I was weak because I had ‘allowed’ myself to be affected by her. I needed to ‘get off my arse’ and get on with my life. I needed to ‘get over it’. I needed to ‘stop feeling sorry for myself’. It was as if it was somehow my fault if I was having nightmares and struggling to cope with the damaged confidence and self-esteem that comes from over a decade of abuse – abuse that I can’t get away from, since I have to see her every week to hand over the children, and endure her continuing attempts at manipulation and coercion.
Clearly, being hit with coat-hangers or having your beard cut off with kitchen scissors isn’t being shot at; being deprived of sleep for five years and doing everything you can to keep your partner from flying into a violent rage isn’t seeing your buddy step on an IED; and having drinks thrown over you and water poured on your side of the bed isn’t dragging a dying person from a wrecked vehicle. The threats to abort my babies, to make me homeless, to take away my children, isn’t the same as fighting an enemy actively trying to kill you, and having someone read your emails and your text messages, steal money from you, lie about you, and take away your dignity, is not the same as having incoming mortar bombs.
But that doesn’t mean it was nothing.
I’ve spent almost two years trying to be taken seriously, trying to get someone – anyone – to acknowledge that what I went through mattered. When the police declined to prosecute her, they said it was because with Controlling and Coercive Behaviour, you have to prove that a) you were abused, and that b) the abuse had a negative impact on you. While they could prove she abused me, they said, they couldn’t prove it had an effect on me…despite the fact I reported it several times to my doctor and Social Services, the eyewitnesses, my testimony, the testimony of friends and family, emails, text messages and my own pleas for help. Indeed, they said that while my medical records stated that I was being abused and that my mental health was declining, they did not state that the decline in my mental health was as a direct result of the abuse, and therefore the case would not stand up in court. Brilliant.
All this time that I’ve been ignored, all this time that I’ve been struggling, all the blows to my self-respect and all the times I’ve been made to feel invisible – the letter containing my diagnosis of PTSD, coming more than four months after the appointment, is vindication. It makes me real. It makes what I went through real. It restores to me my sense of self that was taken from me. It is the first, the very first, official acknowledgement that I am not crazy, I’m not making it up, I’m not weak, I didn’t ‘allow’ her to affect me, I’m not being a drama queen, I’m not making it out to be more than it was – it happened, and my pain, my suffering and my trauma matter. What she did to me matters. I matter.
Yes, I still have nightmares almost every night. Yes, I still feel anxious at every childcare handover, every time my phone beeps with a text message, and every time there’s a knock at the door. Yes, I’m still so terrified of people and what they might do to me that I shy away from anything even resembling a relationship. But those four letters on a piece of headed paper – PTSD – have given me back some of the dignity that I lost.
It’s not a great thing to have, but I’m grateful to be told I have it, even if it came way later than it should. And if nothing else, it is proof both that she abused me and that this abuse had a negative effect on me. I now have enough evidence to have her prosecuted for Controlling and Coercive Behaviour. I just need to decide whether I want to put myself through that hell again.