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 being slapped across the head when you’re driving, 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-two, 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.
In hindsight, it seems so obvious. My wife hit me with coat hangers, threw drinks over me, poured water on my side of the bed before she went to sleep, told people I was violent, tried to destroy my relationship with my children, threatened them to make me do as I was told, read my emails, and cut me off from family and friends. I had no control over when I slept, when I ate, when I could use the toilet. My reward for being compliant was to spend time with Dr Jekyll; should I ever dare to say ‘no’, I would be treated to Mr Hyde.
One year, I shaved my head in protest – it was the only thing over which I had any control left. And I decided to grow my beard down to my chest, to make it clear I would no longer be anybody’s bitch.
I grew that beard for months, right until the day she cut it off with a pair of kitchen scissors.
‘Whoops,’ she said with a smile.
My wife had Borderline Personality Disorder, and subjected me to a whole range of physical, mental, emotional, financial and sexual abuse throughout our marriage. As I was also primary carer to our two children, doing every single night, 95% of the days and most of the household chores, I often went up to 48 hours without sleep. If I asked for help, I was called a lazy, selfish loser, a fat disgrace, a selfish arsehole. If I tried to lie down during the day, she would deliberately wake me. If I had a migraine, she’d make noise and turn on the bedroom light, just to increase my suffering.
‘If you don’t like it,’ she used to say, ‘you know where the door is, but I’ll get custody of the kids, because the courts always side with the mother.’
Like an addict, 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 never believed in walking away. I wanted to teach my children that you stay and make it work, come what may. But I realised that growing up in a house riven by domestic abuse would make my children grow up either to be abusers or abused. If they were in a relationship like mine, I’d tell them to leave. I had to lead by example. As much as it broke my heart, I had to show them there is no shame in walking away from something that doesn’t work.
When I told my GP I was being abused, he told me to go home and try not to piss her off and maybe she’d treat me better; when I told Social Services, they gave me the number of a women’s helpline, who wouldn’t talk to me because I was a man; when I told Children’s Services, they admitted that if I was a woman, they’d have me and the children in a shelter, but because I was a man, they had no idea what to do; and when I reported her to the police for Controlling and Coercive Behaviour, they dropped the case without consulting any of the dozens of eyewitnesses or even looking at the more than 200-pages of evidence I had gathered over the years – emails, text messages, diary entries, videos, photographs.
Because I was no longer staying silent about what was going on in my house, I lost my marriage, my home, my children and my health in the space of a single weekend. I was left traumatised, broken and alone, while my wife, the abuser, was given all kinds of support to help her keep the children. I spent months trying to get help, but everywhere I turned, nobody was willing to listen. Nobody cared. Because I was the male victim of a female abuser.
I fell into depression, self-harm, an eating disorder. I felt like I had become a ghost, watching life happening on the other side of frosted glass. I felt cut off from everything and everyone. By the time you leave an abusive relationship, you’re at your lowest ebb. When you have no energy left with which to fight, that’s when the fight truly begins.
When a local support group was set up for male survivors of domestic abuse, it was the first time I was able to tell my story in its entirety. It was the first time I was listened to. I felt validated. I felt human again. Never underestimate the power of being heard.
I discovered that my story was by no means unique. Male survivors of domestic abuse are not taken seriously, have very few places available in shelters, and patronisingly fall under the government’s ‘Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy’, effacing our identity as men.
As survivors of domestic abuse, we have been ignored, misunderstood, mocked, blamed and retraumatised by the indifference and sometimes outright hostility of the authorities. This needs to change. Nobody should have to go through what I went through – male, female, adult or child.
Let’s be the change we want to see in the world.