On my 30th birthday last year, I got a tattoo. It's my third and possibly most important one. It says "This world will not impose its will. I will not give up & I will not give in." The lyrics come from this song by the Manic Street Preachers - my favourite band - and the words are surrounded by cherry blossom. Cherry blossom is seen in some cultures as a symbol of renewal and strength against adversity. Cherry blossom is also connected to the Manics themselves, through their lyrics and the images in their videos/press photos. But why those words? Why those flowers?
Last year, my 30th birthday didn't only mark the start of a new decade. It came less than a month after the first anniversary of my leaving an abusive relationship. At the time of my 30th, I was still not entirely healed. I couldn't listen to certain songs. I hated any mention of my ex's favourite films. Any man who looked even slightly like him set my heart racing and not in a good way. I'd had two months of one-to-one support from a charity called the Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (their website, should anyone in North cornwall need it, is here), who, in spite of the name, deal with not only sexual, but all forms of abuse. I was, for want of a better expression, a work in progress. But in spite of knowing I still had a mountain to climb, I was already in a vastly better place than I had been a year earlier, which was what inspired the tattoo. I hadn't given up or given in. And no matter how hard the road ahead might be, I knew that I wouldn't.
Today marks two years since I left that relationship and began walking the long road to recovery. In honour of such an anniversary, I've decided to use my blog to talk about that road and the journey I took. How I ended up on it in the first place, what it was like to walk it and how it feels to have climbed the mountain and reached the top.
I guess it would be fair to say that at the age of 27, I was pretty naive. I was shy, not entirely self-confident and had much less relationship experience than the man I'd fallen for. In a positive, loving, healthy relationship, this needn't have been a problem. A kind, supportive partner would have nurtured me and allowed me to blossom. Indeed, in the early weeks and months of my relationship, my ex would tell me how "sweet" my relative innocence was. He'd remind me that I shouldn't put myself down; I was beautiful. I was special. But he soon began to use my naivity against me.
"All normal people know that it's not an official relationship until the guy says it is," he'd tell me when I gaped at him, devastated to hear that as far as he was concerned, I was just "some girl" he was sleeping with. "If I say I love you, I mean it as a friend. Why would I want a relationship with you?!"
But in spite of his cruel words and rejections, I stuck around. I believed his apologies, his protestations. His manipulation of me had worked completely; I firmly believed that I was just immature and silly. I didn't have as much life experience as he did. I was less sexually experienced than him. This really was the way "normal" relationships worked. I'd been single for years, how could I argue any different? Besides, he was a unique case. He'd been abused as a child. He couldn't help his behaviour. He had to push me away when I got "too close" and if I got upset about it, then what did that make me?! An ignorant bitch with no compassion. And he was always so sweet and so sorry for making me upset. He really did love me. He needed me, he said so himself! Nobody else had ever understood him like I did. It frightened him, that was all. He didn't know how to deal with his feelings, so he said nasty things, or slept with someone else, or ignored me for days on end, because he was damaged. Vulnerable. He needed me to be the strong one. The one who waited for him to "get well."
He'd played the "poor little boy" act so well, that I stopped standing up to his behaviour. I listened when he told me he couldn't help it. I felt so sorry for him, when he told me stories about his childhood, that I just wanted to show him what it was like to be loved unconditionally. So I learnt to be silent when he wanted to talk about his past (he'd tell me to "shut up" if I didn't). I learnt to put up with hearing about other girls (he'd tell me I was "clingy and disgusting" if I didn't). I learnt not to expect a mutual sex life (if he wanted sex, I was expected to give it immediately. If I wanted sex, I was a "slut"). I learnt that I could only have physical affection if he wanted to give it (at night time, he'd tell me "don't bloody touch me; I hate it when you get all desperate and try to cuddle up"). I learnt, most damagingly of all, that everything was my fault. I'd brought it upon myself when I'd agreed to be with him. He'd "warned" me, after all. He'd told me I was just a "fuck buddy." I mean, yes, he had also begged me never to leave him. He'd told me he loved me. He'd told me he didn't want to push me away, or hurt me anymore; he said he wanted to get better and if I could wait, maybe everything would work out okay. But I shouldn't have listened to that, right? I should only have listened to his warnings or rejections. So it was totally my fault. Not his. He couldn't help it.
In the 20 months that we were together, I began to normalise his behaviour in my mind. It was the only way to cope with it. So it became normal to arrive, tired after a long journey, only for him to already be naked and demanding sex. It became normal for him to openly admit that he didn't care if I was sexually satisfied as long as he was. It became normal to satisfy him and then have him refuse to lay a finger on me in reciprication. It became normal to have to cook for him, or pick him up from somewhere, or drive him to another place whenever he snapped his fingers. It became normal to have to pay for half his weekly shop, when I didn't live with him and would usually only be staying a night or two at most. It became normal to be criticised, mocked and put down. It became normal to put up with homophobic or sexist remarks, regardless of how he knew they made me feel. It became normal to hear about other women he was either fantasising about or already sleeping with. It became normal to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself. To not speak to family or friends about the side of him that made me feel that I would never be good enough. The version of him that made me truly believe that I wasn't worthy of love. It became normal to feel constantly guilty for my behaviour, even though I had always believed that to be caring, faithful and supportive were positive traits. It became normal to hate myself for not being able to "fix" him. It became normal to protect the side of him that was funny, charming and passionate. It became normal to accept my responsibility for "making" him angry or frustrated, simply by being there.
I've got no doubt that most people reading this might be thinking: "Jesus, love. If someone treated me like that, I'd be showing him the door, not lying down and taking it like a bloody doormat." Maybe a few years back, if I had read this, I'd have said the same thing. But manipulation is a powerful thing. He wanted me to believe that he was innocent and troubled and that he needed my patience and help. I wanted to believe that the man who could make me laugh so much, who I was so attracted to, who seemed so out of my league, was doing his best to sort himself out. That I had to wait and help him as much as I could. That there would be a happy ending, if I could just ride the storm for a while first.
Two years ago today, however, I realised that the storm wasn't going to pass. I had spent the day with my best friend. I left earlier than she wanted me to, because I knew I was going to meet him. He had promised me dinner out. I had already made my mind up that unless something dramatic happened, it would be the last meal we shared together.
He'd recently started working in a new job. He texted and told me to pick him up from the car park behind his new workplace. I had no idea where that was and ended up driving aimlessly around a city I wasn't entirely familiar with. I called him and asked for directions. He sounded happy to give them. I knew he wasn't. I could tell that he was simply within earshot of his new workmates. He didn't want to let his public mask slip.
Sure enough, when I eventually found the car park and switched off the engine, he was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, five or ten minutes later, he emerged at the other end of the car park, spotted me and remained stubbornly rooted to the spot, refusing to walk over to my car, expecting me to pull up alongside him and save him the short walk. I did it, as I had done so many other things over the last 18 months or more: For an easy life.
His first words were critical. I hadn't waited in the right place. I was late. I had never bothered to learn my way round his home city. I didn't respond, so he laughed to himself (something he did more and more towards the end of our time together) and told me: "No wonder I don't like being with you; look at yourself! You're so depressed. You're bringing me down!" He told me he wasn't taking me out for dinner after all and said I ought to drive to his house instead.
Once there, he began telling me about the other girls he was sleeping with (we'd ended our sexual relationship by that point; he told me I was "too immature" to handle it). There were several. None of them knew about each other. I questioned whether that was a nice - or even a safe - way to treat women. He told me, not for the first time, that I was stupid and didn't understand real life; he'd done nothing wrong, so why did I feel the need to criticise? His horrible childhood gave him every right to do as he pleased as an adult.
We went downstairs and he began cooking dinner. I didn't say much. I stood in that kitchen - watching a man I had loved so much it had felt like my heart might burst through my chest - feeling like a slowly deflating balloon. The air was being sucked out of me. The joy, the strength and every little personality trait that made me me had been draining away for months. And it was because of him. The thought was almost too much to bear. My throat felt as though it was closing in on itself. I blinked back tears as he continued to talk about the girls he was sleeping with and how much slimmer and more confident they were than me. How much better his life was, now that he was keeping me at arm's length. How sick it made him feel to imagine the two of us together. And then something snapped.
I don't remember everything I said to him. I'm fairly certain I didn't say half the things I should have. But I spoke back. I told him he couldn't use his past as an excuse to treat people like shit. I told him you can't just tell someone that you love them so much it scares you one minute, then make out like they're just a casual play-thing the next. I do remember the last thing I said to him: "If you carry on treating people like this, you're going to end up a very lonely old man." I remember it, because it was what made him throw down the kitchen utensils in his hand and grab my arm, much too hard. I remember it, because it was that that made him practically drag me through the corridor, before opening the front door and literally throwing me out of it. And I remember it, because, as I picked myself up and dusted myself down, I knew it was probably one of the truest things anyone had ever said to him.
I got in the car and the self-pitying texts began to arrive. I didn't understand him, because he'd been abused as a child. I was selfish. I had gotten too close and given him no choice but to push me away, because he was so scared. Now I'd left him and he was all alone again. Just look what I had done to him! I replied. Just once. I told him I hated him for what he'd done to me. he sent a message back, saying he was glad I was gone, because I was an ignorant c*nt. I laughed. And then I cried.
I cried so hard on that drive home, that I thought my heart might literally break. But for the first time, I wasn't crying because I was upset at the way he'd treated me (and there were many drives home where I did that, believe me). I was crying with relief. I'd done it. I'd stood up to him; told him I wasn't taking his shit anymore. Okay, so he'd spoilt my big, dramatic walk-out, by turning it into a big, violent throw-out, but I had still done it. I'd left him.
Of course, by the time I reached home, his manipulation had come into effect and I felt wracked with guilt. That poor man. He was vulnerable. He was acting out because he didn't know any better and instead of being strong enough to support him, I'd abandoned him! My mood crashed. I hadn't ridden out the storm. The storm had beaten me. Over the next few days and weeks, it's not an exaggeration to say that, at times, I was suicidally depressed. I hated myself. I wished myself dead. I was a failure. I had promised him I understood him and I'd be there for him and I'd broken my word. I found myself wondering if he was okay, whilst simultaneously dreading a message or a call from him, knowing it would only suck me back down into a world I no longer wished to exist in. I prayed for a miracle; I wanted to rewind time and write him out of my history.
By October, I was just about surviving. I was painting on a brave face most days; going out with my friends and keeping myself busy. But at night, I'd lie in bed, sobbing into my pillow, wondering what had happened to the feisty, fun version of myself that had once existed. I heard from him, via text, accusing me of contacting one of his friends and warning her against him. I hadn't done it, but I foolishly took the chance to communicate with him; asking him for forgiveness, for the way I had behaved. I felt such enormous levels of guilt that I felt I needed him to tell me that he was okay and that he didn't hate me. I felt completely deserving of his hatred.
I started craving alcohol. Not in ridiculous amounts, but just enough to "take the edge off." I had an unhealthy relationship with it; if I had had a drink, it made me feel all fuzzy-edged and I didn't brood on what I was going through anymore.
By November, I'd sought help. I am fortunate enough to have a certain Doctor (Doctor Ashby, for any local readers) at my surgery, who I feel I can be entirely open and honest with. So I made an appointment and I told him I hated myself and I couldn't cope. I asked for counselling and he arranged it. He didn't judge me, or criticise me. He simply told me that he'd do everything he could to make me better.
When those counselling sessions started, I used them to purge myself of the guilt I felt. I told my counsellor that I had abandoned someone who had needed me, because I was too stupid and immature to understand the kind of relationship he had expected to have with me. I told her how I "made him feel violent" and how clingy and disgusting I was. I recalled how sexy and clever and funny he had been and I told her that I hadn't deserved him. I meant each and every single word. I hated him for what he'd done to me, but I hated myself more for making him do it.
It was during my penultimate session (in late March last year, if I remember rightly), that my counsellor leant forwards in her seat and handed me a leaflet for WRSAC. "Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre?!" I exclaimed. "But he didn't rape me!"
I didn't know what "coercive consent" meant, back then. I didn't realise that when he had distracted me from standing up to his behaviour with sex, or when I'd told him I was tired or not in the mood and he had guilt-tripped me into doing it anyway, or when he had demanded that I satisfy him, then pushed me away and told me I was "disgusting," or when he'd deliberately get me all worked up, then refuse to lay a finger on me, leaving me frustrated and humiliated, that that was a sexually abusive way to behave. I honestly believed that those things just happened in a "normal" relationship, because he'd always made me feel stupid for questioning it.
My counsellor gently explained that WRSAC dealt with all forms of abuse. There was a fortnight left until my last session with her and she wanted me to call them before then and arrange for them to support me in a more specialised way.
I hid that leaflet away. ABUSE?! Was the counsellor trying to make me feel less guilty? Well it wasn't working! I'd feel far more guilty if I took up the valuable time of an abuse charity, when I'd not really suffered anything remotely like the idea of abuse that I had in my head.
Okay, so he shouted sometimes and called me stupid, fat, immature or disgusting, but he wasn't abusive.
Okay, so he demanded sex and would satisfy only himself, leaving me feeling used and frustrated, but he wasn't abusive.
Okay, so he constantly demeaned me and compared me unfavourably to other women, but he wasn't abusive.
Okay, so he threw his pillow across the room and said I made him "feel violent," but he wasn't abusive.
Okay, so he made me hate myself and he blamed me for his own behaviour, but he wasn't abusive.
Okay, so he'd "play fight" with me and end up genuinely hurting me, leaving me with permanent pains in my upper back, but he wasn't abusive.
Okay, so when my period was late and he was concerned I might be pregnant, he threatened me with a coat hanger, but he wasn't abusive.
Okay, so I literally wanted to die because of him, but he wasn't abusive...
In my manipulated mind, abuse was rape or actual physical assault. I couldn't accuse him of either. If I rang WRSAC, they'd laugh at me. Or worse, they'd be angry with me for wasting their time.
In the end, I called them a few days before my final counselling session, because I didn't want my counsellor to be disappointed that I hadn't taken her advice. I deliberately rang at a time when I knew there'd be no answer. I left a mumbled message, explaining that I was probably just wasting their time. When they didn't call me back the next day, I reasoned that they agreed with me. So when the phone rang a couple of days later, I wasn't expecting it to be them. And when I realised it was, I fully expected a lecture on the importance of not contacting an abuse charity when you've never experienced abuse. Instead, what I got was understanding. The opportunity to talk and simply be listened to.
By this point, I had slowly begun to open up to my family and friends, so I should say here and now that without them, I wouldn't have gotten this far. But the lady I spoke to on the phone was the first person to ever tell me that I had survived something and that I should be proud. As far as I was concerned, I had abandoned a vulnerable person. I had taken the coward's way out and walked away, rather than stick around and see it through. I saw myself as "weak and pathetic," because that was what my ex had drummed into me. The idea that I might have reserves of strength I had never even realised were there came as a total revelation.
WRSAC are a busy charity, helping women from all walks of life to overcome their experiences of abuse. For that reason, it was a long wait before I could see a one-to-one support worker. By the time a date was arranged, I had gotten the wobbles again. Was she going to laugh at me? Was she going to tell me it was my fault?
But Chloe did no such thing. Chloe gave me unconditional support. She looked upon me, in my broken state and she got to work, putting me back together again. She'd never met me before, but somehow, she knew exactly where all the pieces went. She gave me a safe space in which to cry, rant, laugh... Anything I needed to do. And all the time, she listened. Whatever I said, however trivial, she listened and she remembered for next time.
I didn't notice it at first. The changes were so gradual and the sessions, as helpful as they were, could be painful and intense. But over time, I suddenly realised that I was smiling more. My shoulders started to feel lighter. I began talking back; standing up for myself. I stopped believing all the vile things about myself that my ex had filled my head with. I didn't blame myself anymore. I blamed him. And I was furious.
Chloe helped me to turn that anger into positivity. To use it to make me more determined to achieve my goals. To allow it to power me up the mountain when I felt my legs starting to give way. It was okay to be angry. It was okay to be sad. Most importantly of all, it was okay to be me. There was nothing wrong with me, after all. I wasn't some vicious, selfish bitch who'd abandoned a poor, vulnerable young man when he needed me most. I was a woman who'd taken nearly two years of abuse from an evil, manipulative bastard, before I had found the courage to put a stop to it. I hadn't faltered. I hadn't gone back to him (not this time, at least). I had been brave enough to seek professional help when I realised I wasn't coping on my own. I was stronger than I had ever given myself credit for. I had survived.
It took nearly a year of counselling with WRSAC before I felt ready to carry on by myself. I walked the last few steps up that mountain on my own; safe in the knowledge that I could do it. I can't pinpoint a date when I knew I had reached the top. All I know is that eventually, I stopped wishing I could rewind time and go back to being the Emma I was before I met my ex and started being incredibly proud of the Emma I am today, instead.
My experience of abuse doesn't define me, but it has shaped me. I know now that I am a far tougher cookie than I ever imagined. I understand abuse much better and I campaign to highlight it and stamp it out. I understand myself much better.
There are aspects of me that remain coloured by what I went through. I know that certain personality traits would, rightly or wrongly, put me off a man within minutes. I don't trust as easily as I used to. I perhaps react a little too quickly to things that I see as wrong, as a result of having stood back and not said anything all that time with my ex. Every now and then, something seemingly trivial will upset me far more than I'm prepared to admit, because of the memories it stirs. But those instances are a price worth paying for having survived. I am incredibly lucky.
When I think of the heartbreakingly large number of people out there, living in a similar situation to the one I was in, two years ago, I cannot help but feel desperately sad and passionately angry. Abuse is abhorrent. To wilfully and systematically erode a person's sense of self-worth, as abusers do, puts those who commit these acts beyond contempt. When we see abuse, we must call it out. Refuse to be silenced; yell and scream, if we have to. We must let society know that we won't accept abuse in any form to be considered an unchangeable part of our cultural landscape.
And to those who are living in the same situation as I was: It is NOT YOUR FAULT. There is help out there. People who will believe. People who will listen. People who will help. The road to freedom is long and hard, but you never have to walk it alone. I didn't; I couldn't have. Reach out. It might just save your life.
Walking away from my abusive relationship was one of the most terrifying, difficult things I've ever done, but I can't even begin to count all the ways in which doing so changed my life for the better. It saved me. It gave me a chance to be me again; not just the "old" me, but a new, improved version. I'm silly sometimes, yeah. I'm stubborn as a mule when I want to be, too. But I have something that nobody can ever take away. I have strength. I survived. And you can too.