A story about navigating through an abusive relationship and coming out the other side.
Content warning: mentions experiences of domestic violence, emotional violence and financial abuse.
I have been very sick for all of my adult life. I’ve never been able to work full time. Sometimes I study part time. Since I was 21 I have been supported by the Disability Support Payment. I’m also lucky to have a family that take care of me and support me, and I know they would help me financially if I was desperate.
While I am fortunate in my family, I have been unfortunate in my choice of boyfriend. It began when we were first living together, with his parents and it continued when we moved across the country. We had just enough for bond and the first four weeks of rent when we got to our new home in a new town. Using my pension, we slowly paid for furniture while he looked for work and waited for Newstart payments to kick in. Even once he found part-time work, money was tight. Sometimes we had to make hard choices about whether to use the last of our food on lunch or dinner, or ration out car trips to make the petrol last until pay day.
He would berate me if I splurged on a chocolate bar. Then we’d have a night out with friends and he’d drop $50 on alcohol, all in one night! Enough for me to have 30 chocolate bars. I didn’t really notice it at the time, but I realised much later how unfair that was. He took control of all our budgeting and I had to tell him about everything that I bought, even the really small things. He’d always want to see my ATM receipts to check how much was in my account. He said I wasn’t good with money and I needed his help. I didn’t know that wasn’t true. I’d never lived on my own until I met him. Sometimes I wanted something for myself, but I had to beg. All our expenses came from my pension, and his salary went on the alcohol, and gambling and the things he wanted. He would tell me he was allowed to enjoy the money he made because he went to work and earned it. I was just paid by the government.
My money was ours. His money was his.
It wasn’t just the money. He didn’t think I was sick. He said exercise would make me better. He said it could fix me. Once, he made me run and run and run until I collapsed and vomited. He was so mad at me for throwing up, and called me disgusting for doing it in a garden. While he lectured me, I was lying on my back on the grass, my ears ringing, trying so hard to hear him telling me how fat and lazy and gross I was. I already knew I was those things– he’d told me before – but I was so afraid of not listening to him. I was afraid to make him angry.
He didn’t like what I ate, either. Twice, when eating out, he punished me for ordering more than I could handle by insisting that I eat it anyway and refusing to leave until I did. It might have happened more than twice, but I remember the two times I threw up.
I didn’t know what words to use to talk about my life at home. All my friends knew me as this super-confident, strong, capable woman who was a leader in my community and a high-achieving student. If my boyfriend had hit me, I’d have told someone. If he’d threatened me, I’d have known that was wrong and been able to tell someone about it. But all I had was a vague feeling in my stomach all day and every day that something wasn’t right at home – I was such a strong presence at community events, and a hard-working student because I hated my home.
At home there were lectures. If I did something wrong, like break something or spend money I shouldn’t, he would sit me down and lecture me, like I was a child. Sometimes I’d have to sit for an hour or more, while he would explain to me why I was naïve, or stupid, or childish, or rude, or unhealthy, or lazy, or selfish. At home, there were fights – but they weren’t fights, because my side never got any airtime. He would just tell me why I was wrong – even when we were supposed to talk about something he’d done – and I had to listen and apologise and promise to be better. I wasn’t allowed to cry. If I cried while he was talking to me, he would refuse to discuss it further until I stopped trying to “manipulate” him.
My illness gives me a poor memory. I had only his word to go on and if he told me I had agreed to this, or said that, I had no choice but to believe him and I always did, because he had me convinced that I needed him to sort out my life.
He was never physical, but he did not need to be. He was well over6 foot and I am only about 5 and half. He was fit and strong and I was weak and sick. So when he stood between me anda doorway, his feet planted firmly and his arms crossed, I didn’t try to leave.When I sat on the couch sobbing, and he stood up and over me, demanding I stop crying, I desperately forced myself to stop. When he paced the room and punched things, I made myself very small and very quiet and very agreeable. When he spent all day being moody and physically aggressive and then started touching me when I didn’t really want him to, I let him.
I didn’t leave him over any of these things. I didn’t leave him when he cheated on me. I left him when he fell in love with someone else and I felt like I could go and he wouldn’t really care or try to make me stay. I did, he didn’t and I went straight back across the country to my parents.
About six months after I got home, I broke a bowl. Not the good china. Just a regular, every-day bowl for cereal. It smashed into two pieces and I started to have a panic-attack. I curled up into a ball and began shaking and crying and muttering over and over “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.” My parents were so confused. They kept telling me to calm down, it’s not important, it’s just a cheap bowl, we don’t care.
My body was so ready for a two-hour lecture about my clumsiness that I collapsed entirely and needed my mother to sit with me for half an hour before I could calm down again. That was the day that I realised I am a survivor of domestic violence.
I am still sick, and I still can’t really work full time. I’m still with my parents and it’s been more than five years and I haven’t found anybody else. But I’m doing extremely well. I have an eating disorder, but I’m in treatment for it and I’ve come a long way with it. I do a lot of advocacy and activism on women’s and queer issues. I still have a lot of anxiety about anger and I get very upset when people express it around me – but it’s been really helpful to understand why that is, and where my fear comes from so I can learn to recognise that not every angry person is a threat my body needs to prepare for.
My next big goal is to exercise. It’s hard enough when I’m sick and it’s painful, but it’s worse because I always get flashbacks to the time he pushed me so hard I was sick. I need to build new memories about exercise that don’t feel dangerous or shameful. I am working on eating whatever I like, without his control – but also without eating literally everything I like! As for my money? Well, actually, I’m very good at financial planning. I don’t have much, but my parents don’t charge rent, so I’m sometimes able to help them out with the big bills (whether they like it or not) and I’ve got emergency savings. I also buy things. Things I don’t need. I collect ornaments, useless things, and I display them openly. It’s my way of saying “This is my money! I budget and I save and I can spend it however I like.”
Also, I buy a lot of cushions. He hates cushions.
If you are affected by violence you can contact 1800RESPECT for counselling, support and referral.
Call 1800 737 732 or chat to someone online (external link). If you are in immediate danger, call 000.