As a young girl, I was considered a gifted child. I won a scholarship for private education at one of the country’s top schools at the age of 11. It was incredible for my family, none of whom had been to university. They were astonished at the educational establishments I kept finding myself within. No one would ever have thought I could become a victim of domestic abuse.
I was a bit confused myself by school. Everyone seemed so much more sophisticated than me, but I managed to forge close friendships that continue to this day, and attained high academic achievements through hard work. After school, I went on to study Russian and Philosophy at one of the best universities in the country. In spite of everything that happened in my personal life, I graduated with a first.
While at university, I met Sam* at a party I had organised. He was tall, handsome and enjoyably cocky. We fell in love almost immediately. From there, we were largely inseparable, moving in together quickly and sharing all of our free time with one another.
Two years into our relationship, when we were still studying, I discovered I was pregnant. I worked at a local restaurant, but the little money I earnt went on rent, so we were equally ecstatic and terrified. We married in order to provide a stable life for our child. But then I had a stillbirth.
I found the experience very difficult and felt isolated from those around me. Everyone expects women to be stoically brave all of the time and, to my credit, I largely managed to be. It was from there, though, that what had previously been dismissible behaviour from Sam became darker.
Admittedly, I wasn’t faultless. I started drinking heavily in a vain attempt to drown the pain and he grew increasingly possessive. I got my tongue pierced whilst out with friends for a birthday and I vividly remember him shouting me out in the street, asking who I thought I was and why was I being so awful. But it was my own tongue, not his, that had been pierced.
Meanwhile, I continued to essentially be a high-functioning alcoholic. I was working 65 hours a week, raking in a great salary and going out for work drinks almost every night. It terrifies me in hindsight how normalised alcohol consumption is in society and how standard it is for women, particularly educated women, to use this societally-sanctioned poison as a crutch. I was never prosecuted for drink-driving, never missed a day at work and never developed health problems. However, I was using alcohol for the support I seemed unable to get from human relationships anymore.
Intelligence, achievements, financial health – none of these protect a woman from domestic violence and I wish people understood that. It all looked great on the outside, but at home I was being emotionally, financially, physically and sexually abused. I believed that as long as I could make myself better, control my emotions and be less of a 'crazy bitch', everything would be fine. But inside I felt dead.
Sam became very possessive: calling me constantly when I was at work almost as if to check I was there, screening my calls and reading my texts. He turned the location setting to ‘on’ on my iPhone without telling me and then received the data about where I had been. There was nothing for him to find out, any suspicions he had didn't come from anything I had done. This reached something of a zenith when he went away for a week with work. He locked me in our home and switched off the electricity from outside. I didn’t shout out the window to the neighbours for assistance or call friends, because I was too ashamed of what they would think. It was inconceivable to me, even then, to admit there was a problem.
Instead, I spent a week lying to work, ran out of food and struggled to even get to the toilet because, after sunset, I couldn’t see anything. When he returned he raped me whilst reminding me I belonged to him.
I lost that job, and lost myself. Two months later, I’d became homeless after fleeing the marital home covered in blood with no shoes on my feet.
Today, I am housed, sober, mental health practitioner studying for a Master’s – but I wouldn’t have got here without the help of other women.
My abuse was still ongoing when I saw an advert asking for volunteers for a research project led by the National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage. Along with 12 fellow peer researchers, all of whom, like me, had suffered from domestic abuse, I was trained to talk to women in my local area about their experience of abuse.
Once I started talking to these women. I found there were no barriers to break down. We understood each other inherently, and personally - I’d never met people who were so empathetic towards me before and was instead shrouded in shame. That shame is something that is so hard to express if you’ve never been through it.
I went through a lot over the period of this research project. I once came home to discover my abuser sat in a chair in the bolt-hole I’d finally achieved, my safe space. It was like a scene from a horror movie. I didn’t have anywhere to be safe anymore.
Afterwards, I broke down humiliatingly and publicly. I hated myself for doing it – but thank god for the women around me, who supported me and got me through it.
First there was Jo, the project manager, who called to check I was okay, I was waiting to be told how useless I was. But she didn’t. I couldn’t take it in at the time but she kept saying to me “it’s his fault, not yours”, “He did this, not you”.
She offered me a different narrative, arranged counselling and tore down my perceptions.
Then there was Rose*, a peer researcher like me. Rose was about 20 years older than me and so much wiser. She was practically a walking miracle, having turned her life around many years ago. She’d experienced domestic abuse too and, after battling addiction for years, she was 17 years sober.
Rose had so much wisdom and insight into life, having walked a hard path, plus a wicked sense of humour. She loved fiercely and was enormously intelligent. She would always tell me “no excuses”, meaning that there was no reason not to do the best by myself. Having grown fairly accustomed to treating myself badly, this was a revelation. She, almost forcibly, dragged me to recovery meetings and introduced me to other sober women. She helped me move house so my ex no longer knew where I lived and was always there for guidance.
Rose knew the ravaging impact trauma could have on a person and demonstrated there was a way out of that darkness. She would tell me “there’s no way out but through”. I loved her for never being naively optimistic about the recovery journey; she never told me it would be fine – and she was right. A lot of the magic of Rose was that she had gone through struggles, righted herself and then made herself available to extend a hand to the next woman suffering. She was a true friend.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, we went for a drive and sat together in silence and shock. I remember telling her it would be OK and believing it: she seemed the kind of woman who would outlive us all. She had an exceptional ability to love me exactly how I was at the time, whilst never doubting that I could make a recovery too.
Sadly, her cancer was terminal.
I owe my life to Rose. I can’t overstate how much everything she has done has meant to me. I consider her my best friend and it is an absolute privilege to have known her.
For women who are victims of domestic violence and abuse, being able to talk to others who have been through similar is vital. But it can be hard to get in touch with fellow survivors – in fact one of the findings from our research was that it should be more valued and prioritised.
It sounds so obvious, but having someone on your side is exactly what most disadvantaged women need. I had never had anyone on my side fighting for me before Rose. I know from my own experience that it makes the difference between sinking and swimming – that’s the power of survivors supporting others.
My trauma still lives with me. I lead quite an isolated life and have lots of tricks to push people away when they dare attempt to get close. I would love to have close friends again. Sadly, Rose passed away, but she used to text me every morning, and every morning I still nod my head at the sun, acknowledge and thank her.
I will always be grateful to her for inviting me and for me, broken as I was then, for turning up. Rose’s support made every difference.
I can only hope there are many more Roses in the world to spread this message. I try to be that woman myself.
The author is a peer researcher for the National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage, established by AVA (Against Violence and Abuse) and Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk. She also works at a service for people with complex needs.
*Names have been changed