My social media has been full of memes celebrating Star Wars Day today – May the 4th be with you! It’s a clever play on words from one of the most successful film franchises of all time.
However, for many years, I did all I could to avoid seeing or hearing any media on May 4th simple because it is known as Star Wars Day.
You see, Star Wars was for a very long time one of the triggers that took me back to my psychologically abusive marriage. I write about it in depth in my book ‘Whatever it takes: Living with, Leaving and Surviving Psychological Abuse’.
Much is written about people’s triggers, we learn about triggers for PTSD and so many people today say they are ‘triggered’ by something or another. It is used in so many settings to excuse poor behaviour or a misguided response to something someone has either said or done, that when someone says they are ‘triggered’ it is very often not met with the attention or support it requires.
We don’t always know if someone has been subject to domestic abuse, we’re not always aware if someone has PTSD, such scars and conditions are not always visible. Very often, the first we know of them is when someone has what to many people can only be described as an ‘abnormal reaction’ to something fairly innocuous such as in my case, May the 4th or Star Wars. In fact, there was another occasion when my newly decorated office in an administrative role I had triggered a memory that had lain dormant from my first marriage which was physically and sexually abusive.
It has taken many years of work from me to be able to even tolerate Star Wars on TV, there was a time where I wouldn’t even work with someone who said they were a Star Wars fan because the association to Star Wars created far too strong a response from my nervous system, taking me back to a place where I was forced to watch Star Wars movies, quizzed and tested on my Star Wars knowledge and ridiculed for not knowing various plot twists, intricacies of character relationships or which film came in which order.
Even now, I will choose not to watch Star Wars if I can although I no longer have a problem if someone is a Star Wars fan.
We hear so often about hidden disabilities; hidden abuse needs just as much consideration. We never truly know what is going on behind closed doors or Behind the Mask that people wear in public. Next time someone you know has an extreme response to something fairly innocuous, rather than making a harsh judgement, gently ask them what’s wrong. You might give them the lifeline they need.
Recently I have spent a number of hours each week working at my local hospital. It’s certainly been eye-opening and I have so much respect for my colleagues who have worked at the front line for the entirety of this pandemic thus far.
But what has struck me most, and something I’m privileged to witness, is the diversity of relationships that I’m party to during my time there.
There is the obvious patient/clinician relationship, and all staff are trained to help patients who are anxious and worried at this time, to ensure their visit to the hospital, however long, is as comfortable and stress-free as possible. Something that requires a lot of resilience in these testing times as procedures seem to change with each new news report.
Then you see the parent/child relationship. Where I’m working it’s often mid-life children accompanying their elderly parents. A generation who as war babies were the most vulnerable at the time of their birth and now once again, find themselves among the most vulnerable in our society.
Then there’s the couples; young and old, long and short term. The young couples barely seem to talk to each other, heads down glued to their mobile phones giving silent moral support in their joint isolation. And the elderly couples, worried about what news may be imparted to their loved one, looking after each other with an enduring love that so many of my clients seek for themselves. They will often have spent the entire day at the hospital for one short appointment with a clinician who could potentially change the course of their life.
And I see the couples where there is obviously conflict or abuse, often the individual won’t even recognise that the conflict is there but for someone finely tuned to detect it, it’s obvious. I see myself in the women or men who present scared of their own shadow, their partner doing all of the talking for them and complaining if their appointment is more than just a few minutes late because they, not the patient, are being inconvenienced.
I relish talking to the patients, giving a smile, behind my mask, ensuring it reaches my eyes. Making what I hope is a reassuring gesture to those who arrive worried and anxious. And doing all I can to make their brief interaction with me as pleasurable as possible. For those who can’t walk without assistance and have a long wait, I fetch water from the water cooler, and I’ve assisted those who can’t read or write to complete forms that are confusing enough for the most literate of us.
You see all of life in a hospital, the good, the bad and the ugly; but for me, the best parts of wearing PPE and having the constant sting and smell of hand sanitiser as company, is giving random acts of kindness to worried strangers, and observing the myriad of relationships that play out day by day in the midst of a pandemic serving as solid reminders that life really does carry on amidst the ebb and flow of whatever nature throws at us, and that strong, healthy and robust relationships can endure whatever adversity is pushed across their path.
I have a problem with the term ‘domestic abuse survivor’.
Bear with me on this. I’m saying this from the point of view of a survivor of domestic abuse. Most of my adult relationships have been abusive. I’ve been through physical, sexual, psychological and economical abuse so I tick the boxes.
I support all of the campaigns that help victims of domestic abuse regardless of gender, creed, colour or sexual orientation.
But I see the domestic abuse charities, the legal profession and numerous other companies vying for money and funding in the name of supporting domestic abuse victims whilst spending thousands upon thousands in advertising and marketing, aimed at helping women primarily, escape the terror they’re living with, to become a domestic abuse survivor.
What they don’t seem to grasp, at least from my experience, is that the abuse continues long after the victim has walked away from the perpetrator. Thankfully, there are a number of domestic abuse campaigners starting to change this perception.
Abuse is abuse. End of. There’s no one-upmanship amongst abuse survivors, if anything there’s gratitude from those who didn’t end up in hospital beds that they didn’t suffer as badly, but no-one keeps score.
Survivors know that when the abuse ends, the torment starts. Physical scars heal and fade but the scars you can’t see, the scars that linger in the depths of your mind and reveal themselves when you’re least expecting, those are the scars that torment abuse survivors.
But doesn’t seem to be recognised.
In the throes of rebuilding your life, protecting your children and trying to understand what a normal adult relationship should be, you are at your most vulnerable. Prey to those who recognise your vulnerability and those who naively offer help thinking they are doing you a favour. What they don’t understand is that a misjudged word or phrase, a boost up the ladder, a public declaration of your status or even just a paint colour in a room or office can send you back to a dark place in your mind, that forces you to relive painful memories as if they were actually happening again.
And when you mention it, when you react, you’re seen as being sensitive, irrational, unstable and incapable. And the very people who think they are helping you, layer on another coat of shame and lack of belief and low confidence until once again you start to believe that too and the helpers have become the unknowing perpetrators of a whole new cycle of abuse.
And the domestic abuse survivor gets stuck, not knowing who to trust, not knowing where to turn and when the legal profession and the domestic abuse industry turns them away because they’re not in immediate danger and don’t have physical injuries or scars to show the extent of their abuse, they feel lost, alone, abandoned.
This is when the abuse does the worst damage.
This is when the survivor gives up and believes that’s all they deserve. So they’re grateful for the unsuitable suitor who shows a little bit of compassion, they’re grateful for the employer who offers them a job that makes them feel a little bit worthy but pays them a pittance and treats them like dirt, and they’re grateful for every day they wake up without being attacked.
Eventually, if they’re lucky, they reach a point where they start to recognise that they really do deserve more than just settling and they start to question things around them.
But this means they have to put their head above the parapet, they have to have the audacity to suggest that yes, they deserve more, they deserve better and yes, there is more to life than this.
Gradually, they move through this phase, they reach forgiveness and acceptance and recognise that they can be anyone or anything they choose to be. They don’t have to rely on or depend upon a partner, they have a strength within them that they didn’t know they had, they have the strength to overcome any obstacle that gets in their way. They have the strength, the ability and the know how to create the life they want. Free from abuse, free from fear, fear from torment. Free from being labelled a domestic abuse survivor.
But the domestic abuse industry doesn’t grasp this. ‘Domestic Abuse Survivor’ has become a badge of honour to be worn with pride and used to justify behaviour and purpose.
Yes, I am a survivor of domestic abuse but to wear that as a badge or label that defines me just gives status to my perpetrators; as if I couldn’t have achieved a level of success without that badge, and it’s them who enabled me to win that badge.
So I’m going to stop calling myself a domestic abuse survivor. I’ll continue to share my story to help and inspire others but I’m so much more than a survivor of domestic abuse. It taught me so much more than how to define myself by a label bestowed upon me by a society that likes to label people and keep them in their boxes. The label isn’t fit for purpose anymore.
My experience of domestic abuse enabled me to have a greater understanding of human relationships. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Without the worst sorts of relationships I would never have been able to recognise a good relationship full of unconditional love. I would never have understood that abuse takes many forms, I would never have understood the power of the human mind, I would never have studied psychology.
But the best part of all, I would never have recognised how important it is to educate, coach and support people to create strong, healthy and robust relationships so that future generations can learn how to do the same from observing and learning from their parents and grandparents.
It has taken multiple generations to dilute the abuses that take place within the home, it will take multiple generations to replace that abuse by modelling strong, healthy and robust relationships across all social demographics but myself and countless others like me, carry on in the belief that one day, probably long after we’ve left this world, it will all have been worth it.
On Safer Internet Day I’d like to share a story with you.
Having come out of a psychologically abusive relationship I had taken what I believed to be significant and sensible precautions to protect myself, both online and offline.
There had been a time where all of my social media profiles were hacked and pornographic images with my head super-imposed were uploaded to replace the profile photos I had. That resulted in a police caution for the perpetrator who denied any involvement in the incident. However, the images were removed less than an hour after the police visited his home so both I and the police remain convinced we had the right man. That wasn’t my ex but someone else I had been briefly involved with.
You see, it’s quite common for the survivor of an abusive relationship to end up in another abusive relationship. Their self-confidence, self-belief and self-worth have been ground down so much that they struggle to see any warning signs. Indeed, at the start of a new relationship, an abuser will be on their ‘best behaviour’ anyway so the warning signs are few and far between.
Some years after the incident outlined above, I had moved to a different town, was in a caring, healthy relationship and had started a new job. I felt safe, secure and able to breathe once more. So I received a shock when a letter was sent to my place of work for my attention. I couldn’t understand why or how the letter had been sent to my workplace instead of my home. A quick telephone call to the company who had sent the letter soon cleared that up, ‘we were given your work contact details by your ex-husband’.
I knew I hadn’t given him my work details. He had my home address, he needed that as we have a child together but I purposefully hadn’t passed on my work details because I needed to feel safe there.
I started an investigation because I wouldn’t be able to sleep properly without knowing where the ‘leak’ was. It transpired that my workplace had added my name to the staff list they had on the website without my knowledge or my consent.
My ex had set up a Google alert on my name so that he could track whatever I was doing and as soon as my name had appeared on my employers’ website, he found me.
My name remained on their website as by then it was too late, but my sense of safety and security was gone. Every time the office phone rang I would check the caller ID to ensure it wasn’t his number, every time an email or letter arrived from that company or someone with a similar name I would feel my blood pressure rise and my heart rate increase.
To someone who has never been in an abusive relationship, this would seem like a dramatic over-reaction to an innocent action. But to those of us who know only too well how an abuser can insidiously enter your psyche, this is a gross violation of our safety.
Not everyone wants to tell their employer that they are in or have been in an abusive relationship but employers should gain consent from employees if they wish to use their details on their website or anywhere where their safety could be compromised.
On safer internet day, please be aware of the dangers that aren’t quite so obvious and #staysafe.