TRIGGER WARNING: DV
When 34-year-old Sofia was a little girl, she had only one dream: “By the time I turn 25, I’m going to have this awesome house and have children and marry my prince charming.” She did not get the fairytale.
As she sits on my couch with a coffee in hand, Sofia looks at me with her strong, dark eyes and artfully applied makeup. This warm, professional woman is living proof that no matter what we imagine the future will look like, domestic violence can happen to any one of us.
“Looking back now, Ethan was a complete narcissist,” Sofia explains of her charismatic ex-partner, “everyone thought he was amazing and that he would never do anything to hurt me, that we were the perfect couple. But it was not like that all.”
In their early 20s, Ethan and Sofia met through a mutual friend. She adored his outgoing personality and spontaneity. Within a week, they were an item.
“Everything was in the moment, and I found that kind of exciting,” Sofia says.
In her personable manner, Sofia laughs and confesses that as a teenager, she didn’t have many boyfriends; Ethan’s attention was flattering.
With candour she says: “It was just nice to have someone to talk to.”
Soon after they began dating, Ethan’s father informed Sofia of his son’s serious mental health issues. His moods could swing from extreme highs to deep lows, she was told.
Far from being daunted, Sofia “just wanted to be there for him” and “help him through it.”
The first time Ethan was violent to Sofia, the couple were visiting his parents.
“We had had an argument, I remember him grabbing me and shoving me against the wall and holding me there,” she says.
A few days earlier Ethan had been smoking marijuana. In her own mind, Sofia speculated this was a factor in his behaviour. Instead of feeling shocked, she felt responsible. She also wanted to believe the best of her boyfriend.
“I just took it as, you know, I had to get him off this drug,” she says. “Because I [had] just kind of turned into his rock. I helped him through everything.
“I thought it was just a once off and would never happen again. And it took a few years before anything happened again,” she continues.
Thinking back to the pattern of abuse which later emerged, she says: “He wasn’t violent while he was smoking pot but it’d be the day after when he’d come off his high or whatever, he’d tend to get violent.”
Despite being extremely close to her parents, Sofia didn’t tell them about Ethan’s first aggressive outburst.
“My family had doubts about him and I didn’t want to reinforce that…I wanted them to accept him, as I had,” she explains.
For a few years, things seemed relatively stable and the pair moved in together. Despite his doctor’s advice, Ethan persisted in taking medication for his mental health conditions while simultaneously using recreational drugs and alcohol. It was a poisonous mix. Out of sight from Sofia’s parents, Ethan became violent on a visit to her family’s home.
“I don’t think he cared where he did it. He just wanted to control me,” she says.
Then things settled down again. For five years there was no violence. Ethan agreed to stop smoking pot and after many discussions, they decided to get married. Soon afterwards their daughter, Isabella, was born.
Sofia found being a new mother tough. As a baby, Isabella was “a really bad sleeper” who frequently cried for long periods. This led to both Sofia and Ethan being chronically sleep deprived.
Ethan fell into a pattern of smoking pot every night after he came home from work. Once again his pattern of violence erupted.
“It was always in the middle of the night when we just weren’t coping,” Sofia says, “we’d have a disagreement…and I’d end up held by the throat, pinned to the bed, him screaming at me.
“Then I would end up having a panic attack and crying on the floor,” she continues. Soon Ethan was choking her by the throat more and more frequently – once or twice a week.
“I was terrified that he was going to kill me,” she says, adding that he verbally threatened to do so “many times in the heat of the moment”.
According to Sofia, Ethan was consistently unapologetic about these horrific episodes. Instead, he’d lambast her: “It’s your fault, you made me do that.”
“I truly believed that [it was my fault] because he made me believe it,” she says, adding: “I was ashamed.”
For Sofia, recalling the terror of those nights is hard. A number of times we stop our conversation so she can wipe away tears and take a breath, before pressing on.
Alongside the violence, Ethan’s controlling behaviours increased. He’d attempt to stop Sofia having coffee with her friends and would constantly check the car’s odometer to see how far she’d travelled.
Sofia’s mother-in-law ratcheted up the domestic pressure. After Isabella was born, Sofia recounts Ethan’s mother becoming “very over-involved and very controlling.”
Looking back, Sofia believes she had postnatal depression right from when she gave birth to Isabella. The depression deepened as Ethan’s violence and family tensions escalated. She began having suicidal thoughts.
A dear friend helped Sofia to reach out to PANDSI – Canberra’s postnatal and antenatal support service. She participated in multiple PANDSI programs, including telephone counselling, and was thankful for the non-judgmental environment.
Sofia sees this as a turning point in her life; she started to get her confidence back.
“I really, truly believe that I wouldn’t be here today without PANDSI,” she says. The incident that permanently broke Sofia’s marriage occurred just before Isabella’s second birthday. Tragically, her young daughter witnessed it.
“He grabbed me by the throat and dragged me around the corner and continued to choke me,” Sofia says. “I was scared that one day he was just going to keep holding on.”
In that moment Sofia knew if she stayed with Ethan, the violence would never cease. Perhaps she’d end up dead.
A single thought made her determined to escape: “I was not going to let my child grow up like that. I was protecting my daughter.”
With the assistance of her parents, ACT Police and Canberra’s domestic violence crisis service, DVCS, Sofia obtained a domestic violence order and an exclusion order (colloquially this is also known as a ‘kick out’ order) through the Magistrates Court. Ethan was forced to leave their house.
Despite her obvious fear, Sofia wanted to give Isabella some stability. She stayed in the home and her father changed all the locks. With a smile and a tiny glimmer of satisfaction, Sofia says: “I had my house and my life back.”
Over the past three years, Sofia’s life has transformed. She has a wonderful new partner who “makes me laugh every day” and a great job. “I feel completely safe,” she says.
Although Ethan still has regular access visits with Isabella, Sofia retains custody of their daughter through the Family Court.
Sometimes Sofia thinks about what she’ll say when Isabella is old enough to start asking questions. She’s hopeful their own story of surviving domestic violence will give Isabella courage into the future.
“I really hope it gives her strength and confidence to always look after herself and not let someone else control her,” Sofia says.
* Names and some identifying details have been changed to protect Sofia and Isabella’s safety.
You can read this article and more in our latest edition of Magazine: Escape, at stockists from this week. Available for free while stocks last. Click here to find your closest stockist.