From the minute you start planning your wedding, you’re faced with an abundance of choices….
I’m on the floor, lying face down. My mouth is slightly open and I can feel the carpet against my teeth. I don’t care. A while ago I was trembling uncontrollably, my fists clenched as I sobbed until there was nothing left. Now I’m here, at the other end of panic and fear, where I wait until I can get up and fix things. It’s taking longer than usual this time…
I met him in Civic at a nightclub, which I know is a classic Canberra cliché. He was with a group of friends — all women — so I figured one of them must have been his girlfriend. He was gorgeous — just my type — with that tall, dark, brooding look. We got chatting at the bar. I was mesmerised by his dark eyes and before long he was paying for my drinks and my friends had joined his group to dance and chat.
I found out he was single and most of my mates were giving me suggestive looks, telling me how good looking he was whenever he was out of earshot. At the end of the night he asked for my number, he said he’d love to stay and chat more but he was making sure his friends got home safely. I was impressed. He obviously cared about them.
I wasn’t out that night with the intention of meeting someone, after a rough breakup my confidence was at an all time low and the last thing I wanted was to open up to someone new. So in order to keep my friends happy (they were quite smitten with him) I left it up to fate; if he called I’d give him a chance.
He called at 9.30 the next morning. Then again at 10.30am because I missed the first call. Stumbling out of bed I answered, not sure of whose number it was. He asked me if I’d eaten yet and when I hung up the phone I realised I had less than an hour to wash off last night’s makeup, put on a fresh face and find an outfit worthy of a breakfast date.
On the next date, he took me to the zoo because I love animals. And after that it was a Thai restaurant because I’d mentioned it was my favourite type of food. Then my flat mates asked him to come to our housewarming [party].
He arrived with flowers for me and a case of beer for my flat mates.
A few drinking games were played and then he stayed over. By this stage I was completely won over and so were my flat mates.
“He’s a great guy,” they said, and I agreed.
After that he was over at my place, or I was at his, most days of the week. He was a great listener and being an excellent talker I was having the time of my life. He would sit through my stories about work, my friends and family, and respond with thoughtful advice or a kind word. He didn’t tell me much about himself, and when I queried him on this he would change the subject or shrug and say there wasn’t much to tell.
He was two years older than me, but he seemed so much wiser. While my friends and I were all going to gigs and parties most weekends, he preferred to go out for dinner or to cook me something at his place. By the time we’d been together for a few months, my schedule of music festivals, gym classes and ‘happy hour’ Thursdays had been completely replaced by dinners at his place or movie nights at mine.
“You’re under the thumb,” my flat mates would say to him, laughing. I laughed too, even though in truth we were following his preferred schedule, and not mine. One night he rang to ask where I was and when I was coming over. I had to go outside because I was at a local music gig with friends and I couldn’t hear him.
“Having fun?” he asked.
“You should come meet us. Max just got on stage with the band and offered to sing. He’s so bad, it’s good.”
“So you think it’s okay to go out with other guys now we’re dating?”
I was confused. “What?”
“You heard me”
“I’m coming over to your place later. I told you last week I was going to this gig,” I explained.
“Whatever, don’t bother coming over.” His tone was vicious.
“Hey, they’re my flat mates,” I said. But he’d hung up.
I tried to call him back but he wouldn’t answer.
I went home and didn’t sleep well, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. When I’d finally drifted off to sleep, a gentle knocking on my window woke me. And there he was standing in the backyard, having climbed the fence to our place. He was holding two takeaway coffees and a large brown bag that I knew contained my favourite muffins. I opened the window and helped him climb in. We didn’t speak about what had happened. I didn’t know how to bring it up.
A few months later and my friends stopped asking me to come out because they knew there was no point. I always had a ‘good reason’ for not being able to make it.
We did go out to dinner with his friends from time to time. They were an interesting crowd but skeptical about me. I got the hint that there had been a big breakup with his ex-girlfriend prior to me and they’d been part of the fall out. When I asked him about it, all he’d say was that the breakup had divided their group.
He met up with me after my work Christmas party. I was wearing a new dress and feeling pretty great about it. After a steady diet of takeaway breakfasts, three-course dinners cooked by him and a lot of dessert in bed, I’d had to buy a new dress for the party because nothing else fit. The dress was flattering and I felt better in it than I had in any of my clothes for months. I smiled at him when he arrived and leaned in for a hug.
“You look like a slut,” he whispered in my ear before he released me.
“What?” I asked, sure I hadn’t heard him right.
“What am I supposed to think, with you wearing a dress like that. How many guys did you f*ck in the toilets before I got here?”
My work friends were behind us and I didn’t want any of them to hear what he was saying. I turned around, plastered a huge smile on my face and introduced him to the group. He came and sat next to me, but didn’t talk to me for the rest of the night, instead he engaged my work friends in detailed conversations about their lives.
“He’s amazing,” said my boss before she left. “Hold on to that one”
He stayed over that night. The next morning I put the dress in the back of my cupboard and never wore it again. We didn’t speak about it.
We were driving along, on the way to work, and the Paul Kelly song To Her Door came on the radio. I started singing along. He slammed the radio off with a force that made me jump. He said nothing.
“Not a fan of Paul Kelly?” I asked, trying to make him smile. He was silent for so long I was petrified I’d said the wrong thing, a feeling I was getting very used to.
“The drinking, and the fighting bit. I hate those lyrics.”
I couldn’t let this chance go by. “Why?” I asked.
“Because I had to look after my sister and brother while my dad drank and hit my mum. Every fucking weekend, until he finally left.”
I was stunned. I reached over and took his hand. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“Not as sorry as I am,” he replied.
Then he lost his job.
There were redundancy packages offered when his department downsized, and he took one. We never discussed money and things had been fairly equal between us in spending up until that point so I wasn’t concerned. He moved out of his apartment and back home. When one of my flatmates moved out, he asked me if he could move in. I’d never lived with a boyfriend before and I was excited. My flatmates were too.
“He’s a top bloke,” they said to the real estate agent.
Once he moved in, I began to notice more things that caused me concern. But by then it was too late. He drank a lot more than I’d realised, and when he did he got mean.
“Still dressing like a slut?” he asked when I walked in the door after work. My flatmates were watching television in the next room.
“Excuse me?” I replied quietly.
He put down his beer and glared at me. “At your size you might want to cover up a bit more.”
I stormed up the stairs and took off the lovely suit I’d saved up for six months to buy and put it on the hanger. Then I sat on my bed and tried to figure out what to say back to him.
“Dinner!” called one of my flatmates. I came downstairs and saw my boyfriend had made stir-fry for all of us.
“Hold on to this one,” said my flatmates.
He just smiled at me across the table. I didn’t wear that suit again and I took to wearing high-necked tops and loose pants. It just seemed easier.
We started fighting. He had no money and I was paying for everything. His previous praise of me was changing to scorn.
“Who do you think you are having a go at me?” he’d asked when the rent was due and he didn’t have anything to contribute. “You’ll get the money back when I get paid, and it’s not like you have anything else to spend it on. You’re too fat to go shopping for clothes.”
One night, we were fighting in the car on the way home from a dinner with his friends. Mid conversation he pulled the car over. He screamed in my face, so close that I could feel the heat of his breath, and then he slammed his foot on the accelerator over and over and over until the engine made this awful popping sound and stopped working. Then he punched the steering wheel until it was dented. I was pressed up against my side of the car, begging him to stop.
“Fuck this,” he said, and got out the car, and started walking toward the oncoming traffic.
I fumbled at my door handle, half falling out of the car as my legs didn’t seem to be working properly, and reached out to pull him back to the side of the road. He snatched his hand away and turned to me, his expression almost bemused, then he wrapped his hand around the top of my arm and shoved me down onto the ground so hard my teeth clacked together. Then he called his brother to come get us and explained that he thought the car had overheated. When we got home we both went to bed and said nothing. The bruise on my arm took a week or two to fade, and I was grateful it was winter so I could cover it easily.
He finally got a new job, one that paid poorly and started very early. His car needed a new engine and he had no money, so I drove him too and from his work shifts, which meant I was working an almost 12-hour day to accommodate this. He stopped cooking or doing anything around the house because he was tired from starting work so early. I didn’t say anything, I just walked in after work and started dinner quickly because I knew he’d be hungry. I would also put my phone on the bench so he could go through it each night. He knew all my passwords on email and social media, so he could check them whenever he liked.
He would be invited to all my family celebrations, and then back out at the last minute, starting a fight with me so I’d tell him not to come. Other times he would blame me for something I’d done wrong and state he didn’t want to be anywhere near me. My mum would see me arrive at events alone and quietly move his place mat and cutlery off the table to save me the embarrassment.
One day she asked me “Are you happy?”
I nodded, but then I burst into tears and she hug me and ask me to be careful. I didn’t know how to respond.
His drinking meant that we fought less because when he was drunk it wasn’t worth getting into any sort of discussion. One night I asked him about where the cash I’d been saving in my top drawer had gone. He’d apparently needed to pay back a friend for an old debt and he’d noticed the money in my drawer and taken it. I was really upset because I’d been saving up for a birthday present for my mum. Between paying two rents, petrol in my car for all the extra driving and for groceries, I was down to the very last of my savings account. I actually yelled at him, which was completely out of character. He grabbed the side of my face and slammed me into the wall. My head left a large dent. I felt dizzy, sat down and took some deep breaths. I heard him go downstairs to the kitchen and rummage around in the drawers.
“This is your fault,” he screamed up the stairs.
It was around 12am so the rest of my flatmates had already gone to bed. I got up quickly and hurried down the stairs. I didn’t want him to wake them. I stopped suddenly at the doorway to the kitchen. He was holding a large kitchen knife. I took a step back.
“I can’t handle this any more,” he screamed. And then ran out the door in only his boxer shorts, into the winter night with the knife.
One of my flatmates came running down the stairs.
“Is everything okay?” she asked. I burst into tears and told her he was a bit drunk and I was scared he was going to do something silly. Together we called his brother and asked for help.
“I was worried this might happen again,” said his brother.
Within an hour his brother was over at our house and we began searching for my boyfriend. When we finally found him, he asked to come home and go to bed. The next morning he woke up next to me and put his arms around me. I lay as still as I could, pretending to sleep.
“Please, please help me,” he said. “I don’t mean to be like this.”
His brother rang at lunchtime and said that he was on the way over with their mum. They arrived soon after and asked me to leave while they talked to him. I went for a walk and arrived home just as they were leaving.
“Has this happened before?” I asked as I saw them to their car.
“Yeah, a few times,” his mum replied.
“Why didn’t you warn me?” I asked.
“Would you have listened?” joked his brother.
“You need to get him help,” said his mum. “He needs to see a doctor.”
And then they left. I took my boyfriend to the doctor the next day. He was prescribed medication, but he refused to take it or to see the doctor again.
My flatmates took me aside. I waited for them to ask about what was happening, feeling physically ill at the thought of them finding out the truth. Instead, they told me they couldn’t deal with my boyfriend being so disruptive any more, and if this happened again he would need to move out. I had been so ready to reach out and ask for help that I was stunned. I replied that I was sorry and I would make sure it never happened again.
I felt that my boyfriend’s behaviour was my fault. My responsibility.
A few weeks later a friend from work came over. “I’m worried about you,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, nervously.
“You come to work, and I know you do your best,” she said. “But you wear your oldest clothes and you don’t iron them. You don’t come out to lunch with us. You don’t even wear makeup anymore. I don’t think I’ve seen you laugh for weeks. This isn’t like you. What’s wrong?”
I couldn’t tell her, I just thanked her for the concern. But when she hugged me goodbye I held on for a long time and she said she was there if I ever wanted to talk.
There were a few more dents in the wall by the time a few more months had passed. Most were my head. Some were my shoulder or hip. I never missed a day of work nor had bruises in places people could see. He was clever like that. I learned to cry very quietly so my flatmates wouldn’t hear.
Sometimes I’d get home from work and say ‘Hi’, leaning in for a kiss, and he would turn his face away and ignore me. That all too familiar icy dread would set in, starting in my chest and extending down my spine. I knew I only had a short time to figure out what I’d done wrong and atone for it. Other times he’d turn to me when we were watching television and tell me he loved me more than words could ever explain. At those times the relief was physical too, like that sensation right before you go under general anaesthetic and all your worries dissipate into pure surrender.
I lived the tenuous, highly-strung balance between fear and coping for 18 months with this man.
Then, one of my friends died. I hadn’t spent as much time with lately as I hadn’t wanted to upset the delicate balance of my boyfriend’s emotions. I went to bed when I found out, and didn’t get up for a day. He walked in and out of our room asking me when dinner was ready and telling me to get up and drive him to work. I handed him my car keys and told him it was up to him.
“Selfish bitch,” he said to me on his way out.
I got up after he’d gone and went to my mum’s place. She took one look at me and made up the spare room with fresh sheets and tucked me in. I slept for over 24 hours, waking to cups of coffee and homemade meals from my mum. When I woke there were 127 missed calls from him. I rang him back.
“I just woke up, are you okay?” I said.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” He was instantly in a rage. “I was going to come over there last night and look after you, and instead you ignore me and disrespect me. When you get home I won’t be there, you ungrateful bitch!”
I hung up and went back to sleep. I was too sad to care.
The day of my friend’s funeral I went home to get something to wear. All his things were still there and our room was spotless. He’d even folded and put away all my clothes, done the washing and made the bed. Things he’d never done before.
“I’ll come to the funeral with you,” he said.
“No,” I replied.
“What did you say?” he asked. I didn’t reply. “What did you fucking say,” he screamed right into my face.
“Hey, what’s going on up there,” one of my flatmates called. I grabbed a black dress, some shoes and ran.
All through the funeral he texted me – varying things from how sorry he was and then when I didn’t respond, the tone changed to what a waste of space I was and how disgusted he was with my behaviour.
I went home to my mum’s house instead of his. He came over a few days later so contrite and with promises to stop drinking and to go back to the doctor and start taking medication. He begged for my help, saying I was the only person who had ever understood him and that he would be lost without me. He’d apologised to my flatmates and made things right with them. I wavered and then he suggested we go past my friend’s grave on the way home so he could apologise to her as well. I packed my bags, waved off mum’s concern and went home with him.
A month later and I’m on the floor, lying face down. My mouth is slightly open and I can feel the carpet against my teeth. I don’t care. A while ago I was trembling uncontrollably, my fists clenched as I sobbed until there was nothing left. Now I’m here, at the other end of panic and fear, where I wait until I can get up and fix things. It’s taking longer than usual this time.
The next day I decided to go to lunch with the friend from work who had come over a few months back – the one who had been so kind and concerned about me. I didn’t tell her everything but I let her know I needed help and I didn’t know what to do. My friend gathered a few other friends with my permission and we formulated a plan. I began to panic. What if he hurt himself and it was all my fault?
We did some research on which organisations in Canberra might be able to help him and I reluctantly agreed. My friends didn’t give me much choice. I rang my boyfriend from my friends place and told him it was over between us, and that he needed to move out. He vacillated between apology and rage. I told him to move his things out and to leave his keys, then I hung up and turned off my phone.
My friends and I agreed that I was not allowed to return home unless I had one or more of my friends with me. The first time I went back to get more clothes I saw a trail of rose petals from the front door to our bedroom. Embarrassed I cleaned them up, then left a note on the bedside table saying that he had two more days to leave.
I got a new phone number and didn’t tell him. I was scared that if I answered his calls or texts I’ll end up back there on that floor, and one day, I’d be unable to get up again.
Finally, he moved out. His family shunned me, telling me how disappointed they were with me. I wondered if they were simply annoyed at the fact that he was their problem again. This man in his mid-20s – someone else’s responsibility and not his own.
I moved out not long after he did and lost contact with my flatmates. I knew they found my behaviour bizarre as I had turned from a socialite into a clumsy recluse within 18 months. They had no idea what was really going on, so I don’t blame them.
This is the first time I’ve ever told anyone what really happened. I am grateful each day that I had friends who took the time to notice that things weren’t right, and to give me their time, love and support so unconditionally. Without them, I don’t know if I would have had the strength to leave. I have ongoing issues in my neck and back after his abuse and to this day I panic whenever someone yells. It also took me years to pay back the debt he racked up in my name.
However, I am alive.
And with the help of family and friends I have been able to heal and move on. I feel guilt that I left a dangerous man out there without any recompense for his behaviour, one who used his own sad past as an excuse to harm others. This is why I am committed to raising awareness of domestic abuse and its varying forms.
If you notice your friend in trouble, help them. If you notice your partner starting to control any aspect of your life or your self-confidence breaking down, seek help early. It is not your fault and help is out there. Keep trying until you find someone who will listen. And finally, abuse is the fault of the person who abuses others. Victims don’t deserve it, and things won’t change until the perpetrators are called on their behaviour.
I hope that one day victims like me will not feel the need to remain anonymous.
This is the story of a Canberra woman who experienced domestic violence at the hands of her boyfriend while in her early twenties. She has chosen to remain anonymous. It is our hope at HerCanberra to increase awareness and understanding in our community about domestic violence. If you would like to share your story, you can do so anonymously by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.