Justine tells the story of one abusive relationship
As stories rarely have a clearly-defined beginning, let alone end, I will start this one on the day that I emailed the local Rape Crisis Centre, as they were looking for new volunteers. That was about three and a half years ago. I didn’t hear much more back from them until the end of the summer, when I was invited to an information evening. My application to become a volunteer was accepted and the training began.
I have always been feminist, but had never really had a proper think about it. It bothered me that people thought women were somehow in any way partly responsible for being raped. I hated trying to buy a music magazine and having to search around Nuts and Zoo to find one. I intensely disliked that so many music publications are clearly aimed at men, as if women couldn’t possibly care about these things. And when I read women’s magazines, the adverts that suggested that looking anything over about 20 years old was hideously unforgivable irritated the hell out of me. Let’s not even talk about the heterosexist relationship advice that focused on pleasing your man by giving him lots of blowjobs on demand.
When I started my training, everything fell into place. Rape and sexual assault are at the seriously nasty end of the continuum that all the above irks are on; it’s all interrelated. Why do some men think that ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and that they are entitled to unfettered sexual access to any woman they choose? They have to get the idea from somewhere (I remain fervent in my hope that these men don’t come to those conclusions by themselves!) And the rape culture that we all live in certainly accounts for nearly all of it. But I’m not going to get into my opinions about that; it’s secondary to the tale and I’d be preaching to the converted anyway.
Some months into the training process, I took a notion that I wanted to buy and wear some feminist badges – tell the world that I was a feminist and proud of it. So I went to Google, put in my search terms and found a site that sold what I was looking for. I loved it so much, in fact, that I wrote about it on my blog and included a link. One of my few readers followed the link through, which showed up on the site owner’s tracking software, and he visited my blog. At that time, it was public and went back a good couple of years. Because I use a visit counter on my blog, I noticed a new regular visitor. Who read everything I had posted, right back to the start. I didn’t immediately connect that visitor to the person who started commenting on my blog (after he had read everything) and with hindsight being what it is, it could’ve been useful. The commenting soon became emailing, and got to a point where I was certainly falling for him. I have had some dreadful experiences with men (more on that in a moment); but here was a man who was feminist! Surely that meant that he wouldn’t be so bad, right?
About eight years ago, I managed to get out of a horrible, abusive relationship. I was lucky, in the sense that he didn’t seriously injure me physically. I am well aware that things could have been much worse. As it is, he belittled me daily, wore down my self-confidence, became violent quite easily and, on at least one occasion, raped me. There may well have been other times – I just cannot remember. As I continued the RC training, I found it harder and harder to avoid the truth of having been raped. Almost exactly two years ago, I withdrew from the training because I realised that I needed help to cope with my own trauma, so really was in no position to support other women survivors.
As this happened, the relationship with the feminist man had deepened (rapidly) and I was about to go to the US to marry him. When I got on the plane, I wanted nothing more than to fall into his arms and tell him about what I realised had happened, and for him to support me as I came to terms with it. I told him that there was something really important I needed to talk to him about when I was there. Except that it never happened. There was always something else going on, something he wanted to do or talk about. The day we got married was the one and only time I have cried with happiness; I thought that I was no longer alone with all the stuff I had to deal with (besides the abusive relationship, I have an extensive history of depression, going back to when I was about 15) and that things might just be OK after all.
Looking back on it, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was so preoccupied with looking for the overt signs of abusiveness that I totally missed the subtler ones. Because of the geographic distance, we relied on Skype to stay in touch. It got to him calling me when he got up and staying online until I went to bed. If I wanted to go and do anything (sometimes including my paid employment) I had to email him regularly about what I was doing and when I would be back. He also often sulked because I didn’t email him as soon as I woke up, to tell him what was on my mind. Of course, there were times he wanted to go and do other things too, so he would complain about being on Skype all day, every day. On a few occasions, I tried to suggest that I was really tired (I worked as a care assistant at the time, so my hours were irregular and left me feeling exhausted by 2pm) and that I needed to sleep for a while. He made me set my alarm for an hour, so I would come back online to talk to him before going out to work again. Of course, I overslept those alarms, and would have to apologise profusely for letting him down.
My illness loomed large over things, too. He claimed that he wanted to help me, and I believed him, relieved to not feel so desperately alone. His help, however, proved to be on his terms alone. He would push and push and push me to tell him things about what had happened in my abusive relationship, what was going on in my head as the depression started to overwhelm me again, and would dismiss my pleas to stop because I didn’t feel able to talk about some of it.
One night, in bed, after he had moved to Scotland (there was a practical reason for getting married so quickly; the Home Office prefer it) he put his hand on my crotch. It was, I think, entirely non-sexual, but he put his hand back after I had removed it. I have never before experienced such a violently strong trigger reaction. Two events from years before came right back to me; the man who groped me throughout Marilyn Manson’s set at Metallica’s Big Day Out in Milton Keynes and my first boyfriend who sexually assaulted me. The second being far more traumatic as I had repressed a lot of the details of what he did for a good 15 years.
Freaking out, I got out of bed and went to the living room. When my husband came through to find out what the problem was, I was hitting my head on the wall in an attempt to make it stop. Eventually, I calmed down enough to coherently explain what had happened, and what the trigger was. End result? Sitting on the sofa at 4am, me comforting him because he felt so bad.
About a month after this (I think), he announced that he was leaving Scotland and going back to the US. He says he was depressed too, at that point. I couldn’t really say one way or the other because I was too ill to function, never mind assess someone else’s mental health. He probably was though. Given the situation we were in, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t.
At the end of the year, though, he came back. And left again, after about three weeks. This time, he waited until I was asleep to pack and then sneak away before I woke. He rather pathetic excuse for that was that, the last time he left I had asked him not to tell me so far in advance, so he chose to not tell me at all.
And still, we stayed together. Back to Skype, back to his expectation that I should email him every morning and every time I stopped moving long enough to pull out my phone. We decided that I would move to the US.
1 February this year, I got on the plane. 3 March I got on the first flight back to the UK, having been booked on it a few hours before by my mum.
While in New York, I became increasingly ill. I was also cut of from my remaining support network (not that there was much as I had been isolated from everyone, pretty much) so entirely dependant on my husband. I did have money in the bank, but he told me not to use it because of the costs involved, so I was financially dependant on him. Just before my birthday, I reached my lowest point in years. I left the apartment, taking the photo of my parents I have, and my UK phone. I texted my mum to say sorry, and went to find the Brooklyn bridge. Had I found it, I would have jumped. I realise that it sounds melodramatic, and that a lot of people will make such statements without ever really meaning to follow through, but I really would have.
But I couldn’t find the bridge. I had nowhere else to go, so went back to the apartment.
The two weeks between then and getting on the plane home were hell on toast. My husband made no attempts to comfort me or give me any kind of support, save for allowing me to go and see a therapist. I saw her twice, and on the second visit, she dismissed the sexual assault at 15 as not that bad because at least he didn’t rape me. Of course, after both visits, my husband wanted to know exactly what had been said, how I felt, etc.
One afternoon, I tried to explain how I was feeling to him, and virtually begged him for support. His response was “I don’t see why I should support you, when you don’t support me.” And he turned back to his computer.
I wish I could say that this is where the story ends, but no. Still no. I started seeing a private counsellor in Scotland. Unlike the $100 therapist, this woman helped much more. Still, though, I had a nightmare about that assault when I was 15 that triggered a full weekend of flashbacks. In trying to reach out to my husband for support (you’d think I might have learnt by then, right?) he instead ended our marriage and blocked my email.
I took an overdose of my medication because I had reached, and surpassed, the limits of what I could cope with. And then I spent a week in the psychiatric units of two hospitals.
I subsequently discovered that my husband had written a piece for his website that says I was abusive to him for the duration of our relationship. This, I find downright offensive, and not only because it’s a gross distortion of a teeny fragment of the truth (I lost my temper, twice. I threw things. No, not at him. Except for that library book, because I couldn’t bear to be near him, the second time.) But also because he is denigrating the actual lived experiences of people who have been through abusive relationships. You know that one guy who pops up in a comment thread to say ‘But men are raped too!’? Yeah, it’s like that.
What baffles me is that he refuses to allow me to apply for a DIY divorce, which we more than qualify for under Scottish law. Well, I say ‘baffles’ I know exactly why he’s doing it; it’s his last way of exerting any control over me.
So. Why am I telling you this? I’m not looking for sympathy for what I’ve been through. Really, I’m not. The support of friends who appeared at critical moments, and my immediate family have been invaluable and I have made it through the bad bits. I’ve still some way to go before I can put this behind me finally (the legal end of our marriage will help!) But the fact I have been able to write all this and not lose my temper or dissolve into floods of tears tells me that I’m coping. I guess I want others who have had or are going through similar experiences, whether it’s with depression or an abusive partner or both, to know that they are not alone. And that this kind of thing is more common than you might think.
And beware of feminist men; some of them still revel in their privileges when it suits them.
Photo of feminist badges taken by Flickr user gaelx. ‘I Love NY’ mug image a derivative work based on a photo taken by Flickr user duncan. Please note that neither photographer has any connection to the writer of this piece.