COMMUNITY: We were high school sweethearts.

*** Trigger warning** Talk of abuse and episodes of violent behaviour that may trigger people *

Written by Nicole.

I got past him and grabbed the phone from the bedside table.  His eyes were frightening.  He was beyond reason.  I threatened to call the police. I don’t know if I meant it, I just didn’t know what else to do.  I paused at the kitchen sink, to collect my thoughts, hands shaking as I drank a glass of water.  He smacked the glass into my face, it hit my tooth and broke, cutting my lip.  Instantly there was blood pouring down my face.  He looked shocked, I didn’t know what to do.  He told me to get in the car, so he could take me to hospital.  I told him I wasn’t leaving the kids with him. I held a tea towel to my face, he called them inside and we drove to ED in silence.  He parked the car, handed me the keys and walked away.  I walked inside ED with blood all over my shirt and four grubby children that had forgotten to bring their shoes in the rush of everything.  I sat there in ED, looking at us, and realised that in the eyes of the other people, I had become one of “those” women, face red from crying, children grubby and crying with no shoes on, no money to even buy them something from the vending machine.  I felt utterly humiliated and embarrassed. How did I get here?

But it still took nearly three more years for me to finally end it.

We were high school sweethearts.  We met when I was 15 and his brother was in my class.  When we got together, it was typical teenage infatuation.  He was my air, and I was his.  We did everything together and lived and breathed each other.  We were happy. Looking back, I suppose we moved fast but at the time it all felt like a natural progression.  We moved in together when I was about 18.  We had always talked of getting married.  We had similar goals and aspirations and outlooks. We talked about the children we would have, the things we wanted to achieve.  It made sense to get started on our lives together.  We got married when I was 21, and by our first wedding anniversary we had bought a house and were expecting a baby.  We then had a second baby 18 months later and a third 20 months after that.

Our life was full steam ahead, we had started a business, I was a full time mum.   I went back to uni to study, we had another baby.  Life was busy but it felt like we were working towards what we’d always talked about.

We often talked about how our life was perfect and that everything always seemed to go “our way”.  We were smug.  Our friends always talked about how our relationship was “goals”, how we seemed to still be “so in love”.  We always talked our problems through, never went to bed angry.  We felt like we were winning. 

And then in 2015 he became unwell.

It started slowly at first, a day here or a day there were he felt so unwell he couldn’t get out of bed.  We explained it away.  Work was stressful, he was rundown, all the excuses.  Over that year, he gradually declined.  One day in bed every month or so, turned into a day in bed every couple of weeks, then a day in bed every week, to two or three days a week.  He was barely functioning.  I was frightened for him but also trying to hold it together.  We saw doctors, I pushed for him to see more doctors, to get answers.  He just fell further.  I was barely treading water.  Looking after four children aged 10, 9, 6 and 3, trying to hold our business together, study and be on call 24 hours a day which was part of my degree.  For over 12 months it was “our secret”.  People started asking questions, “isn’t he working today”, “haven’t seen him for a while” and I made excuses. I felt I needed to protect him. I was constantly making excuses to our clients as to why he wasn’t coming that day.  We lost clients by the dozens, and he was laid off from his second job because he kept calling in sick.

By the beginning of 2016 we hit rock bottom.  I had finished my degree and was offered my dream job.  He was so unwell we decided to close our business to give him time to get better.  Luckily we had always invested in income protection insurance.  I can’t imagine where we would be now without it.

In early 2016, after days of being unwell, he had some kind of “episode”.  He was pacing for days, going through every single one of our financial records trying to prove I had been “stealing” from him.  I was distraught that the person I loved believed I could do that to him.   He was awake day and night, going through my phone, my emails, the laptops.  He was suspicious of my every move.  No matter what I said, the explanations were never good enough.  He’d started bursting into our room at night while I was asleep, demanding to know who I’d just been talking to (even though I’d been sound asleep).  He’d demand that I provide “explanations” to things he’d “found”, keeping me awake until the sun was rising and I needed to get ready for work.  It came to a head after a few days, he barricaded himself in our bedroom, muttering and crying and screaming.  He had a hunting knife that he was trying to cut his own wrists and throat with.  Luckily the older children were at school.  I was hysterical and called the mental health crisis line and they told me to hang up and call 000.  Yet I still hesitated, I felt like I was crossing a line that he (and I) wouldn’t be able to come back from.  But I called, because I really had no idea what else to do.

What followed was close to three years of, now I’m looking back, absolute hell.  He did not forgive me for sending him to hospital, having him “locked up” as he called it.  He had multiple admissions and my world came crashing down.  For the first time I had to tell people what had been happening but with mental health comes the stigma.  I had people telling me not to put up with it.  But he was my husband, if he had cancer, I wouldn’t just say “sorry, your illness is too hard for me to deal with”.

He was spending 23 hours a day in bed 2-3 days a week on a “good week” and 6-7 days a week on a “bad” week.  I was trying to do all the things to support him. When he was well I’d encourage him to see his friends, get out and about, all the while we as his family barely saw him.  He was either in bed or out.  When I tried to talk to him about it, I was “selfish” and not understanding what it was like for him to be so unwell.   

I was working and having to call the house multiple times a day to check on the kids because he was in bed all day.  On school days I would call and get one of them to try and wake him.  He didn’t often get up, just left them to get themselves ready and leave for the bus.  They were 13, 12, 10 and 5. I was receiving calls from my 10 year old because he was distressed that he couldn’t get my five year olds hair “right” before they left to walk to the bus stop.  My neighbours would tell me they saw them walking home in the rain.  I was sad that I was allowing this to happen to them, but I had to work.

At times I’d lose my temper and demand he get up and help me, demand he look after the kids so I could sleep after night duty, demand he be a better father to the children.  His anger ‘before’ had been hot and vicious but over quickly.  Now it was becoming volatile.  He’d lose his temper and punch the wall or kick the fridge.  He’d get up in my face to try and intimidate me.  When he was unwell, he’d drag me out of bed in the middle of the night to answer his “questions” or follow me to the station and I’d see him standing there watching me get on the train.  When he was unwell, I had started to sleep with my phone in my hand.

There were times when he’d started to get more physical, shoving me, pretending to punch me to see me flinch. But for me, the worst was the verbal abuse, calling me vile names and just being disgusting.  Any problem we had became my fault.  At the time I pardoned his behaviour.  He was unwell, he didn’t mean it, he’d lost everything, how would I feel?  And when he was feeling well again, he’d be the “old” him, sweet and caring and thoughtful and helpful…. Until the next time.  I felt like a dog on a leash, always trying to win his affection, to avoid upsetting him.  When he was feeling well, I didn’t want to bring it all up, to start a fight, I just wanted to enjoy him being him.  I missed the “old” him.

Subconsciously I knew what this was, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself.  It all happened so gradually that I found myself putting up with things that I never thought I would.  Occasionally I’d call him out on it.  After a particularly vile verbal spray or after he’d shoved me into the wall, I’d say something like “you do realise this is abuse don’t you?”  The word ‘abuse’ seemed like a real trigger for him.  He had grown up with an abusive step father that beat his mother fairly often.  He would just laugh in my face and say “you have no idea what abuse is”.  A few times I said to him “if your sister called and told you her husband was acting this way, you would be up at her place in a flash”.  He had no response. 

We separated a few times, maybe two or three, one of which happened after the glass incident.  I was expecting him to be apologetic, begging for forgiveness.  Instead, he tried to justify his actions and how I was pushing him.  Big red flag that I just didn’t see.  One of the times we separated, right before the end, he came home one day when I was not there.   When I got home, he told me he’d decided it was his house too and if I wanted to leave I could but he was not leaving.  He was vile and aggressive and I didn’t know what to do. And so of course, I stayed.   Again.

Working in women’s health, I see a lot of families and have a lot of discussions around domestic violence.  I have done courses on how to recognise DV, what to say, how to offer support in the right way, but here I was living it.  I felt like a hypocrite.

My biggest “light bulb” moment was when I was reading the social worker’s notes for a woman I was working with and her story was MY story.  She felt that because he wasn’t hitting her (or not often) that all was ok.  Reading the notes I could see all was not ok.   I had glimpsed my life from the other side and I felt sick.  

I started reading everything I could about DV, learning about what emotional and verbal abuse was.  The lines felt blurry.  When did ‘angry words’, become ‘verbal abuse’?  Was I being overly dramatic? I called DV counselling services to talk anonymously.  By then I had no doubt about what was going on but I didn’t know what to do.  I knew that he would get very nasty and I really didn’t know how to navigate it all.  I didn’t feel strong enough to fight through it.

We argued a lot.  I told him that I couldn’t keep living like this.  He was very unwell and suicidal at times.  He had stopped seeing his doctor and told me he’d rather die than go back to hospital again.  He was either in bed or being aggressive, there was very little in-between anymore.  I would often cry and tell him that I needed my husband back.  I missed his support, knowing he had my back.  He was cold, told me I’d “better get used to it” because “this is who I am now”.   I knew I was disconnecting from him.  I wasn’t sure if I even still loved him or was I just angry?  I didn’t even know any more.

Over the months this was going on, I was in such turmoil.  I loved him, but I did not like this version of him.  I wanted to be a family but how could I “fix” this?  I felt like things had slipped so far from our former life that I couldn’t see a way to ever go back.  I wanted to support him but at times I felt like I was enabling him.  I was torn between really starting to think I wanted to end my marriage but also torn because I felt like I was abandoning him and our marriage when things were hard.  We’d worked through things before, we could work through this right? I started to see a councillor to work through how I could best support him and our family.  What I discovered was that I was not the problem.  

Over time, (days, weeks, months) I stopped caring.  I stopped relying on him or expecting anything of him.  I built a wall.  I was running mine and the kid’s lives and he was just here.  We barely spoke unless it was one of us having something snarky to say.

I’d had enough. I took a stand.  I would not allow him to talk to me that way anymore.  If he threatened or was physically violent, I would call the police (I never did, but I was very clear that I would).  I put my foot down.  I would not be allowing my boys to think this was how they treated their partners and I would not allow my girls to think this was the sort of behaviour they should tolerate.

Things got worse of course.  I would tell him not to speak to me like that and walk away, he would mock me.  If I told him I’d call the police, he would try and call my bluff.  When I wanted to speak to him about anything he would just retreat to bed and ignore me and I followed him to continue our conversation he would just scream at me or threaten me.  I realised that it was no longer a relationship.  It was a power play.  I realised that we could not fix anything if he would not acknowledge there was a problem.  If I called him on his behaviour he fell into victim mode, he had lost everything, he had nothing left, he was frustrated, angry.  I pushed him, I made unreasonable demands of him.  

I wondered how I’d know when “enough was enough”.  I asked friends who had left their marriages.  No one could tell me, they said I’d just know.

One afternoon, no different to any of the other difficult weeks we’d had, I got home from work to find him asleep on the lounge again.  The kitchen was a mess, there was no dinner prepared, no lunches thought of for the next day.  My son started asking about going out to play and from the lounge, he started a vile tirade, directed at my son.  I literally felt like a switch was flipped. Any love I had left was truly extinguished in that moment.  Enough was enough.  I told him I was sick of this and that I was done.  As soon as I said it out loud, I knew it was true. In his typical style, he lost his temper and said that no, it was he who was in fact done and that he was leaving.  I let him go.  As soon as he walked out that door, I knew there was no going back this time.  I knew that things would get hard, and he would get nasty, but I was ready this time. When he was gone, I felt instant peace.  

It did get hard, and he was nasty, but I knew it was all part of his power play.  He tried everything, being nasty, playing the victim, trying to make me feel guilty, crying and then back to nasty.  But I knew his cycle and I was not buying into it.  I had never felt so free.  I didn’t realise how much we were all walking on eggshells….until we weren’t anymore.

My kids deserved better and I deserved better.

Looking back, all the signs were there, I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.  At that time, I still loved him and I made excuses for his behaviour.  I wanted him to see that he was hurting us and to just stop, but it was not that simple.  I kept focussing on the “old” him, wanting to get back to that, rather than focussing on how he was behaving now and how it was not ok.

I learned that once you accept unacceptable behaviour, over time it becomes the “new normal” and you explain it away.  He’s just tired, he’s just frustrated, why did I push it, why did I have to start something.

I learned to not ever make excuses for that type of behaviour, no matter how minor and I will not tolerate the slightest bit of that behaviour from a new partner, ever.

I have learned I am courageous and strong and I can do hard things.  And you can too  xx

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