In the beginning, Eric* was lovely.
We met when I was 26, at a local football game and within months we were inseparable. He would spoil me with gifts, take me to fancy restaurants and whisk me off on last-minute holidays. Eric did everything he could to reel me in.
I had never experienced anything like it with a man before, and it provided a false sense of security.
In hindsight, there were warning signs even then.
Eric would often go out with his male friends and return home drunk and angry, telling stories about how they had been in big fights. I was disgusted by the violence, but thought that it was other men who had started it – I wasn’t getting the real story.
Two years into our relationship, he started directing this behaviour towards me.
It started slowly, with spitting in my face and calling me names. The first time Eric hit me was in our local pub. We had been out for lunch when some of his friends came over; he said ‘what are you looking at, you slag’ and slapped me in the face, in front of them.
I got really upset, ran out the door and went to my mum’s house, but I didn’t tell her what had happened.
I was heartbroken. I couldn’t understand why Eric had changed all of a sudden, and hoped that it would never happen again – so, I went back.
After that, he started treating me like a punching bag. It was always my ‘fault’ and eventually, I started to believe this. I wondered what I’d done wrong, and the more I tried to do the ‘right’ thing, the worse the abuse got. I would clean the house or cook, but if it wasn’t right Eric would throw his food up the wall or in my face. If I didn’t put his socks on properly, I would get struck in the face with a slipper.
Once, he beat me up and even stamped on my head, because a friend had visited our house and I had forgotten to tell him about it. I was in such bad shape that he put me up in a hotel for a week so that no one in our neighbourhood would see the damage.
I was never allowed to go the hospital, not even once he started stabbing me in the legs with a knife – small cuts that hurt and went black, but that weren’t bad enough that I would need urgent medication attention. It got so bad that I had to use a stick to walk with.
Sometimes, I would escape. I would run to the woods nearby, where I hid for a full day and night, before being dragged back home. I was terrified. For the last three years of our relationship, I wasn’t allowed to leave the house at all, except for Sunday dinner at my mum’s, to keep up appearances.
My parents knew what was going on, but didn’t know what to do. I was too frightened to tell the police and they were more interested in Eric for other crimes (the extent of which I learned much further down the line).
On the few occasions someone did call the police, they would ask me – in front of my ex – if I wanted to press charges. I was too scared to report him, because I worried that there would be repercussions, that he would hurt my family.
And the one time I did speak up, he was detained for three days but then his family and friends started threatening me to drop the charges – so I did, and there was no further action.
I also still loved Eric. I had been brainwashed and made to believe that no one liked me, that I wasn’t a nice person. I was a workaholic before we met and now I didn’t have a job, because he had convinced me that I didn’t need one.
I know now that this is coercive control, but at the time I didn’t understand anything about this type of abuse.
In the final six months before I left, the violence escalated. Eric was sleep-depriving me, as well as beating me. He would wake me up every few hours by throwing hot or cold water in my face, tried to drug me once by putting pills in my coffee, and dragged me by my hair around our garden.
On the day I finally escaped, I was shoved in the car while getting punched in the head over and over. Eric was taking me to a secluded beach and I knew that if I didn’t get out, I would die.
At a roundabout I flung myself out of the car, breaking my foot in the process.
Another car stopped and I jumped inside, begging the driver, who it turns out was an acquaintance of mine, to take me to my mum’s house. I was still too afraid to go to the police station.
Mum took me to the hospital, where they fixed up my foot but didn’t notice my other injuries – including a stab wound in my leg. Once they had patched me up, a friend drove me to a refuge in the next town.
I didn’t know what to expect, but had imagined it as a sort of prison or dormitory. In reality, it was a lovely building, where lots of other women and children lived. There was also CCTV everywhere and you needed a fob to get in. Straight away, I felt safe.
That night was the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.
Even though I was relieved to have escaped from Eric, I was still terrified and it took me a long time to trust the support workers enough to share my story. I was signed up to the 12-week ‘freedom programme’, based on a book by Pat Craven that explains domestic abuse – what it is and the signs to look out for. It helped me understand what I’d been though.
Above all, I was cared for. There was always someone there if I needed to talk, and slowly the refuge workers helped me build up my confidence again.
Six months after I arrived, I applied for a restraining order from Eric, which was granted. I’ve seen him once since then, in passing. I lifted my head up high and decided that I wouldn’t even acknowledge his presence. It was empowering.
However, I still constantly worry that he is abusing someone else.
For any woman or man out there who is in abusive relationship, know that there are people who will support you – seek their help. And if you’re a neighbour who suspects something, however small it may be, please, call the police.
It took months for the court outcome to sink in, but once it did, I started to feel better and braver.
I reached out to my old friends, I started going out more, I got a job and moved into my own flat. I got my life back.
About 18 months ago, I also contacted the refuge and now work there as a volunteer, helping other women. Without their support, I wouldn’t be the person I am today so I want to give back to others.
I almost can’t believe the sheer horror of what I’ve experienced. And I never thought I’d have another relationship.
It’s been hard to trust and let people back in, but a few years ago, I met Alex*.
He knows everything (it really upsets him), and he’s a truly nice man who treats me so well.
Looking back, a decade later, it’s as if what happened to me is someone else’s life.
But now I finally know what real love is meant to feel like. I’m happy.
*Names have been changed.