Domestic Violence. A Firsthand Account


This writer has asked to remain anonymous. However, it doesn’t matter who the victim is or what they look like, the reality remains the same. As many of head joyfully into the long weekend, others are full of trepidation of what danger could unfurl in their own homes:

Domestic abuse is prolific in the UK. The stats speak for themselves.

• One in four women and one in six men will be affected by it in their lifetime.

• By the age of 18, one in seven children will have lived with domestic abuse.

• The police receive 100 calls an hour about domestic abuse.

• Two women a week are killed by their partner or ex partner in England and Wales.

And yet, hardly anyone talks about. It needs more attention and more discussion. As a psychologist working in children’s services, I see the impact domestic abuse has on families every day. I know it needs more voices. So here is mine.

• I lived with domestic abuse from the age of 6 until I left for university, committed by my Step dad against my mum.

• This abuse took various forms.

• He was physically violent – I don’t know the full extent, but I know at some point he tried to kill her. I didn’t see much but I heard a lot, mostly from my bedroom at night.

• He was controlling. He always knew what she was doing. Everything was in his name – her phone, her car, the house – so they could be taken away whenever he chose.

• He drank heavily and was unpredictable and volatile. Their relationship was on and off and we moved many times because of it, often at the drop of a hat.

• When they weren’t together, he was even worse. I remember on one occasion he saw my mum out on a date and lost it: he stole her car and then kicked our front door down, before chasing my mum through the house and hitting her while we were all hiding upstairs.

• There were police involvement, injunctions, restraining orders and general chaos.

• I probably am not what you are imagining. The general impression is domestic abuse affects the poorest of families, with the most complex of social circumstances. That’s not us. My parents divorced when I was a baby, but otherwise we were just your average family. I put my efforts into school and did really well there. I internalised everything and learned to keep my needs to myself. You wouldn’t have known.

• And most people still don’t know. I hardly told anyone at the time, and those who I have told since know little more than my mum had a partner who ‘wasn’t that nice to her’.

• Why can’t I tell them? And why have I made this anonymous?

• Firstly, I am ashamed. I can’t explain that logically: for anyone else in my position, I would have only empathy and sympathy, not an ounce of negative judgement. But that feeling of shame is there and it is strong.

• Secondly, I don’t feel like it’s my story to share. It’s my mum’s. And she doesn’t talk about it. She is happy and settled. I could have asked her permission to share it, but I think it would really upset her to know I still think about it.

• These reasons parallel why I didn’t tell anyone, or reach out for adult help, as I was growing up – I was ashamed, and I was terrified about we would be taken away from our mum.

• Then there was the fear that telling would have put my mum more at risk. And this is an appropriate fear: women are known to be most at risk when they tell and try to leave.

• As an adult I can see this is a crazy amount of responsibility for a child to bear. But at the time I felt like this was my responsibility, to keep my mum safe, and I absolutely did not question that.

• I remember lying awake most nights, listening out for when my step dad got home from the pub, waiting to hear if an argument broke out, listening out for a sign that something bad was going to happen – a scream, a bang. If it did, I didn’t know what to do – stay awake and listen more?

• When I was younger, I never intervened but felt constantly guilty for not doing so.

• As I got older, I might shout down, or call mum up to us. This seemed to disarm him a bit.

• When I was 18, he came over once when we had moved away. I heard him shouting and mum screaming. I ran downstairs. He stopped upon seeing me and broke down and fell to the floor crying.

• That was a turning point in how much I feared him. But it also made me wonder if I could have done more earlier – what if I had intervened when I was younger? Yes, I might have gotten hurt, but I recall many times wishing he would hit me, just once, as I believed that would be it for my mum and she would leave him once and for all. She would do for me what she couldn’t do for herself.

• I think the most difficult thing for me was the instability. In terms of his mood, where we were living, our finances, and whether my mum would be alive come morning. I don’t know how real the latter threat was day-to-day, but it was real in my mind.

• That instability was so hard. But I was lucky: we had family and friends who were reliable and had enough resources to support us, who we could and did go to in times of crisis. Lots of children are not so lucky.

• The fear of everything changing at a moment’s notice has stayed with me. I feel so incredibly lucky to have my two children, and my partner, and it feels too good to be true – I have a constant worry that it is about to be taken away at any point. Things just can’t be this good and stay that way, can they?

• It has impacted me in other ways too. My friends have long teased me about being tight. How do I explain that this is because my mum felt stuck in this situation at least partly because without him, things were pretty desperate financially?

• And that having savings as a teenager meant that when my stepdad kicked us out of the house in the middle of the night, chasing us all out while throwing gravel at us, and kept my mum’s purse and car, I was able to pay for her to hire a car so that she could get us to work and school. That is why I am terrified of spending my savings.

• As I read this back, it sounds pretty bad. And I know from my work that domestic abuse has a real and significant impact on any children involved. And yet, I still question myself all the time. Was it really that bad? Should I have found it as hard as I did?

• Maybe it’s because as a family we didn’t talk about it. My brother and sister have said to me recently “I had a great childhood” and “I don’t think all that affected me”, both of which pulled me up short. Maybe I’m making something out of nothing? But I know objectively it isn’t nothing and I want others to know that too.

• The impact of these experiences hasn’t been all bad. As a parent, I put less pressure on myself than others do to be perfect , and I think this is because I really know that stability, love and feeling safe are all that really matters – not enough baby sensory classes, a few too many fish fingers and a bit too much TV do not.

• It also made me work stupidly hard at school. School made sense: I felt in control and happy there. I gave it everything and got top grades. When I left uni, I did really struggle for a year or so, and looked elsewhere for control, namely food and exercise, but thankfully I clawed my way out of that, and overall that intense work ethic set me up well for the future.

• It played a role in my career choice too. It made me want to help other young people who are struggling, and there’s nothing like living with a ticking time bomb to make you finely attuned to people’s feelings.

• Many of you reading this will have thought “Why didn’t she leave?”. This is the dominant narrative in domestic abuse. We need to change this to “Why doesn’t he STOP?”. Shift the responsibility from the victim to the perpetrators. They are the ones doing this.

• But I understand why people ask that question. You think if it were you and your children, you would leave. But I never asked it of my mum. And you wouldn’t if you had lived it. You would have seen the years of him persistently chipping away at her confidence; how financially he arranged it so we were completely dependent on him; how when we did leave, it got worse. And you would have seen that, although it’s hard to believe, in between times he was charming and fun and we all loved him. And who hasn’t stayed with someone who isn’t good for you because you love them, without all the rest thrown in?

• So what can you do? Firstly, to quote a previous list maker, be kind. You never know what other people are going through.

• Don’t make jokes about domestic abuse. It is still way too much of a silent problem that some people you know are likely experiencing. The number of times male friends have joked about “knocking her about” is quite unbelievable.

• Support domestic abuse charities. They are on social media – follow them. Share their campaigns. Donate. Volunteer.

• Keep an eye out for the signs. And not just unexplained bruises. A look, a friend who runs home when their partner texts, anything.

• If you spot the signs, or someone tells you they are being abused? Make yourself available. Without judgement. Listen. Tell them that their partner’s behaviour is not acceptable. Let them know you will help however you can. DON’T JUDGE.

• If you think you know a perpetrator? Do something. Seek advice – we don’t want to increase the risk for the victim. There are many organisations that could help you with this, all it takes is a Google. But whatever you do, don’t ignore it.

• Know that you can report it to the police. Domestic abuse prosecutions can be made without the victim pressing charges. 1 in 4 perpetrators are repeat offenders, with some having as many as six victims. The sooner they can be stopped, the better.

• Keep an eye on other children you know. Including that quiet, well behaved child – maybe they have learned to keep everything to themselves?

• If you know a child has witnessed domestic abuse, make sure someone is talking to them about it, and giving them the chance to talk. I cannot think of the number of adults that must have known about this, and the number of professionals we came into contact with, but no one ever talked to me about it. The systemic response to domestic abuse has improved over the last 20 years, but there is still some way to go.

• And finally, if you are living with domestic abuse, please know that you are not alone, it is not your fault and you can get help. There are some wonderful organisations out there who will help you with all of it. The national domestic abuse helpline is a good start.

• And please know that the most important thing for your children isn’t staying in their home, or having their things, or having their parents together. It’s feeling safe and secure and not worrying about you any more.

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  • Reply Emma May 25, 2018 at 8:02 am

    I could of written this for my daughter and son and my then step children. It fills me with guilt that I wasn’t educated enough to know how to leave, how to break away. Of course there is a way out … mine happened to cost me over £30k of debt but we are free! Debt is manageable … your life is worth more! These men (and women) kill. Women need support, it is incredibly hard to find housing under these circumstances, women’s aid are over stretched, non molestation orders can cost you if you are working!
    And yes it feels like it gets worse, because it does!
    But when you are free absolutely nothing feels better after knowing the terror of being trapped in your own life!

  • Reply Kirsty May 25, 2018 at 8:20 am

    An excellent insightful article. From someone who witnessed DA as a child, then as an adult …I agree society and the authorities have a long way to go until they realise the impact it has on families and children’s life choices as they grow up. That often without intervention the same patterns can be repeated.

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