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The whole secrecy around it keeps the violence going. I didn’t tell many people, I was too ashamed.
MARY (NOT HER real name) is a friendly, engaging mother of three. She has a job, brings up her children, and is engaged in volunteer work.
She is also a survivor of domestic abuse. Mary spoke to TheJournal.ie about her experiences, in an effort to encourage women or men who are experiencing domestic violence to get help if they can, and for bystanders to do their bit to help.
She wants to show that there is no ‘typical’ victim of domestic abuse, and no ‘typical’ abuser. Each person is individual, each has their own story, and so relying on stereotypes and assumptions can be harmful.
“I am the eldest of seven. I had a very strict upbringing – a ‘life is hard’ mentality,” recalled Mary when asked about her childhood. Both Mary and her ex-partner are from middle-class families, with “hard working parents”.
Brought up in a religious household, she is an abuse survivor and left the family home at the age of 17.
When she met her ex-partner, he was “funny, charming, good-looking – the life and soul of the party, hard working, had many friends”.
“I didn’t recognise the signs of abuse, because abuse had been part of my life,” she said. “I
fell hard for him – I thought I was the luckiest woman in the world when I was going out with him.”
About 18 months into the relationship, they got engaged when she was pregnant with their first child. “There were no signs of abuse. He was just a normal bloke, with no signs of any abuse at beginning.” He was delighted to be a father. “This man was my life partner,” said Mary.
First signs of abuse
It was when they moved in together that the initial signs of abuse appeared. At first, it was subtle verbal comments, said “in a jokey kind of way”.
“He would tell me I was putting on weight even though I knew I hadn’t,” said Mary. “You second-guess yourself.”
Then, her fiancé started to disappear for weekends.
I’d be left at home alone. He’d switch his phone off. I’d be worried sick. I’d be questioning him about it – my reaction to what he would do would be to cry: ‘How can you do this to me?’ He’d laugh and tell me I was paranoid, that he was with his mates. I started to question my own sanity.
Mary started to “try harder” at the relationship, making dinners, always making sure the house was clean, never complaining, “trying desperately to make a home”.
But things continued. “He’d openly slag me in front of friends. He’d say ‘you know I could kill you’ – in a jokey way. It’s subtle. He accused me of cheating even though I was never out of the house without him.”
Escalating to physical abuse
Things changed again after the couple’s son was born. One night, in their son’s bedroom, the abuse turned physical.
“He’d been out drinking. He came home two days later, leaving me with no money for nappies or milk. I was crying and asked him where he had been. He ran at me and put his hands around my neck. I couldn’t breathe and faked collapsing so he would let go. When I was on the ground, he kicked me in the side of the ribs. He told me to never question him again.”
After this shocking event, Mary’s partner became remorseful. “He started crying and said he would never do it again,” she remembered. But he told her it was her fault.
By this stage, his drinking had escalated, and alchoholism was an issue. “I believed him. I started looking at myself, trying harder. This was not the person I originally fell in love with,” said Mary.
‘Why don’t you just leave?’
When Mary hears people ask ‘why did they not leave?’ about people experiencing domestic abuse, she thinks of her own situation, and the cycles of violence.
“There were episodes of peace and harmony after the violence. He would treat me well
and help around the house.” There was confusion when this happened, but it was easy to carry on when things were good.
“I’m wondering do people understand the confusion of all this?” asked Mary. “It’s not as simple as ‘why does she not leave’. It’s ‘why does he hit her?’ There was no provocation.”
Frightened and alone
Mary’s fiancé controlled the money within the home at all times.
Things escalated again. One night, they were out together at a takeaway when she jokingly put some food down the back of his top.
“He pulled my hair and pushed my face into the side of a table, and I got a black eye.”
Some bystanders did challenge him on his behaviour, but he also threatened them, she said.
That was the first public event of abuse. She was pregnant with their second child at the time.
“I had to wear sunglasses out in public.”
He told her he was sorry, and went and got a taxi home. She walked the three miles home.
Again, he apologised for his behaviour, saying he was drunk and could not remember what had happened.
Isolated from family
“Looking back, I had become isolated from friends and family,” said Mary. “He became my primary focus, him and our kids.”
She was later diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) over her experiences.
Mary says that like other abuse victims, she was still in love with the man she first fell in love with. “You’re filtering it out,” she said of the abuse. “You’re in shock.”
“I was believing that if I did A, B, C, D, it would become OK.”
When she was giving birth to their second child, her partner told her to “hurry up as he was in a hurry”. Not long after she had given birth, he forced her to have sex with him.
Breaking up – and getting back together
After this, they split up. “It was a couple of weeks and then I took him back. Which is a pattern. He swore he’d change, he’d stop drinking, he was truly sorry. He would have fed me with [comments like] ‘no-one is going to want you. You’re damaged goods. You’re nothing without me’. He had a string of affairs behind my back. He would taunt me and laugh.”
Although the violence had escalated, Mary fell pregnant with their third child, a daughter.
She had been in touch with a refuge a number of times, particularly after one assault.
At one stage, after she left her partner, she spent three months in a refuge. “It was very frightening. I felt like I had done something wrong, because I had to leave my home and I was there. And for my kids – they had to change schools.”
Fear of being killed
“It was always the fear that this person was going to kill me,” said Mary of the final years in the relationship. “This was a genuine fear.”
He would tell her: “‘If you leave I will kill you’.”
“The children were my concern,” said Mary. “In one episode he was screaming at my son and went to hit him. I lay on top of him to protect him and he started kicking the ribs off me.”
I thought: ‘I have to get out of here.
The night they left
The night the family left their home, Mary’s partner had been drinking and arrived back at 1am. She had locked the door and he was “banging to get in”. She let him in: “I was scared.”
“He started on me. I tried to get out of the house. My kids had woken up at this stage and they were crying. I lifted my youngest in my arms and we tried to run out the door. He was choking me. I could hear my child screaming. I managed to get out the door in the lashing rain. He was running after me and punching me in the head.”
The focus didn’t go on me or my safety; the focus went on the children. Enough was enough. I knew if I don’t get out, either way I am going to die.
Her neighbours “picked me up off the side of the road” and helped her and her children.
Mary got an interim barring order, which she says her husband then broke. The gardaí “were brilliant”, she said.
To get the barring order, she had to drive 50 miles to a garda station with a family member, who also took photos of her injuries. “I was terrified,” she said.
It was the weekend and I had made a complaint to gardaí about the assault and the barring order was through an emergency court sitting because of the risk to my safety and my kids. The photos of my injuries (huge swelling in the back of my head, black eye, hand marks, bruises around my neck) were sent to the court but nothing happened after the case was adjourned, I never heard from the courts again
“I had to wear wigs to court – I was so scared. I had a member of Women’s Aid with me, a court accompaniment,” she described.
Mary said that in her experience, “family law is a joke” in Ireland. “I think the courts really need to support women more.”
She also said she was not able to access counselling through the HSE for her children. She subsequently found it through another channel.
Mary has undergone years of counselling herself. “I had to look at my role in this, how I ended up in this situation. I had to work on myself and learning the signs of abuse.
Abusers aren’t all the same
Mary said that there is “no specific” type of abuser. “It affects everybody. You don’t have to look too far. It is a power thing.”
“If you try and stand up for yourselves, it is ‘shut up and get back there and say nothing’. With my childhood it was children are seen and not heard.”
Today, she is not looking for a new partner. “I have three people to protect here. It’s not about me.”
“The fairytale [relationship] we get in books it doesn’t exist,” said Mary. “Young women need to be educated more about relationships and not the whole fairytale.”
If you are reading this and going through similar experiences, Mary understands that you might not be able to pick up a phone easily.
She advised people, if they can, to call Women’s Aid or get in touch with SAFE Ireland. “Get in touch – there is support out there,” she said.
“Yes, I know there is a fear element to domestic violence. A lot of women are very frightened to even ask for the help they need. Some women physically can’t call, they’re monitored. Try and reach out and get help.”
If you are a neighbour or friend of someone who needs help, Mary advised:
Be there. Listen to them. Support them. Call the guards if you feel you hear something, because it will put a stop to it. The whole secrecy around it keeps the violence going. I didn’t tell many people, I was too ashamed.
She also urges us “not to judge if you haven’t been in the situation – it’s easy to judge if you’re on the outside”.
Need help? Here are some contacts:
- Safe Ireland website and National Freephone Helpline 1800341 900
- Download the Safe Ireland APP
- Information on individual refuges in Ireland
- Help for men experiencing domestic violence: Amen website and Helpline 046 9023718