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'He used to dig his knuckles into my head. She let me know there was a way out'

Rachel was in an abusive relationship for 11 years. Here she tells the story of what helped her escape.

Image: Unsplash/Maria Shanina

IN IRELAND, 2 in 5 people know someone who has been abused by a partner at some point in their lives. We look at the role friends, family and even strangers can play in offering support to victims of domestic violence. Here, Rachel shares her story.*

“I COULD DO nothing right in his eyes. I couldn’t even slice a carrot right.”

Rachel first met her ex-husband when she was 17. From the very beginning the pair hit it off. “Even before we’d ever spoken I fancied him,” she recalls. “One night he asked me out and that was that.”

A few months into the relationship though, cracks began to appear. There were arguments early on, Rachel says. “He was very jealous. I went to a mixed school and was a bit of a tomboy, so I had lots of male friends. But it got to a stage where I started to worry about meeting any of the lads from school on the street, because it would provoke him.”

‘He was always so apologetic’

There was violence in those early days, but it “wasn’t very frequent,” says Rachel. “He was always so apologetic in the beginning. I kept thinking that things would get better. After that, he never admitted there was a problem.”

The pair had been dating for three months when Rachel ended up with a broken wrist. “He used to dig his knuckles into my head, hard. I had my hands up to protect myself, and he whacked my wrist. We had been out at a 21st that evening, so I told everyone I’d broken it on the dancefloor. I had myself believing it too.”

From there, things escalated, but every bruise could be explained away, says Rachel. “I’d tell people I’d hurt myself playing basketball, or something like that. He never really left marks on my face, so it was easy to hide what was going on.”

‘He changed me without me even realising’

Looking back, Rachel says she spent almost all her energy avoiding conflict, making sure she wasn’t giving her husband any reason to start an argument.

“He never needed a reason though,” she admits. “He changed me without me even realising it. My dress sense changed, my appearance changed. I lost most of the friends I’d had.”

A couple of people in Rachel’s circle told her years later that they knew what was going on, but she says nobody ever really approached her about it. “Afterwards people would ask why I hadn’t just left. But I wanted to believe it could work. It wasn’t about it being right or wrong. I still loved him.”

‘She told me I wasn’t to blame’

In the end, someone entirely removed from the situation – a friend living in another county – became one of Rachel’s strongest allies.

“I knew Sheena through basketball. She was a real support to me in the later stages of my marriage. She lived an hour or two away, but she knew about the abuse.” Rachel credits Sheena for making her realise that there was a way out of the situation if she wanted one, even if she wasn’t quite ready to accept it yet.

“She’d say things like, ‘He has no right to do what he did.’”

“She’d tell me that I should never feel like I was to blame, and a few times she offered me a place to stay. No-one can make you leave, but even knowing I had somewhere I could go was enough.”

Rachel emphasises the importance of offering non-judgemental, compassionate support if you think someone you know is in an abusive relationship. “Don’t say, ‘You’re mad, why are you putting up with that?’ The person no doubt knows that what’s going on is wrong. They feel like enough of a failure already.”

‘I had to tell someone’

A couple of years later, after one particularly brutal incident, Rachel made the decision to speak to her ex’s parents. “I was black and blue from the neck down and I knew I had to do something or one of us would have ended up dead. I didn’t have the strength to leave but I had to tell someone.”

That conversation became the beginning of the end. “They confronted him, they took him into their own house, and he never came back really,” she recalls. Over three decades later, Rachel says she still feels the emotional weight of 11 years of abuse, but she’s slowly learning to live for herself and not someone else.

“Mentally I don’t think I’ll ever be in a good place. It took me years before I was interested in seeing anyone new, and I still have serious trust issues,” she admits. “But I know now that we weren’t right for each other.”

Over 300,000 people in Ireland have been severely abused by a partner at some point in their lives. Offering support to someone who you think could be in an abusive relationship is “definitely a good idea,” says Rachel. “Be careful with your wording though, because you don’t know what’s going on in that person’s head.”

“The big thing, the best thing you can do, is to be there and to listen.”

If you think you may have witnessed or experienced domestic violence or abusive behaviour, you can access advice and support services for both women and men at whatwouldyoudo.ie. Share the hashtag #MyDoorsOpen to show your support.

The Women’s Aid 24-hour National Freephone Helpline is 1800 341 900. Amen provides a confidential helpline for male victims of domestic abuse. It is open Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 5.00pm and can be reached on 046 9023718.

It is important that bystanders and witnesses to domestic violence do not intervene in any potentially violent situation unless it is safe and legal for them to do so. Witnesses should be aware of the potential harmful effect that intervention may subsequently have on the victim. The victim is best placed to assess the danger to themselves.

*Names have been changed.

‘People want to help, but they’re fearful’: What’s the best way to offer support to an abuse victim?>

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