To people outside he appeared to be a warm and extremely devoted father, but when you lived with him there was a whole other side.
I want to share with you something about my experiences of domestic violence. I was living with the man who abused me from late 1987 to 1992. So not a long time in comparison to some people perhaps but my whole life had been about abuse in one form or another so being married to someone who did it didn’t seem that different.
I don’t remember when it started, because looking back it was an abusive relationship from the word go. I just didn’t recognise it or maybe it was such a familiar way of being treated that I just ignored a lot of it. I know now, having been out of it for almost 10 years, that I was so accustomed to being abused that I just accepted it as being what I deserved.
The abuse took many forms but perhaps some are unique for someone in a wheelchair. There was the usual yelling, put downs and the degrading of me with words. These are common in many situations of abuse. He never hit me in any physical way unless you call kicking my wheelchair hitting. Which at the time I didn’t but now I would. He took complete control over everything, from taking my keycard for my bank account to placing the house keys up high so I couldn’t get them. At first he cooked and pretended that he was being nice. Eventually though I believed that I couldn’t cook for myself because I would ‘stuff it up’.
There were occasions when I wouldn’t want to do something, so he would take my wheelchair away so I’d have no choice. I guess that gave him a huge sense of power. He would often leave me sitting in the car while he went into a shop as it was ‘quicker’. I believed that he didn’t get how that made me feel, or if he did he wanted that power.
I guess the things that hurt the most still, and are the most difficult for me to discuss, are the abuses that took place that involved our son. To people outside he appeared to be a warm and extremely devoted father, but when you lived with him there was a whole other side. Yes, for the first two years of our son’s life he was an ok dad. Devoted, able and happy to give all the caring in the world to our son. There was only one problem with this picture. He totally pushed me out of our son’s life. While I may have been living with them, I may as well have been invisible for my contact with our son’s life was minimal. In fact for much of the first two years of his life I was in hospital quite ill and he had total responsibility for our son. He also decided when and if I could see him and even for how long. Even though my child could have visited more and for longer, his father decided that it would be once or twice a week and that was all. Many days I would ring the Child Care Centre where my ex would be having him cared for, crying and missing my son desperately, only to find that he was also missing me. When this info was passed on to my ex, he would ignore it as he didn’t want to ‘disrupt our son’s routine’. This went on till I finally came out of hospital for good. Our child was a little over 2 by then. I remember arriving home and going to hug him and he just ran away scared of me. That nearly broke my heart.
So now I was home I did get a chance to spend time with our son, as my ex decided to go to work for a while. It was during this period and also whilst I was in hospital that I developed a strong trusting relationship with a social worker at the hospital. It was in talking with her over many hours that I very gradually began to see how controlling this man was (as I didn’t see it as domestic violence) and that perhaps I deserved not to be treated this way. All the same abuses were happening – yelling, lots of put downs, pushing, manipulating me into doing things that I didn’t want to do and also trying to keep me from being close to our child.
Around six months before I left, he stopped working and I began to look for work. I did secure a job, so I became the one bringing in an income. He just stayed home leaving our child that he ‘adored’ in child care so he could do whatever … most of what he was doing during this time I’m not sure about, nor do I believe I want to know, except to say that it was illegal. As was much of his activity before, during and after our relationship. ‘He is well known to most police forces in Australia’.
So I’m going off to work every day after perhaps a night of being yelled at, or of having been made to feel like a child. I couldn’t tell you the number of days I went to work crying at this time. Not a great way to do a job, but then that was just how it was. This time though was positive in other ways. It gave me a chance to talk to people, form friendships and begin to see just how dysfunctional this relationship was and at least to think about what I wanted.
I began to contemplate a life outside of this marriage. It would take many conversations and much agony for me to make the final decision to leave, as my fear of not being able to take care of our 3-year-old son was huge. It had been beaten into me verbally that I wasn’t capable of caring for our son, and I believed it. Most of the conversations about leaving were with a domestic violence help line or with the social worker from the hospital where I’d spent so many months. To understand where I was coming from, you need to know that my ex still had control over all our money, even though I was the one working earning the wage.
I never got to thank the people who were on the other end of the domestic violence help line, but if I could I would now. I remember crying over the phone many times and asking ‘why am I too weak to leave?’ The response stuck in my head forever, it went something like this … ‘You can’t leave as he’s not hurting your son. When he threatens him you will feel free to leave’. Never a truer statement has been said.
As that’s exactly what happened. I’d been at work this particular day and the ex normally picked me up from work. However this particular day he didn’t, so I got a cab. I arrived home to find him and two friends smoking marijuana and our son outside crying, as he’d climbed on the fence and couldn’t get down. He did get him down at my request. We then had a huge argument about this in front of these friends. They thought it might be a good idea to take our son for a couple of hours, but my ex would hear none of that. They left.
So there we were, having a screaming match in front of our 3½ year old, not that this was new to him. My ex decided at some time during this argument that he was going to leave. There was only one problem, he was taking our son too. Rather than scare our child, I explained that he and daddy were going on a holiday and he would see mummy soon. My ex packed everything of our son’s and left, saying they were going to visit family in New South Wales. My ex’s family came from New South Wales, so I believed this was where he was going. He said I’d never see him again. They left.
Crying and feeling totally distraught, I called the police. They explained, with a limited amount of sympathy, that as there were no custody orders in place I would have to go to the Family Court in the morning and apply for custody. This would then give them the power to go and collect my son, providing they could find him. I felt no comfort in this, just a consuming fear that I’d never see my beautiful little boy again.
Around 3 hours passed and my ex and my son returned. They’d just been down at the local bowling alley the whole time. My ex was joking at my tears and laughing away at how I’d been so frightened. Once again he’d shown me that he could do whatever he liked and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
The next day, he dropped me at work shaken but with a new resolve. I was terrified of what he’d done so easily and that there was nothing I could do to stop him. I think it was some time during that night, I don’t know exactly when, I just knew I had to leave with our son.
On getting to work, I rang the social worker and we talked for ages. I then talked to the domestic violence help line. These two conversations are not something that I remember specifically, but I do know that I had them. In thinking about it now, I’ve no idea how I functioned under so much fear and pressure, possibly I was on automatic pilot.
It strikes me every now and again today how vivid the memory of that horrible night still are, and that other, possibly worse, incidents in some way have faded in my memory. I feel sure that it’s because it involved my son and the security of his life.
So while on the phone to one of these two professionals, I came to a decision to leave. I don’t remember who assisted me to come to that, just that I made a decision. My work place at the time was great and gave me pretty much all of that week to organise myself and make sure that when I left I’d have everything organised. To keep my ex completely unaware, I would let him drop me at work every day and from there I would go into the city to Legal Aid to complete all the paper work I’d need to leave with some of the legal process under way.
The day I left was one of the most frightening days of my life. My ex drove me to work as normal except that I asked for money and we had an argument about this. Keep in mind I’m working for this money, he’s not. Eventually I got about $20 I think it was, and he left me at work. So I then go into work and ring the social worker. We talk briefly and it’s agreed that when I’ve collected my son I will go from there to the hospital where she works. Her receptionist was instructed to page her immediately if I should ring.
Before collecting my child, I had to go into Legal Aid and sign the last affidavit and speak to my solicitor to let him know where I was going. After this I went back to my office and collected the few belongings I had managed to keep at work. I remember saying goodbye to them all and nearly crying. One lady was particularly kind but firm. She reminded me that I had some tough things to do so I couldn’t fall apart right then. She was right. It would be a while before I felt safe enough to cry, and then I cried for ages.
I quickly rang the Child Care Centre and told them I was coming to pick up my child and under no circumstances could they let my ex pick him up. I didn’t care what they said, just don’t let him take our little boy. When I arrived at the Child Care Centre they were expecting me, I don’t think though they had any idea just how bad things were at home for me. They would soon learn, as I’d tell them, but not on this day. I do remember that they were really kind to me and made a real effort to help. They provided some clothes for my child and some toys that they knew he liked to play with. It was just after lunch and they’d put all the children down for a sleep. We woke my son up and explained to him that mummy and him were going on an adventure. He asked if daddy was coming. I just said no, but that he would see him soon.
We went to the hospital where my social worker was. She knew I was coming and had organised for us to ‘hide’ there until a suitable and safe place was found for us to go to. This was somewhere large enough for me to relax in and with plenty of security. No real way of my ex getting to either my son or me unless he was lucky or smart. He is neither. It seemed such a long wait, but I can’t tell you whether it was or not, I have no idea. Eventually a refuge was found that was wheelchair-accessible. So I said goodbye to my “friend” the social worker and we hopped into a taxi bound for a meeting place to meet the refuge worker. I do remember something which maybe seems a little strange now, but that taxi driver was one of the nicest and kindest taxi drivers I’ve ever met. He knew what was happening and I think, if I remember, he stopped at a drive-through of Maccas. I don’t know that that’s true, I’ve just got a vague memory of it happening. It doesn’t really matter, as what I’m trying to convey is not the Maccas but more that this complete stranger’s kindness has stuck in my head. So whoever you were thanks, it meant a lot.
We arrived at the drop-off point and were met by the refuge worker. By the time I got in her car I was exhausted, what a day it had been. And you know what, it didn’t stop then. There were a few weeks in the refuge and, despite the staff being great and as supportive as possible, being isolated from the people I knew could support me was horrendous, as well as not having access to my own clothes and belongings.
The case eventually went before a judge in the Family Court and I would get sole custody, with joint guardianship and sole occupancy of the house. My ex got access every second weekend and each Wednesday for the day. Reasonable access arrangements, and not ones I had a problem with. So my child and I moved back into the house around three or four days later. We gave my ex enough time to get himself out properly even though the court had given him 24 hours.
There you go, that’s how I lived in that relationship, not a pretty story but perhaps one you may have already heard before. I don’t know that, I only know it is my gorgeous son’s story and mine. There are parts I’ve left out, periods when yeah things were going along ok, I think they call them honeymoon periods, don’t they? But for the most part it’s a complete story of that part of my life.
So what now, you may be thinking. Well I’m working and my precious baby is 14 years old and no longer a baby. My son still wonders about his dad, who hasn’t seen him since he was 8. That’s really tough for my son, but I know that he understands as much as he can why he doesn’t see his dad any more. There may come a day when he wants to see his dad again, and for me that’s ok as no matter what I think, his dad is his dad. It’s not up to me to fill his head with information about him, especially if it’s negative. That’s for my son to decide for himself, without my input.
As a unit, my son and I are really close. But there’s been some really tough times. There have been many times when I asked myself what I was doing and how did I end up alone with a child. It was certainly never in my wildest dreams what I wanted for my life. I wanted the whole fairytale: house, husband, car, kids and living happily ever after. That’s a fairytale though and real life isn’t about fairytales.
So yep, I survived. In fact I’ve become the person I am today because of it. And that’s a good thing. I will never let another person take that much control over my life. I’m stronger, wiser and maybe even a nicer person because of it. Whatever the experience I had with this man, it’s part of my life and to say it should all be regretted is to regret having my son and he is everything to me. So I don’t live with regret. Only knowledge about myself, and what I want in my life. I will accept no violence in my relationships now.
This story was originally published in the 2003 report ‘Triple Disadvantage: Out of Sight, Out of Mind’, by Chris Jennings, for Violence Against Women with Disabilities Project, which was auspiced by the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria and funded by the Department of Human Services.