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Here's What Leaving An Abusive Relationship Looks Like

You will leave, you will struggle, you will find yourself.

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Here's what will happen. You will leave him and you'll do it soon. You have spent months convincing yourself it's not so bad and that many women have it worse than you. But you can't forget how it felt when the policeman held you by the shoulders as the man who says he loves you was put into the back of a cop car. "Good men don't do this to women. Good men aren't violent." It felt shameful, humiliating, but also, in a tiny part of you, it was a relief. Because here was proof, at last, that you weren't overreacting. A policeman said so.

You can't forget how it felt when the man who says he loves you was put into the back of a cop car. 

You will leave and it won't stick straightaway. That's OK. Leaving anyone is hard and he will make it harder, even though you don't love him any more. You're not sure you ever loved him, though you told yourself you did for a few months, and you told him you did for longer than that.

You will leave and he'll use all his old tricks to reclaim you. He'll beg, he'll cry, he'll lie at your feet. You'll sleep with him again to feel something because the 20 months you spent with him have left you numb. He is sober and on his best behaviour at first but it doesn't last; you knew it wouldn't. This time you leave for good.

You will not cry but you will drink. You will go out, almost every night, and on the nights you stay in you'll work obsessively until 4 in the morning, not stopping until you are ready to fall immediately asleep. You'll sleep for three hours and start again.

You will feel amazing, like you've got your old life back, the life that was yours. But it'll feel even better because you'll have all this new energy. Who knew you could achieve this much if you just stopped eating and only slept three hours a night? Who knew how much fun you could have if you barely went home and watched a lot of dawns roll magnificently over before you finally closed your eyes?

One night you'll lie naked next to a friend who you have just kissed and who you have long found attractive. Your friend will look at you sadly and you'll ask what's wrong and they won't know how to answer you. The next morning you'll eat cereal together and you'll wonder how you messed up.

You'll go to the zoo with another friend you've barely seen for the last couple of years and you'll both stand in line to buy sandwiches. You will grumble that you bet all the sandwiches have tomato on them and you hate tomato so you probably won't be able to eat anything. Your friend will turn to you, annoyed but concerned, and ask what happened. "You used to be the happiest person I knew, what the hell is wrong with you?" You will go cold all over, despite the 30-degree heat. You will tell him everything and this friend will become your fierce defender and he will be one of the few men you trust for a good long while.

You will start to slow down. Imperceptibly at first – cancelling dates and snoozing your alarm once or twice – and then one day you'll wake up in concrete shoes. You will lie on your back watching the ceiling fan spin and your dog will stretch out beside you, staring at your motionless body.

You will close your eyes. Every thought you avoided having for months will occur to you at once and make your skull pulse. You will know he is dating someone else and you will feel, for the first conscious time, guilt. Guilt that you refused to press charges and guilt that you assumed that leaving him fixed the problem. It fixed it for you, sort of, but no woman is an island, even when she is living on one. If the next girl was hurt, she'd be your responsibility. Your dog will roll on to his back. You will go back to sleep. Rinse, repeat.

You will drag yourself to a shopping centre to buy your dad something for Father's Day. You will wander into L'Occitane, remembering through your brain fog that your dad loves its aftershave. You will sniff the Bergamot and the couple next to you will fight playfully over a moisturiser sample until she squeezes a bit on to his hand. The smell will hit you and your throat will turn toxic with bile. You will put down the aftershave and run from the store, straight to a public bathroom. You will lean over a toilet seat, gagging and sweating, as the grey heavy feeling in your gut spreads through your whole body.

As you run the cool tap over your face, you will track backwards through the last 10 minutes, searching for a reason for your sudden collapse. You will realise that it was green-tea moisturiser. You will remember this is his brand. You will decide to get help. You'll wonder why you waited this long. Try not to feel bad about that. You've never done this before.

Your first step will be a conversation with your GP. You will tell her you haven't felt happy lately. She will ask if something triggered that feeling and you will nod and she won't push further than that. She will ask you, on a scale of 1 to 10, how often you feel sad. You will whisper, "Nine." She will refer you to a psychologist and you'll only delay making an appointment for a week.

Your psychologist will be middle-aged and kind, with colourful cushions in a sun-filled office. In your first appointment you will say, matter-of-factly, "I'm here because I came out of an abusive relationship and it has affected my mood." Your therapist will nod and ask gentle questions. This will continue once a week for several months. It will help.

You never thought that anger was a useful emotion but you will allow yourself to feel it now, really feel it course through your blood. Anger that this happened to you. Anger that the people around you failed to protect you. Anger that you don't live in a world that makes leaving easier.

And you will resent the hell out of him. You thought therapy would be all about forgiveness and peace but your kind, middle-aged shrink will push you in the other direction. She will tell you to accept that something unjust has happened to you and that it is OK to feel mad about that.

She will tell you this man made you responsible for his emotional wellbeing while destroying yours and that imbalance can kill people. She will tell you blaming the abuser should be the default for a victim but that usually blaming themselves happens first. You will stop asking yourself what you did wrong and start telling yourself every day that you did one major thing right: You left.

You will join an all-female personal training group that meets in a local park three mornings a week. Your thighs will expand with muscles to the point that you can't fit in your jeans any more but you will reason that you prefer dresses anyway. On your training off-days you will do long yoga classes and marvel at how strong you feel.

You will date. It will be casual. After one encounter becomes too emotionally intense for your liking, you will wait until the other person is asleep, then climb out their window and get a taxi home. You will acknowledge that this wasn't the most mature course of action and resolve to be more mindful of the people you interact with while you're healing. You will mostly achieve this.

Eight months after you start therapy you will have your last session before you leave on a solo trip overseas. You will have your last training session the following week and the women in your group will buy you coffee and sit in the sun with you afterwards. You will leave Sydney with too many skirts and too little money.

On the first night of your trip, in an Auckland hostel, a drunk guy in your dorm will get too close to you and you'll retreat to a bathroom and tell yourself to breathe. By the time you hit New York you'll be ready for an affair. By Iceland, you'll stand naked under a communal shower and barely notice the flesh of the people crowding in beside you. By London, you'll have made a choice.

You will come home and prepare to move to the UK, the other side of the globe. If you had done this earlier, it would have felt like running away. Instead, it will feel like moving forward because that is all it is. You will realise, for the first time in a couple of years, that your decisions are all your own.

You will date, a lot, in your new city. You will no longer feel guilt. Instead, you will feel anger at every man who is allowed to treat women the way he treated you and you will feel anger at the people who, through lack of action, endorse that behaviour. You will try to use your anger to improve the future, though sometimes you will forget to be angry at all and that will be OK too.

Eventually, you will fall in love. He will be kind, to you and to everyone else. You will have built a complete life for yourself and then – only then – will you be ready to share it with someone else. You will not deny your abuse, but by now it will be a dash of salt in a lake of freshwater. It will no longer define you.

You will write this message in a bottle and send it to the island where you lived.


Refuge offers extensive and confidential resources for victims of domestic abuse in the UK.

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