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Content warning: discussion of emotional abuse. If reading this article brings up issues for you, call WIRE on 1300 134 130. You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
I started dating an older guy shortly after graduating from high school. I was sure he was exactly what I was looking for — a true gentleman.
He met my family a month or so later and I was blissfully unaware that, from the start, they didn’t like him and he didn’t like them either. Over time, I started to spend more time at his house than he did at mine. He didn’t like my friends either so I stopped seeing them too.
At the time it didn’t seem so bad or drastic — things felt entirely wonderful. But after we’d been together for around six months, he snapped. You see, he was a bit of a car enthusiast and I had a second-hand fuel-guzzler with a brake that was rubbing thin. He promised to fix it after exams were over.
But during my exam block I approached a traffic light as it turned red. I pressed the brake and it snapped right through. Thankfully nothing bad happened and I managed to get the car to the nearest mechanic. I was 18, female and certain that they would rip me off so I got my mum to take care of things. She gave them the authority to go ahead with repairs — $2000 worth.
The moment he snapped was when I told him about it. I’d never seen him so angry. He yelled profanities and called my mum all sorts of nasty things.
The way things seemed to him, my mum couldn’t possibly care about me very much if she was willing to cost me $2000 for repairs when he could get the car parts for a fraction of the price and fix it himself.
From here, it began to snowball.
He thought I was becoming overweight so he started monitoring what I put in my lunchbox and coercing me to go on daily 10km runs. Then he started tucking me into bed at night before leaving to his house because he was concerned I wasn’t getting enough sleep. He didn’t like the way I dressed so he bought me clothes of his preference. He didn’t agree with my faith so he manipulated me into giving it up.
After these incidents, I would resolve myself to talk to him about how I felt and how his actions upset me. But I found that, after mustering the courage to start these difficult conversations, I’d leave the conversation with a changed mind.
I found myself constantly second-guessing my decisions. I spent half my time doing what I thought he wanted me to do, rather than what I actually wanted to do. I walked on eggshells; anxious that my actions would provoke an angry outburst. Most days, I would go home crying.
My parents asked what was going on. They were confused as to how I had gone from the girl who smiled at everything to one who was sad all the time.
‘Where had their happy daughter gone?’ It wasn’t until then that I realised how unhappy I had become. They pushed for answers, but I was tight-lipped and defensive. I didn’t want to incriminate him.
A few weeks after this intervention from my parents, I was at home studying when he called. He suggested that we meet up, but I said that I couldn’t afford to stop studying at this point.
He continued to pressure me into meeting up with him but something in me finally snapped. I told him that we needed to break up.
He immediately said that he would drive around to my house and ‘fix’ our relationship. In his mind, we ‘just needed to talk it out’.
I was sure that if he came over, I would crumble in his presence. I told him that if he got into his car, I would get in my own car, drive to the hospital and admit myself to the Psychiatric Ward because I just couldn’t do it anymore. I wasn’t sure what were my thoughts and what were his. I felt like I was going insane.
I was bawling my eyes out as, through the phone, I heard his car engine start. I grabbed my car keys and sprinted barefoot to my car. Just as I exited my street, he entered it, and so he pursued me all the way to the hospital. There, I found a park as quickly as I could but he intercepted me before I could reach the hospital doors.
He told me that he would try to be better and that we could start afresh. Despite how he had treated me, I still loved him and cared about him and wanted to believe things could be better. So sure enough, I crumbled in his presence and went home, still his girlfriend.
I tried to break up with him again later but he threatened to kill himself if I didn’t stay with him. So I did.
One day, I was coming home from one of our 10km runs together when mum and dad asked where I’d been.
They were confused because they thought I’d broken up with him. There in the living room, covered in sweat, I finally told them everything. They were silent right through to the end. Then, they asked if I really wanted to be with him. I said that I didn’t, but that I just didn’t know how to make a clean break. They promised to take care of it.
The next morning, I woke up to hear my dad on the phone. He was telling my ex-partner that he could never see me again. Finally, I was free.
Two weeks passed, and I realised that I felt lighter. It was like I was walking on air. I could think straight and my head was clear. It was liberating to do what I wanted to do and make decisions for myself again. I started to regain a stronger sense of myself and my relationships.
The emotional abuse I went through has left its mark. I experience ongoing anxiety and nervous ticks. I still struggle with low self-esteem and a lack of confidence.
But there are lots of things that have helped me along the way to heal and strengthen myself.
One, I realised and accepted that I had been in a ‘family violence’ relationship.
I know now that it was his manipulation that caused me to think I was going insane. It’s an emotional abuse tactic called gas-lighting. Being able to label what he did and understand what was really going on makes it easier to move on. Now I don’t see myself as an abuse survivor, but rather as someone who was once in an abusive relationship.
Two, I tell my story.
I do this so that if another woman ever goes through what I went through, you will know that there are options. I hope that you draw strength from my experience and know that there is hope of a better future. I escaped it and so can you.
Three, I adopt mindfulness strategies during moments of anxiety.
I practice meditative breathing exercises using an app called The Simple Habit. I also practice speaking my truth out loud. The words we declare over our lives are powerful! Speaking truth over my life helped me when I was struggling to believe my reality was really happening.
Four, I have a support network of people who know my history and make accommodations for who I am because of what I went through.
And all of this has helped me to be the resilient, empowered and happy woman I am today, living out my happily ever after with a man that treats me with the love and respect I deserve.
*Names have been changed and details omitted to avoid any association with real persons living or dead. If this article brought up issues for you or thoughts of suicide, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. If life is not in immediate danger, but you’d still like to chat, call WIRE on 1300 134 130. This article is part of our Lived Experience collection and the author was paid for her contribution. If you would like your story to be considered, please complete the consent form and submit your story via our online form.