Content warning: This piece contains descriptions of domestic abuse
For the past six months, many of us have been living in fear; scared to leave the house, go to work or the shops, visit the doctor and get on public transport.
Welcome to my world. As a domestic abuse survivor, this has been my daily reality for years.
I met my former partner, Henry*, through mutual friends in 2018 and we would initially meet up for casual dates like going to the gym, having coffee or dinner.
The abuse started around three months after meeting him. It wasn’t violent at first, however he would spit in my face and was controlling over who I could see and where I could go. The violent abuse started from January 2019 and became worse over time until he was convicted.
It’s very difficult to explain the overwhelming terror of being in a coercive relationship.
I lived in a permanent state of lockdown.
On two different occasions I was even hospitalised. The first time I was out celebrating with a friend because I’d just signed a contract for a job that I worked very hard to get. For some reason this enraged him, he kidnapped me and held me hostage overnight, giving me four broken ribs and concussion.
The second occasion was after I met a friend (that he had forbidden me to see) at the gym, he stamped on my head and put me through a night of physical and emotional abuse. This resulted in loss of hearing in my right ear and long term head injuries.
I couldn’t share the anxiety I felt with loved ones because I wasn’t sure who to trust or if they would believe me.
At the same time, I felt so much shame about what was happening to me, that I didn’t want to burden the people close to me.
I also worried that telling them would put them in danger, if Henry found out.
I had to distance myself from my entire support network, and the feelings of loneliness were almost as painful as the physical blows I had to deal with.
I’m fortunate that I got out when I did.
One night in April last year, Henry spent the whole evening abusing me and I genuinely wasn’t sure if I’d make it out alive. So the next morning, I managed to escape while he was sleeping.
I got myself to a safe place – a friend’s house that he didn’t know the address of – where I called the police and they put a warrant out for his arrest. He went on the run for 10 days but eventually handed himself over.
The coronavirus pandemic has made it harder than ever for women to escape their perpetrators, with police across the UK recording more than 85,000 incidents over the first seven weeks of lockdown.
Being ordered by the Government to ‘stay home’ assumes that home is a place of safety, when for many, home is like a prison. I know this all too well.
Being trapped indoors has not been an easy ride for anyone, but at least when your home is a sanctuary where you are surrounded by simple comforts
Henry was eventually convicted just over a year ago. He was charged with coercive control, and his assaults on me were taken into account. For this he was sentenced to a maximum of five years imprisonment, although his last minute guilty plea meant it was reduced to three years.
Hearing the judge sentence him made me feel amazing. I finally felt safe, relieved and happy that he was off the streets where he was no longer a threat to me or anyone else.
By this time, I was living in a refuge while the council were organising rehousing me. This was also where I stayed during heavily restricted days of early lockdown.
While the whole period has no doubt been uncomfortable for everyone, there is an extra set of challenges for people like me, who don’t have loved ones to support them.
I couldn’t help feeling a bit jealous at how quickly the nation became united in keeping each other safe from coronavirus. Friends, families and colleagues set up regular chats, communicating more than they ever had before.
Entire communities rallied around those who were high-risk and vulnerable.
But as a victim of abuse, I didn’t have that kind of help, neither from the Government nor my social network.
Being trapped indoors has not been an easy ride for anyone, but at least when your home is a sanctuary you are surrounded by simple comforts.
I saw so many social media posts about people binge-watching Netflix, online shopping to make themselves feel better, eating nice food and sitting in the garden with loved ones.
At the refuge, we didn’t have any of that, just the few possessions we’d managed to take with us as we fled.
Strict Covid-19 rules also meant that nothing came in or went out.
It wasn’t just toilet roll we were low on; we had no clothes, sanitary products or counsellors, nor income. We live on less than Universal Credit and the idea of qualifying for any job feels impossible.
Meanwhile staff in the refuge were on a reduced rota and had to wear PPE, which made me feel more contaminated than ever. Because when you’ve suffered abuse you already feel like a bad germ.
People were scared and it affected our environment; when a 23-year-old who lived in the refuge returned from being treated for coronavirus at the hospital, some of the other women wanted her gone – and staff didn’t want to enter her room.
I wasn’t going to drop her at a time when she needed help the most, and so made her meals, did her washing up and cared for her.
That incident sparked change. We had a house meeting and decided that we would create our own social bubble, with our rules, the most important one being that we look out for each other – and from then on, we did.
We don’t want to give out our names and numbers, or leave any trail of our whereabouts
I will never experience anything like it and I hold that very special time in my heart.
We would sit together in the lounge with our blankets every morning, eagerly waiting for all the news bulletins of the day, especially Good Morning Britain. We’d discuss our families and how much we missed them, as a lot women didn’t have their children with them.
We would attempt to keep ourselves busy and occupied by guided meditations as well as setting a cleaning rota and planning which two of us would go to the shops for that day’s essentials.
Our bubble may not have been the one that we would necessarily have chosen, but in some ways, being so isolated made us feel safer.
At least with the virus, we could take preventative measures; wash our hands, keep the refuge clean, wear masks – we had more control than we’d ever had in our abusive relationships.
But the outside world wasn’t as easy to cope with.
When out for our daily exercise, we got shouted at by passers-by for being in too big a bubble. I guess they didn’t realise that a group of women like us could live together.
They were scared of our numbers. Ironic really, because we spend our lives in fear of strangers.
When you’re on the run from a violent person, the main goal is to remain anonymous. Having shopkeepers ask your name and where you’re from was panic-inducing.
My perpetrator was very manipulative in using other people to reach me, I often felt like the whole world was the enemy; we don’t want to give out our names and numbers, or leave any trail of our whereabouts.
Henry comes out of prison next February and it will become more important for me to live under the radar.
Before the pandemic, we couldn’t turn around rooms fast enough at the refuge – if a woman left at midday, a new one would turn up by that evening.
However, during lockdown, we saw quite a lot of no-shows. It made us all worry; what was preventing them from getting help? I dread to think how abusers used the pandemic to gain even more control.
Though it might be the toughest decision you’ve ever had to make, I urge all people who find themselves locked into a coercive relationship to make a break when it’s safe for you to do so and seek your own ‘new normal’.
You deserve an everyday normal without fear, everyone does. And you should never be ashamed of your experience or let people pretend it doesn’t happen.
When you take that first step away from being a victim I promise that you will, like me, become a survivor.
As told to Sophie Tanner.
*Names have been changed
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