…my ex threatened to punch me in the face when I didn’t laugh at a joke about domestic violence.
Firstly a quick, and potentially unnecessary given that intro, disclaimer:
This post? Not a barrel of laughs. If you come here for the yuks it is probably best to look away now and come back next week when I’ll no doubt be dwelling on the incompetencies that fill my attempts to navigate the Gulf and my own apparent adulthood.
Oh, also, it’s super long, you might need a tea break or something half way through.
I have been hesitant about sharing this for many reasons. I first wrote it when it was new, and raw, and too painful to do anything about but write.
Then, after a while, I read the piece at a reading group and managed not to burst in to tears on stage.
Now, finally we’re here.
So why was I afraid?
Making the abuse and the messages return is near the top of that list of reasons.
For months after everything was finally over I ignored the sporadic texts and emails, the fake apologies and all-too-casual attempts at contact until the deluge subsided, and now has dried up completely. There is a fear that acknowledging it could open the floodgates.
But there is something else, a lingering doubt over what other people will think, how others will judge me.
I know that my situation is, and was, nowhere near as bad as that suffered by thousands of women around the world. Acknowledging it, I thought, would seem self-pitying and result in people feeling I am over-reacting.
So why have I decided, now, to share?
Again, there are a few reasons.
My worries about speaking out are shared by women everywhere, and so become part of the problem.
When it comes to abuse, physical, emotional, or otherwise, people think that talking about it will make it worse, crack the dam they have built up around themselves and let the waters pour through, drowning them and washing away their defenses.
The widespread nature of the problem is not known because people feel that their case is not as bad as those they read about in papers; that it is not worth mentioning because they got out before it was too late, or because it never turned physical, or because the scars left behind, real or metaphorical, are starting to heal. But silence can not help.
What happened to me was a tiny drop, the ripples from which are nearly faded to nothing on an ever-calming ocean, the fact that I can articulate what I felt means that I should.
This all began to make the concept of sharing this piece seem less ridiculous and more important.
And then the final push. Waking on Valentine’s Day (yes, it has taken me that long to actually work up the courage to publish) I saw messages he had sent from a number I hadn’t saved and so hadn’t blocked. Along with the standard pleas for sympathy and attempts at getting me to reply was a “Roses are red” joke about domestic abuse.
The fact a man who had systematically gone about trying to ruin my self confidence and belief, who would scream threats at me for not laughing at jokes about domestic violence and call me a hypocrite for having a ‘line’ when it came to humour, would send me a joke about a women being shot and killed showed such a lack of emotional awareness, a disregard for what he had done and what he had put me through, that I suddenly became incredibly angry.
That anger replaced the void I had been cultivating by telling myself it wasn’t a big deal.
It was a big deal, made bigger by the fact that he seemed to have no idea what he had done. Or if he did know, he didn’t care.
The fact that he still thought it was okay to contact me felt like a personal invasion, I felt sick seeing his name, my stomach knotted with loathing, but fear was gone.
Fear had morphed into anger.
Anger at what he had done.
Anger that he minimised it in his own mind so I was over-reacting.
Anger that he would probably do it to woman after woman until he found someone who might not be as lucky as I was to spot the signs (with a little help from my friends) and get out early.
As weird as it sounds, I was lucky and I know it.
I had what thousands, millions, of women do not.
Despite being far from home, I had a support network who I knew would protect me, I had financial and personal independence, and I had become involved with someone too lacking in self control (or too stupid) to wait until I was emotionally dependent on him to show his true self.
So I got out.
But not as quickly as I should have, because like all bullies he knew how to apologise, how to get my sympathy, how to ‘change’ for just long enough to convince me it was for real. He made me feel stupid and ashamed for wanting to think the best of him again and again and again.
I think for many decent people who find themselves locked in to these situations, you don’t want to admit that you were wrong to put your trust in someone, like it is your fault and your failings when it begins again.
I realise I haven’t actually said anything about what happened.
At first it was fun, and easy, and so relaxed.
And then it became official.
As soon as I was labelled ‘girlfriend’ in his mind it seemed like that was it.
I was his. He didn’t have to try to be the ‘nice guy’ he so regularly described himself as when things began to fall apart.
On my first night back from a holiday I was told that I was stupid, that I shouldn’t have gone and that I should have stayed and “sorted my fucking life out.”
That the fact I was worried about my career was my fault. That the fact he was still in Qatar was my fault, that if it hadn’t been for me he would have left and been happy, so I should feel pressure to make things work, because it would be my fault if I didn’t. I had ruined his life.
Forget that he is a grown man. Forget that he used his weekends to get drunk, and if he did come to the things I invited him to, he was either already drunk when he showed up, or got so drunk during the evening he couldn’t remember a thing.
At first the drinking wasn’t there, or he hid how bad it was, slowly though it began to creep out.
I would show up at four in the afternoon and he would already be on the vodka. He would wake up at 8am and drink what was leftover next to him. He threatened me, he threatened my friends, he forgot entire conversations we had and made up others.
On one particularly memorable evening I asked him to come to a party being hosted by my friends for an hour before he went to watch the football.
He came drunk, he didn’t speak to anyone, he left after 20 minutes, two hours before kickoff, and proceeded to bombard me with abusive messages about how I was a disgrace, how I had ruined his evening because he was ‘too nice’ to say no to me.
He was such a nice guy.
That should have been it. And for a while it was. But he wormed his way back in. He had changed. He would stop drinking. He was sorry. He had been joking.
That was always how he justified it.
Every time I voiced these thoughts to him I was over-reacting, he had been kidding. (Looking back I am not really sure how I thought him saying things like “I’m going to punch you in the face” would be considered funny.)
But it went on, and it hurt, and over the months he chipped away at everything that made me me. Why couldn’t I just be normal? Why was I so fake? Couldn’t I be serious about anything? I wasn’t passionate about anything.
He hated my friends, they weren’t real friends, we kissed each other on the cheek and it made him sick because it was so fake.
He accused me of thinking he wasn’t good enough for me.
He was right about one thing, then.
Everyone has a breaking point. Everyone has something that finally flips the switch and they see what is in front of their face. Mine came when he told me I couldn’t be who I wanted.
He tried to stop my dreams dead. He tried to belittle me and my ambition.
He was kidding.
I had just taken a test for a job I really wanted. I didn’t think it had gone well and I told him. There was no support, no condolence.
I was told I would never be a foreign correspondent anyway, that I may as well give up. That I was selfish for not thinking of him when it came to my life plans and my career.
That I was an idiot to believe I could do it.
He stood in the way of the lift doors, stopping them sliding shut to form the barrier I needed between us. But I was done.
I cut ties.
I was never going to forgive him.
Just before he left for home he asked to see me, so I didn’t remember him badly. Stupidly I agreed. He was crestfallen and apologetic and he ‘loved’ me.
I had never been more relieved that someone was leaving my life to live 7,000 miles away.
I thought I would be free.
The messages began when I asked him to stop contacting me via whatsapp.
I was told I was a disgrace, that I had wasted time, that I had ‘no idea’ what he had gone through when we were together.
That he had cheated on me. That the girl was pregnant. That he was lying about the pregnant girl. That he was sorry. That he loved me. That he hated me. That I should kill him or he would kill himself. That he hoped I died.
That he had changed.
That he was kidding.
I blocked his numbers, I blocked his emails, I blocked everything and embraced the silence and the emptiness.
He contacted my friends via facebook asking them for advice, to send him pictures from my account because I had blocked him.
You can probably guess their reactions.
In a move towards catharsis I wrote him a letter, never intended to be seen by anyone let alone sent to him.
But it was an outpouring of the emotions that threatened to engulf me. And it was a reminder.
I will never doubt myself for cutting ties, but in the future there might be another.
These people are not alone in the world, in fact, they are all too prevalent, and if there is another, I will read it and I will remember.
I know this is opening me up to him and to trolls. Those strangers on the internet who sit and smirk and call jokes about rape culture “one of feminism’s more hysterical talking points.” (I’m not linking to the site in question as I don’t want return traffic.)
But I’m out. And those who can speak up should.