Since starting this blog I have learnt to expect the unexpected, and one of the most unexpected things of all has been the people from far and near places who look me up and come to me wanting to share their stories. They are actors in L.A. and psychiatric nurses in Boston and moms in Brisbane and teachers in France, and they present to me (as one reader put it) the multi-coloured ‘ribbons of their lives.’ So, when one of the moms from my daughter’s school approached me this morning and asked if we could have a coffee because she had a story to tell me I wasn’t that surprised.
We met in an odd little coffee shop down the road from where I live, and once the niceties were out of the way she launched into an astonishingly brave and candid account of the past year of her life where she got involved with (and almost had kids with and married) a man who abused her verbally, physically and emotionally. She left him barely a week ago, and her right eye still bears the bruises from where he hit her the last and final time. And she said, ‘the physical wounds heal fast. It’s the other ones – the ones you can’t see – that take longer to go away.’
And as she was talking I couldn’t stop thinking about another beautiful, strong, independent girlfriend of mine who told me exactly the same story some months back, except she was actually married to the guy in question, and he hit her for ten years before she managed to escape. Nobody knew – not her mother, her siblings or her closest friends. Until one morning she found herself in another fight with him, and this time hiding his gun in fear that he would use it on her, and the reality hit home for the first time that this was not about getting punched now and again – if she stayed with this man she might not live to tell the tale.
And these two women are nothing like the stereotype of who gets battered. They are smart and streetwise and together. Which makes me realise that every single one of us is vulnerable; no-one is immune to falling in love with a violent, sociopathic man and getting caught up in a situation we don’t know how to get out of. Because it happens slowly, and for a long time you’re blinded by those brain chemicals that cloud your judgement, and the erosion to your sense of self begins so subtly and innocuously that you’re well into the relationship before you even have a chance to realise what’s going on.
And it’ll be a little poke or a shove, mid-fight, or a criticism cloaked in something that sounds like concern, but with every small piece of violence leveled at you your self-esteem takes a knock and you wonder if you are a bad person and you do deserve what’s coming and your friends really don’t care about you – like this man keeps saying. And then one day, in between the humdrum of washing and cooking and doing the school run, you find yourself being flung against a bedside table so hard that you sustain a fairly serious head injury and you go to your doctor for the second time in a few months and he gives you a knowing look and says, how long are you going to tolerate this? Because he has seen it before and he knows better than you do you how much danger you are actually in.
And the man you love has successfully isolated you from your friends and family, and you don’t know who you can trust enough to tell, and if you should even tell anyone because you are so ashamed that you have allowed this to happen. It was an emotional conversation, and the time when I lost it was not when she told me about how he threw things at her or the cruel words he used or how he tried to separate her from her child, but when she described her visit to the local police station to get a protection order, and she was anxious and distressed and just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, but the officer in charge was a gentle, kindly black woman who must, in her life, have seen and heard it all before, and wouldn’t let her get away with filling in a form and leaving.
Instead, she was made to sit down and tell her the whole story from beginning to end, (‘African-style’, was the expression she used) and asked her questions and never judged but took in the picture in its entirely and gave her endless time to speak, all the while listening with her heart as well as her big, brown eyes. And she said to my friend who felt trivial and embarrassed – a white woman from an affluent suburb telling her small, ‘insignificant’ story – ‘you don’t have to worry anymore. I will deliver this to him in person. He won’t be hurting you again.’
I dunno – there was just something so moving about this scenario. Like an atonement, or something. So, the protection order was delivered and he’s not allowed to come anywhere near her ever again, and she’s suing him for money he owes her and getting her life together. And even though it was a terrible story, it was kind of a good one, too. Unlike many, she managed to get out quick. It doesn’t always end so well. And there was a song. It was playing on the radio while they were driving one day and he was punching her on the leg and it was one of the many turning points that made her know she was going to save herself. Music has some incredible power. (In fact, she told me it was my Tori Amos story that made her come to me and want to tell me hers).
Later, once she had left him and had sat for hours at the police station doing the necessary paperwork, she was tired and hungry and stopped for a late night supper at a deserted pizzeria in Sea Point. She thinks the young Zim waiter must have overheard her talking and wanted to make her smile without being weird so he asked her what song she was ‘liking’. Immediately she thought of the one from the car that day, but she didn’t know the name or the artist so she sang it for him. He went away, found it and suddenly it was playing over the restaurant’s sound system. Spontaneously she got up and started to dance, and he joined her – two human beings in an empty restaurant somewhere on the southernmost tip of Africa. And she said, ‘I released a lot that night, but I received so much, too.’ Until she found herself, she hadn’t even known she was lost.