A personal experience of self-isolation with and without an abuser
I commenced my self-isolating the week before the UK government closed the schools. I knew that if I caught coronavirus I would be at significantly higher risk of becoming a fatality statistic. Tonight as I lie alone in my bed in the fifth week of shielding I am feeling quite low and sorry for myself. I am really missing the physical presence of my family and friends. My uneasiness and concern about the pandemic is increasing, especially as my chest has been continually tight for the past 2 weeks and I am experiencing intermittent coughing; although I realise it is due to my asthma I cannot stop worrying that these are signs I have covid 19. In the day time it is much easier to tell myself that I am foolish to have these thoughts, especially as I have not been in contact with anyone for 5 weeks. I am starting to wish I did not live alone, that I had someone to share my worries with, someone to cuddle up to and to feel safe with especially after disturbing nightmares. In the middle of the night loneliness is my biggest fear, everything feels so much scarier and my anxiety levels are heightened. Yet do I really want to relive the last time I was in isolation?
I have been in isolation before when I lived a ‘different’ life. Some years ago I became seriously ill and as a result of the side effects of medication taken for treatment I required surgery. However, due to the fact that I continued to have infections, the surgery that was essential kept being postponed. Therefore a clinical decision was made that if I could go for a period of 3 weeks without antibiotics and an infection the surgery could go ahead. This required me going into isolation at home to ensure I did not catch any viruses from family and friends. I knew that it was going to be difficult to not spend time with the people I loved. They would, however be able to visit me and wave through the window or chat on the telephone and it would be beneficial for me in the long term. Being shielded now has started to bring back some of those memories that over the years have very slowly started to be fade.
Surprisingly my husband was quite ‘supportive’ when I initially became ill, (the definition of ‘supportive’ for a victim of domestic abuse deviates from the dictionary one), and for the first 6 months I was not subject to ‘any’ abuse. In hindsight I really should rephrase this and state it was a lower level of abuse and easier to accept because it happened less frequently. This might have been because the house was always full of family and friends helping out, bringing food, taking me to the hospital and visiting me as an inpatient. However, I was now solely reliant on my husband for support with my mobility and other needs, as I was in constant, extreme pain and only allowed to use crutches, where absolutely necessary, due to being ‘non weight bearing’ until the operation. The realisation that I was on my own with no escape from my abuser for quite some time caused me some concern.
That concern was not misconceived. When the family came to wave to me and speak through the window he was always there. I could feel his eyes glaring through my back, daring me to contradict the message he portrayed to everyone that everything was ’fine’. When the neighbours knocked to enquire how I was or to ask if needed anything he reiterated this message like a recording. Acting the caring and loving husband he told them he just wanted me to get better and he had taken annual leave/ unpaid leave to ensure that I would not be left on my own. Everyone remarked what a caring husband he was.
After the first few days he ‘accidentally’ damaged my iPad. Then it seemed the house phone was always out of my reach and my mobile could not be located. Of course this was my fault for forgetting where I had left my mobile, for being a ‘cripple’ and not being able to manage to carry items as well as use crutches, for being useless, for being stupid, for being thick and the list goes on. There was no point in trying to justify any of these allegations as he would fix me with a cold hard stare, which was filled with hate and anger. Over the years this ’look’ became his main form of communication to silence me and was the only expression I could accurately interpret. Before I was in isolation I had respite from him when I went to work or visited my family and friends but now it was as if I was living inside a prison with him.
I started to have less contact with my family and friends, as when they phoned he told them I was sleeping or resting. He admitted he was rationing my time on the laptop, as he had discovered me researching for work purposes and that it was not in my best interest. I knew that they were aware that ‘I’ had unfortunately dropped my iPad and broken it when I had attempted the stairs whilst he was in the garage when I was permitted the phone calls from my concerned family members. Being chastised for being too independent and strong willed they suggested in future it might be advisable if I stayed in bed until he could help me. I had to listen to them describe my husband’s virtues whilst I concurred with his lies and faked my emotions. In reality my heart was breaking because I could not tell them the truth. I actually believe he had convinced himself the lies he had told were actually true, as he screamed at me that it was all my own fault and then he threw a heavy vase at me. A tirade of verbal abuse, which was offensive and repulsive then followed. Unfortunately as I had been subjected to this name calling and personal shaming for years I started to believe that it was the truth. I sometimes remembered that once upon a time I had been a successful, intelligent professional woman but over the years and especially during the time we were in such unavoidable close contact he constantly reminded me that I was the most ugly, stupid, incompetent, unfit, crazy woman he had ever met and now hated. In isolation his vocabulary of derogatory words that he directed at me increased immensely.
I always felt exhausted. I do not know if this was the effects of my recovery from being seriously ill, the antibiotics I was taking, the pain I suffered physically and emotionally, or always being fearful of reprisals for doing something wrong. I was continually told it was my own fault if he physically hurt me, damaged my possessions or threw objects at me. Whilst I was spending much of my time in the bedroom and everyone believed I was resting and sleeping I yearned for a good nights sleep. In the evening he would come into the bedroom and turn the TV on and switch it to full volume and would keep it at this level throughout the night. If I begged him to turn the volume down, I was told if I did not like it I could go to another room but I would have to get there on my own, as he had not signed up to marry a cripple. Other times he would storm downstairs leaving the TV on and taking the remote control with him. In the morning he would then come upstairs, throw the remote at me and go to sleep in one of the other bedrooms yelling at me, “This is what happens when you nag so much”. Whilst this resulted in me being able to sleep during the day it also indicated he hadn’t considered if I was hungry or thirsty. When he did stay in the room he sat on the bed with his iPad laughing whilst sending messages or talking seductively to other women on the phone. I could not simply switch off the abuse at the end of the day.
By the end of the second week he started to go out in the evenings at the weekends. He would have a shower and make a point of getting all dressed up in front of me, describing to me in his usual belittling manner how I was not going to ruin his life. I tried to reason with him that he was in isolation with me and was not going to work nor socialising for the sole purpose of preventing me from catching any germs in order for the operation to be performed. This was a very unwise decision, which I instantly regretted, as I received a painful physical response. He also found time before he left to cut up two of my favourite dresses as I was now ‘too fat’ to wear them and as the hospital had insisted I could not leave the house I no longer required them. I never questioned him on this matter again. He would sing ‘I am going to get £100,000 death in service money’ to the tune of Happy Birthday whilst preparing for his evening out. Once the taxi arrived he would throw a bottle of water on the bed for me from the door and if it missed the bed it remained on the floor. Thereafter, some weekends he did not return home from Friday evening until the early hours of Monday morning. As he had not left until at least 11pm and both cars had not moved from the drive the neighbours noted nothing amiss. I would lie in the dark for hours on end, waiting for him to come home, not knowing where he had been or what he had been doing but my imagination eventually proved to be correct.
Living in a lovely, large house with a big garden for the isolation period should have had its advantages, especially in the warm and sunny weather. I had a dream garden and when the weather was sunny I loved nothing more than sitting in the garden. So one day when he announced he was going to be generous and help me ‘walk’ to the bottom of the garden where the garden sofa was so that I could lie in the sun and read a book I was not only surprised but very happy. I had put on sunscreen previously and he left a bottle of water to drink. I felt really relaxed so I did not realise that he had taken away my crutches. I must have fallen asleep at some point but as time went on and I needed to go to the toilet and became increasing hungry and needing more water the reality became apparent. He was not going to come and help me back into the house until he was ready. I was in the garden for nearly 6 hours and daring to ask why he had not come earlier his response was, “I have to listen to you moaning about not being able to go into the garden, grumbling about your pale skin and when I give you permission to sunbathe you still complain. If you are not satisfied you know where the front door is”. Once we were inside he had a jovial phone call with his sister recalling the wonderful day we had experienced together in the garden. I knew then he was intent on destroying my life and consuming me with his abuse, control and emotional indifference.
He often left food and drink out of my reach. I had a choice of remaining thirsty and hungry or hurting myself/damaging my bones whilst trying to mobilise or climbing up and down stairs. He used my personal debit card to buy the online food shopping because it was my fault he was not able to work. There were also regular deliveries from clothing stores and eBay only for his sole use. Returning from one of his ‘excursions’ he had purchased a new car, paying the deposit with my banking card. It was not until I had left the relationship that I became aware that a loan had been taken out for the car in joint names and the extent of economic abuse was fully revealed. He justified the purchase of the car stating that he needed a bigger car to take me to hospital appointments, especially if I was going to need a wheelchair in the future. Ironically he never attended any hospital appointment with me nor visited me after surgery. He unceasingly had a plausible explanation to give when asked by others the reason why he was not available.
I am confident that by now you are wondering why I had not disclosed the abuse before I went into isolation. I obviously had numerous opportunities over the years due to being an employee, being on my own with family and friends when they drove me to hospital, when I saw my medical professionals and as an inpatient. A few months before I went into ‘isolation’ I had plucked up enough courage to make the decision I was going to tell my consultant I was being abused. Unfortunately for the first time in 8 visits I was assigned to a registrar whom I had not seen before. Although very frightened and nervous I was still determined to disclose. As I explained my pain I quickly added “my husband is abusing me- he constantly kicks me in my hip, thighs and back”, to which he replied, “I am so sorry to hear this I will arrange for an x-ray. The registrar continued with my consultation, as if the matter of abuse had been positively dealt with. When I eventually went to the police there was no evidence on my medical record of this conversation. The registrar’s response resulted in me continuing to interrogate myself with the same questions that I had been asking myself for years previously. ‘Is it worth the risk of telling someone?’, ‘What will he do to me if he finds out?’, ‘How will I manage on my own’? ‘Where will I live’?, ‘What will my family think of me?’, ‘What if no one believes me?,’ What if it is all my own fault?, Would he still hate and hurt me if I changed the way I behave?. These questions were on permanent replay in my mind during the time I was trapped indoors for what was supposedly ‘in my best interest’. Despite feeling my life was falling apart I did not consider leaving as I knew it would not be safe to do so. The abuse had been occurring since the 1st year of marriage but the cruelty intensified daily during isolation and the period after my operation. Due to many factors it was nearly 4 months later before I was able to have my operation. It took a further 11 months of his increasing abusive behaviour whilst I slowly recovered from my surgery and one final vicious physical beating before I left the abusive relationship. I knew that if I stayed he would kill me the next time.
It is now the beginning of May 2020 and I have lost count of how many weeks I have been in isolation. Whilst I am finding it challenging being on my own I have come to the conclusion I am coping. It is easier because this time I have choices that I was prevented from having when I was abused and controlled. I may be living alone but the reality is when I lived with an abuser I never truly felt safe or protected. I feel much safer now, less exposed to danger and certainly more protected than when I lived in a beautiful big house with a large garden with friendly neighbours and family nearby. My experience of shielding in this current pandemic and living alone has finally made me realise that I am no longer constantly in a state of high alert or panic.
Now I reside in a very small house with a tiny back yard, which is the total opposite in every aspect of where and how I lived previously. It is also very different from my last experience of being isolated. I am longing for the time when I will be able to physically hug my children, grandchildren, and the new friends I have made but this time I no longer have an abuser depriving me of the tools to keep in contact with them. My family and friends face time and WhatsApp me daily and I no longer need to lie in any of the conversations. I may not currently have variety of food, as I have yet to receive a priority shopping slot, but I am able to cook without anyone preventing me from doing so. Whilst there is no doubt that chilli con carne gets very boring after eating it for 4 days, the relief at being able to eat and drink when I am hungry or thirsty or just if I fancy a snack has not yet diminished. I might only have enough money to spend on the absolute essentials such as household bills, (I’m a Waspi woman and still have a few years to wait until I can access my state pension), but the fact is when I had savings and could afford to buy luxury items my money was subtly taken away from me in the form of economic abuse. How and when I spend my money is now my choice. One of the positive aspects of lock down is the safety factor, as now everyone just rings the door bell and leaves items on the doorstep. There is no requirement for me to open my door until they have left.
I may worry about viruses and pandemics but I am able to sleep without fear of what tomorrow will bring from my abuser and I am no longer prevented from sleeping by some form of torment. If I wake at 4 am and I cannot sleep I am able to make decisions of whether to turn on the light, go to the toilet or even just turn over. There is no risk of having anything thrown at me or the bedding stripped off the bed because I have somehow upset him. I will never have a TV in my bedroom again but I watch TV downstairs and I am able to choose programmes freely and I can watch them at whatever hour I wish. My garden is only a back yard but the still shines in smaller spaces and I have no rules or timeframes to adhere to. In this lockdown I am in control. So as I am writing this I am no longer feeling sorry for myself. I am appreciating all the benefits that I have this time.
After I left the abusive relationship I was ‘rescued’ by a voluntary DA charity who, without any judgement, offered me the most amazing support. My abuser caused me long lasting damage both physically and mentally but slowly with support, kindness and care I was helped to unfurl and blossom into a stronger woman. They gave me confidence to believe in myself and strength to move forward. I felt a sense of immense pride when I was recently able to reply to an ‘old’ friend that I had nothing to forgive myself for, after she asked me had I now forgiven myself for marrying him and putting myself through so much trauma. I did not marry someone who had a sticker on their forehead that said I am going to hit you, pull your hair and throw you down the stairs; I married a charming, caring and loving man.
When I left the abusive relationship less than 10 years ago domestic abuse was not as widely recognised or acknowledged by the public and some professionals nor did it attract the same media attention as it has more recently. Awareness of self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic and the correlation with increased reporting of domestic abuse cases and its devastating impacts and consequences has increased public and media interest, as have recent story lines in soaps. With raised awareness I hope that family, friends, neighbours, professionals in all fields of work will start to recognise signs of domestic abuse and report it safely. I believe that when I was in an abusive relationship I would have had more courage to disclose if domestic abuse had been a topic of conversation that most people spoke of and were informed about, as happens nowadays.
Boots the chemist has placed advertisements in newspapers and on social media offering safe places for victims. Whilst this may not be an option for everyone if this action only helps a few women, it also conveys the message to many others that there is support available. I became emotional listening to the many MP’s who were championing the domestic abuse agenda and vigorously adding their voices to strengthen to powers of legislation in the new Domestic Abuse Bill in the House of Commons last week. Every time I see a ‘breaking news’ headline that the government is giving much needed funding to under resourced DA services I shout out loudly to the TV, ‘ about flipping time’, ( actually that is a mild phrase to what I actually yell).
However, additional funding to the DA charities and services that provide this essential provision results in more women (and men) receiving the help and support they so critically need. In my experience the women who supported me, listened and enabled me to make the best decisions in difficult circumstances whilst being my guides on my path to freedom. They offered me friendship, laughter and a safe space. I spent time with other women who had experienced domestic abuse and this was a powerful healer, as it made me realise I was not alone. We also did some fabulous things together. I continue to be supported with the challenges of post separation economic abuse. Whilst this abuse is not visible and does not physically hurt it seems to be never ending, even years after my relationship has ended. During isolation we are keeping in contact via WhatsApp groups and other social media and being together makes us stronger. The expertise, skills, care and kindness of all those who supported and remain in contact with me is without a doubt the reason I survived. Honestly, life is so much better living alone in isolation than living with an abuser. And whilst I may be alone in my home I know I can reach out and still access that post separation support when I need it.
So for me the struggle goes on. However, I have more good days than bad days. I wish I had a job to help financially as I don’t receive my state pension for another 2 years but I have time to help raise awareness; I hope my health improves but I am down to one crutch. I still have nightmares but not every night. Last year I started sleeping without the light on. I am one of the lucky ones. I am a survivor. What I came to realise through having support from TLC was that it was not my fault that I am not to blame for what happened. I was given support so I did not have to make that unsafe decision as that’s what TLC does- they listen and they support to enable you to make the best decisions in difficult circumstances.
On that note I want to end and thank Emma for introducing me to Maggie* and John*, in a new town, who have welcomed me as a friend and who I know I can ask for time and support if I need it. I also hope that I can offer my support to TLC2 in the future so that we can offer friendship, laughter, listen, and do fabulous things together with women who may have experienced domestic abuse.
I didn’t want domestic abuse to define me yet it is important to recognise that we don’t necessarily have the choice or notice as to when or where we move to forward plan. Their expertise, skills, care and kindness is without a doubt the reason I survived. The friendships and safety are what I miss the most now I am so far away.
I don’t even know how many weeks I have been in isolation now. Today on the government briefing they have announced even more funding for victims of domestic abuse. We can make small changes
*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the indvidual