Saturday, 9 December 2017

VAW17: Happy Ever After? My Abusive Marriage; Insights from the Front Line

by Laura

Abusive relationships aren’t abusive all the time. If they were, maybe they wouldn’t last so long. Abusive incidents occur alongside the fabulous times that all families have. Low level abuse permeates day to day life and is accepted as normality. Perceptions of what is acceptable or safe are skewed. Each time something awful happens, it’s followed by a period of ‘loving’ behaviour. Many people experiencing abuse don’t actually recognise that they are being abused until later. So that means it’s desperately hard for professionals to recognise it and to intervene appropriately.

Through this blog, I aim to share my experiences of abuse with the hope that my reflections and insight will be helpful to any health care professional, and may help them recognise signs of abuse and control in relationship.

Thankfully practice across health and social care, and the police and criminal justice services has improved considerably since my experience. I’ve worked in this area for the last 15 years. There is much more public awareness today too. But it still boils down to individual nurses, doctors, police officers and others being aware, and asking the right questions, and being prepared to intervene, offer support, take action.

As you read this, consider whether someone going through the experiences I’ve recounted here would receive a different and better response today. Would Laura and her children still live in this situation for 20 years? I have written a summary of the incident and then my reflection about the experience to highlight what could be learned from it.

Summer 1979
The first violent and aggressive row occurred; we had been going out for a few months, and I had a pre-booked holiday with a friend and her mum and dad. His unfounded allegations of me sleeping around on the holiday would subsequently be raised many times over the next 20 years. 

No agency was involved here, but I think this highlights the need for young people to receive awareness sessions in school. I had no idea this was the beginning of abusive behaviour. I thought he loved me and this was driving his unreasonable behaviour.

March 1980 
Moved in together after an argument with my mum, who didn’t like him.

Sept 1980
Married – mum said “it’s not too late” as I got ready. He hit me for the first time later that day in front of my parents. They said nothing.

Again, a greater public awareness of abuse, as there is now, might have made my Dad or Mum challenge his behaviour. It was definitely as if, because I was now married, it was not their business.

May 1981
My son was born. Husband caused a row in the hospital ward and was asked to leave. Told staff I didn’t want to go home. I was in hospital for a week.

Here was the first opportunity for a health professional to take some action. His publicly aggressive behaviour towards both me and the staff should have been a definite ‘red flag’, when I add that the row was about me breastfeeding ‘in front of’ other people, including other fathers, you see his inappropriate possessive and obsessive jealousy.

What actually happened was the porters or security staff escorted him out. Nobody said anything to me about it. So this contributed to my acceptance of it once again.

June 1983
Daughter born. Serious debt problems.

I was in contact with health visitor, GP and midwife. I didn’t have the bus fare to go to the ante-natal classes, and I told the midwife this. We were in serious debt because he was in and out of work, and would spend money on cigarettes and alcohol when we had it. She didn’t question me more about finances, maybe she could have just asked if we were getting all our benefits, or asked if I wanted to talk to someone about my money worries. I was very stressed and worried all the time.
March 1984
Pregnant again despite being on minipill as was breastfeeding. Was pressured into an abortion. Kept this secret from everyone except him. Had to deliver baby as it was at 12 weeks gestation. No support, counselling or follow up. Was never spoken to alone. 

I didn’t even think of an abortion. It went completely against my values. Especially so far on. My husband just said we had to ‘get rid of it’ immediately I told him. We were interviewed by two doctors. At one point he got angry with the doctor, who was trying to dissuade us, and said ‘ok then you can look after it when it’s born’. I sat in silence throughout. I firmly believe they signed it because of him being aggressive.

Many incidents not reported to police or any agency. Increasingly violent. He was drinking a lot. School teacher said to my daughter ‘ we know what your dad’s like’ I didn’t find this out till long after I had left him. 

This is a pattern of escalation, then an incident, then a ‘honeymoon’ period. That a teacher had picked up on his attitude through contact with him shows this spilled over sometimes into public exchanges. But for the most part he was able to control his behaviour in public.
He decided he wanted to work with children, and to foster. Went through all the assessments and were accepted. Around same time he secured a job with Children’s Social Care as a Social Work Assistant. 

After years in the building trade, no qualifications and poor literacy, this seemed a tall order. He began to volunteer as a sessional worker for social care. Mainly driving children for contact visits etc. He became particularly close to one child. He wanted to foster him. So we went through the process. Always seen together. We were accepted and the young lad was placed with us. In a strange way this was a period when his behaviour improved. It lasted 6 months.

Increasingly bad outbursts smashing things, throwing plates, often in front of children. I had nightmares and sleep disturbances. Neighbours complained about noise. 

Visited GP. He came into the consultation with me and told my GP I needed sleeping pills as he was not getting any sleep! I left with a prescription for Dothiapin, a bottle of 40 tablets was given to me. 

A very clear chance for a medical professional to intervene. He did not ask any questions, and did not ask my husband to wait outside. He focused on the practical, medical issue, lack of and disturbed sleep, and not what might be causing it. The prescription was a completely inappropriate and excessive response.

A few days later after yet another incident I took them all in one go and went to bed. He somehow knew and found the bottle hidden at the bottom of the waste bin and called ambulance. I was lucky to survive, had stomach pumped. Stayed in hospital overnight and saw a psychiatrist next day. I told psych I was sorry, didn’t mean it, and wouldn’t do it again, was happily married. He released me with no further action.

I came out of the room, and when we got outside husband accused me of having sex with the psychiatrist.

I was instructed to never mention it again, the children were in their early teens but were just told not to mention it. I never told anyone for years. This was Sunday. I returned to work Monday, and it was never mentioned again.

So many opportunities over this 24 hour period. First the ambulance crew, perhaps they took in what was happening in the house. Saw the children’s fear, I don’t know. But they didn’t say anything.

As I was having my stomach pumped I recall a male nurse talking to me and telling me I could get help. I couldn’t take it in. Offers of help need to be timely.

The next morning, I fobbed off the psychiatrist who clearly just wanted to discharge me. He never notified my GP – or if he did the GP never acted on the information. I find this shocking; it was a serious, life threatening overdose. I meant it. I returned home to the continuing abuse.

Very violent incident after which I left but returned later to sort it out with him. 

After all these years, and the tacit acceptance by everyone of what was happening, I didn’t feel I had any options, but to sort it out. He convinced me that no one would believe me, and that he would take the children from me. He was now a respected staff member in social services.

After a horrendous Christmas and new year, I was trying to work out how I could leave. On returning to work I asked my boss at work for help, whose reply was “it can’t be that bad!” on the basis that he knew him. 

Whatever employer it is, managers should be trained to respond to disclosures of domestic abuse appropriately. This was an actual appeal for help, I went home for another couple of years.

Another awful holiday at Christmas again. I walked out on New Year´s Eve. 

It was over.

The clues were there throughout those 20 years. I never recognised any of the above as abuse, until about a year after I left him.


‘Laura’ left school at 18, and worked in a bank until her first child was born. She returned to full time work in 1987 and worked for 30 years in various public sector roles. She graduated from the Open University in 2008, with a degree in Social Policy and Criminology. For the last 15 years she worked for a local authority, eventually as a Senior Manager responsible for domestic and sexual abuse services. She remarried in 2006, and has now retired from full time work so enjoys spending more time with her family especially her three grand-daughters.

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