I find it quite hard to say what happened to me; I can’t quite reconcile domestic abuse with my own experience. I think I will probably for the rest of my life be interested in how that happened, what that means for me and who I am.
I feel quite a strong sense of responsibility about being open about my experience, in the hope that other people can be open – whether that’s telling somebody for the first time, telling your employer, telling the police – then that feels like an important thing for me to do.
I am interested in the idea of how we self-identify and how the outside world perceives us. Things in our lives may define us for ourselves and for others. I’m interested in the idea of duality – that you can be many things actually, you can present as many different versions of yourself, in different parts of your life.
I find it quite hard to say what happened to me; I can’t quite reconcile domestic abuse with my own experience. But that is what it is. I define myself as being somebody who is fairly high functioning in life – I’m educated, I work in a professional role. I am engaged with politics, gender politics, and feminism – and have been from a very early age. I am the sort of friend who would say “I am worried about this relationship you are in.”
So I could be all of those things, and also be this person who was in a really terrible relationship. That duality was sort of amazing to me – that I could function, and keep it together and keep it hidden, all at the same time. We do that as human beings a lot I think, but for me that was a revelation – that I could function in this way and I could at the same time be very anxious, very scared and very frightened, in the grip of an abusive relationship. It amazed me.
I think I will probably for the rest of my life be interested in how that happened, what that means for me and who I am. I didn't want to feel like a failure in a relationship; I wanted to keep it all together, to keep a sort of family unit together for my child – for our child – at all costs.
I do still find it quite hard to say that I was in an abusive relationship, that I suffered domestic violence and abuse. Maybe that’s because I'm still on a journey of accepting that it happened to me. Maybe this was something I wanted to hide from myself, as well as the world. Because it didn’t fit with the way I wanted to present myself to the world.
I suppose I’m in a position of privilege, even as somebody who has experienced domestic violence: I am financially independent, I own my own flat, I have a well-established career and a decently paid job that means that I’m not dependent on somebody. There are many, many other women for whom that is not the case. And so I feel a responsibility to other people in abusive relationships who are at a point where they want to start acknowledging it. How I’m modelling this is probably a bit messy, because I’m not there yet – I haven’t role-modelled myself into this power survivor. And maybe I never will. It’s work in progress.
People who experience abuse often talk about feeling like an animal. I think that’s about survival – about having to get back to the very core part of you, where all the things that you rely on suddenly are gone. I remember feeling like an animal a lot of the time. I felt like a fox, weirdly, having to survive, to keep physically going, but having to put aside everything else. You just have to. That feeling is quite interesting – it strips you back, strips everything away, and you find a real, brittle strength. For me it was quite helpful, feeling like this fox. I know that’s really strange. It was the animal that most came to my mind. Maybe that’s about being pursued, or feeling that you were being trapped and put into a corner? My urban fox.
It was all-consuming; quite hard to function and focus actually. I wasn’t properly present in the workplace, and I had to disclose very quickly to my boss what was happening. And then I made the decision to speak to a number of close colleagues, with whom I was working on projects. I knew that there were things that were happening where I was going to have to take time off or I was going to have to leave early, and that actually I wasn’t totally on the ball. I wanted to be able to say “This is why.” Actually telling them made it much easier. I told two female colleagues and a male colleague, and they were incredibly supportive. My boss was fantastic as well, and was able to support me in a practical way around my workload and so on. There was an impact on my ability to perform at work, and I needed to explain why – I felt that was really important. I think I’ve wanted to always come from a place of honesty about that, and about what’s happening in my life, partly because I had to get support and I knew in this fox-like state if I don’t get support then things will become worse. I wanted to be transparent with colleagues, wanted to find ways of readjusting work patterns and workload, so that I could support them, but also so that if I needed to have some flex, I could pick things up later on.
I think the truth is that while I was experiencing those episodes of abuse I was still functioning, but my mind was probably somewhere else. I was lucky that I was fairly experienced in my role, and still able to meet expectations, deliver to clients and so on. But I knew that I needed to speak to those important stakeholders in my professional life to make them see that I was still there, just that I had something else going on in my life that wasn’t about work.
This notion of work-life balance is a McGuffin you know? Work is me and I am work; it is fused. That all comes with me, I can’t leave it at home. It’s in my DNA, it’s in the way that I transact with people. All of those soft skills that we have – communicating and influencing and shaping ideas – it’s all in there. I’m really lucky that I’ve worked in organisations where those values have been very prominent. I feel really strongly that to show up and be able to have a fulfilling professional life, you have to show up as you – in all the chaos, and messiness, and ugliness of it all. I think work relationships and the quality of your professional engagement are transformed by it.
I think this is about authenticity. We spend more of our life at work than we do anywhere else – it is the biggest part of our being present in our adult life. For us to have high quality relationships – with our employers, our co-workers, our clients – that are fulfilling, productive and high-quality, we have to unlock who we are, and be able to be ourselves. For a period in my life I felt totally paralysed by what was happening to me; it was enormous and overwhelming. I was anxious and worried and frightened, and it was potentially a huge barrier to me being able to show up in the workplace. And the only way that I was able to navigate that was through having a supportive relationship with my employer and my colleagues.
They listened. They asked what support I needed, so that I was able to articulate it. They took time to look within the organisation to see what other support might be useful or available to me. But they asked me what I needed. That’s one of the most powerful things isn’t it? “What can I do? How can I help? What do you need right now?” I think in any transaction that’s really powerful, even in a small moment. They were fantastic; very discreet and very kind. I know that I was very lucky to have that.
My boss was amazing; she was absolutely incredible. I think it’s a really difficult thing to respond to; it’s really hard not to jump into that ‘black and white’ space, and to sit with the ambiguity. Sit, and say “What do you need, right now?” not “Oh my god that’s awful, I hope he’s going to prison, and why did you let him do that for so long, and…” I told her that I was thinking of doing this project actually and she said “Do it, you’ve gotta do it.” She’s a big supporter.
I suspect it’s not always safe for people to talk about domestic violence, there may be too much at risk. I can also understand that there’s a lot of shame about it. I don’t think it’s easy; that’s why women and survivors of domestic violence don’t report it, and find it difficult to make it stop. What I would want out of this, is to make it possible for people to articulate their experience in the workplace – to be able to disclose it to colleagues, certainly to a line manager or somebody senior within the organisation who’s able to support them in the right way. My ability to survive domestic violence was very strongly linked to my being able to disclose what was happening in the workplace.
As much as anybody else I like to have a beginning, a middle and an end.
And I’m still in the middle, I think.