Why don't you just leave him?
Over the past few weeks, we have been carrying out narrative story-telling writing workshops with the women in our group all of whom have been victims of domestic abuse at some time in their lives. Social work is a form of practice that involves listening to people telling their stories but I have noticed that although professionals want to hear the narratives families have to tell we don't always give people the time to tell their stories in the way they want to. Furthermore we don't always stop and properly listen to what we are being told. Yet story telling is vitally important in the building of relationships because it teaches us about ourselves and the lives of others. It is a unique way for families, friends and professionals to learn from one another and develop a certain understanding and appreciation of what other people have experienced. It can also encourage us, the listeners, to think differently about the people who are telling their story.
Although initially an uncomfortable and unfamiliar activity to take part in for some of the women in our group, this aspect of our Monday morning sessions has moved from just a few lines being written each week to a stage where the women are now writing pages. Each have their own reflective journal where they keep a record of their stories and in their own time, can add to or edit whatever they have written. The women have said that they enjoy having the time and space to write and then tell their stories; and what is more, they also enjoy listening to the stories they are told.
Last week I asked the women if they would consider answering a question they may have been asked in the past but found difficult to answer at the time. The question was: Why don't you just leave him? As all the women had been victims of domestic abuse, this was a question they could all relate to and it was a question they all wanted to reflect on and answer. The following piece is from one of the women in the group who gave her consent for her story to be shared on this blog, in this context.
When it had all come out that I had suffered domestic violence the amount of things going through my head, the amount of people worried for me, meant that it was all a big blur at first. But I do clearly remember a friend of mine asking me "Why didn't you just leave him?" It's mental how many different emotions you go through when you are asked this question especially when the people asking you don't have a clue what you went through. I was shocked and angry to say the least but more than anything I was upset. How could someone who had never been in this situation have the audacity to ask me that? And when she did ask me, she looked at me like that thought had never even crossed her mind.
It didn't cross her mind because she was sure of what she'd do. She said that she would have left him the first time he hit her but that's easier said than done. The first time he went for me I was 6 months pregnant. I was sat on the settee watching telly when he flew at me from nowhere. He flipped the sofa over and my head hit the wall. He'd been so nice to me before that- I can honestly say I was not expecting it at all when it did happen.
I explained to my friend that as much as I didn't love him anymore and I had wanted to get me and the kids away from him, it wasn't an easy to do. He had me under his control. His spell. The fear he put into me was controlling my every move. From hiding the bruises and hoping he wouldn't do it again to believing he did truly love me and he would be sticking around.
After I'd explained this to my friend, once I'd got it off my chest, it felt like a huge weight was gone off my shoulders. But there was also a little niggle, "How many more people would ask me this same question?" It's been seven months since I left that relationship and now I think, looking back, that I'd have asked myself the same question too.
Although I did eventually leave him, children's social care remained in my life because of the emotional damage caused to me and my children. I was angry at first- he was free and yet I had a social worker involved in my life. He didn't have one in his. So even though he had gone, it was like he was still there in my life. I didn't get why I needed support at first but I realise now that I was crying every day. I couldn't leave the flat or do anything, I was traumatised.
It took time but the strength I have found since leaving an abusive relationship is amazing. I now appreciate the meaning of freedom. I can spend my money on what I want. I can go where I want without asking for permission. I am no longer scared. I just wish that I'd have had it in me to leave as soon as he put his hands on me that first time. For my sake and my children's.
Now I think about it, it's really an observation on their part, those who ask that kind of question, they didn't see the pain and anguish I went through on a daily basis so of course they're going to be inquisitive as to why I stayed and put myself through it. All I can say to those people- please don't judge my situation until you've walked a day in my shoes.
On telling her story to the group for the first time, the author of the above narrative said that it felt weird to hear her own story out loud, a good form of weird but still weird. Story telling is a powerful tool that we use as a way of learning about another person’s experience- and this is evident in the response the author received from the rest of the group. But what we don't often appreciate is that hearing your own story being told is just as powerful as writing it- it is hearing and seeing the impact our words can have on others that can also help shape, strengthen or challenge the views and values we once held. It is this part of the process, the audible part of story telling, that can help the author move from the position of narrator to the position of listener, a new position from which they can hear their story and catch a glimpse of the road they have travelled in their old shoes.