PODCAST: EP.3 ALEKSANDRA'S STORY
CONTENT WARNING: Domestic Abuse, Coercive Control.
Aleksandra shared her story of having lived with Coercive Control and Domestic Abuse with WASLER's refuge worker Karen Mckay in Episode Three of the podcast.
Aleksandra has kindly shared a written account of her story for the blog, you can read the transcript of a talk Alex gave for 2018's 16 Days of Action at a Public Protection conference in Glasgow.
Alex discusses the emotional and physical abuse, coercive control, xenophobia and misogyny she experienced, and of finding support through WASLER.
Many thanks to Alex for bravely sharing her story and speaking out against abuse, and for this erdudite and powerful account of her experience.
Transcript of a presentation that Alex gave at a Public Protection Conference in Glasgow for 16 Days of Action 2018.
“My name is Alex, and I am here to talk to you about Domestic Abuse and Coercive Control. As you are here looking at me, I can bet that the question in your mind is: ‘How is this a face of an abused person?’
But what we don’t actually know is - what does an abused woman look like? There are faces around us every day - and we have no idea whether those faces belong to abused women.
Often, it has to come to a woman being black and blue, or just to be seeing in the papers the picture of a woman - of what she had looked like before she been killed by her partner.
Let me tell you a thing or two about me. A few years ago, I would have sat exactly where you’re sitting and wondered the same thing.
I have a BA Hons in Literature and Languages, a Masters Degree in International journalism, more than 20 years under my belt as a writer and translator.
Once upon a time, I even won a very prestigious journalistic award. I was a high flyer, until I became statistics.
I did not believe Domestic Abuse could happen to me until my partner of ten years kicked me out of the only home I had known for those ten years, without a penny to my name, in a foreign country, with limited support of any kind.
I am not an expert on Domestic Abuse. I’m just one woman with a story to tell. And that story began as an ideal: we fell in love. He offered that I come to Scotland and live with him, with marriage and kids down the line. And I did. I made a leap of faith. Only my leap of faith consisted of changing countries for him. His leap of faith was offering to get me personalised car plates, which by the way, he never did get. Because he didn’t want to “jinx” the relationship.
I knew that he had been married before and that the marriage ended acrimoniously. He had been “the victim” and I believed him. He had been “abused” by this vile woman who cheated on him. But little by little, he would say things like: “Many people have offered to make my ex-wife non-existent”, or: “ I know a man with a van who could abduct her, strip her of her clothes, and leave her naked on the side of the motorway”.
I didn’t pay attention to those words at first. They were rants, I thought of an embittered man who would calm down as the years pass. He didn’t. Instead, he would say things like: “ My ex-girlfriend was raped after she broke up with me”. And I started wondering: why would you bring up something like that? It wasn’t exactly a conversation piece. After hearing it on a regular basis, it dawned on me: it was a veiled or not so veiled threat to behave or else.
It actually dawned on me one day at a family dinner in a restaurant , when his brother said and I quote: “You can give someone lots of pictures of the queen to make a woman disappear”.
One of the other of my ex’s threats was also the threat of deportation. His exact words were: “Immigration authorities can show up at this door at any time”, repeated any and every time I had done something to displease him. Either dinner was not on the table at 5pm, or I had gone out with my friends, or somebody cut him off in traffic, or it was raining.
I never knew what could set off his rage. He would throw tools across the room if a nut he was trying to unscrew wouldn’t budge; or a radiator would not slide into its brackets the way he intended, or I nagged him to pick up his post which he had just casually thrown onto my chopping board as I was cooking.
And he eventually did contact the immigration authorities after the break up, to inform them I was no longer living with him and to stop me from crossing the border.
After all, you could say, he was just doing his civic duty. And I agree. Except that I know, for example, that this man considers the speed limit a recommendation, and not the law. He would often terrify me with the speed of his driving, especially at the corner at the exit from the motorway at Newton Mearns, the corner he would take at such speed that I would be bouncing in the seat.
Like all stories, this one isn’t without unintentional humour. Once, we were in a supermarket for a weekly shop – he would never let me go alone, only he was in charge of the household money – and I was putting the messages into the trolley. And I had put a packet of toilet paper into the trolley.
Now, the said packet had been on offer and that was why I picked it up. All of a sudden, this man who loved me and with whom I shared the home, starts screaming at me:
“You can’t buy that paper!”
Confused, I asked:
“Why? It’s on offer.”
“You can’t put a peach coloured paper into a blue coloured bathroom!”
“Why not? Your arse doesn’t know any difference”
You can imagine that we went home in a sour mood, him because I dared contradict him; me because I just got screamed at in public. Not that being screamed at in private is any better.
Now, I don’t look like a typical domestic abuse survivor.
I come from a middle class home, and before coming to Scotland, I was a typical capital city girl: sassy, maybe even a little bit cocky, with a good taste in clothes, wine and finer things in life.
And there is my first message to you: Domestic Abuse can happen to anyone.
It isn’t reserved for the areas with the shortest life expectancy. It happens even those areas where the lawns are mown, the cars are expensive, and Italian wine and Spanish cheese are consumed on Friday nights. And I had all of those - I had everything except for love and respect.
And I also had red flags which I ignored. Do you want to know what abuse feels like? It feels like this.
It feels like this when the man you love checks whether you cleaned your toilet before you went to work, when his family regularly refer to you as “that foreign bitch” and your partner not only does not bat an eyelid at that, but dismisses a clear racial taunt with “oh, they were just joking”. Well, it might have been “funny” the first few times, but after several years, they could really find a different joke.
And speaking of jokes…
How many abusers does it take to change a lightbulb?
None. They use Gaslighting.
For those of you who don’t know, gaslighting is a term used when an abuser is confronted with evidence of their abuse and they respond with:
“That never happened.”
“I never said that.”
“You need help.”
“You have wild imagination.”
“You need to learn to take a joke.”
Once, as we were talking with his parents, I said how I wanted to have a baby, and they erupted in laughter: they already had two grandchildren, why should they need another one?
I got angry and spoke to my ex at length and through tears, of how deeply hurting their behaviour was. And the next day – I have to give it to his mother, as on this occasion she showed a bit of otherwise non-existent conscience, “Oh, my gosh”, she said , “I think we might have gone overboard the other day. Was Alex offended?” And his reply was: “Oh, no, not at all.”
As I said, I started collecting evidence of every time he was lying. He used to have a hairdresser come to the house on a monthly basis, to get his hair cut. And every morning after that, I would come into the kitchen and the cut hairs would crackle under my slippers as if I were stepping on cockroaches. So I asked him to clean up after himself, and I would even take out the hoover every time the hairdresser would come around.
“Did you hoover?”, I would ask in the morning.
“Aye”, came the unequivocal answer, although I hadn’t heard the hoover the previous night. I would ask him again:
“Did you hoover?”
“YES!” He would answer raising his voice.
“Then, what is this?
“You’re crazy! Obsessed with cleanliness! You need help!”
Abusers are what in psychology is defined as Narcissists. Narcissism basically stems from entitlement and an inflated sense of self. Narcissists genuinely believe mundane tasks are beneath them. They believe that they are entitled to everything and that everybody and specially their victims owe them something.
I often spoke to my friends about what I was going through; and although they were great shoulders to cry on, they would give advice from the point of view of someone who never experienced abuse. Like: Set up boundaries.
So I did. One of my ex’s favourite ‘jokes’ was to simulate sex on me every time I bent over. And no matter how many times I said to him to stop, that that kind of behaviour was humiliating and that I didn’t find it funny, he would continue to do it every single time. After all, it was ‘just a joke’. Once he hit me so hard from behind that I smacked the side of my face against a shoe rack that was inside the closet. This is the aftermath of it:
My friends asked me “How can you be intimate with a man who psychologically abuses you?” And I said “Do you think he takes no for an answer?” He would badger me and badger me until I relented, just like he would bulldoze over every single boundary I tried to set up.
Abusers expect to be served all the time and in every possible way. My ex-partner genuinely believes that what he did was not abuse, it was his entitlement. He used to have these words on his Myspace page ‘If your partner does not feel like having sex, they should grin and bear it.’
Probably the worst things I remember about these occasions were the following: that he would wake me up in the middle of the night, after he had been out, on the town, drunk and demand to have sex. And the second was the rage in his eyes when he was being intimate with me, the absolute dark, all-consuming terrifying rage from the man who allegedly loved me.
Domestic Abuse happens in intimate, inter-dependant, long-term relationships, in other words, in families, the last place we would want or expect to find abuse, which is one of the reasons why it is so confusing. There are no, or very few bruises to show, and I like so many people, knew very little, or nothing about domestic abuse, its warning signs or patterns. Domestic Abuse doesn’t just happen; it is insidious, it creeps up on you.
My ex-partner was sweet in the beginning. He was not a man I would go for, he may have even been a little boring, because he could only talk about cars, but hey, I had to compromise on something. I just didn’t know I was compromising to ten years of talking about cars and potholes. And you have to admit, that topic of conversation is very difficult to stretch over 10 years. Yet somehow he managed it, because every time I opened my mouth to talk about something else, he would cut me off, talk over me, as if I did not exist or did not have a voice. As I said, at one point he was sweet, attentive, some would even say that he treated me like a princess. Little did I know that I was in what is known as the ‘love bombing’ phase. That is a phase in which a person is groomed to believe that they’d just met their soulmate. He had also cleverly played a ‘victim of a divorce’ pushed down by this “Lesbian Society”-his words- “that give all the rights to mothers and none to the fathers”. Only later did I find out that his ex-wife had filed abuse charges against him, but was forced to drop them due to the lack of evidence.
At that point I felt sorry for him. He was cheated on and left without a family. If you told me that it was the man who would leave me without a penny in the house, who would dictate that I dress like a prostitute and then parade me in front of his friends at sportsman’s dinners saying I was a ‘tranny’ and laugh about it, who would make me cook dinner after I’d just fallen on the icy steps at our back door and was walking around bent like a question mark, a man who would dictate where I would spend my holidays, Sundays and Christmases, I would have laughed at you, because there was not a shred of violence or control in my ex-partner in the beginning. That was the first stage: to seduce and charm the victim.
Then comes the isolation and devaluation stage. This is the stage when you are told that “you’re only good for folding laundry”, that “your job is to take care of him”, the stage when his brother urges him to get rid of that “foreign parasite” (direct quote).
I would now like to address the question that is on many people’s minds, that was on my mind too whenever I heard these stories in the past. The question is: “Why doesn’t she leave?”
And although that is an immensely unfair (and offensive) question as it puts the onus and blame on the victim, I will try to provide a few answers. Mind you, the answers to this question may be as many as there are abused people out there, but here are a few:
“Oh, it’s not that bad.”
“Other people have it worse.”
“I don’t want to be a burden to anyone.”
And my absolute favourite –
“He is actually a good man.”
This is a problem connected to a wider issue of women’s earning power and employability, especially when it comes to women of reproductive age or with children. For some people, it has to do with not pulling children out of school, or not leaving the area where they have friends, family and emotional support. Often times, it is about lacking confidence after having spent years like a hamster on a wheel with no change in sight, you end up lifeless, staring into space, feeling like there’s no resolution to your life, no end in sight.
I have recently undergone training for dealing with stress, and in that course, there was the following metaphor, that describes exactly what the long term stress of any kind - including domestic abuse - feels like and what it inflicts: Imagine holding a glass of water. The weight of the water never changes, but you have been holding it for days, months, even years. The longer that glass of water is held, the heavier it feels, despite its absolute weight never changing. After a while, just like the hand in which you’re holding the glass becomes numb, a person becomes paralysed and incapable of doing anything.
The second huge problem in general is the way women are told to behave, or otherwise known as -
On both micro and macro levels.
At micro level: In the words of my own mother “You need to pull in your horns, compromise, be feminine, pliable.”
And at macro level: How many times have you read a book, or seen a film with a premise that “love can change an abuser”?
Newsflash: It can’t.
And connected to conditioning, the feelings of immense, incandescent shame over what is happening to you.
But the simplest, the saddest reason we don’t leave is the following: IT BECOMES OUR NORMAL.
It becomes normal to be used as a sex toy, it becomes normal that he pinches you and leaves a bruise and laughs about it; it becomes normal that he bangs closet doors at 6am looking for a shirt and shouting at you if it hadn’t been ironed, it becomes normal that he leaves you in a hotel room in Nottingham, with a fever of 39 degrees Celsius, while he is out gallivanting with his friends on a trip that you refused to go on in the first place, with no food an no water; it becomes normal that you maintain appearances and project manage your behaviour so that you don’t set him off.
After a while, you become so brow-beaten that you can’t handle confrontation any more and you let him walk all over you, just so that you don’t have to argue any more and be made to feel guilty about it: “you made me do this”, “you’re anti-social”, “you don’t want to spend time with me”, “you hate my parents”.
So for a long time, I stuffed everything down, so that no-one could or would hurt me. All those years, it felt like an ever growing bubble of anger inside of me, a bubble with a tough membrane, refusing to burst, slowly poisoning me from the inside. And out of that anger, I rebelled. In the beginning, it was a quiet rebellion: I started writing a journal.
It is tough for us to talk about these things, we have been hiding the truth for so long, that it is tough to break form self-censorship. My journal had become a place where I could un-censor myself, a place where I wrote horrible things, despicable things. I thought I was safe inside those notebooks. Little did I know I was not safe even from inside my own head.
The pinnacle of me getting things outside of my head probably happened after this incident. He was packing for his business trip. Imagine the scene, hangers everywhere, dirty jumpers and underwear scattered around, empty shampoo bottles. And out of all those things, what caught his eye was being out of place was my green binder, lying on the desk in the study where he was packing. So he grabbed the binder and tried to smack me with it. I put my arm up, and stopped the blow. This is a picture of my arm with a welt on it.
The picture was actually taken the next day, after he had left for China and I was actually relieved he was away. And still, I stayed. Because deep down, “he’s a good man”.
But there is a saying: The pitcher is carried to the spring until it breaks. And they finally managed to break me.
Two years ago, on holiday to Croatia, my ex’s daughter and his niece broke into my hotel room, rummaged through my things, found the journal that was both my salvation and my doom, read it photographed it, and shared it with the family on Facebook and Snapchat.
And what happened afterwards can only be described as Ali vs. Foreman, a rumble in the jungle: me in one corner, the entire family, my ex included in the other. I was to blame. For writing in my own personal, private journal. How dare I?
And now we were in the discarding phase. On coming back he kicked me out. At my lowest, I was standing in Giffnock Police Station, in a borrowed jacket, asking for assistance because my ex-partner was refusing me access to my home. And as the last bit of control he could exercise over me, he only boxed the stuff he wanted to give me and nothing else.
I have to admit that the police at this point were brilliant. They saw that he had changed the locks and saw how he behaved. There I was, shaking with sobs, and he – well, he was laughing.
And at this point I was 40 years old, homeless, jobless, desperate. That’s where Women’s Aid South Lanarkshire and East Renfrewshire came into the picture. Because, without WASLER I wouldn’t be standing here today. Not as a high flyer, not as a writer, not even as a woman. I wouldn’t be standing here, period.
This time two years ago, I was suicidal. WASLER provided me with basic human needs; a shelter, food, a stepping stone, the feeling that I am not alone. And before I conclude, I would just like to draw attention to something they asked me to: How you can spot whether domestic abuse and coercive control are happening in your surroundings?
I would say when looking for victims, look for somebody who seems angry at the world, somebody who sounds bitter, disenfranchised. Those are subtle signs. But ask a deeper question: What is really going on? Who are you really angry at?
Because, remember, an abuser doesn’t have a problem with their anger, they have a problem with your anger. An abuser is allowed to rage, insult, and even hit, you’re not - even in self-defence.
Watch out for signs of depression, and although the reasons for depression may be many, I can tell you that in my case, I was depressed because I was oppressed.
Maybe look for someone who’s hoarding, building a cocoon around themselves against any trauma and abuse.
When it comes to abusers themselves, overt Narcissists are easy to spot. What’s difficult to spot are the covert Narcissists. They are constantly playing the role of the victim, asking for pity. The real victims ask for understanding and validation, but never pity. As for covert narcissists, there is always some kind of injustice done to them, but they are doing nothing to change. They actually enjoy it.
Also look for a serial provoker, or use the common vernacular, a shit stirrer, a person who enjoys provoking others, deliberately causing chaos and disruption for no reason, and then sitting back and calling their victim “crazy” and “abusive”, because, you know, “you deserve this”.
All those things have a sever impact on a person’s psyche. As I said, I was suicidal. I even remember hearing on the news how somebody had jumped in front of a train, and all I could think about was, well at least their pain is over.
And it is not just the psyche that is affected. Last summer, I went for an ultrasound check up of my thyroid gland and the first thing the doctor asked me was “Have you been under severe stress recently?”
Because my thyroid gland is not smooth any more, as it is supposed to be. Its surface has become coarse, almost scaly, and although it represents no immediate threat, it will never go back to normal and will have to be monitored for the rest of my life.
As for what eventually saved me from the brink - it was love. Love for my family, as I could not put them through the pain of losing someone close to them. And that ability to love, meant that I could fight, that the dark side hadn’t claimed me, it means that the abusers haven’t won.
I am so grateful for all the support I have received, I am grateful for my ability to love, and share and give back.
And in the name of love, I want to ask everyone who reads this to continue to fight the good fight.
If you or anyone you know is affected by any of the issues raised you can find support through our support page.