I take a breath before I type.
I am a survivor of emotional domestic violence. I am a survivor of sexual domestic violence. I am a survivor of verbal domestic violence. I loved the perpetrator, and he is loved by so many people, and he is dead.
I said it.
Complex grief is complex.
Why am I telling this now? Because I need to. Because my daughter needs me to. Because I speak out on behalf of so many other survivors, and still haven’t shared my own truth, and I feel like I am a coward for not stepping forward with my own story
So, when I was 21 I met Kev, a 43-year old fixer-upper – ex-heroin addict, traumatic childhood, failed marriage – the lot. Being 21 and therefore both omniscient and immortal, I decided to Mend Him. He was a breathtaking musician and a fiercely political man; an experienced fighter for all the same things I was becoming aware of, and I loved him. We married when I was 24 and he was 45. He had always had anger issues and episodes of awful verbal abuse, followed by apologies and promises to change; the episodes became fewer and he became far more self-aware as the years passed, although he continued to use any vulnerability or crisis as an opportunity to offload his anger (as an example, when I was 29 and Ella was 1 my mum died unexpectedly; just weeks later he went into a rage about me ‘ignoring’ him, and demanded a divorce. Once again he backed down, but it was another thing to carry at a time when I was already exhausted), and he was a skilled gaslighter. In addition my first ‘real’ relationship had been abusive, and in a sad, strange way, this already felt normal.
When I was in my mid-30s we hit our lowest patch. Within a year there were two separate incidents of physical violence on his part, including him choking me to the point of unconsciousness, attempting to bite my bottom lip off, and hitting me so hard across my face, again and again, that it initially looked like he had broken my jaw (he was 6’ 5” and I’m 5’ 3”; fighting back, sleepy and confused, was not an option). I went to the doctor and said I had been hit by a stranger at a party; I was ashamed of the truth. My jaw was not broken, but for two weeks the only way I could open my mouth was to slide my finger between my teeth.
Afterwards he wanted sexual contact to calm himself down, and all I could do was lie there and let him. Tiny Ella was in the house at the time and I didn’t even dare call the police because I was terrified of losing my home, and, ridiculously, ruining his life. He never hit me again after these episodes but there were further episodes of emotional and verbal abuse (trying to kick our front door down, throwing a bowllful of soup across the room so it shattered into countless shards), although fewer, and it was also a good marriage in between the dark points. I know how bizarre that sounds; the love I expressed when I announced his death, and spoke about at his funeral, were entirely genuine.
Oh, the complexity of grief. Unless you’ve been there, you have no idea.
As most of you now know When I was 42 and Ella was 14, Kev dropped dead in front of us from an aortic dissection. He was 64. In keeping with the rest of his chaotic life he was intestate and uninsured, and so the next couple of years saw me become a professional widow and single parent – I managed to keep our home, did a Masters degree, made the leap to become a professional writer. I also started online dating. After a rocky start to the whole venture, I met James, and my life changed once again. So much so that I proposed and we got married the following December. He was and is the most gentle, calm man I have ever met, and ironically this is part of the problem I faced – James’ treatment of me was such a stark contrast to Kev’s.
The incidents in my first marriage that I normalised came back to haunt me – why didn’t I fight back, or leave, or report him? The fact that I loved him and he loved me, or that there were ‘good times too’ seem to be ridiculous excuses and if another woman told me this same tale I would be incredulous that she stayed. I still don’t have the answers to any of this. I’m sharing it now because I’m about to hit 50 and I’m tired of juggling my words, and Ella has told me it will make it easier for her to talk to people, and I love her with all my soul. If you’re hurt by this admission I feel for you, but the living will always trump the dead.
And also, this keeps happening. To my friends, my family, to women I love, or who I just follow on instagram, or who I admire in the news. I am part of this narrative, and I have a story I can share and an understanding that might just make the difference to another young woman setting out on the same journey. I will probably write more in the future, but for now I needed the story told.
Thank you for listening.
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