One in Four*

Jessica** writes about her experience in an abusive, long-term same sex relationship

Just what would it take for you to leave her?”

This was never an easy question to answer. By the time it was being asked by my friends, family or therapist – every time I broke down in tears describing a conversation, an event or yet another hideous argument – I didn’t know, let alone trust, my own mind. I had allowed myself to be systematically stripped of my sense of autonomy. I was functioning as an adjunct to another human being. A ‘more important’, saint-like human being, who showed the world such a different side to the one she showed me. 

And every time I was asked, I would question the questioner. Was I mad – or bad – or both?  Blaming myself was the one thing I had become extremely good at.

Then there were the countless times I asked the same question of myself. Particularly those desperate moments looking up at one of the beams in my house, wondering how much it would hurt to put a rope around my neck and step off a chair.

Up to this time in my life, I had felt so blessed. Wonderful family and friends, an incredible education, a successful career. Although I knew about male to female violence and abuse, it had never occurred to me that female to female DVA was a thing. I’d never heard of phrases like gaslighting, coercive control or narcissistic personality disorder. I’d had no reason to. I thought I was an ok sort of person – I’d been told I was a good friend and a good listener – and had always prided myself on being able to read people and situations, both personally and professionally.

As a result, finding myself in an emotionally abusive relationship completely crept up on me. Things had been getting worse and worse and, despite my mother and some brave friends trying to warn me, I sailed – by choice – blindly on. I hadn’t noticed how many friends I had cut off, because my partner didn’t like them. I didn’t question how often it was easier not to go out on my own because of the quantity of texts I’d get when I was out; on the contrary, I was flattered that she was worried about my safety and missed me so much. I didn’t wonder why it was ok for her to talk, endlessly, about herself and her relationships before me, but not for me to do the same. I didn’t worry at all that people were starting to ask me why I wasn’t talking and why I would let her answer, even when questions were asked directly to me. I didn’t even notice the invitations starting to dry up. I was just happy knowing that someone so dynamic, so charismatic, loved me. I relaxed into her shadow.

I’d disappeared. I disappeared so completely that, even though every cell in me was telling me that something was desperately wrong, I thought I was the bad one and that I should stay and make things right. I’d been told it so often during our arguments that I came to believe it. Unquestioningly. I could barely function and had completely lost perspective. I felt so worthless, so ashamed, such an evil, unstable person, that I often felt the only thing to do was end it all.

So – that fateful night, when her drunken alter ego was out again, screaming, making accusations, I am glad she hit me. Because that – in the end – was what it took to wake me up. I went upstairs and jammed the spare room door shut, putting a kitchen knife under my mattress. I took pictures of the huge mark on my face and neck and texted a friend to let her know what had happened. Just in case.  But it didn’t occur to me to leave the house or call the police, even then.

It took months to break away. Months during which she told and retold the story of her violence to make me the villain – telling me I deserved to be hit (“It was only a light slap”) and that, if I told anyone, she would say that I’d hit myself. I’ve lost so many so-called friends who chose to believe her version of our story; that I was the abusive one. It’s taken a long, long time to get over that damage and – to be honest – there are still times when I feel the pernicious fingers of despair and doubt around my heart. Could I have behaved better? Was she right?

It’s true, I didn’t always behave impeccably. There were times when I acted in ways that I feel embarrassed about now. At the time, I saw them as proof that she was right, that I was a terrible human being. Spiteful things said in the heat of an argument or shouting at her or others. Thankfully, I am surrounded by family, friends and a therapist who tell me that it was perfectly normal, in the circumstances, to occasionally get angry and that this wasn’t the proof of me being abusive – it’s the impact of prolonged gaslighting. That it’s normal, years on, still to call someone in tears to ask if I am a bad person. And that it was the right thing not to make my story public and fight her fire with fire.

I’m slightly embarrassed to tell my story here alongside people who have suffered much worse violence and abuse than me. I also know how lucky I am; I was able to walk away and re-fill my life with happiness and joy without feeling fear daily. So many people never get that chance. But I feel that, by writing this, maybe it might resonate with someone, somewhere, and that they might recognise what is happening so that they – too – can get out before it’s too late.

*Stonewalls national surveys from 2008 and 2011 show that one in four lesbian and bi women have experienced domestic abuse in a relationship

**Name has been changed

If you're experiencing abuse or worried about a friend, support is available from Galop - the national domestic abuse helpline for LGBT+ people: 0800 999 5428