Lifting the veil on domestic violence
By Rae McKinlay
(From the April - June 2018 issue of VOX)
Recent social media campaigns like #ChurchToo have highlighted the heartbreaking reality of abuse within churches as well as outside. It can be painful to admit the presence of abuse or domestic violence among people we know, and especially those we worship alongside. When we don’t understand, the all-too-easy response is to bury our heads or deny its existence but this has devastating consequences for those who have suffered abuse. Drawing strongly from her own personal experience and that of women she has supported and helped, writer Rae McKinlay has created this powerful account to lift the veil on what it is like for a domestic abuse survivor.
Sara, my therapist, peers down the rim of her blue spectacles and says, “You’re going through the grieving process.”
“Who died?” I remark. I seem to have developed a gift in sarcasm. I catch a glance at my reflection in the mirror, which hangs resplendent on the wall. The gaunt look is fading but my wide set eyes still sag from lack of sleep. I sense her gaze, which brings me to the moment. I flinch, square my shoulders in a futile attempt to conceal my uneasiness.
“There was emotional investment, hopes and dreams, there’s a death in that.”
It’s been five months, two weeks and three days since I escaped from the grip of a tyrannical partner and I still don’t know whether I am coming or going. Gasping for breath, I reach out to the glass of water on the desk. The tremors begin to wane as I sip slowly.
I am at the end of my tether and, to be honest, I really want to ditch my counselling sessions. I feel they are not helping at all. Nothing seems to work. Five months, two weeks and three days and he is still in my head.
A smile spans across Sara’s face. “It’s time to consider your needs.”
I suppose what I really want is some form of divine retribution. I want him to feel the same wretched pain that I felt and still feel. Then guilt sets in. Nice Christian girls don’t do anger, do they? So I do what I am good at - I bury my anger and wear a painted smile.
What gets me is that he seems to be doing all right. He has not been in touch since I fled the house in my dressing gown. It is the first time he hasn’t. Usually he contacts me, sorrowful and remorseful, sometimes with a bunch of flowers. There was always something, my cooking, my clothing or my speech that would trigger his rage.
There is a petite woman with long ebony hair and Bambi brown eyes hanging around him, now. Perhaps that’s why he hasn’t contacted me. But it is all in my mind, he laughs. His towering presence bellowing that he is a godly man. I’m the one who has dishonoured our marriage, he adds. “She is just a member of the fellowship group.” But I scrutinise every photo on Facebook looking for the chink. He posts a lot these days of him enjoying life. It only serves to keep me miserable.
Tears prick my cheek. It is all too much for me. I am alone and isolated. I was the one who had to leave the church. Though everyone said they weren’t taking sides, it became apparent that I was too uncomfortable to be around. It was difficult during tea. I had to endure furtive glances and whispers. Years of walking on eggshells have conditioned me into someone who just can’t respond appropriately to situations like that.
When the pastor asked to meet us together I’m the one who caused a scene. I ranted at the pastor while my husband sat there with a smug look on his face. It only served to make the matter worse and I scuttled away, embarrassed. The pastor looked at me with pity in his eyes but I could sense that it was easier for him to make the matter go away... invisible like my scars. I got the feeling that he didn’t quite believe me.
My husband is charismatic and impeccably mannered. His eyes flicker with charm to the church fellowship, his work colleagues and our neighbours but yield a cold fury towards me. It was in the moments when he was accommodating to others that the pain really ripped me apart. He said I was jealous but I resented that he was comfortably violent to me alone.
In the fractured silence, Sara interjects, “There is never any excuse for violence.” And then adds, “It’s okay to be angry – it’s part of the process of recovery.”
Angry, of course I am angry. I am angry that I am nothing like the woman I was before he married me. Once I had confidence and could assert myself. Nowadays, I fear speaking in case I say the wrong word. I am angry that I believed him when he said he would make an effort to change. I am angry that he talked me out of my job. It was “his place” to be the breadwinner and mine to be the homemaker. I am angry that he used the Bible to validate the abuse. I am angry that I am still wasting energy thinking about him. I am red with anger and now I’m the one who wants to resort to violence. I want to punch his round bullying face...
... Six months, three weeks and one day. My husband is no longer a Facebook friend. In an act that took less than ten seconds, the thread that kept me attached to him is cut. Though darts of rain pound the streets, it has been one of my better days. I feel safe and revel in the joy of being able to sleep without wondering whether I ought to push the bed against the bedroom door. I feel so good that I even bought a new mustard jacket in the sales. The first new item I have bought myself in years.
He never liked mustard. “Too gaudy,” he maintained.
Now I am slowly making my own choices. The path ahead is difficult and guilt still makes its presence known about leaving him. But surely God would not want me to be in a dangerous situation? The memory of his hands around my throat yet again is a testament to the danger of return.
I would love to find a church but I am afraid that I may be judged. I am not ready to hear from someone who has never walked in my shoes that I ought to go back to him and then suggest I should pray into the situation. I prayed for years - but the violence continued.
Sara’s face breaks into a smile as she ushers me into her office. I can tell that she is pleased with my progress. I am grateful that I didn’t quit counselling and now I’m ready to move on to the affinity group. It would be nice to make some friends. The room seems brighter. It is the first time that I take in the framed portraits and the array of pot plants. The mirror still hangs in its usual spot. As I walk by I catch a glimpse of myself. A smile pops back.
Mustard looks good on me.
HOW TO GET HELP
If you have been affected by any of the issues highlighted in this article, help is available both in Ireland and Northern Ireland. See below for some of the services available. We recognise that these issues can affect both women and men. Most services have facilities to provide support and care regardless of gender.
Helplines and Practical Support
Women’s Aid (Ireland)
National Freephone Helpline 1800 341 900 (24/7)
www.womensaid.ie - including a list of all Women’s Refuges and local support services.
Women’s Aid (Northern Ireland)
24-hour Domestic and Sexual Violence Helpline 0808 802 1414
www.womensaidni.org - including a list of Women’s Refuges and local support services.
RAPE CRISIS HELP (Ireland)*
24 Hour Helpline on 1800 778888
www.rapecrisishelp.ie - including details of how to find a rape crisis centre near you.
*For NI use the Domestic and Sexual Violence Helpline listed under Women’s Aid NI
Samaritans - someone to talk to 24/7
Northern Ireland: 0845 790 9090 (Freephone)
Ireland: 116 123 (free to call from landlines and mobiles)
Rae McKinlay lives in Ballydehob, West Cork. She is a storyteller and free-lance community development facilitator. She has three adult children. When she is not telling tales Rae creates and draws cartoon characters.