Ten years ago this week my dad sat across the table from me, his brow furrowed and his voice low. “Are you okay?” he asked, “Are you lonely here in the evenings by yourself?” I told my father I wasn’t lonely at all and, in fact, I was very grateful for the peace.
Peace. It’s such a small word, but it fills up a room.
For the few years prior to this exchange I had been existing in a state of constant anxiety and stress. I was in an abusive marriage with a man who subjected me to physical, mental, emotional and financial abuse on a daily basis.
Every time he came home, I listened for the way my then husband would close the door as he came into the house. I knew by that simple action how my evening was going to play out. Some evenings, he was in a good mood and, as long as I played by the rules and didn’t do anything to upset him, the evening could go by with minimal shouting and aggression, and another day would pass. On other occasions, my evenings were filled with accusations, gaslighting, threats, violence, and trying to pacify him by any means necessary.
On the surface, we looked like any other family. We had two children, a girl and a boy, and, whenever we met anyone out and about, people would say things like, “a gentleman’s family, how lovely”. My ex would smile and joke and laugh and talk about his latest charity event or his thriving business. To those who didn’t live with him, he was a charming man with a hearty laugh.
Those of us who lived with him knew that he was someone to be feared, with a mood that could change in the blink of an eye if something wasn’t just the way he wanted it to be.
I learned early on that things had to be done in a particular way.
He liked to have chopped fruit available in the fridge all the time, but it had to be uniformly chopped to an exact size or he would become angry. Pineapple was one of his favourites and I used to stand in the kitchen, on high alert, chopping it and making sure that it never ran too low. If I got it wrong, he punished me.
Now, 10 years on, I still can’t stand the smell of pineapple.
I often reflect on how I ended up in the situation that I was in. I had always been fiercely independent and I have a successful career. I have a strong network of close friends and I am incredibly close to my family. Over time, I have come to realise that what happened to me happened slowly, in almost imperceptible ways.
He invalidated every emotion I felt until I didn’t know what I was feeling any more
Constant gaslighting wore me down. In the early days, when he did something to me and I tried to walk away, he would cry and tell me it was because of his childhood and that he didn’t mean to hurt me. That I was his whole life. He would talk about how he had lost his mother and how his early childhood was difficult and he would draw me back in and I’d end up apologising for upsetting him.
When I questioned his actions he would make me doubt myself, he would accuse me of being dramatic, of overreacting, of being anxious and having “issues”. He invalidated every emotion I felt until I didn’t know what I was feeling any more. I was in a constant state of hypervigilance.
When I fell pregnant he was ecstatic, but as the pregnancy progressed through the first trimester he became more and more controlling. I was hospitalised several times and on one of these occasions the nurse on the ward told me they would bring me for a scan so that I could see the baby’s heartbeat. My ex wasn’t there during the scan and I found out alone that it was a twin pregnancy, but that there was no heartbeat.
When I was discharged from hospital he drove me home and told me that I needed to “buck up” and that we could “try again”. He told me to stop crying. I remember sitting on the floor with my back against the bed frame that evening crying, grieving. He walked into the room and told me to get up and to stop crying. He became angry, as angry as I had seen him to that point, and he kicked me in the side as I sat on the floor. I doubled over with pain. He stood above me shouting at me to get up, telling me I wasn’t the only woman in the world to have lost a pregnancy and that I needed to cop on and stop the “pity party”.
In shock, I did what he told me and life went on.
I went to work, I paid the bills, I went out of my way not to upset him. Gradually, he cut me off from friends, made people feel unwelcome and made me feel like he was protecting me from the outside world. When we argued, he told me that I had to write letters to him to apologise. He kept every one of them. He would later produce them in court. He wore me down to the point that I lost sight of who I was and the independent person I had always been became trapped as if below a sheet of ice. My voice silenced.
After I had been in labour for a few hours my ex said he was too tired and went home to sleep. I wasn’t surprised
As time went on, we got married and I fell pregnant with my daughter. I was quite ill after the birth and, on the day my daughter and I were discharged from hospital, my mother and sisters offered to go to my house to get things ready for the baby. I couldn’t wait to see them.
Just before my now ex-husband arrived to drive us home my sister phoned. He had phoned them and told them to stay away. I told my sister that there must be some mistake. When they arrived he was angry and told my eldest sister that he was my family now and that I didn’t need them any more.
Those first few months with my baby were challenging. He refused to deviate from his schedule and, while I struggled to get up after a sleepless night, he would head off to Pilates and then go for a swim. My parents came to visit every day. They could see what was happening and knew I needed help. He had underestimated how close I am to my family and didn’t realise that he would never be able to fully isolate me.
Less than a year after my daughter was born, I was pregnant again. This time, a little boy. After I had been in labour for a few hours my ex said he was too tired and went home to sleep. I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t argue, I just agreed he needed to rest. I didn’t want to make him angry. Several months before this I had been ill with food-poisoning and rather than drive me to the hospital he asked his uncle to drop me at the door of the hospital and phoned my mother to collect our daughter as he had work to do. I was in hospital for four days and he didn’t visit. I knew better than to ask him to stay while I was in labour. My sister was with me when my son was born.
When I brought my son home my husband was annoyed, as he struggled to sleep as I was getting up to the baby several times throughout the night. One day after we had arrived home from the hospital my husband packed myself and the children into the car and drove us to my mother’s house and left us there for six weeks.
My daughter was looking up at me with one single tear running down her face. She was two years old and knew not to make any noise when she cried as it made him angry
When I returned home he emailed me a digital calendar. He had indicated on it when he could spend time with myself and the children. Outside of this, I was not to ask him to spend time with us. His control worsened and everything revolved around his training schedule, his business and his needs.
When the children were both hospitalised with a viral infection, I slept between their cots in the hospital. He didn’t visit, didn’t drop down clean clothes, didn’t even ask how the children were doing. When we returned home, he didn’t touch either of them for several days and told me to sterilise everything in the house to make sure he didn’t get sick.
Then, one night, he wanted to have sex and I refused. He wanted another child and I didn’t. He forced himself on me and when I tried to fight back he looked over at the baby in the crib and said “you don’t want to wake the baby do you?” I was so scared that he would hurt the baby that I stopped fighting. I never told my family and only a few close friends know the extent of the abuse that I experienced.
Things came to a head one Sunday morning when I asked him to keep an eye on the children for a few minutes as I had to clean something up the stairs. When I came back down the children were crying – my daughter sitting on the kitchen floor, my son in a highchair. Their father was nowhere to be seen. An hour later, he returned. I was so incensed they had been left alone that I wasn’t fearful for myself in that moment.
He began throwing pots across the kitchen at me. I was holding the eight-month-old baby, and I felt a little hand grasp my fingers. My daughter was looking up at me with one single tear running down her face. She was two years old and knew not to make any noise when she cried as it made him angry.
In that moment, I knew I had to leave.
I took the children to my parents’ house and as I walked into the kitchen I looked at my mother and said “I can’t do this any more”. My family immediately rallied and within a week they had found a house for myself and the children to rent and had collected our belongings.
My ex-husband went away for a week and sent me a text telling me to “cop on” and to “get back in my box”. He withdrew all funds from the joint account and when I phoned him to tell him I needed to buy oil to heat the house and food for the children he told me to “stop playing games” and said we could “freeze and starve” for all he cared.
Gradually, I got back on my feet with the help of good friends and family. The stress of living in such a hypervigilant state all of the time had taken its toll and it took time for me to begin to heal. I worked three jobs to make ends meet as he refused to support us financially and when I asked him to see the children he refused. Then the first solicitor’s letter arrived. He was taking me to court for access. Access which until this point he had refused. This was the beginning of 10 years of family court.
Ten years of trauma and abuse perpetrated through a system that is supposed to protect children.
A court order for access was granted and he treated it like an a la carte menu and saw the children when it suited him. He claimed poverty in court as he operated a cash-only business and didn’t declare all of his income, and so he was ordered to pay just €30 per week to support the children. He accused me of parental alienation when the children began to refuse to visit him. They were scared of him.
My ex-husband had told me when I left that he would never give me another day of peace in my life and he stayed true to this threat. At handover during access visits he taunted and insulted me, he shouted and physically assaulted me. He stalked me, including waiting outside my place of work in the morning and evening. He tailgated me when I drove home and sent me text messages telling me he knew where I was. He parked across from our house, waiting for hours so he could follow us.
I wonder if the court battles he perpetrated were simply about control over me. Now they are over, he has lost interest
Eventually, a safety order was granted, but he continued to do what he could to harass us within the limits of the law.
The day that he accused me of parental alienation we were in a courtroom. He was representing himself and I was on the stand. I was shaking and spent over an hour on the stand. Using the term “parental alienation” was his trump card, and the judge decided that a report was needed to investigate these claims, even though he acknowledged the children had been mistreated while in the care of their father.
So ensued years of working with a guardian ad litem. Years of reports and meetings. Then years working with a psychologist.
The psychologist identified early on that there had been no “parental alienation”. She also identified that my ex-husband took no responsibility for the way he had treated the children. She recognised that domestic abuse had taken place and that the children had been witness to this from a young age. The psychologist worked with the children on a weekly basis and got to know them really well. They began to trust her and opened up about things that had happened to them with their dad, some of the things I hadn’t even known about.
The children don’t see their father now. He stopped turning up for scheduled visits and sometimes I wonder if the court battles he perpetrated were simply about control over me. Now they are over, he has lost interest.
Every night when I tuck my children into bed and kiss them goodnight I feel so very lucky that we all survived and that we are together, because so many other families weren’t as lucky as us.