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Jessica

Age at interview: 46
Brief Outline: Jessica knew something was wrong in her marriage but it was only when a friend recommended the Freedom Programme that she realised that her husband was controlling and abusive and it wasn’t up to her to ‘keep trying to hold the marriage together’. With the help of a friend she left, with only a ‘plastic bag’.
Background: Jessica is a single retired white British woman in her fifties. She has lived alone for three years since leaving her abusive marriage of 27 years. She has two adult children. She was employed until she developed fibromyalgia.

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Jessica experienced emotional - psychological and financial abuse in her marriage to a man she describes as ‘very controlling and manipulative’. Her husband never said anything good about her, turning her family and friends against her so that she became very isolated. She struggled with her ‘two jobs’- working night shifts and taking care of two young children by day. She became anxious about leaving the children in the care of her husband who did not look after them properly. Her husband was unsympathetic about Jessica’s health problems, offering no practical support or help at home. Following hospitalisation for surgery she was expected to do the family food shopping on the way home. 

She felt that her husband had taken over her whole life, taking control of household finances and making a timetable for her days in which she had no say. Small details illustrate the bigger picture. She never cut the cheese straight enough, she had no access to the TV remote and was not allowed to read in bed. Eventually she lost touch with her self-will and felt ‘broken ...a nothing’.

Following the suggestion of a friend, she attended the Freedom project (a rolling programme of group support and learning for women experiencing domestic violence and abuse). This was a ‘wake-up call’, meeting other women in similar circumstances, understanding that she was in an abusive relationship and recognising the controlling tactics used by her husband. She found this new knowledge ‘empowering’ and eventually left.

Over several months, she put together a ‘survival pack’ of money, passport and a few belongings at a friend’s house, until she was ready to leave. When the day came her friend had cold feet and did not want Jessica to stay. She found temporary accommodation through an acquaintance and then moved into a women’s refuge for three months. She describes the difficulty of sharing a house with others, the absence of staff and the sense that she was ‘living in hiding’. She underwent a grieving process, missing her house, her possessions and her role as wife and mother. She felt she had lost everything and had to ‘start from scratch’ to rebuild her life. 

Life after the refuge was difficult. Jessica felt un-supported by health and social care professionals since they did not seem to understand domestic abuse. She made use of the national Helpline and accessed counselling which she describes as beneficial but too short (six sessions). She recognises that it can be difficult for GPs (general practitioners) to identify psychological abuse, especially if, like Jessica, women ‘walk around with a smile on their face’ to hide what is going on. She feels that health visitors could be more aware of signs of the impact of domestic abuse on children.

Life continues to be tough for Jessica, who has ongoing health problems and continues to deal with harassment and manipulation from her ex-partner as they go through divorce proceedings. Re-building her life is a long slow process but she says that it is ‘good to be alive ... it gives you a buzz’. Overall the experience has made her stronger. She feels that she has always had a ‘little’ soft voice that is now expanding through workshops such as self-esteem building, craft, drumming and laughter workshops; things that she would never have done when married. She also acts as a research advisor for the domestic violence research group at her local University. 

Jessica stresses how important it is for women to leave at the time that is right for them, and she wants to reassure women that support is out there. She waited until her children were adults before she left her husband. She had believed for many years that she should try harder to hold the marriage together and keep her husband happy. She also says how important it is to stick with the decision to leave, even when others around you are judgmental. Friends and family do not always understand the inside story of a marriage. Jessica recognises that she now has the choice to do things differently and so she cuts her cheese in pyramids!
 

Jessica realised, after attending the Freedom Project (a group course for women experiencing abuse) that her partner ‘was domineering’ and had ‘taken over her whole life’.

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And would you describe what was going on as he was very controlling? Is that, that how it was for you?

Extremely controlling. Yes.

I mean, did you realise at the time that it was domestic abuse? Or not really?

I knew that there was something wrong in the marriage, that but I didn’t know it was domestic abuse. No. No. I didn’t find out about that until much, much later.

When abouts did that realisation come to you? Or …

After many years of marriage and friends said to me about going to the Freedom programme, and I just, the second session, the person that ran it just looked at me and said to me, “Do you want to make some phone calls?” And I just looked at her and went, “Mmm, yeah”.

And she took me aside and I made those phone calls. It was very, very difficult.

Who were the phone calls to?

I think one was, might have been to social services. The other one, I think, to [specialist domestic abuse services for women and children], I’m not sure.

At what stage, how far into your marriage was that event that you just described to me?

That was incredibly about 26 years.

Right. Yeah.

Yeah.

Yeah. And how’d you’d coped with all that going on for 26 years?

I kept thinking maybe it was me, maybe I should keep trying and I kept trying in the marriage, you know, you just kept as you do, you keep trying and then after going, doing a couple of session at the Freedom programme I suddenly realised, you know, that it wasn’t me, that he’d been controlling and he’d been abusive and at that point even my son recognised that I’d changed. I suddenly decided to stop trying because I’d always tried in the marriage.

What does trying mean to you?

Just carrying on with the marriage, trying to keep it, pull ….

Trying to keep them happy, that kind of thing, do you mean? Or, or not particularly?

Not particularly, no. Just I don’t know, putting spice back into the marriage.

Right.

You know, anything really to hold it together.

Yes.

And when I actually stopped, for the first time I realised he hadn’t been trying for an awful long time. Probably hadn’t been trying for years and years.

He hadn’t been trying?

No.

No. 

No.

So, what happened then? When you stopped trying.

Yeah, big wake-up call for me. I started seeing the flaws in our marriage then. And also having, and the knowledge the Freedom programme, we were learning about just, you know, how abusive he had been and lots of other women all in the same situation. And at that point I decided I was going to leave. And I started making preparations to leave. 
 

Jessica’s husband was unsympathetic and uncaring towards her when she became unwell, mocking her disability and even causing injuries.

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And I think somewhere in this history you’ve been telling me about your marriage you were diagnosed with fibromyalgia, is that correct? 

That’s correct, yeah.

Yeah, when, when did that happen?

About 2002, something like that.

Right.

And the impact was that I was unable to work, I’d always had two jobs. And suddenly I couldn’t work. And, so I was not bringing any money in. And also he didn’t help at all. He didn’t understand the illness, and he didn’t want to understand the illness.

And did that make things even more difficult, would you say, in the marriage?

Extremely so, yes. And also he would make fun of me in front of the children. Because I would forget things, or come out with some, something strange and he would, you know, point it out and make fun.

And that’s part of the condition? 

Yes. Yeah. And like I’d get lost. On holiday we’d try and always stay in the same accommodation block and we’d be on the beach and he’d sit and he would watch with the kids while I got lost going back to the room. And he would think it was funny and amusing. And he would have the air conditioning on in the room, knowing that I couldn’t sleep with the noise of the air conditioning. And there’s lots of things like that.
 

Jessica described her partner isolating her from her friends and the impact that this had on her self-esteem.

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He made an awful lot of people disappear throughout my life. And when I was, at my 40th birthday party he only had his friends at my birthday party, none of my friends, because he said he didn’t like their husbands. And it was all of his relations there, none of mine. Apparently he told his family that I was having a separate party, but I wasn’t.

So how were you feeling at that time?

That everybody seemed to be deserting me and I was all on my own and my self-esteem was really low and, especially when you’ve got young children, because you’re very isolated then anyway, and, like I’d always worked and suddenly you can’t work, you’re isolated with the children you’re a new mum. Which, you know, you’re just stuck in the house. Extremely lonely. 

He broke me. Totally.

Yeah.

I didn’t have any say, I had no self-will any more. And …

So, he’d broken you?

Literally.

Over the relationship?

Yeah. Totally broke me.

Hmm.

Yeah. So I became a nothing. Yeah.

Gosh.

Hm. Yeah. I was the strong one in the relationship and he broke me. 
 

After leaving her marriage of twenty-seven years, Jessica realised that she had lost everything, including her children, but she is now working on rebuilding her life ‘as a new me’.

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I’ve lost everything really. And I’ve got to rebuild my life as, as a new me. As a single person. My children still don’t have contact.

You don’t have contact from either of them?

No. I was making all the, with my son, I was actually making bridges and we sort of like go two steps forward and one back, and then one day he came to where I was living and he’d just had a meal with my husband and he was abusive. He said to me, I read the divorce papers and your assets are blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and the time before he’d been my place he’d been in the rooms and he said also, your assets are and the bailiffs can take the lot. He said, “Dad’s picking me up and I’m going there”. And with that he got up and he left. 

Was that the place where you are currently living, he came, or …?

Yes. And I changed the locks, I was told to change the locks.

So you’re still getting ongoing harassment and contact?

No, because I’ve stopped trying to make bridges. I’ve decided that he’s an adult I’ve done my bit and if he wants to, he knows where I live and if he wants to make contact he can. So I’ve had to literally cut him out of my life.

And why are you experiencing, do, why would you say you’re experiencing difficulty having contact with your children?

He’s manipulating them. My son has to live, I know I’m making excuses, my son has to listen to him all the time going on about me. And with my daughter, he has put money into an account for her, so he’s buying her.
 

Jessica’s husband neglected their very young baby leaving him to ‘scream and scream’ while he was ‘tinkering’ in the loft.

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Looking back to the time when you were living in the marriage, was your husband ever abusive to the children?

Yes. Especially when they were babies and I can remember the first time I went out and left my son, when he was, I don’t know, a few months old, it was the first time I actually got to leave the house without him, and somebody invited me to a ceramics party and my son was asleep in his Moses basket downstairs and I hadn’t, I’d only gone out for two hours at the most, and I’d come back and I’d found my son still in the Moses basket but he had cried and screamed and he was sweaty. He’d peed so much the Moses basket was saturated and he was absolutely exhausted. And my husband had gone up in his loft space, which was this where he liked to, you know, tinker with different things and he’d stayed up there the whole time. And when I said to him about it he said it did him good. And yet I could have lost him that night. So easily lost him. And so I didn’t leave him, I didn’t go out. Yeah, that really hurts, to think that he could have done that. 

Is your son the older of the, of your two…?

Yes…

… children?

… he is. Yes.

And was your husband abusive towards your daughter at all?

He [sighs] idolised her. In fact he idolises her so much that people notice it, notice when she, because she lives away that his whole demeanour changes when she’s around. And it worried me that maybe he’d sexually abused her or something. But she said he has not.

OK. 

But he just adores her. And when my daughter’s there he ignores my son totally. It’s as if he doesn’t exist in the house. It often happened like that.

As if my son meant nothing.
 

Jessica said ‘by going through the [refuge] door you lost your identity’, but she encouraged her local Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency to incorporate a simple ‘welcome pack’.

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It was a new refuge they hadn’t stocked it up with any of the things that we needed. We were left there two of us on a Friday, with no toilet rolls, no towels, no telephone, no nothing. We were, two of us left there. The other person had just been rescued from a house from her mother and she just had the clothes she was wearing. I was better off. And it was just awful. And we didn’t get a lot of support because the staff kept leaving. And things happened in the refuge, just, the fuse box nearly caught fire, the sewage system got blocked. We had black fly infestation [laughs]. It just was awful. And you think you’re sharing a house with other people, but nobody’s interacting with anybody. And you could be in the house and not know if anybody else was in the house. And it was really strange place to be.

And also you, by going through the door you lost your identity, because you were living in a hiding, you became a nobody. And that’s really awful as well. You know, one minute you are  a wife, mother, and then you are, become a nobody. You sort of, a bit like being on a desert island with nothing. 

The experience in the refuge, the support when you first leave.

Yeah.

I think it’s vital that you have people to talk to when you need to and since [local domestic abuse agency] have put into action something I suggested which was when somebody goes into the refuge there’s a box of tissues [laughs] which is vital, which means you are loved and supported and a little goody bag with like soap and flannel and a towel, and toilet roll. And a little package of food.

Yes.

Because you go in with nothing. And, I mean, just that box of tissues, just means so much to you. That you know, that somebody’s supporting you. And that’s what [local domestic abuse agency] produce now.

And that’s because of what you said?

Yeah. Yeah, they’ve put this little package together.

Well done.

Yeah. 

OK.

But also I think its ongoing support. Because, OK, you move on and time goes by, but like with me it’s my whole life, it’s that impact of my whole life and it’s not a quick fix.

So you need ongoing support when you, you know, because once you come out of the refuge and that, there is very little afterwards. And to go through abuse is different from other things. And you just can’t talk to anybody about it because there’s not that understanding there.
 

Jessica had a counsellor who ‘knows everything about abuse’, which was much more helpful than the general counselling she had previously had.

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I did counselling with [local domestic abuse agency], at, that’s the best counselling I’ve ever had.

Ohh.

But unfortunately they can only give you so many sessions and that’s with a counsellor that knows everything about abuse and she just understands where you’re coming from all the time. And …

Was that you got that because you was, you were in a refuge belonging to [specialist domestic abuse service], it’s like a partner organisation, [local mental health and housing association for women].

That’s right, yes. Yes. 

And in what ways did you find that helpful?

It, it was just a way of, you can, you could talk to and she could relate to everything that you’d been through. Because I think that other counsellors, they’re good but they, they don’t know about abuse in the way that you have if you’ve been through it. 

Have you had experience of other counsellors who don’t really know about abuse?

Quite a few, yes.

Have you?

Yeah, Yeah.

What type of counsellors? For example, were they through the GP or …

Through the GP and private agencies, yes.

Hm. And did that, from what you’re saying, has that been less, less helpful for you?

Less helpful yeah.

Hm.

Yeah.
 

Jessica described the roller-coaster of emotional ups and downs when she left her marriage of 27 years.

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That, I started finding someone I could trust and putting together a little survival pack for myself. Some money, my passport, and different things. Gradually gathering things together and hiding them at this persons place.

And was that person a friend, or…

It was a friend, yes. She said that she had a spare room, and would take me in. 

Hm. And did she help you decide what you needed to have in that survival bag? Or was that what you knew you needed?

I think it was what I knew I needed. Yeah. Yeah. And it was just one morning, I woke up one morning, I think it was a Tuesday morning, I just woke up and I thought, “Today’s the day”. 

Wow.

Yeah. And that day, it didn’t matter what happened, I was not going to stay. I was going to leave.

Do you know what it was about that day?

I just woke up and thought, “Today’s the day”. 

Gosh. So you …

Yeah …

… hadn’t thought about it the day before, or planned it in that detail or anything?

No. No. I just woke up and thought, “Right, this is the day”.

So how long had you been collecting your survival kit together and taking it round to your friend’s house?

Quite slowly, so he wouldn’t notice anything. But over quite a few months.

So, she didn’t take you in?

No. No, I rang her up and she said, “No”. I’d come to my next door neighbour’s, who knew nothing about what was going on behind closed doors and she rang her as well and she said no she wouldn’t take me in, she never meant to.

Your neighbour rang her for you? Is that what you’re saying?

Yeah. As well. And she said no she wouldn’t take me in.

But she had your survival bag.

Yeah, and a spare room with a nice bed, and I can still see the duvet over that bed.

Oh my goodness. So what happened next?

I was adamant I wasn’t, I wasn’t going back. I rang up anybody, everybody I knew and it was an acquaintance that I’d met on a course and she said, “Yes”. 

From the Freedom project, someone from Freedom …

No, no, no, no, it was a different course. And she said yes. She was at work to meet her in town and I actually didn’t meet her in town, I met her in a car park and waited for her to finish work. And followed her back to where she lived. She had a one-bed, rented accommodation, and I slept on her sofa for many weeks.

Wow. Goodness.

Yeah. 

And did you get your survival bag?

Yes. Yeah. I called round there one afternoon. I didn’t give her any, I didn’t ring her up or anything. I just called, just called, and I said, “I’ve come to get my stuff”. And I took it.

Did she give you any explanation?

She just said I was never meant to leave. But and she actually rang my husband to see where I was. 
 

For Jessica, domestic abuse was ‘different from other things’. She found she couldn’t talk to anybody about it ‘because there’s not that understanding there’.

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But also I think its ongoing support. Because, OK, you move on and time goes by, but like with me it’s my whole life, it’s that impact of my whole life and it’s not a quick fix.

So you need ongoing support when you, you know, because once you come out of the refuge and that, there is very little afterwards. And to go through abuse is different from other things. And you just can’t talk to anybody about it because there’s not that understanding there.

Hmm. So what form would you like that ongoing support to take?

It would have been nice to have had more from [local mental health and housing association for women]. And maybe a follow through after a certain length of time.

After those sessions ended sort of …

Yeah.

… a follow on?

Yeah. I don’t know, I know you’ve got the 24 hour domestic abuse help line and things like that which actually the other day I did phone up and because of all my childhood stuff started bringing stuff up, so I did actually ring there. I don’t know, just some sort of agency out there that you can tap into. And it’s also like social networking, because it’s like you’ve, you’ve got an illness or something and sometimes you need to be with other similar people so that you can discuss and things. 

So perhaps networking with other women who’ve been through abuse, that type of thing?

Yeah. Yeah. 

Hm. What was it like using the helpline, having a telephone contact with someone rather than a face to face contact?

That was OK, because I just wanted somebody to talk to. I didn’t need one-to-one face at that point, I just needed somebody to listen and that was excellent. If I’d phoned a different sort of help line I wouldn’t have got that sort of interaction I wanted. So it helped.

It’s important for you that there’s a domestic violence …

Yeah…

…help line?

… very much so.
 

Jessica described the pleasure of being able to do what she wanted, when she wanted.

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But yeah, things have definitely changed. It’s about doing what I want to do, when I want to do it. Or when I first left, I was, I did everything that he used to constrain me. Like cutting the cheese was always wrong. I never cut it straight enough. 

So I, when I left him I sort of cut the cheese in pyramid shapes or any way I wanted to. And it was about doing all the opposites of what he held me to for all the years. And like if I wanted to dress up for having my tea, I would dress up for having my tea. It didn’t, it just didn’t need to be an excuse.

And if I want to clean, I clean. And if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. 

Hmm. Any other things, I love the cheese example.

Yeah, it’s good [laughs].

[Laughs]

And like going to bed and reading in bed. He used to say, “Oh, some of us have got to go to work tomorrow.” So you, you could never read in bed. And, it’s just some of those little tiny things he dominated the remote control on the TV. So I had to watch the same programmes over and over. And if nipped out to the loo, I’d come back and think, “I can’t understand this film” because he would have turned it over. And he’d always say, “Oh, well I might have missed that bit when I went to the loo.” So you’d see the same one, film, over and over and over. And he would never let me see the programmes I wanted to. And now I can have the TV off, for a whole week. It doesn’t have to be on. It’s great [laughs].
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