It was just before Christmas, 11 years ago, that Women’s Refuge saved my life.
To be honest, I was nervous about calling them – and not just for the obvious reasons. I thought that I might be faced with nothing but a group of man-hating lesbians, or that they’d tell me that what I was going through didn’t really count. I thought they would tell me that I was creating this problem, and I just needed to be a more considerate, more understanding girlfriend. Either way, I expected to be confirmed in my judgement that calling them was the wrong idea.
What surprised me was that they asked a lot about my feelings. They acted like my feelings mattered, when it was so obvious to me that they didn’t. They asked about the things he said. They suggested phrases that I knew had come out of his mouth word-for-word. It was like they’d run a secret tape recording of our worst days, and then played them back to me. It really made me wonder if there’s always such an obvious pattern to these things. And if it’s so obvious, did that make me even more stupid that I didn’t see it coming? There were all those little signs that I dismissed at the start: me trying to tell him about my day, and waiting patiently for half an hour while he finished his story, only to then have him yell that I was always interrupting him… stuff like that. The stuff that, at the time, just made me think I needed to try harder and be more considerate of his feelings…
The next thing that surprised me about the Women’s Refuge was that they were very realistic about where my head was at. There was no sense of blame or judgement. They explained that these things can escalate very fast… and it already had escalated fast. In three months we’d gone from “I never want to see you hurt” to “I kept this box so that I can shove your dead body in it”. They said that I needed to draw a line in the sand, but that I shouldn’t do that until I was really and truly prepared to leave. Because if you give him an ultimatum, and he breaks it (which you can virtually guarantee he will), then you have to follow through. If he crosses your line and you don’t leave, then he knows he can just cross any line with you. And you will lose all sight of yourself and the person you once were… Even if you live, you’ll drown…
It took me another month before I was actually ready to draw that line. And of course he crossed it. He crossed it within three days… And I had to invite my parents over to my place while he moved out his stuff, although they were very confused by this. He was nothing but caring and polite while they were there. He said he’d had an epiphany, and everything would be different from now on. I was extremely conscious that one of the things he’d left at my place was a set of knives…
He kept coming back for three months. Leaving notes and flowers sometimes. But mostly he just hung around outside late at night. He’d once told me the story of how his “slut” ex-girlfriend had cheated on him and so he’d attempted suicide in her driveway to teach her a lesson. I knew that he was waiting to catch me with another man – I could never make up for all the men I was screwing in his head – but there was nobody else. My life was in pieces. I put deadbolts on the windows and slept with the lights and TV on, when I slept at all. I kept a huge hunting knife under my pillow. Women’s Refuge were right about that too: ending the relationship is one thing, but the recovery takes a long time. In many ways, it was the first time that I’d actually been able to pull the curtain away from the fear, and the grief, and a whole heaping ton of pain. I started burning myself. I couldn’t go to the supermarket without having a panic attack. Everyone was looking at me, and all of those men wanted to hurt me, and my blood would turn to jagged ice water in my veins. It was tough.
… But that was 11 years ago, and things are so very different now.
There’s really no way to express how grateful I am for all of the wonderful people who stuck steadfast with me through these past 11 years, and for all of the strong and understanding people who have come into my life since then. I wouldn’t have any of it if it wasn’t for one rational, compassionate stranger at Women’s Refuge. And every Christmas I think of how inadequate my gratitude must seem. I always try to give them something that they can use at this time of year – food, money, toys. Just the general necessities for all the people like me, who find themselves washed up on that particular doorstep on Christmas. But it never seems to be enough. What price do you put on your life?
When I called the Refuge this year, they suggested that I donate food to the Auckland City Mission. The Mission deals with all the food parcels. So that’s where I went today – along with about a thousand other people it seemed. It’s beautiful to see so many people just being generous in whatever way they can. I’d say that it’s the true spirit of Christmas, but I think it’s just the spirit of humanity in general. As much as we tend to blame humanity for all its evils, we tend to forget how much good we do too. We pick up and protect others of our species when they need it most.
And I’m grateful. Because someone else’s generosity kept me alive one year. And while I can’t ever wholly repay that debt, I’d hope that every one of us can pay it forward.