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Joanna's Story

(all names have been changed to protect the person's identity)

I was 22 when I first met my ex-partner, I was living and working in Nice at the time. He owned a bar and was almost 10 years older than me. We met by accident really as my friends and I would often go to this bar on the weekends and then it quickly became our regular hangout. A few months went by and we began to speak more and more, he was funny, all the women his age that went there liked him and he had this carefree, live for the moment way about him. Not long after I found myself dating him. I was young and never took these thing very seriously, until one day I heard him talking on the phone to his mother to whom he explained he was with his girlfriend for the day so wasn’t going to pass by that evening. I looked around, I was the only girl in the room, so I figured I was her. Things were great for a while, he was spontaneous, loved eating out and going on road trips and always surprised me with little gifts a few days after I’d noticed them when we were out somewhere together. He wasn’t prince charming by any means but he was fun and very attentive. After about 6 months we decided to move in together and that’s where things started to change. He became possessive, suspicious and sometimes controlling. He’d always ask where I was going, what time I’d be back and if men would be there. At first I didn’t really understand. I’d never been in a serious relationship before so part of me shrugged it off. I’d always heard people talk about all how “compromise” and “sacrifices” are essential to making a relationship work, and I assumed that this is what they meant. At heart I’m a bit of a loner, I enjoy being alone in the house, I’m more than happy to eat alone and I’ve never been someone that has been the “girlfriend girl” so for me this was what I understood as a period of adjustment. But, he wanted to be together all the time, always wanted to talk, eat together and spend our weekends together. I enjoyed that but still wanted my own social life and my freedom. I found a job in Monaco and moved there only into a few months of us deciding to be together. My job came with housing privileges and I relished the opportunity to live alone again.

Looking back I realise I wasn’t completely honest about this with him but I knew at the time if I was, he’d have persuaded me, or essentially forced me not to take the position. The first few months were ok, he adjusted well and we took turns spending time at each others places. But the more time we spent apart the more I realised he didn't trust me. If I had plans one evening he’d threaten not to come and visit for the rest of the week. He’d ask me why I didn’t like spending time with him, and why I thought my friends were more important than our relationship. I can only assume he started drinking more because of this and whenever something got to him, usually in a drunken stupor I was the one who was on the receiving end of his tirade of abuse. Intimately things changed too, he wanted it more, I wanted it less. This too caused a lot of fights. 

His possessiveness got unhealthy and my friends started to notice, not only his behaviour but mine too. I was always confident and outgoing and a social bean, but I stopped calling, stopped going out, and if I did it was with him and deep inside I just wanted the evening to be over before it had chance to begin. I couldn’t stand sitting opposite from my friends and watching their false smiles try and communicate with me trying to tell me to leave. The more I saw the look of disapproval in their eyes, the more I tried to hide how bad things were between us. I felt ashamed, embarrassed and alone. Some of them had warned me many times that the age gap was too much, that we weren’t right for each other and that I should leave him. I didn’t want them to be right. So I hid it. I hid our problems from them but also from myself.

Substance abuse became his way of dealing with his problems and I too drank a lot more than I ever used to because at times it was the only way to tolerate him. We’d sometimes spend nights not sleeping. We’d stay up and argue relentlessly, he’d shout, I’d cry. Then I would shout too. For so long I really thought that I loved him and I thought that whenever I was fighting back I wasn’t fighting him but I was fighting to keep our relationship together. So much of me wanted it to work, he came from a good family, his parents adored me and he was in a very comfortable financial position that meant we would have a stable future together. On paper, it all made sense. When I started to really sit back and look at what was happening to me I never for one second really thought I was experiencing intimate partner violence. I knew what we were going through wasn’t always good, but he never hit me, never even threatened to and for me, my understanding of a violent relationship meant I had to hide my bruises, not my feelings. But as I became resentful of him, less afraid of hurting his feelings it got harder and harder to hide the fact that something was wrong. Even though we’d fight what felt like almost constantly, I was glad when the fights happened because he usually stormed out and that meant I got some peace for a while. But in knowing I wanted peace, as so many people ask, even friends of mine at the time did too; why didn’t I leave?

The truth; I didn’t want to. I was addicted to him, addicted to the drama, addicted to being with someone. The girl who once adored being alone, who jumped on a plane last minute to visit a friend in Europe wasn’t there anymore. Some days I felt like I couldn’t do anything without him. He’d leave for work and I would cry. Intimate partner violence robbed me of who I was. Because I didn’t know myself anymore and it became apparent through my process of isolation that I had no one to turn to. No one knew this version of me so how could I go to them for help when they would never understand. I couldn’t, and didn’t even know if I could, go to the police either. What would they do? Ask to see bruises? Ask if he’d raped me? These were questions I couldn’t even stomach thinking of having to answer in my head never mind being sat in a room full of what I imagined to be men, staring back at me, either pitying me or not believing me. We form so many of our ideas about life from what we see, and never had I seen a film, or tv show where a woman who was abused was treated how she needed to be. There was always a twist in the plot that somehow she was lying or somehow this had been 

her fault. I didn’t realise how much I’d internalised this until the day came when it was me. When I was the woman who needed help.

We were together for two years before it ended. The night that it did I was at his parents house, they were on vacation in Berlin and they had a beautiful place that looked over the whole coastline so we often stayed there when they were out of town. But this was the night I would tell him it was over for good. I’d tried so many times before but he had started threatening suicide. He’d tell me I was the reason why he’s so miserable, I’m the reason why it won’t work, that I’m selfish and my main mission in life was to destroy him. In some ways I believed him so I never had the strength to leave because all of this was my fault. Usually me accepting the blame worked for a few days or two, then both of our tempers would calm down and we’d be back together again, “happy” for a week and then back at each others throat the next. The same cycle. For months. But this night I was really done.

He was cooking when I arrived, my favourite pasta dish, and the bottle of red wine was already on the table in his father’s favourite wine decanter, and the table was set. He walked across the room and held me, he leant in to kiss me and I knew instantly that he wanted to be intimate. “I’m starving” I quickly said, hoping the food was ready and that would take his mind off it. He turned away and turned the oven off and took my hand.

The next few hours are sort of a blur, I’ve sat and thought about them many times, at great length, but now, over two years later I still struggle to make sense of them.
What transpired turned out to be the worst 12 hours of my life.

Within an hour of being there I couldn’t hide my frosty exterior much longer, I struggled for most sentences to even look him in the eye. They say there is a thin line between love and hate and this for me was the moment I realised it, I hated him. I hated what he turned me into, I hate our relationship and I hated the woman I’d become. I was going to do so much, and with him, I was nothing.
We ate, he drank and the night moved on slowly. We began talking and I could feel the rage inside him coming up. I panicked and I will always be ashamed of this but at that moment physical contact was the only thing I could think of to calm him down and to avoid him and avoid the conversation that I knew was coming. It is difficult to put into words what transpired after that but all I know is that when someone initiates sexual contact with you who really despises you, well, you feel it. And so, we stopped. He shouted, I cried and we argued for a long, long time.
He drank almost the whole time we were talking, getting more aggressive and disappearing more with each gulp. Not before long almost the whole 3⁄4 of the bottle of whisky was gone and at this point he was erratic. He was spitting venom at me, I couldn't stop the tears from falling, one because I was scared and two because I didn’t recognise the person stood in front of me anymore. When he drank like that he changed not only his temper but his eyes changed, they 

were large and black and glazed over in a way that I couldn’t see into him anymore and this is what scared me the most. I knew in his own twisted way that he loved me but when this look crawled through I didn’t know what that man was capable of.
After two hours of fighting the suicide threats started again, he kept telling me over and over that this was all my fault and that he was going to kill himself just to punish me. He wanted me to suffer forever. He ran to the kitchen and pulled out a 6 inch carving knife and held it at his chest, staring at the wall in front of him, he turned to me and told me he was going to run and that I was going to have to sit and watch him die.

I screamed, louder than I’d ever screamed in my life, in a tone even I didn’t recognise in myself. I really believed that he was going to do it, in that moment with the froth in the corner of his mouth I really thought that he was going to kill himself and I didn’t how to cope. I sobbed and sobbed and begged him not to do it but it seemed the sadder and more desperate I got the more it satisfied him and the more he felt like he was making the right decision. In a moment of panic as he looked away I ran to the bedroom, convinced that this was the moment he was going to take his life I knew that if I saw it I would never recover. But within seconds he ran after me with the knife, chased be towards the wall and held it up against my throat. He said, “if you’re not going to watch me now then I’ll have to kill you instead” and in that moment every drop of life poured from my body. I stopped crying, slowed my breathing and just looked at him and said “do it”. I didn’t care anymore, I wanted this all to be over and in that moment, in my moment of sheer panic and desperation this seemed the only way that it was going to happen.

We stood there a few moments in silence, I was staring at a person I didn’t know and I was so scared that there really were no words that I could get out of my mouth. He just stood there breathing over me staring deep into me as if he was waiting for me to say something that would give him the cue to act. Then he pulled away, walked back into the kitchen and kept drinking. I ran for my phone which was in the living room and since I had to pass the kitchen he knew what I was doing. He picked up the knife again and came running after me this time he didn’t touch me he just said “no”. And I understood. For the next few hours he just rotated between standing over me as I sat on the floor silently weeping to sitting on a chair directly in front of me while he continued to finish his bottle of whisky. We didn’t speak. Not a word. For hours.

It was almost morning when he fell asleep on the chair and to this day I don’t know how I found the strength to do it but I picked him up and carried him to the bedroom, he was about 1m90 and his body was limp and drunk but I managed it. And as soon as he was there I called 

the police and explained what had happened. I was crying and trying my best to make it all make sense, but since he was asleep they concluded I wasn’t in any real danger so they would send someone when they could.
I couldn’t believe it. I was right. I’d spent the past 7 or 8 hours in a domestic brawl fearing for my life and his and this was my only chance to get out and they didn’t think I was an emergency case. I broke down. I was sobbing and begging them to come but they simply said “Madame, il dort, calmez-vous on va venir le plus tôt possible”. I think they also advised me to leave the apartment too but I couldn’t, I was too afraid that he would wake up, not see me there and do something stupid. I don’t know how to explain the fact that I couldn’t leave while he slept but I was still so afraid and still had his threats circling around in my head. Even if I wasn’t there to see him do it, I still knew it was something I would never recover from.

About an hour or so, but what felt like 10, 3 policemen arrived. I was sat on the floor and they came in and immediately asked me what happened. I told them to speak quietly but they didn’t. I told them not to ring the bell as they came down but they didn’t. Unsurprisingly within minutes of us talking he woke up and came out of the bedroom looking stunned. They just asked him to get dressed properly as they wanted to talk to him. He nodded and said “she’s lying”. I burst into tears again.
He came back out of the bedroom and they explained to him what I had told them was not acceptable so they would have to take him down to the station for further questioning. I don’t know what happened to him but he had this glaze over him, he wasn’t grumpy or angry and even his skin glowed a little. He was almost charming them. He explained calmly that we had had a fight because I had been cheating on him and that I’d simply made all of this up to cover up what I’d done and to shift the blame on him.

This conversation went back and forth for about 15 minutes until they started to really persist and in that moment he switched straight back and outright refused to go with them. I couldn't face him anymore so I went and sat in the corridor just off from the kitchen where we all were, and I had my back to them. He started to raise his voice and get aggressive and I only think it was in that moment that the police believed me. They instructed him to go to the bedroom and get his shoes and that they would take him by force if he didn’t comply. As he walked away I knew what was going to happen, I shot back round in a panic and told them one of them had to go in bedroom with him. I’d already hidden all the knives while he slept but I knew there were two big windows in there and I just had this feeling in the pit of my stomach. They didn’t listen to me again and let him go in there alone and they began talking amongst themselves while I sat with my head between my knees. 

The living room and kitchen were joined, a huge open plan room that then lead out onto a balcony protected by two stain glass windows.
My heart sank as I heard his heavy footsteps rush behind me and instinctively without turning to look I screamed out. I don’t know whether they saw him in time or it was my screams but it was enough time to snap them out of their conversation and chase after him.

He had ran at the window, and thrown himself through it in an effort to then throw himself off of the balcony. The sound of the glass breaking against his body froze mine and I just sat there unable to move and unwilling to believe what I knew I’d just heard.

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I don’t have the words to finish the rest, I’ve tried and it doesn’t come out right and it’s still, in a way, too painful to revisit. It’s something that I’ve tried to forget many times and it’s something that has transformed me as a person in an effort to never know what that feels like ever again. I will never again be that girl who saw what she saw that day, I still struggle to understand how she got there in the first place.

There’s a freedom in writing anonymously because anyone who knows me knows I’m the girl that doesn’t let that sort of thing happen. But it did.

But what I wanted to show is that there’s no one story of domestic or intimate partner violence. There’s no one formula to avoid it, get out of it or stop it from happening altogether. My voice and my story is my own and I can never speak for other women. But in sharing my story I hope that it sheds some light for those who don’t understand the intricate, messy details of IPV and the ways in which it can take hold of you and destroy you. We live in a world where we are constantly being judged, wearing a mask and acting like it’s all ok, but behind that so many women are suffering and will continue to suffer if we don’t open up these conversations and mobilise women’s voices. We have to believe women, but most we have to listen to them to understand rather than the time old tradition of listening to respond because there’s nothing you can say that will free her.