'My kids and I survived domestic violence - and the emotional scars run deep'

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains details about domestic violence and abuse

I'm a 44-year-old woman with six children, four of them are grown up. All my children have witnessed and suffered from the effect of abuse. I wasn't aware of the impact of domestic violence on my children until I sought help.  

It took me several attempts to leave my ex. The last time I tried to leave, my two daughters were 9 and 1. The abuse had started out emotional and verbal. But soon, he was using drugs, breaking into the house and, he was also physically violent. 

When you're experiencing that much trauma, your body goes into autopilot. On one occasion I found myself popping pain killers because I didn't want to feel, I just wanted to sleep, just as I was about to take another pill, I heard my girls laugh in the lounge, instantly I snapped out of it and thought what am I doing? I lay down and cried because I knew I couldn't let myself get to this point again. There was no way I was going to leave my girls behind with only their father to rely on. As soon as I was able to, I called DVConnect. 

My kids' happiness was the motivating factor for me to finally get out of that toxic relationship. I had to be strong. I had to protect them from the chaos. But how does a mother of two kids transit from being a full-time home-schooling mother with a baby, to a working mother when she also needs to be there for her kids? 

You can't just walk out and not know how you're going to provide for your children. You can't just leave them with him while you find a new job and home. I couldn't be in two places at once. 

That's why it took me a while to leave and not return home. 

The day it finally happened, I locked me and my girls in a room so he couldn't get to us. I rang the Brisbane Domestic violence services, who arranges with DV connect to help me escape. Eventually, he ended up in jail, and we were welcomed into a community home, supported by Save the Children Australia, for women who had experienced domestic violence. 

When we arrived at the refuge, I saw the look of relief on my daughters' faces. We were coming from a nightmare into a nice clean place, somewhere safe and welcoming. Save the Children Australia staff had welcome bags in the room and teddy bears for my girls, reminding them that they were special, and this made them happy. 

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Seeing them happy, allowed me to relax a bit, knowing I'd done the right thing. The child support workers helped the girls by doing activities with them, and that also gave me a much-needed break, and I could let some of the emotion flow out of me. I saw the difference in my nine-year-old as soon as we went into the refuge. I know if I had known about the refuges or DVConnect earlier, I would have tried to leave sooner. 

But if there's one important thing I've learnt, it's this: trauma doesn't end when the relationship ends. 

Initially, I made a choice to keep communication open with my ex because I thought that the girls needed their Dad in their lives. Once, he came to our home, and my daughter didn't know that he wasn't allowed in, and she let him in. I had just come out of the shower when he tried to force himself on me, and I had to fight him off. He had got it in his mind that we were going to get back together. I managed to get free and get my clothes and then waited until he left. From that moment on, my eldest daughter refused to leave my side; no words were exchanged; she just knew I wasn't safe alone. 

It's so hard to know what to do in these situations. I still didn't think to call the police because I felt that the girls were happy that their Dad was around. 

These days, we're still looking over our shoulders because he has turned up unexpectedly a few times and refused to leave. I recently found out through my daughter's therapist that she is scared when he unexpectedly turns up, so I've blocked all contact with him because of the emotional manipulation he plays with our daughters and me. I've let him know that if he turns up again, I won't hesitate to call the Police. I've also spoken with my daughter and apologised for not calling them in the past. Now that I know she gets scared; I'll call them straight away.  

And even if they never see him again, the emotional scars will remain. 

Towards the end of our relationship, my older girl began withdrawing emotionally. But after we left, she stopped showing that she was scared, and integrated back into everyday life. I had no idea that she was living in fear, and I had no idea how much she had remembered until we started going to therapy, but she saw a lot more than I thought she did. 

The girls' schooling was also affected by the rollercoaster. We were home schooling when the abuse happened, but I couldn't do it when things got bad, so we're still catching up now. 

Don't get me wrong - there is hope amongst the madness. For the first time in our lives, my girls are getting involved in our community and Save the Children helped me get a job - I work at two refuges doing general housekeeping. I love that I can recreate that moment of walking into a clean room for other kids and mothers who've been through this. 

One day, we'll have enough money so that we can set up our own home. 

But the impact runs deep. From the outside, my eldest daughter seems like a normal kid starting high school next year. But she still has a lot to work through. She still goes into protection mode so fast with her sister and with me, and she's seeing an Expression Therapist to process her emotions. 

Some people ask me why I kept going back. I've asked myself the same question every day. I wasn't needy; instead, I was hopeful that things would get better, and my daughters could be raised in a happy family with their Dad. I was frustrated with myself though because I knew I had to leave, but I didn't have the strength to do it. Family is my biggest core value, and I found it extremely hard to walk away, regardless of his behaviour, because of the ideal family picture I had fixed in my mind and heart. 

I know if I knew myself the way I know myself now, I would never have let any of my children experience Domestic Violence. I regret everything my children have seen. I wish I was stronger back then, but I am grateful that I am stronger now and still able to do something about the damage that I allowed to happen. Is it my fault? Yes, it is. Am I going to make sure it never happens again? Yes, I am.

As a result of the support from Save the Children, I feel stronger as a woman and mother. I know I won't return to any violent situation again. My ex has tried numerous times to reconcile, and I have no interest. I now understand the effects of domestic violence. 

We're still learning, together, all the time. And we will be forever. Healing is essential but preventing trauma in children from exposure to domestic violence is vital. I only hope that other families like ours can reach out for the same kinds of support so that the cycle of domestic violence can be stopped. 

Save the Children's' centenary appeal is aiming to raise $100,000 to help prevent children from exposure to child abuse and reduce the number of kids who experience ongoing trauma around Australia. Donate now