My ex-boyfriend never hit me, but when I tell people about the abuse I am constantly hit with confused looks, disregard, and a lack of validation. He didn’t hit you, they say. So it wasn’t that bad then? Sometimes I wish he had hit me. It would have made it easier to identify the abuse and understand the amount of danger I was in. It would also mean the confused looks would be replaced with believing faces.
My abuser was smart. He was smart enough to never threaten me in writing and only punch near my head. He was smart enough to only throw things close to me and drive dangerously at high speeds while I begged him to stop. He was smart enough to tell me that his anger was my fault. If I was just more agreeable, more available, offered more sex, smiled more, he wouldn’t be so angry all the time. He was also smart enough to never hit me.
I am a victim-survivor of domestic violence. It has taken me a long time and a lot of counselling to understand and accept that I am. I denied and downplayed it because no one wants that title. I did not want to believe it, but I was also trained not to. When the abuse is not clear-cut, you’re trained - by society, by your abuser - that what you are feeling isn’t valid or real. You’re just an erratic, distraught woman screaming in a corner, claiming abuse. You’re crazy. That is what he called me. And as you’re slowly convinced that your feelings aren’t valid, that your thoughts aren’t true, you begin to second-guess your intuition. It took me a long time witnessing his escalating violence before I did listen to it again.
When I was contemplating leaving that relationship, counsellors, support workers and the staff at 1800 Respect explained the numerous forms in which abuse can rear its ugly head. Emotional, verbal, social, financial, spiritual, psychological, and sexual. Perpetrators even use the court system to scare and control the victim. My perpetrator abused me in all of these ways but it had taken me years to get to this place, where I had terms to validate my experience and people who told me that I wasn’t crazy. That my concerns weren’t anxieties, but the truth.
Imposter syndrome is something we usually discuss in relation to professional success. It has been defined as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success”. Imposters suffer from a “chronic self-doubt” that overrides “any external proof of their competence”. I had imposter syndrome, but in relation to the abuse playing out in my relationship. The chronic self-doubt he created within me, overrode the proof that was always there - just not in the form of a bruise on my face.
The language around domestic violence is still catching up to the reality of the experience. We may recognise and reprimand physical abuse, but the subtle pattern of controlling and coercive behaviours are not fully understood by society. And when I was in the depths of the abuse, the lack of understanding from the police, the court system, my friends and society-at-large coalesced to create the imposter syndrome within me. I thought my perpetrator was right. I thought I was crazy. Because if I wasn’t, the police and my friends would believe me.
After I lost my home, my job, my friends and my pets as a result of his actions, I sat in a refuge with other women who had also lost their safety, their security, and their sense of self, at the hands of abusive men. Many of them had the physical evidence marked on their bodies in the shape of purple and green bruises. Many of them had far worse stories than mine. But as I sat in the refuge kitchen, teary-eyed and questioning myself and my story again, a kind lady offered me a cup of tea. She sat down beside me and said eight simple words: “I believe you. You deserve to be here.”
Those eight words allowed me to trust my intuition again. Those eight words changed my life. And through the expertise, awareness, and understanding of fellow victim-survivors and skilled workers like this woman, I slowly found myself again. They paid attention to my story, they didn’t judge, and - most importantly - they believed me. So next time a woman tells you she is being abused, instead of listening to the man saying she is crazy, vindictive and spiteful, maybe just listen. You could save a life.
If you or anyone you know has experienced domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service. You can also contact Lifeline (13 11 14).