Surviving Domestic Abuse and Coercive Control

The Thank You Letter I never Wrote

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Have you ever known someone for a very brief moment in time that meant the world to you? Whenever you think of this pivotal moment in your life, you think of that special person who stood with you at a crossroads and helped you choose the right path.

I don’t know the name of my special person. Perhaps I did, once, but the nature of my need for her and our relationship has meant it’s a detail I no longer hold in my memory. She was a therapist who specialised in domestic violence and she was essential to my recovery. Through a series of eight sessions at a Women’s Aid centre in North London, this woman provided me with the key I needed to unlock a mental illness that was rendering me near childlike and unable to function.

I came to those first few sessions barely able to talk coherently and frightened of the boogie man who lived under my bed. I had stopped being able to work and many days, I couldn’t leave the house as any kind of stimulus rendered me unable to find my way back home.

On more than one occasion, my new partner had to come find me where I’d called from, crying that I couldn’t read street names anymore and was hopelessly lost. On one particularly bad occasion I failed to recognise my own face in the mirror and jumped when I moved. My life was a living nightmare.

I couldn’t work out what had happened, having escaped the abusive relationship nine months beforehand; on paper, I was safe. I was moving on with my life, safe from the coercive control and constant threat of violence, financial manipulation and gaslighting* that made me unsure of my own thoughts and ideas anymore.

Within two sessions, my therapist said something that absolutely shaped my recovery, “You’re not mad. You have post-traumatic stress disorder because you’ve been in the fight of your life. And you are going to beat it.” It was a game changer. I suddenly understood the fear that had taken a hold despite living safely, very far away from my tormentor. I wasn’t a victim, vulnerable and ripe for further abuse. I was a survivor and I could recover.

Many of us know the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in relation to war veterans, however, ‘Complex PTSD’ may be diagnosed in adults or children who have repeatedly experienced traumatic events, such as violence, neglect or abuse. It is a common outcome for those who experience domestic violence but without correct diagnosis and treatment, is often lumped into anxiety or depression, all of which would seem very normal after such an event.

As I recovered, I learned that symptoms such as the dissociation I’d felt that day in front of the mirror are common and the challenge I found in controlling emotions, maintaining relationships and concentrating were part of this condition. Equipped with this diagnosis, I was able to use targeted therapy to put things back together.

It’s been seven years since I was diagnosed and supported in that tiny room in North London. I’ve since had a daughter, returned to almost full time work and most days, PTSD isn’t something I have to actively manage anymore. In fact, I’ve come to think of my condition as a warning flare, highlighting when I am in a situation that might not be best for me. Each time I feel that flash, I think of us two women, sat together with nothing but mutual respect and I dearly wish I could express my gratitude to her.

 

*Gaslighting is a form of manipulation, intimidation and abuse that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a victim, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.

If you think you or a loved one may be a victim of domestic violence or coercive control, you can seek safe and anonymous support and information via either Women’s Aid or Refuge.

Women's Aid

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28 Comments

  • Thank you for sharing this Kate. I left my abusive ex husband five years ago now and I am still recovering emotionally, despite having a wonderfully supportive husband and family. So many women go through this, yet it just isn’t talked about. Thank you x

    • I’m so glad you’re safe Ashley. Thank you for letting me feel seen and heard. I hope this helps equip someone with the words they need in order to seek support for themselves or a loved one. x

  • Thank you for sharing your story. I am sure that woman knows your gratitude. Hopefully other women out there reading this will be helped to understand that support is out there for them too. Xx

  • Thank you so much for sharing. I came from the link on Ysolda’s Instagram. I’m a foster carer and had a new child placed with me two days ago, a 16 years old girl who was married to a man twenty years older, who abused her for the last three months. We’ve spent the last two days in hospital and police, but her main problem sounds very similar to what you described. She is having constant panic attacks at every loud sound. I’m looking at the organisations who might be able to help her with PTSD now and glad that I came across your post. Thank you for sharing this and helping others to deal with similar issues x

  • Thank you so much for sharing. I’m now 5 years out from my emotionally abusive relationship, but sharing a child with her means continued contact. I still struggle with PTSD and feelings of guilt and shame, and very much related to your description of being in a childlike state, unable to make even simple decisions. A wonderful therapist has also meant that most days are good days now, but the depth of these wounds are not fully appreciated by those who have not been there. Letting others know they are not alone, and that their feelings and thoughts are not abnormal or wrong, is most definitely the way to reach our sisters and brothers suffering alone. XO

    • Sharing a child with an previously abusive partner is so hard Danielle and I do know what that must feel like. I’m so glad you’re safe and well supported now x

  • Thank you. My first husband was psychologically abusive and manipulative. It took two years after divorce for me to recover and overcome the nightmares. Help is vital.

  • Well done Kate for sharing your story. I was in an abusive relationship 10 years ago and at the time, I really didn’t even know or recognise that it was. It took me some time to get past what had happened to me but now i am happily married to a very lovely man. Recovery is long and hard. You are so brave for getting through it and sharing your story. Hopefully it will help others to recognise earlier what’s happening to them xx

  • Thank you for sharing. After 29 years of a psychologically and on a few occasions physically abusive marriage, and five children I finally contacted a therapist when my depression got so severe that I was thinking of suicide. I was sent to a psychosomatic clinic here in Germany and only the fact that they recommended to cut off all contact with home saved me from the psychological abuse and control I had faced for over two decades. I felt invisible, unlovable and unappreciated and saw no point in going on. In the six weeks I spent under the protected environment I managed to find a lawyer, communicate my decision to my husband, give him 10 days to leave my house, then back home I opened my own bank account, bought a car, had to take care of things I never had before. Thanks to German legislation, it‘s legal for him to demand alimony from me as I earn a bit more, but as good as impossible for me to drag him to court for what he did and even admitted to in writing. I‘ve been waiting for my divorce for over 2.5 years and will probably only get it once I agree to pay him a considerable sum. I‘ve lost all faith in the justice system in Germany regarding family legislation. So much needs to be done.

    • Selma, my heart broke reading this. Truly. Abuse exists because the systems that maintain it. This is why I am speaking out. This is why I will continue to do so too. You deserve so much more than you have been shown by this person and I’m so glad you’re defining your own spaces but I know that it’s a slow process when there is so much entangled. You defy them every day you exist and smile and live without them. You’re incredible x

  • Kate,

    They say strength and resolve often come out of tragic events.

    I have been admiring those qualities in you while listening to your podcast and now have even more admiration for you!

    Thank you for bravely sharing your story and reaching out to those in need.

    Love and peace,

    June

  • Thank you for sharing Kate. As you mentioned, PTSD is not just a military thing. I was diagnosed with PTSD almost 3 years ago after 10 years of repeated physical and emotional abuse on the job. Disassociation is real people! Our psyche takes the abuse until it breaks. It’s not a question of how strong or weak we are physically or mentally. The good news is, as you point out Kate, we can get help through therapy and medication if needed. I continue to struggle, your story brings hope for me and others. Thank you!

  • Twenty years and two very good therapists have gotten me to a place where I feel safe and strong. It was a lot of hard work, and I look back on the decade I spent in that dysfunctional relationship as a bad dream. Wish I could go back to that young woman and tell her she was worth more and to get out sooner… I am so glad you found the support you needed and that you are now in a good place. We are resilient beings, us women. Peace to you!

    • The words that jump out at me here are safe, strong and resilient. You’ve conquered so much to make those words sit so well there. Much love xx

  • Thankyou for sharing Kate. It’s been over 20 years since I left my controlling, emotionally abusive ex husband, and I also have a therapist to thank for helping me survive. Just two women in a little room, talking- the most important moments in the world often happen that way. Yay for being a survivor, hey?

  • Good grief!! I cannot tell you how important this article has been to me. As I read it, I realised that I didn’t know what gaslighting was. Once I read what it is, everything fell into place.
    Twenty years on, and still suffering panic attacks and depression, I realised that the mental abuse that I suffered from my ex and his now partner has a name – gaslighting! Suddenly everything is clear: I was constantly told that I was imagining things and was going mad, until I believed them, but I didn’t realise that I then suffered from PTSD.
    I probably still do, but it is mostly under control. Having been on anti depressants which didn’t help, I have done a lot of work on myself – retreats, yoga, mindfulness training have all helped, but occasionally I can still panic in crowds and when I think I am lost.
    This article has been a life changer for me. Now I know that it is a recognised condition, I feel as if I can deal with it.
    Thank you for dealing with challenging subjects and forcing me to read deeper things than the pretty stuff all the time x

    • Ann I believe you, you didn’t imagine those things and you deserve the correct support to live a life free from PTSD. Late diagnosis is entirely possible and treatment can be given. 7 years on I’m about to go back for more. We deserve to know our own minds xxx

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