The face of a stranger saved my life. Their face and the look on it pushed me to take one big step in a long series of steps both forward and back to saved my life and that of my son.
It happened in a hardware store car park. My husband, my son and I had returned to our car after a lazy, shopping trip. It was a Saturday afternoon. The smells of a charity sausage sizzle were in the air. And the look on this person’s face when they caught my eye was ‘this is scary, are you ok?’.
Because my husband was yelling—no, screaming—at me. Red faced, spittle flying, screaming a wall of words at me. I was stupid. I was an idiot. I was disrespectful and careless and mean and … all this while he held our two-year-old son. But I deserved it because I had held the car keys in a way that could have scratched the paint when I put my hand to the handle of the family car. Like I always did because I didn’t care about anything or anyone.
This random stranger caught my eye and noticed me. Made me exist while I was trying to disappear so the wall of screaming would pass over and around me and life, such as it was, could continue. Through that stranger’s eyes I saw what my life looked like to other people. The aggression. The humiliation. The abuse.
Being sucked into the heart-rending loneliness of an abusive relationship is often described as being ‘like a frog in a frying pan’—the victim can’t see or feel what is happening. They are too close to it, too adaptive as they get ever nearer to being fried. Getting out of an abusive relationship is similar. Especially when the abuse is largely emotional, verbal and controlling. When the cuts and bruises are made to the inside of you it is just as slow a process to realise you don’t deserve them, that the problem in the relationship isn’t yours to mend.
So that bystander who saw me being abused in a carpark and connected with me was a vital step towards freedom.
So too the deep blue eyes of my toddler son drinking in the abuse dished out around and to him in the car, around the dining table, the abuse that constituted my every moment.
Leaving a relationship like that seems impossible when you are in it. So much time is spent intervening, protecting your child, you wonder who will do this when you’re not sitting there, ready to redirect the abuse. But it is possible.
When I took my first steps to freedom, I felt rebellious. I felt terrified. I felt disloyal. At that stage I did not even have a name for what was being done to me.
But then I met a counsellor. They knew. They explained it. I felt relieved. But also confused. How does a smart, capable, strong woman get here? Does the fact that I am here mean I am stupid, careless and weak like my husband keeps telling me? Well then maybe I deserve this life? And then I met a lawyer. And I was told the law: That Australian law defines emotional and verbal abuse on a par with physical abuse. That it is just as unacceptable as punching someone.
And that gave me the confidence to keep taking steps forward. After all, if the experts know this treatment is unacceptable, the rest of us will eventually know it too.
That stranger in the hardware store carpark knew. They might not have known what to do, how and whether to intervene. They may not have been able to articulate what was so wrong with what they were seeing. But they knew. And they told me.
I did not know this person—though I may have met them since. It is Tasmania after all.
But I know they helped to save my life. That without them, the abuse would have continued. And it was escalating at the time, escaping into physical threats and bodily attacks that I knew would one day have been the end of me.
This was all many years ago now—almost a decade. My son has now grown taller than me. He is strong. He is thoughtful. His heart has survived. As has mine.
I thought of that carpark moment this week as I filled out the government’s Family Violence Survey, as I answered the questions I have asked myself a thousand times in the past decade and shared my answers.
‘People want to help’ I wrote ‘I have seen it in their eyes. But they don’t know what to do. They freeze and worry their intervention will make things worse. They take no action because they don’t want to cause further humiliation.’
One day in the future the humiliation of abuse will have shifted to the perpetrator. When neighbours and strangers decide that ‘private matters’ that are traditionally tiptoed around are not deserving of privacy when they hurt people. When we decide that caring for each other starts with naming up wrongdoing. We aren’t there quite yet. I don’t blame us. I am not there yet either.
I wish I could use my real name on this piece of writing. I want to, but I won’t. I have walked so far away from the abuse I suffered, but I am not clear yet.
I don’t protect my name out of fear for me, or for my son. We are strong. We can walk through fire, suffer the consequences and keep going. I know this because we took the steps that eventually freed us and we are happy now.
The reason I haven’t used my real name on this piece of writing because I worry it would ruin my ex-husband’s life—that it could lose him his friends, his social standing, his lauded career, his volunteer work, his white ribbon. I still want to protect him from the consequences of his unacceptable behaviour. I am still stepping away from that proverbial frying pan one step at a time.
Suzanne lives near Hobart with her son. She has a good job, good friends, a safe home, and she holds her car keys however she darn well pleases …