Interview with M., a 35- year old survivor of intimate partner violence from Slovenia
Can you tell me something about your experience with violence?
I got pregnant very soon, after four months of being together with B. When I was a child, I had an image of the perfect family, a picture of a complete group: a father, a mother and a child; I thought that a family had to stick together no matter what. That’s why I decided to stay in the relationship, although I soon realized things were not the way they should be. It was incredibly hard; he was very violent … For example, he dragged me around the courtyard, kicked me in the head, really hard … I was never able to talk to our child G. about it. I told him it was just a game. I didn’t know how to explain things to him. B. was always telling me that I couldn’t be with anyone else; that he would have killed us both if that had happened. I thought I would end up in a mental institution; I felt as if I had been brainwashed. He didn’t let me work and earn my own money; he just wanted me to be at home. However, I really like working, I like having my own money, being independent.
So I managed to find a job I could do from home. I remember when we were already separated and I went out for a coffee with my friends, how I was expecting that he would call, like he always did, and start insulting me, saying things like “where the hell are you, bitch”. Then I said to myself, “Wow, I can drink coffee with my friends.” I’d never had such freedom before. You think it’s normal that he expects you to be at home all the time because you have a small child. Then soon the child turns three and you find out you barely have any friends left.
He was also telling me what to wear, whom to talk to and whom not. I wasn’t myself anymore. However, I left him when I realized I was in real danger. Well, I guess I’d known that before, but he kept telling me he’d kill me if I left. But then … He put his gun to my head and I realized that I would die if I stayed and I said to myself, “Just go!”
Did you get any help when you decided to leave him?
Well, I’d been planning it for a long time, gathering information. So much had already happened and I decided to call a safe house. I found the number on the internet. I’d already talked to my friends about the things that were going on so they told me about a safe house. If you don’t tell anyone, you can’t get any information. I’d also seen some posters with information on violence helplines. So, I called the safe house and inquired about it. Of course you’re scared, you have no idea what that place is like and you’re afraid to take a child there. So, I called, explained everything and the woman on the phone said I should come immediately and I told her I still needed some time to think about it. I was afraid of getting a joint custody if I were to leave. Then I wouldn’t be able to take care of the child. B. also drank a lot and I was afraid that the child would fall or something and B. wouldn’t notice because he would be sitting in a bar. So, I told myself I’d rather suffer for the next 15 years until the child is grown up and able to take care of himself than leave him alone with his daddy. Because everyone was saying that you get a joint custody until you prove differently. So I didn’t know how to get out of the relationship and at the same time ensure the child was safe.
How did you manage to end the relationship with B.?
First, it was late spring, I started to gather information and slowly move my stuff to my parents’ place in a way that he didn’t notice. In December that year we had an office party. In the last six years I’ve been out twice. Once, I had a school reunion and when I came back home he didn’t let me in. The second time I went out, he was really furious when I came back; he was throwing out all my stuff. Therefore, when I returned from that office party I was really surprised that I could get inside the house; but there was no electricity. And then V., his son from his first marriage, comes and tells me “B. is really drunk and he turned off the electricity.” So, I went to the bathroom and B. woke up and came after me. He pushed me into a bathtub and took away my phone. I was always hiding my stuff, my purse for example, because he was stealing money from me. I was really afraid for the things I needed for work, like my computer and telephone; that was my job. He knew that, so he always took my phone and threw it away.
What was it like to be in the crisis centre?
Of course you feel terrible. I remember entering the house and how G. immediately got excited about all the toys he saw and I just burst into tears, thinking “what did I do to my child”. However, it wasn’t that bad, I made friends with two women who were also staying there at that time. We are still in touch. G. didn’t let me go anywhere or do anything without him; all the consequences of the domestic abuse he had witnessed became apparent when we arrived. He wanted to be next to me all the time; I couldn’t even go to the toilet alone.
What helped you most in the crisis centre?
What I liked most is that I could sleep and breathe freely; that I knew I was safe; that no one knew where I was. And that I could take time and bond with my child and see all the troubles he had, all the consequences of violence he also suffered. This gave me a confirmation that I’d made the right decision.
When I was in the crisis centre I also made arrangements to enroll my kid in another kindergarten, to the one next to where I had my own apartment. I was too afraid to take him to the same kindergarten where he had been going before. I also immediately went to the emergency, while I still had the bruises and everything, so I could show them to a doctor. I didn’t have to wait in line; they really tried very hard to make it easy for me, which was very nice of them. I showed them my injuries and told them what had happened. They wrote everything down. Two days later I went to the police and submitted a criminal report. I went alone, although a counsellor from the crisis centre could have gone with me if I had wanted to. I was at the police station for five hours. I described everything, how our relationship was nice in the beginning and how violence slowly escalated. Before going there, I had prepared some notes so I wouldn’t forget anything important.
How did you feel when reporting the violence that you experienced?
My only concern was how to protect my child until B. changed his dangerous behaviour. A policewoman interrogated me and we made a short break after a couple of hours. We found out that our kids were going to the same kindergarten. We still see each other. During my report, she asked all the right questions so that I could really reveal everything. For example, she asked me how I felt at a certain event and so forth. Because I didn’t know how to tell my story and what to tell, I was already so accustomed to violence that I didn’t even recognize it. Many of the women I met on a positive self-image workshop that I attended weren’t as luck as I was. They didn’t prepare such an accurate report so they had many problems later on at court and everywhere. Some had to defend themselves as if they had done something wrong. In a safe house and in a crisis centre they inform you about all the procedures, so that you really do everything you can to notify all the institutions about your situation.
You can stay in a crisis centre for a limited period of time. What happened next?
Yes, you can stay in a crisis centre up to one month. I thought I would move into my apartment afterwards, as I had a place to stay, but then I realized that B. would not leave me alone and I was afraid to go to the apartment. That’s why I decided to go to a safe house. However, I already did many useful things while staying at the crisis centre ̶ I went to the doctor, to the police, to the social service centre…
What was your experience at the social service centre?
A counsellor from the crisis centre accompanied me. We had a team meeting, but the police didn’t come because they had mixed up the hours. We talked about what had already been done, what the situation was like… Everyone was really committed to my case, especially the social worker. He let me know that I had to report everything that would happen. Later on, I also filed for a restraining order according to the Family Violence Prevention Act. I learned about this possibility in the crisis centre. First, I didn’t even want to file a complaint about the violence I was subjected to, I just wanted B. to get a restraining order, but they told me it is not possible without a report. I was afraid things would get even worse if I reported violence and I would be in even greater danger. I really didn’t know what to do. I wanted to let him know that I didn’t mean to cause any harm, that I just wanted him to change his behaviour in a way that it would be safe for our child to be around him. Of course he denied having any problems; he thought his only problem was lack of money.
For how long did you stay in the safe house?
A little over half a year. I think it was a good idea to stay for so long, to really make sure I was safe and ready. I could also go to psychotherapy for free and my child as well. I was very glad that they made an effort to make things easier for me. For example, I got Wi- Fi so that I could work from there. We could also arrange the room the way we wanted. I told my child we were staying in a hotel. There were also other children and he felt OK in the safe house.
I also liked planning with my counsellor what to do next, because I am a very organized person. She also helped me file all the reports to the police, because B. was constantly violating the restraining order. She also accompanied me to court when I had a hearing. I had quite a bad experience with the judge. First she told me she had already had six court cases and that she hadn’t read my case and that she didn’t have time. She also asked me in a sarcastic way “Well what was so terrible that you got so frightened?”. And I told her that each text message he’d sent had scared me because it showed that he didn’t comply with the restraining order. And then she asked me “Do you know you are not the one who will get the money he’ll have to pay,” and I said, “Yes, of course.” And she continued, “Well, who is going to get it then,” and I said, “Well, the state.” It was really humiliating. So, we filed a complaint later on and it helped because the judge was quite nice the next time. She listened to me very carefully and let me talk and explain everything. She said she believed me and that she could easily punish him on the basis of all the evidence I had sent to the court. And I told her I didn’t want him to pay money; that I would prefer it if he had to join a program for perpetrators of violence. He agreed, but he tells me now that he doesn’t belong there, that there are people with real issues participating in the program and that he doesn’t have such problems. At the courtroom I also had the chance to tell B. that when the restraining order ends, he won’t just get the child, he didn’t understand that.
I explained to him that the judge issued an interim injunction giving me full custody, so he can’t just come to the kindergarten and take the child. I requested the interim injunction when I was at the safe house and there was no hearing regarding it. I got full custody temporarily and contact arrangements between father and child were temporarily prohibited. The judge said she needed an expert witness to tell what kind of contacts are in the best interest of the child. In that case, the judge made a really smart decision − I think.
When I was at the safe house I started psychotherapy, which was free of charge for me and for my child. It really helped me. My child also had a lot of traumas, but now he is almost OK. Well, not so long ago, he drew a black picture at kindergarten. He usually always draws very beautiful, colourful pictures. And now he drew this black picture of his dad lying in bed and he told me, “Mommy, I drew daddy at that time when we couldn’t wake him up.”
How is the trial for your child’s custody proceeding? You mentioned the interim injunction…
I’ve just been to the expert witness. I didn’t go to the first court hearing because I was ill, so only my attorney went. Now, when seeing the expert witness, it was the first time the three of us met. We were all invited to go together, B., our son and me. First, I had a one on one talk with him, then B. and then all three of us together and then again just me and then just B. I told the expert witness that B. is really good at manipulating, but I still thought B. would manage to manipulate him. Luckily, he didn’t. The expert witness actually saw everything that I see, I was quite shocked. He wrote a very good expert opinion briefing. Now I’m waiting for the procedure to continue at court.
When did you move out of the safe house?
When I knew I was safe enough and didn’t need it any more. Before I moved, we’d made a safety plan and I’ve always been very cautious anyway. Also, when I was at the safe house, I always paid attention where to drive, where to park, everything. I am still very cautious about these things. However, I can say I feel pretty safe now, at least when B. is not drunk. Two weeks ago he was drunk and called me and asked me to put the child on the phone. I put him on the phone and then realized that he was drunk, from the way he was talking. So I sent him a text message asking not to call the child when he is drunk and then he started insulting me, saying, “You disgust me, you are a piece of shit,” calling me “a bitch”; I was everything. He was sending me awful text messages. He also threatened to come and I got really nervous and scared, I didn’t know what to do, should I go somewhere or should I call someone to sleep over at my place? … He was calling me constantly and I didn’t answer, but then I picked up the phone and told him to stop bothering me, to stop scaring me. And he said, “You see I can get you no matter where you go” and he kept sending me e-mails, first insulting ones and then apologetic ones, like “I know I was rude, I’m sorry,” and so on. I don’t answer him anymore.
What helped you most on your way out of the relationship with B., out of violence?
I’d say the crisis centre and the safe house; the way they guided me through all the procedures. What I wanted most was to protect my child. I’m still learning. Not so long ago I imagined I am responsible for B., that he joins a program for perpetrators, to become a good father. Now I finally see that I’m not the one who can do it; that he has to decide for himself.
What would you still need at the moment?
Psychotherapy, workshops and such; to work on myself. It’s that you constantly think there is something wrong with you. However, when you start working on yourself you see that this isn’t true. I barely knew what violence was before coming to the crisis centre. I read that if he didn’t let you out, that was violence and I was quite shocked. If women knew which type of behaviour is violent they would recognize it more quickly. I was lucky because I didn’t have financial troubles. A lot of women don’t leave their partners because they are afraid to end up on the streets. They don’t know that if they set themselves goals, a safe house can help them with everything, even when they don’t feel confident enough to handle things by themselves.
So, can you do it with the necessary support?
Yes. A lot of women stay in abuse relationships because they think they can’t handle everything; but when you are free you can make miracles happen. I can’t believe how much I’ve accomplished. You just have to set yourself goals and work hard to achieve them. It’s all in our heads. If you want something and you work on it, you can accomplish it. If a woman stays in a violent relationship, she will end up in a mental institution, she will go mad, get sick. With the help of therapy, workshops and counselling you become stronger. And you start reading certain books. However, it takes time to go through this entire process.
What was missing from the support system you were provided with? What could have been done better?
It was all so new to me, I was in shock. I was grateful that I had a place to go to; that I got help. Some women don’t trust counsellors, they avoid them. However, the more you tell, the better the kind of help you get from them. You also definitely need therapy. Otherwise, a safe house is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, you are completely free, you can sleep in peace. I’ve also noticed that some people think that women take advantage of safe houses. For example, when I tell someone that I’ve been to a safe house they say women take advantage of a safe house to destroy their men. People have different opinions. Others think it’s like being in a hotel; that they cook for you and the like.
Is there something else you would like to add?
I don’t know. Women should love themselves and get out of an abusive relationship. And for the ones who are having a hard time leaving abusive partners, it’s good to know that a safe house is nothing to be frightened of, contrary to what I have thought before. It’s not a prison, like some people think. It can actually be a really relaxing and pleasant environment if you can manage to get along well with the other women living there. I’m still in touch with some of the women from the safe house where I’ve stayed.