Emerging from domestic abuse: Is this my metamorphosis?

A woman with pink butterfly wings emerges, looking skyward, from a sea of grey grasping hands

A mum-of-four narrates her experience of domestic abuse, her moment of realisation, and her life after leaving the abusive relationship to begin her metamorphic journey of becoming someone new.

I found out recently that when a caterpillar decides that the time has come to stop being a caterpillar and to begin her journey of becoming, something weird and wonderful happens. Of course, we all know the basics, thanks to Eric Carle. Our little friend mindlessly eats her way through her first incarnation. Then, when the time is right, she makes herself a cocoon, metamorphosis happens and voila! A butterfly – a fleeting whisper of a creature, ready for her new adventure.

But what happens to her when she’s curled up snugly in her pod? The answer is rather brutal. She liquifies. She turns into caterpillar soup. Then, somehow, out of the soup, a butterfly is made. Before I heard about the soup, I had imagined that the caterpillar curled up in her cocoon, lost a bit of weight and grew some fabulous wings. If only life were so simple. Instead, she goes through a traumatic event: metamorphosis, a biological meltdown where every part of her is liquified and then, somehow, all the soupy bits are reorganised into a butterfly.

This isn’t a story about caterpillars and butterflies. It’s a story about women.

A story that is mine and not mine. Something awful has happened to me. It’s something that has happened and is happening to millions of women and I want to talk about it. I want to talk about what it’s like to experience domestic abuse – in my case, emotional abuse, also referred to as coercive control, with a smattering of mild violence thrown in every now and then – and what it’s like when you escape it.

I want to shout about it. I want to express my rage and my sadness. I want to add my voice to the voices of all the other women who are shouting and telling and I want to be a voice for the women who can’t tell. My aim is not really to raise awareness. That is already being done. The reality is that unless you live under a rock, you already know that domestic abuse happens. You are already aware. You might even be angry about it and you might even be active in trying to do something about it. I knew about it – I just didn’t know it was happening to me.

It’s only been four months since my husband was arrested and left my life in a flurry of blue lights and tears. The first couple of weeks after that were overwhelming. I was a mess. I’ve been a mess before. Like you, I’ve had my heart broken, I’ve lost loved ones and so on – but this mess was different. It was a chaos.

I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. Everything I thought I knew about myself, my marriage, my husband and more terrifyingly, my own character, was in flux. I was a jumbled-up confusion of my old self – I was caterpillar soup.

I don’t want to dwell for too long on the ins and outs of what happened. How to condense it? So much of it was so insidious that I haven’t even remembered it yet, or rather, haven’t seen it through the new lens that Women’s Aid, my therapist, my family and my friends have gently been giving me. Shortly after he was arrested, I got a message from an old friend of his, expressing shock and disbelief that he could possibly have ever been anything other than an amazing husband. She caught me at a bad moment. I think my reply to her, as ill-considered as it may have been to send it, provides a pretty good overview of how things were:

Did you know that after your party in Ireland I got a call from the port authorities in Holyhead at about midnight telling me that D was intoxicated and they couldn’t let him drive off the ferry? I had to go and rescue S and G (who were 14 and 2 at the time) from the port in the middle of the night (a three-hour drive). I was made to feel like a monster, an “abusive cold-hearted bitch”, for being upset and angry that he had driven the children around Ireland high on ketamine.

Did you know that on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day he screamed at me for over six hours in front of the children for being a “cunt, fucking cunt, bitch, crazy, lazy, cruel, selfish”. “Evil bitch, disgusting, ugly, a monster, a narcissist, empty inside, ugly inside and outside, revolting, weak, dumb, an abuser, a thief”.

Telling me that I destroyed my first marriage and now I’ve destroyed this one. That I’d taken everything from him and given him nothing, that he’d been doubting our marriage since G was born, that I’ve made amazing kids but it’s a miracle because I’m so cruel and abusive to everyone around me, that he hated me, that I made him sick. All of this was because I asked him to be quiet because he was being really loud and was going to wake the children.

Did you know he took all my money, every month? If I ever got angry about the horrendous things he would say to me, that was “proof” that I was a “crazy evil cunt”. Did you know that he called me “Bitch” all the time as a “joke”?

Did you know that he screamed at me to get a job from about a week after G’s birth (the one where I nearly died) because I was a “lazy cunt”? But when I got one, I got shouted at for being a bad mother for leaving my children and “swanning off to work” and loving flaunting myself in front of men”?

Did you know that he was arrested for assaulting me?

Did you know that we received a death threat from someone he sold drugs to and that he then screamed at my children that he didn’t “fucking care” about any of them? And screamed at me because I didn’t want to leave my children alone in the house that night and go off with him to stay with a new client?

Did you know that the children are all traumatised by him and are so happy he has gone? Did you know he left me with no car? Did you know he took all my money and left the children and I with nothing? And hasn’t given me a penny towards G since he left 9 weeks ago?

I’m guessing he isn’t telling people that the reality is that he has subjected us all to absolute hell for the last year and that I finally had enough of it all and called 999 in the middle of an assault.

The courts have granted a non-molestation order to protect the children and me from him because they consider him to pose a high risk to us.

Did I mention that the reason he assaulted me was because I threw away his bloody weed plants? I had been BEGGING him to stop growing weed and selling drugs for years. I hated it. That day, I finally snapped. Since then, he has tried to get social services to take my children away from me (twice).

Even though that message was only sent a couple of weeks ago, it’s hard, even for me, to believe that the words I wrote are true. If you tell or think about a true story too many times, it begins to feel like a fiction.

The truth becomes harder to grasp, to remember with certainty. Especially if you have been the victim of emotional abuse and routinely question your own reality.

I am now learning that it was all part of a standard pattern: gaslighting, financial control, coercion into behaving far below the standards you normally hold yourself to, erosion of sense of self, projecting blame onto the victim for their own behaviour, and shaming the victim for having emotions, particularly anger.

Now I want to focus on what made the penny drop. I know I’m not alone in looking back and wondering how on earth I allowed all those things to happen. What happened to me to make me too weak to stand up for myself? How did I come to allow my character, my boundaries and even to a certain extent my morals be so damaged?

Weirdly, the event that flicked the switch, that opened my eyes to what was going on around me, to me and in me, was relatively benign. I hadn’t been ‘allowed’ (I know, it’s ridiculous) to have my hair done for months and months. Last time I had had it done I had been reminded for weeks of how selfish that had been, to have left him looking after our child for three whole hours and to have spent some money on myself.

I dared to ask the question, “please can I have £100 to go and get my hair cut, coloured and blow dried?” I had said, “I’ll bring back the change but it won’t be much.” His response was so obviously manipulative, so Machiavellian, that it was too hard to ignore. It was like a daytime soap opera depiction of an abusive man. “Well you could, OR, you could stop being so selfish and vain and we could use that money to do something nice together.”

That was the moment that I realised that his behaviour might be abusive. Just that single sentence tipped the balance. Fleetingly, I saw him in a different light. Instead of believing that I deserved everything, that he was an amazing man and I was a terrible, awful wife and mother, I realised that maybe it wasn’t me that was the problem. Of course, I chose the option of spending the money on an evening together. We had a lovely time.

Therein lies the confusion. Abusive relationships aren’t bad all the time. When things were good between us, they were amazing.

Almost all domestic abuse victims believe that if they just try harder, there will be more good times. If they keep their mouths shut, don’t point out injustices, keep the house sparkling, the children cared for, bring in the money, avoid upsetting the abuser, look sexier, don’t dress so provocatively, don’t invite their friends and family over, don’t even see their friends and family, don’t question the abusers opinion, don’t dare have their own opinions, don’t mess up the supper, make sure the abuser’s needs are always met, make sure the abuser gets to have sex whenever they want, even if the other person doesn’t want to.

Don’t ever get ill, that’s just selfish. Don’t spend any money on yourself, even your own money. Don’t be more successful. Don’t ever tell anyone what’s happening to you. Hide the bruises, hide the pain, hide the fear. Then everything will be lovely. He’s such a good guy, he’s just sensitive. He’s just disappointed in you. You let him down. He’s under so much pressure at work. Men have needs. His job is so much more stressful than yours. “THE WOMAN LOOKS AFTER THE BABY.”

Women’s Aid suggested that I join a domestic abuse forum online for support. It has been both a lifeline and a source of great sadness. It is one of many similar groups. This one has 8400 members, all women, all victims of abuse. Their stories are devastating and often incredibly inspiring.

I’ve noticed that every single woman asks the same questions when she first joins and starts to tentatively tell her story: “Is it me?” “Is this really abuse?” “Is it my fault?” This is the case even for women whose partners have inflicted serious, sometimes life-changing, injuries upon them, sometimes more than once.

People who don’t understand how domestic abuse works often ask the “obvious” question, “why don’t / didn’t you just leave?” This is not something anyone ever asks on the forum because we all know the answers. Victims can go through it for years (six in my case) without even realising they are being abused. Their faith in their own thoughts and emotions has been so eroded that they believe it’s their fault, that they made the man behave that way, that they deserve it.

Once they have realised what is happening, it still isn’t that simple. Many of them have been threatened with extreme violence, or even death, if they leave or tell anyone what is happening. In my case, I was told that he would “destroy me” and make sure that my children were taken away. A common threat, apparently, and one that he has carried out and is still doing his best to achieve.

The end of an abusive relationship marks the beginning of a new and overwhelming journey for the victim. This is when the metamorphosis begins.

This is when all her repressed emotions are released but she can’t really understand them, can’t process them, and worst of all, doesn’t trust them. She is soup.

Often, especially if there are children involved, she will be dealing with police, who may or may not be sympathetic. She will probably need to seek various court orders to protect herself: non molestation orders, prohibited steps orders, etcetera. All of this will trigger the involvement of social services and other children’s services, which will add to her self-doubt, even if they are “on her side”.

She will be trying to guide her children through their trauma and confusion, and of course she will have to deal with the practicalities of separation – divorce, finances, tenancy agreements, mortgages, changing her next of kin information, applying for legal aid (if she qualifies) and so on. She may also have to cope with the angry friends and family of her abuser, who will continue to feed her self-doubt with their disbelief. The abuse often continues in new and painful ways. All of this whilst she is at her weakest, liquifying in her cocoon.

I wish I could give you the next part of the story, the bit where the butterfly emerges from her soup all strong, beautiful and recovered. I haven’t got to that part yet.

I get tantalising glimpses of the old me, moments where I feel free and capable and strong. Mostly though, I’m still pretty soupy. The other day I read about a study which showed that if caterpillars are taught to avoid a certain smell, once they are butterflies, they remember. Even though they have been completely liquified during their metamorphosis, they remember.

I will remember too.

I will never let anyone harm me like he has. I will try and make sure that other women don’t go through it, or that if they do, it’s easier for them to recognise it and escape it. This will be my life’s goal. I made a promise to my daughter.

He used to tell me I was a dangerous woman – I wasn’t then. For men like him, I am now.

All illustrations by Oreofe Morakinyo.

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If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this story, Women’s Aid has a range of ways you can make contact or access support and resources.