Sunday, 16 June 2013

Mental bitch - my own experience of domestic violence

Reports this morning that Nigella Lawson was assaulted by her husband Charles Saatchi whilst onlookers merely commented and took pictures are deeply upsetting.  With an average of two women a week being killed by a violent partner in the UK, the suggestion of domestic violence rings alarm bells in people's minds and the clamour for intervention is deafening.
When made public, domestic violence, like any form of assault carries a call to action and as a society we feel we have a duty to wade in and advise the victim.  Call the police, have him charged.  Call Shelter, find a refuge.  These people can help, these people will give you advice, these people will protect you.  My own experience of domestic violence was harrowing but the resulting intervention left me feeling guilty, demeaned and culpable.

My ex-husband is not a violent man by nature but comes from a culture where 56% of women are subject to domestic violence.  Reported cases are less than 5% as it is seen as a private matter.  Over the eight years we were married he assaulted me four times.  I can’t say that he was overly sorry by what he’d done and seemed to think his response was justified by the shrewishness of my behaviour.  On one occasion he kicked me so hard in the stomach I couldn’t breathe.  Another time he grabbed me by the throat and pinned me to the wall until I nearly passed out.  He held a pillow over my face with such force I feared for my life and a few weeks ago he grabbed my throat again and dashed my head repeatedly against the wall.  On each of these occasions I threatened him with the police, reminding him that the laws in this country were different to his home country and the police respond seriously to assault on women. 
For whatever reason I didn’t report these incidents and deep within me I think it was because I felt it was my fault.  I had goaded him into this aggression and he defended himself physically.  On the last occasion, with my head hammering against the wall and my windpipe being crushed, he was yelling ‘you mental bitch’.  I am a mental bitch. I suffer from bipolar disorder. 

This time I did call the police.  We were separated, pending a divorce and I felt no obligation to protect him.  The officers arrived swiftly and dealt with the situation sensitively – I can’t fault their approach.  They took our statements separately and removed him to the police station.  My two small children didn’t witness the incident but were in the flat, sitting upstairs watching Scooby Doo.  I don’t know what they heard, if anything but this is not an environment I would wish to subject them to.
This all took place at 9am.  At 6pm that evening I was called by the arresting officer and asked if my ex-husband could have the right to visit us at our flat.  They were going to release him with a caution due to his previous good character but would arrest and charge him immediately should anything else occur.  They assured me that he was sorry for his behaviour and that he realised the enormity of his actions.  I agreed that he could contact us.  He wasn’t in fact very sorry, more angry with me for having involved the police but he was not aggressive and seemed to accept that he was in the wrong.

A couple of days later I was called by victim support and offered help and guidance – it was reassuring.  I was then contacted by social services who arranged a home visit with me and the children.  I have had contact with social services previously.  After my first daughter was born I suffered from puerperal psychosis, the severest form of post-natal illness and was transferred to St Ann’s Hospital for a while before going to a mother and baby unit in Park Royal.  After I was discharged and began the road to recovery, I was assigned a social worker from children's services who made weekly visits to make sure I was coping.  She was supportive and helpful and never intrusive.  It was made very clear to me that her role was to assist and I never felt she was breathing down my neck or making judgments.  It was reiterated many times that her responsibility was to keep the family together.

This time it was very different.  The social worker arrived and immediately grilled me on the incident.  She told me that she was compiling a report to determine whether a child protection order was necessary.  I felt sick to my core and very frightened.  After she filled in her form she advised me that in this situation I should have walked away.  She told me that women should learn not to anger men – it was our responsibility to calm things down.  Effectively she was telling me that this was my fault.  My objections to his thoughtless behaviour meant I deserved to be held by the throat and have my head smashed in. 
I shakily asked her whether my children might be taken into care.  She told me that was the purpose of the report; to determine whether there was a risk to the children.  No reassurances that she was there to help, no guidance that their role was to keep families together.  Just a stark insinuation that I was somehow responsible for the situation and my actions had instigated this awful enquiry. Over the coming weeks, they contacted the school and playgroup my daughters attend.  They contacted their doctor for medical reports.  I was called to ask for permission to release my medical records.  I asked why they needed mine and was told “You’ve got previous”.  Stunned, I asked whether she was referring to my mental health, which I had disclosed fully on her first visit.  As I’ve been in contact with social services before, this somehow ‘red lines’ me for further investigation.  I would have thought a rudimentary check of my records prior to the first visit would have given her all the information she needed.  She informed me that the fact that I had been ‘honest’ about my mental health would stand me in good stead.  I had never conceived of hiding it, I assumed she would know as it’s all in my file.  Bipolar disorder is part of who I am.   It’s like asthma or being short sighted, straight or gay – I didn’t choose to have it.

After weeks of discomfort, with my life being picked over and investigated, I received a letter from children’s services.  “Further to the referral from the police regarding the domestic incident between yourself and Mr X an assessment was completed and no child protection concerns were presented.  Therefore the case will close to Children’s Services.  However, if any further concerns present in the future, further action will be considered to safeguard the children”.
I took this as a warning and now, even if my ex-husband beat me to within an inch of my life, I probably wouldn’t report it.  The fear of having the children removed from my care is too great.

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