Like Mel B, I hadn’t heard of coercive control – until I realised it had happened to me

·5 min read
<p>‘Reading Mel B’s interview surfaced memories I have long suppressed: the shame, the silence, the overwhelming sense of isolation’</p> (Women’s Aid)

‘Reading Mel B’s interview surfaced memories I have long suppressed: the shame, the silence, the overwhelming sense of isolation’

(Women’s Aid)

I’m writing this, having just watched Mel B’s video campaign to highlight awareness of domestic abuse. My heart is pounding and my hands are slick on the keyboard. My breath feels ragged and I am sweating profusely.

It’s been years since I fled my abusive ex-husband, but I still carry the trauma of what I endured. I still remember the exact moment I realised if I did not escape, I might not survive. I won’t ever forget the exact words he used, taunting me that I would never leave.

Later that same evening, after he had gone out drinking, I shoved a small bag beneath the bed; the limited belongings I could carry along with my child. I desperately hoped he would be too drunk to find them stashed there when he got back – and too drunk to try to force himself on me.

All that mattered to me in the moment was that my child and I might escape, but it was coupled with the fear he had instilled in me that perhaps I really was mad – maybe I was a bad mother, perhaps I couldn’t survive without him.

Reading the Spice Girls star’s interview and watching the video she has made to highlight the issue of domestic violence forced memories I have long suppressed to the surface: the shame, the silence, the overwhelming sense of isolation, the way I was made to feel like I was slowly losing my mind.

When we first met, he was charming and charismatic. Our time together was frenzied and exciting: we travelled extensively, partied hard, drank harder, fought and had incredible make-up sex.

I was like one of those frogs put into the pan, where the water is turned up so slowly the creature does not know it is being boiled.

I remember him warning me days after we met not to mention my successes, though he made a habit of sharing them on my behalf when he wanted people to know I’d been to Oxford, or I had famous colleagues.

Early on, he would mock me for being naïve, for having a body that didn’t quite match those of his ex-girlfriends, for not having watched porn, or for not ever having had a threesome – always doing so in a way that made me question myself rather than him.

Later, he moved us away from my friends and family. He took a job which made it impossible for me to work, and blamed me for being unemployed. Once isolated, he chose my friendship group and started telling me what to wear, convincing me he was being a compassionate partner, helping me look the part.

There’s a photo from my child’s christening where I am wearing a long tunic top and a sage green skirt, the same shade as he wore in the military before we met. My face is pale, and I can see the pain behind the smile now.

When I read what Mel B wrote about being made to wearing certain colours, I remember my ex insisting I avoid specific clothes and hide certain parts of my body.

In Mel’s video, there’s a moment when the couple are dancing: the centre of attention, the sun around which the stars are orbiting. There were moments when I felt this way, as if the world saw one version of me, the version he had created.

When he took me to the social club and paraded me in front of the people he wanted to impress, I did not see myself as a trophy on his arm. I thought he was a proud husband, but he only ever shared my achievements if they made him look good.

I remember visiting the same club just minutes after he physically assaulted me, smiling silently, remembering how he had told me nobody would believe me, and that if he lost his job, it would be my fault. There were other times too when I covered for him, occasions when his behaviour bordered on the criminal and I was complicit, walking a tightrope between saving him and saving me.

There were months when I hesitated, terrified of leaving, but when the moment came, it was as if I knew that this might be my last chance.

Sadly, leaving the marriage did not free me from the abuse. He emptied our joint bank account, then refused to return my furniture. He has frequently failed to provide financially for his child. He has forced me to court many times (though blames me for this), has withheld communication; then hounded me, accused me and my new partner of abusing my child, and sought to undermine me and my sanity to those closest to me.

I recognise what Mel B means when she speaks about her self-esteem being left in shreds and the legacy of the trauma. It’s been years since I left, and I know how fortunate I am to have been able to do so. But there are still times when I hear his voice mocking me – still find myself questioning my sanity, imagining him asking me why I didn’t report it when it happened.

Even now, more than a decade on, there are times I still feel trapped and worried what he might do to hurt me and those I love. Writing this, I can hear his voice, mocking me, telling others not to believe me, buying his own lies. It’s a constant battle to remind myself that I am safe.

Anyone affected by domestic abuse can go to www.womensaid.org.uk for more information and support, or call the free national domestic violence helpline on 0808 2000 247

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