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Our Women Are Silently Burning

Graphic by Teagan Witherow

When Eliza* was a teenager she found a quote: ‘Don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm’. She wrote it down and put it up on her wall, and it’s stuck with her ever since.

To Eliza, the quote speaks volumes about her relationship with her father. She said she knew even then, at around fourteen, that she was emotionally setting herself on fire, but it would take years for her to extinguish all contact with him.

Eliza tells me that she thinks her family presented as “pretty normal” -- even perfect -- to outsiders. She always knew it wasn’t. Inside her house, her father was emotionally, and on multiple occasions, physically abusive.

One in four Australian women has experienced emotional abuse by a former or current partner, and studies show that children growing up in these environments have higher rates of social and emotional problems. Indigenous women in Australia are more likely to experience domestic and family-related violence than non-Indigenous Australian women, and more likely to be hospitalised as a result of this violence. Women with disabilities are also more likely to experience domestic and family-related violence than other women and have added barriers when leaving abusive situations.

The prevalence of domestic violence in our society is undeniable. Earlier this year in Brisbane, the deaths of Hannah Clarke and her children sent shockwaves across Australia after her estranged husband set fire to her car while she and her children were inside. But why are we only talking about domestic violence when it presents in the most obvious form? Why do our women have to die for us to take notice of the problem?

Hannah Clarke has been quoted as saying her husband’s actions weren’t abuse because he didn’t hit her. But abuse is far more complicated than just physical violence. It takes many forms, some which leave marks of a different nature but marks nonetheless. Survivors of this abuse may only recognise this trauma as such years later, and the assistance available only seems to focus on the marks we can see.

Eliza’s dad played favourites, and she said that her father’s emotional manipulation left her feeling like she had to work for his love. She can still see the effects of that in her family today and constantly struggles with feeling like she’s not good enough. She hates events that are meant to be about her, like birthdays or graduations, because her dad would rarely show up even though she begged him to.

“I remember crying in the car on the way to my formal because he hadn’t shown up to the pre-party at my mum’s house and looking for him at my high school graduation but not finding him,” Eliza said.

Both times he later told her it was too hard for him to be there. Eliza tells me she “didn’t bother” inviting him to her university graduation.

“I try really hard to be understanding, and I struggle now with finding that line between compassion and being taken advantage of. Even though I’m sympathetic to my dad’s struggles, he consistently prioritised his emotions and as a result I feel like mine are unimportant.”

Growing up, Eliza struggled to deal with her dislike of her father’s actions and her love for him as his child.

“I think you automatically idolise your parents, and to be confronted so early with the fact that they’re not perfect is really difficult to process,” she said.

Eliza said she feels like she almost treated him as two different people to deal with it.

“I can definitely remember thinking as a kid that dad would come home and eat dinner and be nice, then he’d go outside and have a few drinks and come back inside and be mean.”

Eliza said she still loved him, and that’s difficult for her on many levels. She worries that the love she felt for her father represented an unintentional betrayal of her mother.

“I’ve always wished that my mum had got out before I was born. Even though she said my siblings and I are the best thing in her life and the one good thing to come out of our situation, I’ve always felt like a bit of a burden.”

Eliza’s mother, Katherine*, said physical violence definitely wasn’t the worst part of her abusive marriage. For the first two decades of her marriage, the abuse was emotional. The physical violence, however, was what made her realise she needed to leave. She didn’t want her children exposed to that as she thought it would damage them.

“With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that the constant and ongoing emotional abuse would be far more destructive and insidious and something I may never truly overcome.

“I am still not really sure why I put up with such terrible treatment and this still haunts me,” Katherine said.

Like many women in abusive relationships, Katherine was isolated from others. She worked at the family business with her husband and, after their separation, went back to work for a previous employer. She said this provided her with a purpose and helped her get her sense of self back.

“It was honestly just good to be treated nicely by people. I’d been very trapped at home.”

Roughly 14% of the participants at Designer Life, a ParentsNext provider which is a government funded program to help parents prepare for employment, have disclosed they experience or have experienced domestic violence.

One of their ParentsNext Program Officers said that “in most cases we find the participant lacks confidence and has self-esteem issues.

“They may also suffer from anxiety and depression and some are fearful of working as they worry the abuser may show up at their workplace.”

Stacey* left an abusive relationship over a year-and-a-half ago, suddenly finding herself a single mother of five children. She said she knew her relationship was toxic, but it took someone else pointing out the situation for her to act on it.

At that time, she had no formal qualifications and no solid employment for 12 years. Stacey became involved with Designer Life after being referred to their ParentsNext program. Through the program, she gained a certificate and successfully interviewed for a job.

Stacey said that gaining employment helped her in more ways than just financial stability. Her confidence, self-worth, community knowledge, and friendships grew as a result.

Stacey said that during her relationship, she was made to feel guilty for not contributing financially to the household. However, when she created her own cleaning business, she was made to feel guilty for not giving her partner all her attention and not catering to all of his needs. She said she would have to ask permission to accept work.

“Once given the permission, I would still suffer the consequences later.

“Any interest in work or study was quickly shot down and I was made to feel incapable.”

Once Stacey had realised she was in an abusive relationship, she said she couldn’t bring herself to admit it. At the time she didn’t know what support services were available.

“To be honest I probably would have been too scared to accept it,” she said.

The effects of emotional abuse are just as real and long-lasting as the effects of physical violence, yet due to stigma can often go untreated.

Eliza said that she’s only realised recently how badly her experience growing up in an abusive home affected her. She said she knew she had issues from it, but only recently confronted these and started taking steps to work on them, including seeking help from a psychologist.

“Therapy was a really dirty word in my family growing up. There was definitely the attitude that it was ‘paying someone to care about you’, which I think in itself speaks to my family’s issues,” she said.

Eliza said she thinks her family struggles with low self-esteem and self-worth as a result of their experience. She said this presented itself in various ways, particularly in the form of unhealthy attitudes and habits surrounding food when she was a teenager. She said it’s taken a long time for her not to see food as an easy way to punish herself.

Eliza said she struggles with issues around trust, commitment and vulnerability. She worries she’ll be judged for her experiences or seen as an easy target for bad behaviour.

“I think that stems from the subconscious thought that I let myself be treated that way, when I know that’s victim blaming and not true at all.”

Eliza said she wishes she’d seen someone about her issues as a child and feels like it’s much harder to seek help later in life.

“I think every kid whose parents divorce should have to see the school counsellor, at least. Now that I’m older it’s so complicated and costs so much and it’s just not accessible at all.”

Katherine said she knows that mental health issues played a huge part in her ex-husband’s behaviour but that doesn’t erase the effects of 20 years of abuse.

“Twenty years of being told you are unlovable and unattractive, blamed for your partner’s unhappiness, told no-one else would want you or find you attractive, betrayed and cheated on repeatedly, berated and undervalued, manipulated, disempowered, of feeling invisible and of no importance, and having your every action and thought twisted and sullied leaves an indelible mark and makes it difficult to finally move on when you finally break away.”

Katherine said there was an enduring shame and sense of failure, and a fear that she could be treated that way again. She said she’s never sought any professional help and wasn’t in a financial position to do so for a long time nor did she know where to go.

Katherine said she felt lucky just to have escaped. She focussed all her attention on raising her children and staying busy. She wouldn’t know where to find help now, though she said it’s something she should probably do.

“I find it really hard to trust anyone and although I am by nature a generous person, I often feel used,” Katherine said.

Stacey, too, thinks she and her children have lasting effects from their experience. She said at the time it was hard for her to recall specific incidences when explaining her experience to others. However, Stacey said she now experiences flashbacks and memories that suddenly reappear.

Her abuse still affects her confidence.

Stacey said she struggles to make decisions, and at times doubts her parenting abilities due to past criticism from her ex-partner. She experiences a lot of guilt for having allowed her children to suffer, with one child being targeted more than the others.

Stacey said her past experience also affects her new partnerships as well, as it’s hard to trust that person. For both herself and her children, there is always a fear that the past will repeat itself. She said her children still wait for her new partner to stop being nice at any given time.

Stacey said that she received a Mental Health Plan from her GP, but there was a waitlist of up to three months for counselling. After being referred to another service and attending one session, she decided she couldn’t afford to attend any further sessions.

Stacey said the most challenging aspect of leaving her abusive relationship was financial, and she needed help from her family to relocate. She also said awareness and knowledge of the different types of domestic abuse is necessary.

The stigma around domestic violence is still very real, and all women speaking in this article said this affected them. For Eliza, this meant her family didn’t really talk about their experience -- even with each other -- until recently. She said there are negative attitudes around ‘broken homes’ and ‘daddy issues’. Growing up in a conservative, religious environment also meant there was a stigma attached to divorce itself.

“I think growing up I generally thought people would think it reflected badly on me, not my dad,” she said.

Katherine said she felt like a failure for divorcing her ex-husband, and that growing up she’d been conditioned as a woman to “fix things, make things right and keep your family together”. She said there was a sense of shame for staying as long as she did, and not standing up for herself. Katherine said that she felt like she got out okay, and that services like Brisbane Domestic Violence Service, in her mind, were for women in physical danger.

Stacey said that she’s dealt with many ignorant comments around domestic violence, such as saying survivors are ‘damaged goods’ or should have left sooner. She said these comments “hurt a lot” and she wishes there was more education on the types of abuse and the barriers women face during an abusive relationship.

Eliza keeps her quote taped to one of the mirrors in her apartment now. She said she’s glad she has more than a quote to help her deal with what she’s been through.

“Talking about it has really helped, both with a trained professional and just with my family.

“My sister and I, though, we’ve joked about how fully functioning we’d be if we’d gotten help when we first needed it.”

If you or anyone you know is suffering from domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit Call the police on 000 in an emergency. If you’re in Queensland, call DVConnect on 1800 811 811 at any time and the number will not be recorded on your phone bill.

* names have been changed for anonymity


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