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Hit me, Baby, one more time

Shreya Sen-Handley @shreyasenhan

Updated: June 20, 2013, 11:11 AM IST
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As I watch powerful, beautiful Nigella Lawson being grabbed by the neck and shaken by the man who should love and protect her above all others, her husband Charles Saatchi, I feel a familiar terror. I touch my sides and though the immediate soreness comes from my operation last week, underneath the physical pain there is a remembered ache, a bruised-brittleness that comes from the memory of having my ribs kicked repeatedly by my ex-husband as I lie there, not defending myself, not moving away, wondering almost distantly when it might end so that I could get on with my day. It's a kind of cool that can only come from years of domestic abuse. It's called despair. And one in four women around the world knows it.

Today I am writing the bluest of blogs. Quite unrecognisable from the usual spiel from the sparring acid persona with her protective armour of mockery, because the cocktail of pain I've downed this week has left me all out of sass and joy and swagger. Instead I'll tell you a story that fits the wounding week it's been. With a tearful Nigella plastered across every rag and a study just out reporting a shocking 11 per cent rise in domestic violence in Britain in the last year, and the avalanche of crime against women in India that continues unabated, I am going to take a very deep breath, shuck aside the levity (only this once I hope) and talk about that feeling of being a punching bag for five years and the legacy of this experience.

The battered woman will hurt forever more but so, unfortunately, will the men who come into her life in the wake of the brute. Even out of the picture, he gets his way after all, messing his victim and her relationships up for a good long while at least. Because domestic violence is very much about ruined relationships.

Of course, it's about death and injury and traumatised children who grow into deeply scarred adults. It's about stories like Rebecca Beattie's whom the English emergency services found in a pool of blood, battered, on her kitchen floor. A day after her partner had promised to kill her if she left him, he returned home to find her laughing with friends - he attacked them and then repeatedly punched and kicked the mother of his son as she lay at his feet. Or about Indian lawyer Flavia Agnes, whose husband abused her for more than a decade, breaking her nose, her arm, banging her head on walls, dragging her across floors and starving her. Even celebrities are not spared. Ike's leather-belt beatings of Tina Turner are, unfortunately, legend, while Rihanna was famously left black and blue by Chris Brown. Nearer home, it's whispered in the glitzy corridors of Bollywood that Salman Khan didn't pull any punches with Aishwariya.

Men are victims of domestic violence too, but worldwide, more than 80 per cent of such abuse, especially of an intimate or severe nature, is against women. But this blog post is about the good men who suffer, not as the recipient of beatings, but psychologically and emotionally, alongside their women, because she'd fallen into the hands of a bruiser first.

For a middle class Indian woman domestic abuse is a funny old business. You pretend it's not happening while it is. Family and friends are unbelievably blind to bruises because they dare not rock their genteel world with the admission it could happen to them. It's not just the Indian middle classes who cover it up though, because Britain has just woken up to the fact that their upper classes get battered too, with a significant rise in domestic crimes reported against professional women this year.

And if you're lucky enough to walk away with life and limbs intact, you sweep it under the carpet thinking that's the last you'll see of that. This week I realised how wrong I had been to think I'd escaped unscathed. While I knew already I hadn't come out of it whole, I was able to pretend for a decade that nothing was wrong because I'd been fortunate enough to marry the only man in the world with the fortitude to coolly but gently brew me a cuppa while I fling unlikely accusations at his entirely innocent self.

But two other men I loved have understandably bailed out on me for precisely this kind of behaviour. The first and only one I can introduce to you - Mark, was my refuge from the horrors of my first marriage. And the second, a new friend who had blown into my life with my resurrected writing career, earlier this year. A new friend who I felt I'd known all my life. Our shared background, passion for writing and an endless stream of stories to exchange and life's little incidents to laugh over bound us together quickly.

I lost my first beloved friend to my neuroses long, long ago, at the beginning of my head-in-the-sand decade. My new friend I lost recently, just last week, after the strain of the operation had unhinged me further. Just last week, but the longest week of my life, which I spent grieving the good men I had lost and rocked by the nightmarish dread that I would end up losing the love of my life, Mr.H, too, if I didn't deal with my crazies right away. Like right now. Don't tell me I can live without a man, I know that, but this isn't about men, it's about relationships that matter and being able to sustain them. I can't.

I am an emotional arsonist; I burn the bridges that bind with abandon and regret it forever after.

So I did what I should have done when my first marriage ended, I took myself off to a highly recommended head doctor this morning, still aching from being carved up a week ago. This would be my 40th birthday gift to myself. I don't need parties on two continents; this is what I want for me and mine: self-worth that comes from within me, and the resultant stability and happiness. I want Amiata, the volcano inside me, to explode at my command and only when she brings forth positive life-affirming moltenness. I want The Ghost from Marriage Past who still pushes my buttons sometimes to be banished forever.

And no, I'm not shifting blame; it's my job to be in control of my emotions, which I hope to learn with a little help from the Good Doc.

Stutteringly at first and then with growing confidence, I told the doctor of the pain and humiliation of being punched, kicked, strangled and raped. And that a pattern of self-doubt, suspicion and a self-destructive compulsion had manifested itself in my relationships with men since my first fateful marriage. I also told him about this week of soul-searching. The doctor nodded sagely and fixed me with a twinkling eye. And have you told this man about your epiphany? The Man from Last Week? No, I said, he won't speak to me. The doctor smiled, ah, you are going to need more sessions than I thought. Write to the other man, he said, the first one you feel you pushed away. He won't speak to me either, I admitted sheepishly. Er, said the doc (giving me a look that said what on earth do you do to them, Woman), you mentioned a blog...

And so here I am, Mark, communicating with you for the first time in nine years. Because you walked away. Because you had good reason. Because almost a decade later, I still miss the warmth and rapport we shared. I sent you photos of my children, you never responded. I just wanted you to know that life was working out for me. It is. But there are things I need to fix and people I need to make my peace with, starting with you.

We had a lot of good times before the bad, didn't we? We hit the ground running, getting along like a sky-scraping inferno from the day we met. You interviewed me for a job. I got the job. And then, for the next year and a half, we careened about the country in your crazily overloaded car (with Sixties CDs and book upon book of Beat Poetry - I felt so much younger than you), on business trips. They were excuses to spend all day talking about childhood memories and bucket lists and Le Grande Plan to see Springsteen in Paris.

You told me we'd be best friends forever. But we didn't make it. Nor did my new friend and I make the finish line. And to both of you I need to say now, I get it. I understand why you cut and run. I guess you remember the emotional storms better than the good times or I wouldn't be addressing you in a blog, we'd be talking. I really needed to be Teacher's Pet all the time, didn't I? The Mother of all Teacher's Pets! A little bit like that stray you bring home in a horror movie who turns into a Gremlin in the dark and lays waste your house. I needed so much of you because I drew all my self-worth from you, so that if the focus of your approbation shifted, I crumpled and tugged on your weary arm like a child, asking to have the spotlight of your approval turned back on me. But YOU are not responsible for my feelings of worth, I am.

So, I shall begin to address my problems like the Good Doctor advised, by telling you, Mark, that other, older story you don't know.

You don't know when I went home every evening all the warmth and joy and sparkle I carried with me through the day were left at the doorstep. Because from then to the next morning, I would withdraw into myself, reading in the corner of the little attic bedroom, with nothing but slick grass and grey northern skies to look out on, waiting for the inevitable nightly outburst from my husband, which sometimes made a punching bag of me, and sometimes blew over without violence. But rarely without taking its toll; waiting to be hit, my stomach would churn and my head would swim and the light you brought into my world during the day would be snuffed out again.

Every now and then, I would land up in hospital, with bruised ribs, half-asphyxiated or semi-conscious; the wounds heal but the memory of the pain and the coldness of the trolley or the feeling of being one more bruised soul in a sea of battered bodies, of absolutely no consequence to anyone, never quite leaves you.

Once or twice, Mark, you asked about bruises and I brushed it off with tales of my clumsiness. You never saw the worst because domestic abusers are so adept at hitting you in hidden places. Claire, from a woman's refuge in the same northern town, told me this, "I was subjected to relentless kicks and punches, always landing on areas of my body where bruising wouldn't show. He told me he didn't want me to be stared at or humiliated by strangers. Who was humiliating me more?"

We were so close, why didn't I tell you? I was ashamed. Most victims of domestic abuse keep it to themselves (only 10 per cent, it's believed, come forward). It was such an unlikely place for an educated girl from the Bengali intelligentsia with a successful career to land up in, I couldn't even admit it to myself till the hospital run became an everyday occurrence.

And domestic abuse like a Hydra-headed monster manifests itself in so many ways. In my marriage, the violence played out alongside the deliberately orchestrated isolation (not difficult in my case, in a new country), the death threats, the belittling, the scapegoating, the financial skulduggery and the rape, of course. Very few domestic violence victims are spared any of this. In the UK, more than half of all sexual assault victims are raped by partners and in India, in 2011, one in every five Indian man surveyed admitted to forcing their wives into sex. And it's done with impunity, as it's still not a crime in India, alongside other enlightened countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

I wish I had told you, Mark, but even though I didn't your presence in my life gave me my confidence back and I was able to extricate myself from my ex-husband's clutches not long after. I did tell my new friend and that was such a cathartic binding experience. It was easy telling him, a friend I laughed with, shared every detail of my life with, had pretend-lunches with, but as we grew closer that emotional arson I was so prone to with you, Mark, rekindled. You walked away because you didn't want to get burnt. He did too this week. I am working on controlling that blaze now and though it won't bring either of you back it might mean the list of casualties stops here.

How do you even begin to explain to someone that you behave badly to end a relationship you don't want to finish because you want to pre-empt the inevitable pain of being dumped (because unworthy as I am, forsaken I will be) and then you get what you asked for, except that's not what you wanted at all. Sigh. At least the Good Doctor understood. With him and with Mr.H's steadfast love by my side, I shall embark on a perilous journey taking me back to my darkest times. But when I come out the other side, I would have vanquished my psychological demons just as surely as I dealt with the Real One all by myself nine years ago. I did, completely on my own, didn't I, Mark? So I must be worth something.

Maybe not sane, not always pleasant, but like the millions of women who having survived abuse, put aside their shame and fear to grapple with it, sometimes in the glare of prurient publicity like Nigella Lawson, I am ready to slay my monsters.

Wish me well, Mark. I will hear you wherever you are.
First Published: June 20, 2013, 11:11 AM IST

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