Content note: This article details domestic abuse which may be distressing for some readers.
Reconciling an abusive relationship within yourself is an almost impossible task. It’s pure unbridled pain, fused to moments of complete clarity, neatly wrapped up in deep grief.
Domestic abuse in the queer community is a serious and often overlooked issue. LGBTQ+ people suffer through domestically violent or threatening relationships with partners or ex-partners at about the same rates as heterosexual women. When I first came across this piece of information on a website dedicated to domestic violence I was staggered. Another parallel to opposite-gendered couples is that the problem is underreported. Those involved in same-gender abuse are often afraid of revealing their sexual orientation or the nature of their relationship.
As an intersectional feminist there is a vulnerablilty in the tension between fighting for the rights of women and finding yourself in an abusive situation with a woman. Too often victims of abuse find themselves asking ‘how could this happen to someone like me?’ That’s what happened in my case. A tapestry of life experiences and an anxious attachment style led me to a relationship with a woman that was abusive.
Growing up in rural Ireland I had a very sheltered upbringing. From the day I entered university some 13 years earlier I had an insatiable hunger for experiences and people. Eating them up everywhere I went, often meaning I too got eaten up and didn’t always show up for myself how I would have liked. I was hedonistic, self destructive and insecure. Fast forward to my early 30’s and while I had ‘calmed my farm’ as the Aussies say I was a relatively new recruit to the Southern Hemisphere having relocated to Melbourne. Living on the opposite side of the world where no one knew me was a rebirth. All the best and worst parts of me bundled together trying to navigate my way through this extremely out, gay world I was now living in. It was a revelation.
So many shifting parts of me. So many shifting situations and suddenly I found myself shifting the hottest woman I had ever seen. Even more suddenly we found ourselves living together.
Everything had changed for me. I fell deeply in love with her, just as I had fallen in love with my new-found queer identity. I could only focus on all the things I had now that were so different from the heterosexual life I had lived before. I felt for the first time in my adult life like I really knew myself and that I’d successfully vanquished the previous versions of Val. All of the things I had longed for suddenly existed: passion, understanding, yearning, depth of love. She was everything I wanted in a person, at that moment.
It’s funny how something that feels so right can suddenly and confusingly become so wrong. We moved in together after nine months but within one month my dream house had become my waking nightmare.
Her work day was my reprieve. The sound of her sleeping was my moment to breathe. Every word I said took on a meaning I did not intend. Every action no matter how small was misconstrued, soaked up and flung back at me in all manner of ways. The list of Permitted Friends slowly grew shorter. My sister came to visit and said she didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what I was becoming.
Internet search bars are islands in seas of uncertainty. I changed my phone pin code and tried to search for meaning, logic, or anything that could help me make sense of what was happening to me. Why can’t I think straight? Why can’t I interpret this situation? What am I going through? What are the signs of abuse? Surely it’s not that bad! Jealousy, anger, forgiveness, guilt, blame, shouting, isolation, love, so much love, but so much hurt and always so fearful that this time was the time it would go too far. A sense of growing small, so small that I wanted to hide when I heard the key turn in the door but there was nowhere to go. Over time, I slowly squashed myself into a very different closet to the one I had been in before. The closet of trying to never be the reason I set off the anger.
I left one day, I went to stay in the bush with a couple I had befriended that were in their 60’s. Trying to extricate your whole life from someone else’s during a strict lockdown is an almost impossible task. Trying to think “what can I not live without” as you run around packing things before they get home feels like a rush of reasoned insanity. I kept thinking, how can I be in this situation? Me? How can this happen to someone like me, someone so strong and full of life?
The coupe offered me a little room in their garden near the sea and I went and hid there for weeks. Endless phone calls, endless texts, swaying wildly from fury, to forgiveness, to fear, to heartbreak. Both of our hearts were breaking for what was unfolding. Her rage that I had managed to leave was a powerful weapon against me. I was scared every moment of the day. I felt like I was losing my mind.
I left her because I was too frightened of what I might become if I stayed. I loved her and I grieved her betrayal of me. Survival mode is a powerful thing. It’s like aeroplane mode for humans; nothing comes in and nothing goes out but the system still operates because it has to.
Life is so complicated. We are bolted together from all the experiences we have lived. I don’t believe she treated me like this because she wanted to. She treated me like this because she didn’t know how not to. How not to fit me into the box she had created for me in her mind.
Queer people and healthcare have a complicated existence. My experiences were not good. My employer refused to give me official domestic abuse leave.
My psychologist straight up told me she wasn’t trained to deal with ‘this kind of thing’. The helplines kept referring to ‘him’, ‘he’ and ‘your boyfriend’ or my ‘husband’. I tried hard to access help but that process made me feel more invalidated in what I was going through.
I often wondered if I might have gotten the whole thing wrong.
When I went through this, the most vulnerable moment in my life, I couldn’t hear any voices like mine. There were no queer, non-binary people sharing these stories that I could find. All I needed was one voice or one person to validate me in my experience and it wasn’t there. I would search all sorts of things on my phone late at night, anything for a lifeline. Those voices did come later but I couldn’t hear them when I needed it most. I felt a deep shame that this happened to me and even more shame that it happened with a woman. It felt like a betrayal to the gender I was assigned at birth.
I know who I am. I’m so proud of who I’ve become and I love being gay. I tell my story because I want to own the narrative of my life. I won’t let someone take that from me ever again. I have a voice and it’s an important one, because there aren’t enough of these voices, but same-sex domestic abuse is a serious problem. We exist and often in silence.
The only person that can stop the abuse is the abuser. You have the right to be protected from domestic abuse just as anyone else does. It takes courage to get out of a dark place and you can hold that courage with you, that deep internal reserve, and the knowledge of the struggle you’ve survived every day for the rest of your life.
I spent a lot of time wondering why this had happened. I don’t have any blame or bitterness in me. Sometimes bad things just happen. We are all the sum total of the lives we have led. My therapist told me clarity is a beautiful thing. That relationship and experience changed me to my core. I’ve fought hard to keep the best parts of myself, the parts that always see the best in others, that feel everything in this world so intensely and beautifully, the part that is so happy to live. It’s been a very long and arduous road back to myself. I can honestly say for the most part I’m happy now. I love who I am; strong, powerful and with so much capacity to love and be loved. I can hold a healthy boundary. I will never knowingly put myself in a position like that again.
I don’t know how to measure or plan for my future especially when it comes to matters of the heart but in the words of Maya Angelou, “Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
That, I don’t need a plan for.
If you are affected by anything mentioned in this article you can access the following support services:
• Women’s Aid - 1800 341 900 - 24 hours-a-day
• Men’s Aid - 01 554 3811 or email@example.com. Monday to Friday, from 9am to 5pm
• Aoibhneas is a women and children’s refuge. 01 867 0701 24 hours-a-day or email firstname.lastname@example.org
• Immigrant Council of Ireland give advice on migrant women’s rights and domestic violence. Call 01 674-0200 10am-1pm, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Tuesday 7pm-9pm
• Older people who are experiencing abuse in the home can call the HSE information line on 1800 700 700 from Monday to Saturday, 8am to 8pm