The most dangerous time

Five women tell their stories of leaving an abusive relationship


Leaving an abusive relationship is the time a woman or her children are most likely to be seriously harmed or murdered by their partner.

According to the Domestic Violence Prevention centre, most women will, on average, attempt to leave an abusive relationship between five and seven times before successfully and permanently doing so. Between 25% to 31% of murders in Australia involve either spouses or sexual partners research by Rich Money Models.

Here women across the country share with Guardian Australia how they left an abusive relationship, the support that helped them to regain control, and the help that was lacking when they needed it most.

Roia Atmar

Roia Atmar has a fulfilling job with the Patricia Giles centre in Western Australia, which provides emergency accommodation and support to women and children. Almost 20 years ago, Roia was hospitalised for three months after her then husband doused her in turpentine and set her on fire. She suffered horrific injuries – but it was in the hospital that she realised for the first time she could leave her abuser, thanks to the vigilance of staff and the support of her family. She says she received excellent support from police and social workers, and that it is possible to find happiness after abuse.

My family never knew about the abuse until I was in hospital because my ex would portray me as the best thing on the planet that happened to him, that he loved and adored me and we had a perfect family – so that’s what everybody thought. And he never left me alone with anyone, so I couldn’t talk to them. I was also quite outspoken as a child, so people thought if something was wrong, I would speak up.

We were married for about five years. He was quite controlling from the moment we met, but the abuse really started after I had my first child, and it just escalated from there and got worse.

I had no idea I had the option of leaving. I got married at 14, and came to Australia [from Afghanistan] about three days later, so I had no family or friends here. The only people I was allowed contact with was his family. I wasn’t allowed to go to school and have a job, and the story he was feeding me and the children was he could do anything he wanted to us, because he was the one working, the husband, and paying the bills, even though we were on Centrelink.

I had no idea police would get involved and care, or anybody else would care. If I knew I had the option, I would have left a long time ago. That was one of the main reasons I did not attempt leaving him. When I found out I could leave, it was after he tried to kill me and I was in hospital.

But when I did find out, I made up my mind and never, ever went back.

I was in hospital when my family thought something wasn’t right. By this time my mother, brother and uncle were living in Australia. They spoke with a hospital social worker, who told them the story my then husband was telling them about how I was burned. He told hospital staff that my scarf had caught on fire while I was warming myself, as I’m a Muslim. What he actually did was pour turpentine on me and set me on fire.

We asked the domestic violence survivors interviewed for this project to tell us their ‘safe places’ – places, memories or mementoes that made them feel secure

‘For my places I wanted to say in Perth and Australia as a whole. My photos are of the High Court and Kings Park. The court is I guess about law and order and how the system has been great to us and taken care of us. And Kings Park, as in Perth, being our home.’Roia Atmar

My family got the hospital social worker to come and talk to me, but when he talked to me, my ex was there. He was there all the time, and he would only leave the hospital after I fell asleep, even though he had his own room in another unit. He would speak for me if anyone asked me questions. He lied, telling them he had to be in the room according to our religion.

The social worker told him he only wanted to talk to me about my children, and he would come to talk to him as well, and eventually convinced him to leave my room. But he was watching me through the window. Luckily, the social worker realised, and he got up, shut the blinds, and then asked me if I needed help.

I said even if I did need help, there was nothing he could do. I told him if my husband became suspicious he would kill me, or get someone from his family to take my kids back to Afghanistan and I would never see them again. The social worker told me he would get the police to talk to me and tell me exactly what my rights were.

A police officer came and explained what a restraining order was and how police could help me go through the family courts, and arrange for my mother to take care of the children while I was in hospital. I didn’t believe her. I didn’t know there was such thing as a family court to help people like me.

Then my mum rang and said, “I have your kids”. It was the first time I realised: “Oh God, somebody cares, the police really are helping me.” My mum told me to tell her exactly what happened, and when I told her, she didn’t go to my ex to get his side of the story, she trusted what I said and told me how we were going to make a plan together and what she would do then and there to help me.

It was then I decided I was not going back, ever. I gave my statement to police and we had an intervention order taken out against him, and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison, though he was eligible for parole after five.

For a while, my family and I did move to another state, but I realised I didn’t want my daughters especially to think that we had done something wrong, that we were being forced to move. Western Australia was home to me, it had been since I was 14, so we came back. I have a restraining order still in place and a lot of security in my house.

A lot of partner homicides happen when women try to leave, and it’s not an easy decision to make. I would encourage women to put a lot of support in place and make a safe plan for themselves before they leave, and find out what agencies are there to help them.

But I think the responsibility falls on the community as a whole, not just refuge staff or social workers or police. We must believe women. She knows the situation best. Understanding and trusting women is one of the most important things society can offer to create safety for a woman and help make her decision to leave that bit easier.

I now celebrate where I am at in life, I’ve accomplished all the things that I wanted to, and I’m very proud of all I have done since I left my ex, and I am very proud of my children and our family. I feel safe now, and I f

Faliana Lee

Faliana Lee is the author of Carving A Piece of Heaven, which documents her leaving story after almost two decades of being physically and emotionally abused. Lee now works voluntarily as an advocate for Womens Health East, to lobby the government for policies to speed up recovery for victims.

I was in a violent relationship for 18 years. At the beginning of the marriage, the first half of the first year, there weren’t any episodes of violence or abuse. After half a year, things started to happen.

Initially, it was things like, we’d have to travel to Sydney but for the whole trip I wasn’t allowed to go to the toilet. Violence and abuse is a form of control. He actually would not hide abuse from the children, sometimes he would have outbursts in front of them and, somehow, I still believed it was better for me to stay for the good of the children, not knowing that for children who witness the abuse it’s as if they experience it themselves.

When you’re in the relationship for a long time, you lose your identity. You believe in the lies you were told. We don’t believe in our ability to live an independent life.

You don’t get much sense of freedom and, on average, it takes a woman seven times to leave a relationship for good. I lost the support of my own family, and friends. It’s about trying to form a new circle of friends around you for support.

The emotional abuse gradually became more intense, and then the physical abuse set in. One of the things abusers tend to do is to isolate us from the community as well, so it’s harder for us to seek help in many ways and over time, we believe in their lies.

‘Sanctuary at St Kilda beach. The smell of the ocean and the sound of the waves as they approach the shore calm me down when I have a problem relaxing.’

‘I’ve read my Bible almost every night since I was young. It brings me comfort knowing God cares for me no matter how big is the storm.’

And then, there is the shame factor in the whole abuse. So we find it very hard to open up to anyone. I did have friends at work, a colleague, she was in that type of situation before but then she realised what was happening to me, because over time, it will get so stressful that you develop the physical symptoms, even though you try to ignore it.

Eventually, your body will accumulate enough stress that it manifests itself in physical symptoms. I suffered from excessive bleeding and chronic fatigue, and when that happened, my colleague picked it up because she was in a similar situation before. She was trying to offer me support but it’s very hard for some of us to open up even with people who identify with you, with your suffering, and with your feelings. So I didn’t take the support. I tried to find [a] way to solve the problem on my own. But you’ll never be able to do it alone. Eventually, the stress meant I was forced to leave my job as a tax accountant.

I think before I made the final decision to leave my partner permanently, I attempted four [times]. After each scenario, when he showed remorse and the children wanted to go back home, then you sort of felt like that is the way to move forward but unfortunately like, you look back at what happened … the situation doesn’t improve over time. I think what made my final decision to leave permanent is because my life was threatened and prior to that, there were times where I had conversations with my older son where I said I would stay, as long as it was safe to do so. But if my life was ever threatened, then we had to leave.

Faliana Lee

We were actually kicked out by my ex from home in the middle of the night. He went to the kids room, woke them up in the middle of the night, and we were kicked out of our home. I think [it was because] earlier that evening, I had a conversation with him because our Christian counselling session was coming up and usually what happened before a counselling session was, he would work me up to a stage that when I went to the counsellors office he would act like the calm and the more trustworthy partner in the relationship and I would be more hysterical, so to speak.

Somehow, he always got the counsellor to side with him. So I think I found it very difficult to cope anymore, so I refused [to go to the counselling session] and [mentioned] the fact that I was thinking of leaving. All was well until we went to bed, and all of a sudden he pushed me off the bed and then he said I had to leave.

During the time when you leave, the abuser will try to make it [seem] as if you have overreacted so they will give you excuses and say, like, it’s because you act that way I responded that way, you know, and it’s not really a big matter. But in your eyes at that time because you are all emotional you feel really bad about the situation. That’s why many women find it hard to resist the urge [to go back] because we always feel it’s our fault, [that] we are partially to blame.

We want to make amends for the relationship to move forward, but the fact is, we are never moving forward. I don’t know how many times I tried to change myself to make things work. I was in a loop, and it was never ending, and eventually you lose a sense of your own identity. So when I left the relationship, I couldn’t even cry. I found grieving very difficult.

My message to women out there who are struggling, I would say to seek help. No one can understand your situation if they are not professionals, they can’t offer you a safe way to leave. Without outside help, there’s no way you can turn the tide around in your favour and improve your situation. It’s very hard for those in a relationship to continue this struggle on their own, so whether you decide to leave or not, phone the helpline or phone a support group. I think that way you don’t feel isolated.

‘The night blooming cereus is a cactus flower that blooms at night and withers the next morning. That reminds me time is short, we should not dwell in the past.’

‘Refuge at the botanic gardens. I love the gum tree. I often climb the tree and rest my head on its branches.’

And there are things people can see, if you pay attention to us. Sometimes like, there will be times that we seem to struggle emotionally no matter how bravely we want to put ourselves forward. No matter how hard we try to hide our bruises, there could be visible signs that we’ve been abused. Recording the date of the episode, if you find yourself suspicious [that someone is being abused] may help us down the track.

Even though I’m completely recovered, there will be days without any trigger at all when something will come up, that emotion will come up. Even though we are out of the relationship, our system is still engaged with that feeling, so it’s really hard at the start to actually try to focus on the present. Even without consciously doing it, my thoughts will either go into the past or worry about the future. You have to learn ways to heal yourself, meditation, exercise, trying to spend time with your friends or finding a new group of friends who are supportive, find a counsellor, if your counsellor is not working with you, don’t be hesitant to change to someone who will be supportive.

One of the things you get from complete recovery is you get your identity back and you have a sense of freedom, and what that allows me to do is use my time more efficiently. So last year I finished my book, I ran as an upper-house candidate in the state election in Victoria. Without recovery, I wouldn’t have been able to do all that. I think that is what recovery is all about.

Kay Schubach

Kay Schubach is an ambassador for Domestic Violence NSW and a fundraiser for White Ribbon. She is author of the book, Perfect Stranger, about her experience of being in an abusive relationship. It took just eight weeks for her relationship with her ex-partner, who is now in jail, to escalate to a point where he tried to kill her. Schubach says once distance was placed between her and her abuser, she was able to see him for what he really was and reclaim her life.

About 10 years ago, I met a very, very, charming, sophisticated, sexy man, and I really fell for him hook, line and sinker. Part of why I fell for him so heavily and so quickly was because I was just turning 40, and I was really, really eager to have a child. When we spoke about that, he promised me that we’d have a family together and he built up this great fairy tale and it just seemed too good to be true and in fact it was.

Very, very quickly he got his hooks into my life and very, very quickly it turned from absolutely amazing and whirlwind, and then cracks started to appear and he became very emotionally abusive and very critical and more and more frightening. In the end, I knew very quickly, actually within two months, I felt my life was threatened and I was seeking help from the police, and it escalated very quickly.

It’s a kind of classic scenario. Of course at the time, you don’t realise it. You’re in love, it’s a new relationship, your pheromones are going crazy. We were whirling and twirling, he was very, very charming, and it turns out he’s got a grandiose personality disorder and narcissism. And you know, the molecules would change in the air when he walked in, and people would gravitate towards him. He had this personal power that was incredible and everyone was fooled. A-listers, personalities, QCs, everyone was fooled. I was a bit like a bunny in the spotlight. He was so dynamic that one minute, you’re on top of the world but then next minute, there’d be a flash and he’d become very critical of me and all of a sudden, I’d have done something wrong.

‘Mum and Dad: my incredible parents, still in love after 65 years.’

Then keys would go missing and just little things like that, so I started to feel quite unsteady and unstable and always blaming myself. He became very jealous and obsessive and accusatory if I got a phone call from anyone, he was critical of my friends, my family, and in the end he didn’t want me to see any of my friends so very quickly I was isolated. He made life at work very difficult, he was calling maybe 70 times a day and in the end, I lost my job. I didn’t know if I was coming or going. I thought I was going mad.

I kept thinking right up until the point where he actually smothered me in my apartment that I could fix it and I was really bewildered by what was happening and I was really ashamed to talk to any of my friends. I’d left a relationship to be with him. So I’d already alienated a few people and I’d put so much on the line to be with him that I was very embarrassed to admit this was going horribly, horribly wrong. My parents and family live interstate so they weren’t by my side so much.

In the end, I actually had tickets to go down to Melbourne which I’d had for a long time to see my girlfriends, and he did everything I could to stop me from going because he knew that I’d get away from him and have some clarity and that other people would have influence over me. He put sugar in my petrol tank, he threatened to burn my apartment, he threatened to throw all my things out the window if I left. But I did go.

I saw my sister-in-law in Melbourne and I finally confessed things were going badly and I was very, very stressed in my relationship and that I was probably going to lose my job. I was also pregnant to him by this stage, though I lost the baby, and I wasn’t feeling well, I was completely turned upside down. My sister-in-law grabbed me by the shoulders and said: “Kay, you can do this. Solve it like you would solve a problem at work, and go to work on this. Get the removalists in, change the lease, change the locks, call the police and get some help. Just do it.” The light bulb went off in my head, and I felt: “I have to do this or I’m going to die.” It sounds like really dramatic now, but it’s seriously like being in the scariest movie you’ve ever been in when you’re being threatened in your own home. There’s nowhere to go, there’s no escape. It’s hard to explain.

‘The emerald city. Off to visit my parents. I love photographing Sydney.’

‘On Channel 7’s Daily Edition. Speaking about domestic violence empowers me, knowing I’m helping change public perception of who it affects.’

He was always in my ear, the phone was going a hundred times a day when I wasn’t with him. He was always confusing my thoughts, telling me I was wrong and making it up and also, my self esteem had eroded so quickly. So even just having a couple of days away from him was a real breath of fresh air, and having that clear calm voice of a family member was really amazing.

When I was at the airport I called the real-estate agent and said “I need to break the lease.” I called the police and said, “I’m going to move out and I need help, and I need you to be there when I do it, it’s a really dangerous time for me.” I called the removalist vans and booked a storage unit. I didn’t know what my long-term plan was, but I knew it was critical to get out of there.

When I started to, you know, wriggle out from his control, that’s a very, very dangerous time and that’s when domestic violence is about power and control and when you start to change that dynamic, you know you can really, really raise a lot of problems. So you have to be very, very careful. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got someone around you if you’re at that point, make sure the police know that that’s what you’re doing or someone knows that’s what you’re doing. Have spare keys, have some money somewhere, try and get another phone if you can, even have some clothes at the drycleaner, a little emergency bag to take somewhere, even know the number for a taxi in case you lose your phone. There’s lots of things you need to think about doing, but if you have to leave the house with nothing when you go, you have to have a fire plan.

Kay Schubach

I moved down to a friend’s house down on the south coast and I physically put distance behind us. He was really cajoling and coaxing on the phone, and trying to find out where I was. It’s so hard to resist that, it’s a very hard time to leave something that you’ve built and to just walk away from that. It really takes all the resolve that you have.

On average, a woman will put up with 37 cases of abuse, of being hit or being violated in some way, before they leave, and we’re only just realising that‘s what happens. We’re sometimes not very supportive of people in domestic violence situations. We don’t understand the dynamics, and it’s a big learning curve for all of the community to understand that it’s a very, very difficult thing to break those ties.

Your relationship is kind of sacrosanct, and you want to hang on to that at all costs. You’ve invested a lot, even if it’s dysfunctional. You may have lived together, you’ve extended love, you’ve extended trust. You might have children, you might have a shared life. It might be for two months in my case, or it might be for 20 years, so you’ve got a huge investment there. That’s very hard to walk away from.

The other thing that happens in domestic violence cases that’s very, very common is your self esteem gets eroded. In my case, that happened very quickly but sometimes it’s a long, slow erosion. I’ve seen incredibly strong, beautiful, forthright women get completely … they disintegrate into a shell of themselves. They don’t even know who they are anymore. They have trouble getting out of the house, they have trouble putting on makeup, getting dressed. They’ve just lost all sense of themselves.

There’s a real sense of stigma and shame and embarrassment about speaking out about this, so we’ve got to make it more accessible so that people understand that this is a problem, this is happening to a lot of women and across all sectors, all races, all demographics, all suburbs, all ages.

‘Targie the supercat. So dear to me.’

‘This house near Bordeaux, belonging to my friends, is where I recovered from cancer and wrote my book.’

I would say you must reach out and talk about your fears even if its obliquely with girlfriends, just say things aren’t right at home. Bring it up and then at least if someone’s raised a bit of a flag with a girlfriend, if you have to make a call and then hang up really quickly, they might just understand that you’ve got a problem and reach out. Don’t let fear, embarrassment and shame stand in the way. And if someone says to you look I’m worried you know there are people who are looking out for you so do understand that people are there for your sake.

Also the police were great for me as well. When I did actually put my hand up and go to the police station they realised the gravity of the situation and I felt that they reached out, grabbed my hand and were not going to let go until they knew I was safe.

Every time I speak that empowers me, and helps me explain what happened in my mind to myself. I know that I’m doing good for other women and hoping to enact on social change so we can change this social paradigm, it’s very cathartic and empowering. I am in a really good place and the work that I do to give back … that’s really important, giving back.

I think we need to help empower women who are recovering from domestic violence. Women have so much to contribute and sometimes they just need a hand to get into that position. All women have got it — it’s just a matter of not being encumbered by violence and fear.

Kim Gentle

Kim Gentle runs horse workshops for troubled Indigenous youth in Port Hedland, where she teaches them to care for and interact with the animals, and learn to give and receive trust. She is now expanding the program and hopes to bring adults with addiction problems into the program. She began the horse therapy clinics after leaving a violent relationship as a way of healing herself, and others. She is also an author of children’s books. She was one of three women to successfully prosecute the same abuser.

I was with him for six months. It happened very quickly. I had a top career in children’s publishing and made very successful breakthroughs, and was looking at going over to New York when I met this lovely guy. And at first, he did everything I wanted, but then little cracks started to appear. It probably took about three months to realise it was a relationship I had to get out of.

I kicked him out and I came home that night and I went to bed. And then I heard noises and I thought something’s upstairs, something’s not right. I went upstairs and he was hiding in the spare bedroom. So he stayed upstairs I stayed downstairs with my dog and prayed all night he wouldn’t hurt me and then the next morning I had to go to Sydney for a conference.

As I was leaving he said: “Do you mind if I take your dog for a walk, it’s the last time I’ll get to see her.” I said “That’s fine.” So I get to the conference and I get a phone call from him saying that I have to come home, the dog’s gone missing. And he said to me: “You loved her more than you loved me.” And I just knew something wasn’t right. He threw her off a cliff and into the ocean. He killed her. I knew I had to get out.

But there was all this other abuse. He made a big scene at my work, so I had to leave my job, and then I became financially dependent on him and I had to buy a car for us because I lost my company car, and he made me buy a manual knowing that I can’t drive a manual. Earlier on in the relationship little things happened, like I’d go to grab my swipe-card to go to work and it would be missing until the next day. Something like my car keys would go missing and then a couple of days later it would be my birth control pills. Just all these little things that would start building over time.

We were in the car one day and I was on a conference call, on speakerphone to a work colleague, and my ex-partner sort of took over the conversation. And then when I hung up he was like: “I don’t like you talking to all these male colleagues and people that you have to deal with.” And then he started going through my phone at night when I was asleep and contacting and writing down numbers of my male friends and calling them without me knowing and telling them not to have contact with me.

It got to a stage with him where it was either he was going to kill me or I was going to kill him because I thought that was the only way I could get out. Then I thought, why should I go to jail for killing a predator. So I tried to kill myself. That’s the rationale that abuse drives you to. You don’t know what is right or wrong anymore. I lost all perception of that. I wasn’t allowed out in public and if I did go out with him, I had to walk behind him and I had to look at the ground. If I so much looked at another person we’d get home and I’d get bashed. Horrific bashings.

I had no family living nearby. Some of my family had suspicions, especially my sister down in New South Wales, but it was very hard. She was scared as well, he had threatened her and she had two young children. My family knew a little about some of his behavioural issues because of things he’d said and done but they didn’t know the full extent. They just had noticed it was hard to contact me, and if they spoke to me on the phone he was always there. They started piecing things together. They didn’t think it made sense that I’d lost my job because they knew how passionate I was about it and how much I had loved it, but it was hard for them to piece it together without direct contact to me, and I only had a few friends who had direct contact with me.

He actually suffocated me on my birthday. I stopped breathing and it was pretty horrific. I remember seeing stars, dots in my eyes. I survived. I managed to somehow phone friends in Melbourne, and we actually had to talk in code, they gave me some code to speak to them in so as not to raise alarm bells because he was standing right next to me.

My friends managed to track down my brothers and some of my sisters, and then my family spent time plotting how they were going to get me out of this situation. They phoned the police, they phoned the crisis counselling team, and it turns out they couldn’t come and take me because then they could be done with abduction, so it had to be my decision. My brother had a lot to do with junior rugby league, so he said he was coming to where I was living at the time on the NSW central coast to run a rugby clinic, and that he would take me out for coffee belatedly for my birthday.

My brother turned up and I jumped in the car. My then partner came running up to my car, and my brother said: “I’m not here to see you. I’m here to see my sister.” We drove off, and when we got down to the end of the road, my brother said: “OK, one of your sisters is flying up from Melbourne. I’ve got my best mate and my wife and another friend at a cafe down the road, and we’re going to have a coffee. Now you’ve got two choices — leave with us now, or go to the police once everyone is together and we get you a cup of coffee and settled down, and we will support you.”

‘Something I hold dear. My dad’s best friend’s farm – my second childhood home from the age of 12+ when my father passed away. With me, my oldest sister and her dog Buster, my boots and my hat.’

‘Me. Rocky River, Tenterfield region – high country New South Wales. This is where I prepared myself mentally to face my ex-partner in court eight months after I was rescued in 2001.’

I knew that if I didn’t stand up against him in court I would never be safe, because he would hunt me down. because that’s what he does, it turned out he had a history of it. Due to the way the judicial system works there was information that wasn’t allowed to be disclosed to me. The police knew that I was seeing this man but they couldn’t step in because of the laws. During the court case a detective came up and apologised and he had tears in his eyes, because it was recorded in police documents that it was only a matter of time before he killed someone, but they’re not allowed to disclose that, even to help possible next victims. “I’m so sorry about what has happened, we were so scared for you but couldn’t do anything” he said.

I spent nearly eight hours in the police station when I gave my statement, and then I had to go back to the house with about six plain-clothed and a couple of uniformed police and they all had their vests on and they were fully loaded up with rifles. No one was home, and police said: “Get in the house, you’ve got 15 minutes, grab what you need and get out of there.” I just remember I was in there grabbing my things and all of a sudden the house was empty and quiet. I just panicked. It turns out my brother spotted my partner’s car and alerted the police and everyone had just taken off and left me in the house.

The police arrested him and took him away. I was asked to stay for the hearing in the court the following day. I just wanted to leave with my family the next morning, I didn’t really want to have to hang around. The case wasn’t heard until the last session the next day in the afternoon, so I had to spend all morning and all afternoon in court waiting for this case. But I knew he was locked up and he didn’t have bail so I knew I was safe.

But I still felt like he was controlling my life. lt was like being on a really fast roller coaster. Up and down and the whole time your head is just literally spinning and you’re just trying to hit the stop button or a pause or a slow down button, just so you can seek some clarity. I couldn’t think for myself. My brothers and sisters would say Kim, it’s hot, you don’t need to wear that. They literally had to tell me what to wear, and say, “No it’s OK, you can do that.” I didn’t know right from wrong, I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. I lost all confidence, respect and trust within myself. He appealed and for about two years we went in and out of the court system in NSW. I was also in huge debt as he forced me to take out a bank loan, it was horrific, he placed a loaded gun in my mouth, and forced me to sign. I ended up paying it all off myself because getting the bank to overturn it was too hard.

I kept moving houses between all my families and luckily where I went back to was a very small community and our family was very well respected, we’d all been born and bred there, and I knew the community would look after me if he had of come into town and asked for me. So that’s virtually where I hid for the next two years while I underwent treatment to reprogram my brain and start putting my life back together.

‘Pepper, my “Grey Goose” who had been with me for many years. Together we overcame many hurdles and have brought much joy to local Indigenous youth.’

A couple of times we were going to court and I had to be kept in the room upstairs for my own safety and I thought, hang on, I’m the supposed victim — I hate that word — he’s the offender, shouldn’t he be kept aside? He knew the court and the legal system and he abused it, he milked it for all it was worth. So you know, he’d go away when the trial was coming up and he’d say he was away on work and things like that so it would get adjourned. It was exhausting. You prepare your headspace for the court battle and you teach yourself to look at what happened as a movie in black and white, and break it down, and you have got to take a lot of the emotion out so you can hold it together. He is now in jail, I was one of three women to successfully prosecute him.

One thing about the court system I really don’t like is having to face the accused in the court room. Having them sitting there, smirking and smiling and pulling faces. It’s tough. It’s tough on anyone. But I think really the legal system needs to look at that, especially if they are trying to get the most accurate information out of the victims. How do you face these people that have done horrendous things to you in a courtroom while you’re trying to give evidence? It’s just wrong.

After I left my abusive relationship, the doctor wanted to put me on an antidepressant and I said: “I’m not taking them, because it only masks what I’m going through.” I just decided that I wanted to get back into riding horses again. I was searching for my good spot in my head, and one of my good spots was when I was a child and I was riding horses out in the bush, out in the high country. So something inside me told me I needed to find that good spot again to give myself some relaxation and time, where I’m not stressed about everything that happened and worrying about the future and how to put my life back together.

What I do is use horses as the tool to deal with mental health issues. They’re just amazing animals. The medical profession might not like me for saying this but horses are one of the best psychologists out there, because they are non-verbal. When you work with horses, you work with confidence, trust and respect, and that’s something that’s missing from people these days. My love is the Indigenous community, they are the most naturally talented people when it comes to horses. I go down to the shops in Hedland here and see so many kids out of school, and we just don’t understand them. So I decided to dedicate my life now to helping to bridge the gap thanks to the power of the horse.

I had one girl I’ve been mentoring and she’s sitting down there one day and I nearly tripped over myself when I saw she had this pony, which we call the cranky pony because it kicks and bites, with its head right in her lap. This young girl looked at me and said: “It’s all right Kim, we get each other.” I stopped and thought about it and this pony was raised without a mother who rejected her at birth, and this young girl had also been rejected by most of her family. Those two just connected like magic.

When I’m feeling a lot of pressure, I’ve actually learned to be a horse and step back from it, and re-circle. I reassess and I go to my safe place, which is picturing myself out in the mountain driving and then I come back and look at the threat, and you look at it in a totally different light.

You know, we read about all the statistics about domestic violence and deaths, but we haven’t even tapped into what’s happening in the Indigenous community.

Gee Bailey

Gee Bailey is an artist, author, domestic violence advocate and senior manager. Since leaving an abusive relationship almost eight years ago, she says she feels calmer, happier, safer and in more control of her life. She says deciding to leave an abusive relationship can be a complicated and fraught process, and that having non-judgmental support is key to women regaining control.

I’m not a religious person, but leaving an abusive relationship is like being reborn.

When I did leave, it was a very bad way to leave. I didn’t know that at the time. I decided to leave after he stood over me one night and was yelling at me about ridiculous things, and I snapped, like an elastic band went off in my head. He physically attacked me. I ran into bathroom, locked the door, and this noise came out of me like an animal. I never knew I could make that noise. I thought, I can’t do that any more, and I decided to leave the next day. He was coming home late the next night, so I decided to write him a letter and tell him I can’t do it anymore, and that I was leaving the next day. He didn’t do anything until he saw me physically packing, and then he put me through a glassed picture, threw me on the bed and tried to strangle me.

‘Something I hold dear is a piece of sculpture I bought just at the time I split from my ex-husband. It’s of a mother holding her child high in the air and it reminds me that no matter what went on during that terrible time my son and I could get through any difficulty together.’

I didn’t know I’d been in an abusive relationship until I went to a solicitor after that incident, and told her that I didn’t know what to do. She told me to take out an intervention order, and I didn’t even know what that was. She said: “You’re in an abusive relationship. You need to see the Eastern Domestic Violence Outreach Service.” They’re a safe house, and when I went there for emergency accommodation they gave me a case manager.

That case manager listened to me and for the next 18 months, while I going through the courts, she stayed by my side and walked me through step-by-step. In the court we tried mediation, and it didn’t work, so we went to the family court. She drove me to and from court and sat by me to support me. There’s nothing personal in what the judges, solicitors and barristers do, but sitting there with someone by my side made me feel like I was personally supported, while I was having to prove to the court that I was a good mother.

I refuse to hold on to what happened and let it rule my life. I also want to make sure my son is safe and not distressed, he’s now nine but when we left he was one-and-a-half. I’ve learned so much and that’s why I speak out as an advocate. I want to empower women and say: “You’re going to be OK, you’re going to get through this.”

I think one of the things that made it difficult for me was not realising I was in an abusive relationship, because my mother had put up with so much from my father, I thought it was just what you did, that you stayed there and kept trying.

Gee Bailey

I hear people in the media say “just leave” and they cannot understand why you can’t walk out that door. But what they don’t realise is that when you look outside of that front door, it is black. You can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel, you don’t know what’s going to happen to you.

But what I would say to women is that there is an enormous support network out there, and you will not be alone. You’ve got to focus on the way you leave, and get everything organised as much as you can beforehand. But even if you can’t and you have to leave suddenly and at the last moment, there is support. You’ve just got to stay focussed and some days will, be so black you can’t see ahead. But you’ve got to try and stay on course and get a support network around you that will help you do that.

There was a period when I thought: “I have to go back to him.” I had this gut wrenching feeling, it’s horrible, that I just couldn’t live without him no matter how badly he treated me. That’s something I had to get over. Sometimes you have good days and sometimes you have shocking days where it’s hard to get out of bed. You’ve got to keep going and you do. It gets better and it’s better than what will happen if you stay. I think you just have to say: “OK, this might be the crappiest thing I’m going to do, but it’s going to get better.” And it will.

There were challenges during the process. He didn’t care about lawyers or courts or police or money or accommodation. But I remember every time I tried to apply for a rental property it would be all fine until they asked if I was looking with my husband and when I told them I was a single mother, doors would close. I remember when I was in a Centrelink and got a single parent pension, and people standing behind me would talk behind my back, like “What the hell is she doing here?” Because I was dressed well and so forth, and that hurts. My ex went through three different solicitors, but I didn’t have any money. Legal aid said they couldn’t help because both mine and my husband’s names were on the mortgage, and because the house was worth about $1m, they thought I didn’t need money, even though I had nothing.

But they gave me a list of solicitors to try and the one I went to allowed me to pay a little bit off each month and then what I got from court when the case was settled, I used to pay the rest. I also joined a support group of women who were abused in relationships because it was like I had to be retrained in life. You have to be retrained in what’s normal and what’s not normal. You literally have to retrain your brain on what is right and not right. What is acceptable and not acceptable in a relationship.

My life has changed enormously since I left. I’m a different person. I’m a lot calmer. I’m successfully raising my son, virtually by myself. I never thought I could have done that in the past. I hold down a senior management role in a business. I’m an artist. Eight years ago if someone would have told me I’d be selling art pieces, and that I would be helping other women in domestic violence situations I would have said they had a screw loose. I’m in a completely different world now, and it’s wonderful.

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