Leaving an abusive relationship
It takes more than courage to leave an abusive relationship; survivors also need strong support and strength to rebuild their lives.
WHEN Karen Loo (not her real name) walked away from her abusive 20year marriage three years ago, she felt strangely excited. Sure, she was also nervous, anxious and afraid – “How would I support my two young children on my own?” – but the overriding feeling was of excitement.
“I felt free. I felt like there was hope in my life again,” she says, recalling the two tumultuous decades of living with a controlling and abusive husband.
Unfortunately, her excitement wore off after just a few days, when she began to be overwhelmed by the daunting prospect of starting her life over on her own and in an unfamiliar place.
“The first three months in KL was hard. I was very lonely as I didn’t know anybody in KL. I remember, I would walk the shopping malls by myself, like a ghost, feeling lost and alone.
“We’ve all heard stories about abused women who go back to their husbands after a couple of months. Well, I can really relate to them because I thought of going back to my husband more than once. Yes, I know I had a very hard life with him but at least it was a life that I was familiar with.
“It’s like when you have a wound – when it is raw, it is painful. Then you treat it and it gets better and you forget about it. The next time you get a wound, it’s not so bad because you know how to treat it. I knew how to treat those wounds. I knew how to cope with that situation and I had friends and family around me. But I wasn’t too sure how to cope in this new situation,” relates Loo who relocated from Taiping.
It didn’t help that her husband kept calling her, imploring her to go back to him.
WAO’S social work manager, Wong Su Zhan (who was Loo’s counsellor), says the urge to go back is common.
“Many women feel they’d rather return to an environment that they are familiar with – no matter how difficult or painful – than face the uncertainty of their future. It’s natural because they are scared.
“I told Loo right from the beginning that it wasn’t going to be easy. I warned her that she may feel like going back and giving her husband another chance. But, I assured her that things would get better and easier. I urged her to hold on,” says Wong.
Loo was determined to make a better life for her children and herself, and it took about four months before she began to believe she’d be able to make it on her own.
When love is a battlezone
According to global statistics on domestic violence, the average abused woman leaves (and returns) to her abuser seven to eight times before she leaves per-permanently.
WAO research reveals that many battered women who seek help from agencies have suffered repeated assaults and/or psychological abuse for a number of years. It is only when the violence reaches an intolerable level – when it threatens their physical and emotional well being – that they actually reach out for help.
Things got so desperately bad for Loo that she was actually contemplating killing herself and her children.
“You read news reports of women who kill themselves and their children and you think they are terrible people but I understand why they do it. Life was just unbearable. I couldn’t see a way out. I thought that if I left my children behind, what would happen to them? Who would look after them?them? Why would I want them to be miser-miserable?” she recalls her worst moments.
Loo’s husband had bipolar disorder, and she had to bear the full brunt of his extreme mood swings.
“When he was ‘high’, he was really hyper. He’d talk non-stop, wouldn’t sleep for days and he didn’t need to eat much, either. He thought he had powers and sometimes he thought he was God. It was scary; he was like a rubber band that was stretched and ready to snap.
“Then, when he was ‘ down’, it was the complete opposite. He’d be moody and sleep all the time. He could not work. I had started my own direct selling business but he didn’t want me to work or go out at all. He expected me to just sit beside him and be miserable. He was happy when I was miserable. I would cry for hours each day.
“I was scared and I tried everything to make him better … I went to see a bomoh, I prayed … but nothing worked.”
She sought help from her mother and sisters, but they advised her to tahan (bear it) for the sake of her two children.
“That was the thinking at the time. You marry the first man you date and you stay married even though you are unhappy for the sake of your children. My sisters’ marriages were more or less like mine too. I realised then that if I chose to leave, I wouldn’t have their support. So, I stayed,” she recalls.
However, when the verbal abuse escalated into physical abuse, Loo made serious plans to leave.
At the same time, her friends were helping her overcome her depression.
“My friends advised me to pray when such (suicidal) thoughts came into my head. So I did. Another friend gave me a book by (self-help guru) Anthony Robbins which helped me stay positive. I also went to see a psychiatrist to ask how I could get out of my depression. He told me to keep my body healthy and fill my head with positive thoughts. So, I did that too,” she says.
Leaving for good
Loo went a step further – she reached out to WAO through their helpline.
Says Wong, “Karen first got in touch with us in 2007 after the first time she was beaten up badly. She was confused, scared and didn’t know what to do. I just listened to her and told her how she could protect herself and her children. Between 2007 and 2008, she called us three times but she was still uncertain about leaving. Each time she put down the phone, I remember feeling very worried for her,” recalls Wong.
Loo was hesitant about seeking shelter at WAO because she had the impression that it was a rundown place that wouldn’t be comfortable for her children.
Still, she took Wong’s advice seriously, and made preparations to leave. On the day that she left, she woke up with absolutely no plans to do so.
“I snuck out of the house that morning because I needed to go outstation to register my direct selling business. My husband usually sleeps all morning, so I planned to be back before he realised I was gone. But on that fateful day he didn’t sleep in, and kept calling to demand to know where I was.
“He then threatened me; he said, ‘ Wait till you come back.’” That scared me. I called a friend of mine and told her I was afraid to go back. She and her husband urged me leave him. They helped me pick my children up from school and let us stay with them while I made arrangements to go to WAO in KL.”
It’s been three years since Loo left, and things have not been easy. As she didn’t have a job or a place of her own, she had to enrol her daughter (who was 14 at the time) in a residential school and temporarily place her son (who was nine then) in a home while she rebuilt her life from scratch.
Loo went on to start a business selling eco-friendly thermo lunch boxes and she plans to pursue a degree in psychology sometime soon.
Despite the uncertainties, Loo is happier now. “Now at least I can decide what life I want to lead. I don’t resent him. Some of my friends have told me that he is dating someone, so I hope he finds love and learns how to be a better husband.
“My experience hasn’t made me distrustful of men but I can see the signs now. I am more aware. I want to get a degree in psychology so I can help other women. When I tell them it is possible to leave and start again, they can trust me because I speak from experience.”